Musical Explorers at Carnegie Hall introduces children to Armenian folk music

On a Saturday afternoon at New York’s iconic Carnegie Hall, hundreds of children danced the “Tamzara.” The women of the Armenian folk trio Zulal clapped and skipped across the stage, while their audience of 599 children ages four to eight and their parents twirled their hands and shuffled back and forth in front of their seats. One child laughed as their parent held their arm and pretended to string it like an oud. “We call this the Tamzara, girls and boys play,” the trio sang. 

The concert was the last in a week of performances with Musical Explorers, held from May 7-11, 2024. The program reaches thousands of students across New York City public schools with a curriculum that teaches singing, listening and basic music skills. After learning about musical traditions from across the world, students gather for a live, interactive concert at Carnegie Hall. This year, Zulal – made up of Teni Apelian, Yeraz Markarian and Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian – joined Sylvester Makobi from Kenya and bluegrass musician Michael Daves for a diverse, vibrant repertoire. 

The 2024 Musical Explorers musicians (Photo: Stephanie Berger, May 11, 2024)

For many of the students, Musical Explorers was their introduction to Armenian culture. Teachers were provided with extensive resources, including presentations by Zulal about the history of migration that shaped how folk music was created and transmitted. Equipped with this context, teachers taught their students how to sing and dance to “Tamzara” and “Doni Yar.”

Outside the performance hall at Saturday’s concert, children rushed between three different interactive stations, each providing a lesson in international music. In one corner, kids hunched over sheets of “turchnakir,” a traditional style of drawing Armenian letters in the shapes of birds. In another, they colored in line drawings of the oud, the nyatiti and the banjo. There were multiple maps on display, including one hanging on a wall covered in stickers and an inflatable globe that kids kicked around the room. 

Teaching comes naturally to the women of Zulal. This is their third time participating in Musical Explorers, and they have offered educational workshops, including with the Berklee College of Music and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. They interweave their performances with lessons about the villages from which each song originates and the rich dialects of historic Armenia.

“I think back to Hayrik Muradyan recalling how he learned all these folk melodies from his grandmother, sitting around the fire with elders and young children altogether. For us, being able to share this music with children is part of what folk music is. It’s about a collective experience, passing these melodies down and coming together,” Apelian shared with the Weekly

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Studying music is proven to have a wide range of educational benefits, which are amplified when children are exposed to diverse genres. “Tamzara” has a complex 9/8 meter, uncommon in most Western music. Yet students pick it up quickly. “They’re not overthinking it. They’re just feeling the music,” Markarian said.

“It’s something I find difficult as a piano teacher. Students who listen to different kinds of music have a better sense of rhythm, while a huge portion of kids in this country mostly listen to 4/4 pop. It’s despairing that there’s so little variety in what people listen to, so here, children are exposed to songs they would never hear otherwise,” Tekerian shared.

At one moment in the show, the oud, nyatiti and banjo musicians gathered at the front of the stage for a “jam session.” The musicians, hailing from three different continents and distinct musical genres, improvised a melody, while Zulal harmonized with the lyrics “lar” (string) and “miasin” (together).

This intercultural exchange encapsulated the theme of this year’s Musical Explorers program: harmony, both in music and in life. Musicians from across the world found a common, metaphorical language in music through which they could communicate and celebrate each other’s cultures. Folk music often reflects this spirit of collectivity and care. In “Doni Yar,” the lines “mur dan hediv” and “tser dan hediv” repeat, conveying, what grows behind my house, grows behind yours. 

Children invited to join the musicians on stage at Musical Explorers (Photo: Richard Termine, May 10, 2024)

“All of the artists we’re collaborating with in this program are performing folk music in the tradition of their ancestors. It’s created by people who are worried, sad or excited about something, be it singing a lullaby, working in a field or falling in love. The connections are easy to find, because there’s a universality to the themes. There’s a universality to being human,” Markarian reflected.

Students graduate from Musical Explorers singing and dancing to the music of Appalachia, Armenia and Kenya and having witnessed a rare collaboration between these three distinct traditions. “I hope it opens their eyes to explore beyond what they might hear on the radio and in their homes. I hope they come away with newfound love and curiosity for different places, and that opens a window for them to explore other knowledge,” Markarian said. 

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian

Lillian Avedian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly. She reports on international women's rights, South Caucasus politics, and diasporic identity. Her writing has also been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Democracy in Exile, and Girls on Key Press. She holds master's degrees in journalism and Near Eastern studies from New York University.

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