Dr. Melissa Bilal Lectures on ‘Voice Signatures’ in Southfield, Mich.

Dr. Melissa Bilal recently lectured at the Rev. Dr. Vahan H. Tootikian Hall, Armenian Congregational Church Southfield, Mich. She drew a large audience curious to become informed about her most interesting object of research. Her topic: “Voice Signatures: Recordings of Russian Armenian POWs in German Camps, 1916-1918.”

Voice Signatures: Recordings of Russian Armenian POWs in German Camps, 1916-1918

Dr. Bilal is a petite Armenian dynamo, dedicated to many aspects of Armenian history.

It was unknown if these Armenian detainees were aware that if during their captivity the Armenian Genocide was taking place. Were they married, were they single, did they have children and what was the eventual outcome of their captivity, is not known.

During WWI the initially secret Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission made recording of prisoners of war held in different camps across German territories, among those were Armenian soldiers from the Russian Empire with the intent to establish an archive.

It was a sentimental journey which Dr. Bilal took her audience on giving them the opportunity to hear the voices of fellow Hyes held German prisoners one hundred years ago. It just brought to mind how much more Armenians have suffered. As detainees in a prisoner of war camp, they were a captive audience for the Prussian Phonographic Commission.

Dr.  Bilal was no stranger to German culture. She worked at a the Orient Institute in Istanbul doing research as part of her project to prepare an album of the POWs. The audience was requested to not record any of the detainee’s voices.

Dr. Bilal said all these men declared themselves as Armenians even though they all spoke several languages. They were bilingual in Georgian and Turkish as well as Armenian. They did declare Armenian was their mother tongue.

So we were taken back to those dark days of the early 1900s to hear the songs of these imprisoned men, who mostly were identified as members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Ms. Bilal plays the flute but proclaims “not professionally.” The music of the men were lullabyes, patriotic songs, and love songs.

During her research in Berlin, she was looking for evidence of Komitas Vartabed, who had studied there in the late 1890s. The musicologist scholar was instrumental in collecting Armenian lullabies and village songs, an extremely important endeavor to preserve the music categories of all Armenians before his arrest in 1915, eventual release, and death in Paris in 1935.

In searching the Berlin archives, Dr. Bilal found Armenian hand-written notes, music and signatures of Armenian men. She says, “I was speechless, I wanted to hear their voices.”

Replicas of cylinders were made. In 2015 she first heard their voices. They sang in Turkish, Georgian, in addition to Armenian. “It had an emotional impact on me when I heard the first song. Remember, this was from one hundred years ago,” she said.

It was not a new area of music, all were connected. “I started reading about the notes on the documents how war and anthropology are connected.”

The difficult names of Germans were given who headed the musicology school.

These detainees suffered from malnutrition. They were forced to work in labor camps.

One prisoner, Avetis Ovanesov, 24, a shoemaker born in Sushi, stated on March 11, 1916: “Armenians were in camp hospitals” speaks Armenians and Russian. Another POW: “Take my news to Hamo” others were Ovanes Berikyants and Ruben Ter Khachatoryan whom I am mentioning for the sake of posterity.

In the ethnographic collection, she played ten recordings. Lyrics – “Water comes from places and your rivers destroy… No one knows my sorrow.” Another, “You are a rose, I am a nightingale.” Love is a constant even in a German prison camp. Meghk (pity) Whose sons were they? Armenian mothers are eternally damned to lose their beloved sons.

Levon Tergrigoryantz “My beloved who is a flower in the Heaven. This is the one I love.”

Aramin yerkuh (Aram’s song) devoted to Aram Aramyan who was executed in 1899. He wants his watch to go to his mother, his ring to his sister.

The voices in these songs connect us to these men our ancestors. Most of the songs were Dashnaktzakan (ARF) songs. They even were singing songs of Sassoun. They expressed themselves in different languages.

Dr. Bilal said, “These are pieces of life.” She discovered these POW recordings five years ago. She is deep in research of other kinds. “These is always research to be done. There is a long journey ahead. The archives were a mess although Germans are organized people.”

Dr. Melissa Bilal is a Visiting Scholar of History at MIT. She holds a Ph.d in music from the University of Chicago. At Columbia University she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in music and the Ordjanian Visiting Professor. She also taught in Bogazici University’s History Dept. She prepared the cd “Voice Signatures: Recordings of Russian Armenians POWs in German Camps, 1916-1918 (Forthcoming in 2017)

She currently is collaborating with Dr. Lerna Ekmekcioglu on a project titled “Feminism in Armenia” focusing on twelve prominent Armenian women writers born in the Ottoman Empire.

This lecture was cosponsored by the Armenians Research Center University of Michigan-Dearborn, Cultural Society of Armenians from Istanbul and the Armenian Congregational Church.

Dr. Bilal’s preparation and informative content was excellent and another glimpse into the misfortune of Armenia’s geographic location.


Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

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