East Meets West

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The camera was rolling, and the microphone angled to me; “can you say what do you think about Barack Obama’s congratulations to Serge Sargsyan?” “Does your presence here mean that you support Raffi Hovannisian for President of Armenia?” As a visitor, I don’t want to be for one candidate or another. The reporter noticed how I singled myself out, having come to Freedom Square to offer some oud music to the candidate, widely known as “Raffi.” He is said to be on his 13th day of fasting there in Freedom Square, in protest for better democracy in this country. If he can’t eat, he can at least hear some music.

I could say I didn’t want to be more shaven than the modal supporter, which is a 60-something working man in a worn cap, suit-coat, and 10 year old shoes. The truth is, once I gather the resolve to carry my oud over to the Square, there is no stopping to shave.

If, as Richard Avedon said, “charm is the ability to be truly interested in other people,” this man has it. Before I left, he knew my son’s names, how long I’ll be in Yerevan, what Dana’s in press novel is about, and where my grandparents-in-law were born. Perhaps this strength of charm left him with fewer organizational faculties, as his campaign is said to have been thin in that area. Yet this is the man who, speaking Armenian with a Fresno accent, surprised even the oligarchs, garnering over a third of the vote.

Raffi speaks

Someone pulls up a chair and we sit under the open tent: an oud-playing north-easterner with a quorum of Scots in my ancestry, and a Californian Hye. Raffi has a handsome, olive face that resonates with his California home, and, despite the fast, there is a bear-like quality about him. He explains the lyrics to me, and sings along to some of the tunes. I start out with a 10/8–a folk song in a 10 beat-per-measure rhythm that is relatively unknown to Eastern Armenians. He picks it out at once. The lyrics to “Voch me Dzagheek” say something like “no flower has such a fair scent as you, no mother, … ” “But of course there was a mother,” I say. Agreed.

Oud Tune: Voch Me Dzagheek

After a few tunes, Raffi’s son Garin, presents me with his book Family in Shadows (http://hovannisian.com/family-of-shadows/). A memoir high in gravity, low in melodrama, the book pulls you along and through historical horrors, the story of the Armenian Genocide, and of violence between brothers: including Eastern vs. Western Armenians, not to mention Turks, Kurds, Russians, …

California, Detroit, Watertown (Massachusetts), Manhattan–these are some of the places where former Western, now “Diasporan,” Armenians, like Hovannisian’s grandfather, settled after the genocide of 1915. When their descendants returned to modern, eastern Armenia, as Hovannisian and his family did around 1990, when this new nation was emerging from a colossal earthquake, they brought different dances, different rhythms, compared to what the eastern Armenians know. Many of the younger Armenians I’ve met don’t know what an Oud is, since it was traditionally more a Western Armenian instrument. One of my Bari Khoomp (dance group) friends sees my Oud–“ahh, you have a Lute!”. I explain that the lute, an instrument which he decided to acquire since hearing it played by Sting, is named after “Al’Ud” (Arabic).

I’ve run through most of my best Armenian folk tunes. “OK, play me a 7/8, that’s usually what they play when the music is over, and everybody goes home.” As we close, Hovannisian gives me a friendly bear-hug. I guess he hasn’t eaten for almost 2 weeks, but he only asks for more 10/8s. “And do you think you will return to Freedom Square?” asks the reporter. That’s a yes.

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