Special for the Armenian Weekly
My first encounter with Yerevan’s curious accordion-playing visitor took place as I descended the stairs into the cavernous communal area in front of the Hanrapetutyan Hraparak (Republic Square) metro stop that was once a joyful place of gathering during the city’s Soviet years. Locating the source of the music, I was surprised to find a tall and slender boyish figure behind the massive instrument, donning baggy clothes and Birkenstocks. Always intrigued by the unfamiliar, I introduced myself.
I found that the young Frenchman had an interesting story. He was on a mission, which he called “Un voyage en Accordéonistan.” His goal was to travel to countries all along the Silk Road playing his accordion with the hopes of ending in China, where his ancient instrument was allegedly born.
On the way, however, he was making recordings of musicians he met to “curate” the traditional music of these countries, much like Western European ethnomusicologists of the mid-19th century did in an effort to inspect, dissect, and curate “Middle Eastern-ness” (with, might I add, little consideration to the ethics or the consequences involved in doing so).
Despite my skepticism about his efforts to distill our culture, when I found out he was a seasoned street musician, I immediately wondered how Yerevan’s climate for street performance compared to that of other neighboring countries he’d been to. I quickly realized it was useless to try to compare Yerevan’s streets with those of any other cosmopolitan city’s, along the Silk Road or otherwise.
Séguy’s answers to my questions were for the most part generic and some of his opinions about Middle Eastern cultures were borderline orientalist.
I did, however, want to take advantage of the young accordion player’s time in Yerevan to answer some of the questions I’ve had about street performance here. In my opinion, the nature of street culture of cosmopolitan cities brings to mind the age-old scenario: the chicken or the egg? Is a city’s progressive and active street culture a symptom of an already strong economy? Or do active streets provide much-needed catalysts to boost a developing economy? The best way, I decided, to find out about some Yerevan-specific obstacles was to experiment for myself.
A classical musician by training, I learned from a young age that when I performed music, my audience should not be permitted to speak or make any noise (unless, of course, I was practicing, in which case I would be condemned to solitude). Not even spontaneous expressions of joy were acceptable. That is why when I decided to spontaneously showcase a musical act with Séguy in Yerevan’s Republic Square, I was entering new territory on so many levels. It was a chance to break the code of conduct in a place where the code of conduct once reigned supreme: post-Soviet Armenia.
It was a warm Saturday evening in September and by the time we started, it was about 11 p.m. I sang in French lyrics because those were songs that Séguy knew. This, however, limited our repertoire significantly, and “Autumn Leaves” may or may not have been played repeatedly. Locals walking by (particularly male) demonstrated immense curiosity about our act.
Questions ranged from innocently curious to downright invasive; from politically neutral to offensively nationalistic. Where were we from? Was I living here? If I was from the U.S., had I lost my mind moving here? Was I Armenian? Why was I singing in French? Why wasn’t I singing in Armenian? Didn’t I love the motherland?
But perhaps the question they asked with the most urgency was why was I, a female, playing music on the streets? Was I poor? Did I need the money? Because I couldn’t find a job, like the rest of the city? I was approached by one man in particular who asked for my phone number and, upon being rejected several times, stated in Armenian the infallible logic: “I am a man, you are a woman. Give me your number.”
That night, we made 300 dram, the equivalent of 75 cents, which we split evenly between the two of us. That’s pretty bad, even for an economy in transition like Yerevan’s. Séguy said that during rush hour, though, if he played Edith Piaf’s “Sous le ciel de Paris” (a tune he learned solely to satisfy local Yerevanians’ musical palettes), he could make around 7,000 dram in an hour. That’s about $17. In a country where the average monthly salary is $350.
To me, the entire experience demonstrated several things: There is a demand in Yerevan (as there is in most places) for that which is not ordinary. The unfamiliar makes people uncomfortable and react inappropriately (i.e., the invasive interrogation and sexual harassment experienced). Because people are reacting with, at times, appalling behavior to something as innocuous as street performance (and even acts like exercising or running on the street garner expressions of disgust and shock from locals), this is an indicator that while there are ways in which Armenia has come out of its shell since independence, there’s still quite a ways to go.
I don’t think one spontaneous act of street performance makes me an expert on street culture in Yerevan. More importantly, I don’t think I’ve been living in Yerevan long enough to have earned the authority to assess the situation with the level of nuance and appreciation it deserves.
I do, however, find street performance to be an important piece of Armenia’s contemporary moment and believe it warrants more attention than it currently gets. If not for our own self-enjoyment, as local inhabitants of this developing city, than at least to protect ourselves from the West—whose hungry eyes and ears are continually capitalizing on our cultural “offerings.”
We should be more aware of the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The West continues the age-old tradition of collecting, as they did on the Silk Road, exotic spices—this time, musical ones—that we take for granted. And they leave with heavy pockets, while ours are empty, offering us little in return but their presence on our strangely silent streets.