The Great Armenian Songbook: Justin Mayfield’s Ghedtair Composite masterfully revamps traditional folk music

Justin Mayfield (Photo: Kohar Minassian)

Everything changed for New York-based musician and audio engineer Justin Mayfield when he visited Armenia for the first time in 2014. Once detached from his culture, Mayfield’s volunteering trip to the motherland motivated his once burgeoning curiosity for his roots to fully emerge.

This curiosity inspired the Ghedtair Composite, a project that Mayfield arranged, performed and recorded alongside other brilliant musicians with the intention of reimagining music from “the great Armenian songbook.” With a broad, genre-bending track-list, Mayfield has reworked classic songs into modernized versions that simultaneously pay homage to the pioneers and restyle them for a new audience. 

A third-generation diasporan, Mayfield grew up in a small town in Boston. He recalls his childhood was filled with “more bacon than soujouk; more soccer practice than Armenian language lessons.”

His limited exposure to the Armenian world blossomed through the Ghedtair – գետեր/“rivers” in Armenian – Composite and his time in Armeniaa musical journey that helped Mayfield connect with his heritage and his people in a way nothing else had. 

“This album is a continuation of a self-discovery journey I started back in 2014 when I went on a Birthright trip. Since then, I have been trying to connect my culture with pre-existing passions in my life, such as music.” He takes a brief pause, then continues, “As a lifelong musician, I always recognized that in order to understand music, the best way to learn it, or at least from my experience, is to learn it through playing others’ music. It really does feel like getting inside them and understanding their work more clearly. That was one of the ways for me to become more comfortable and familiar with Armenian music, despite having no prior experience.”

Mayfield’s first foray into Armenian music started with a book of sheet music transcribed for solo or duet guitar he purchased from Abril Books in Glendale.

Inspired by the history of Armenian music, Mayfield handpicked 10 songs and went to work, arranging them in groundbreaking ways. After transcribing, he recruited a roster of talented musicians, including Alex Ruiz (drums), Sima Cunningham (vocals), Daniel Ehramjian (bass), Michael Sarian (trumpet), Pete Moffett (drums), Sevana Tchakerian (vocals), Noah Garabedian (bass), Shauna Topian (vocals) and Craig Heed (12 string guitar). Archival audio recorded in 1986 by Mayfield’s father Mark, featuring interviews with his great-grandparents Hagop and Grace Sunukjian, were also includeda unique and standout touch. 

“My dad was a recording engineer. In the 80s, he made those recordings with them on a tape machine. I’ve always had those recordings and digitized them when I was younger. He’s asking them questions about Armenia before, during and after the Genocide, and it took time to sift through it. The recording is about two hours long, and I always listened through it. I loved how their voices sounded,” recalled Mayfield.

The digital album is now available. The tracklist includes Kotchary, Gakavy Yerke / Le le Yaman, Karoun A, Alagyas / Akh Maral Jan, Kele Kele, Es Kez Tesa, Khourort Khorin, Aye Vart (O Rose), Havadarim and Saren Guka. All familiar titles, it is refreshing to see an artist add their own innovative twist to the classics. 

These components are truly what set the project apart. Reminiscent of the music Mayfield creates with his other bands, the music we know and love has been transformed into something equally as beautiful; just reimagined. The sense of community created through the Ghedtair Composite is unparalleled; however, with all its positives, this project was also born from struggle.

“I’ve had this project in mind for a long time, however, the urgency to really create and release it came after the Artsakh War,” says Mayfield. “It really did push me to begin working on it. I was inspired by the idea of contributing to my own cultural footprint in my own small way.”

That is why Mayfield decided to donate all funds that are generated by the sale of this album through the Ghedtair Composite’s Bandcamp to the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund, an organization that resonated with Mayfield that works to fund combat casualty care capabilities through advanced first-aid kits and training, upgrades front-line infrastructure to protect Armenia’s Armed Forces, and physically and mentally rehabilitates our wounded heroes.

“This album is many things for me,” writes Mayfield in the album description, “and one of them is definitely continuing my self education journey by absorbing classic pieces of Armenian music and contorting it to fit my own tendencies and sounds.”

Justin Mayfield (Photo: Kohar Minassian)
Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian

Melody Seraydarian is a journalist and undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a degree in Media Studies with a concentration in media, law and policy. Her column, "Hye Key," covers politics, culture and everything in between from a Gen-Z perspective. She is from Los Angeles, California and is an active member of her local Armenian community.

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