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Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile

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Survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and their descendants have used music to adjust to a life in exile and counter fears of obscurity. In this nuanced and richly detailed study, Sylvia Angelique Alajaji shows how the boundaries of Armenian music and identity have been continually redrawn: from the identification of folk music with an emergent Armenian nationalism under Ottoman rule to the early postgenocide diaspora community of Armenian musicians in New York, a more self-consciously nationalist musical tradition that emerged in Armenian communities in Lebanon, and more recent clashes over music and politics in California. Alajaji offers a critical look at the complex and multilayered forces that shape identity within communities in exile, demonstrating that music is deeply enmeshed in these processes. Multimedia components available online include video and audio recordings to accompany each case study.

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1 Ottoman Empire, 1890–1915

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On April 24, 1915, over two hundred leading Armenian figures living in the Ottoman Empire were arrested without warning on orders from the Interior Ministry. The empire was in crisis. In November 1914, the Ottomans had officially entered World War I as allies of the Central Powers, thus ending their pledge of neutrality. As tensions with England and France played out in Ottoman territories throughout the Middle East, escalating conflicts with Russia resulted in bitter and devastating setbacks for the already thinly spread Ottoman army. Meanwhile, within its own crumbling borders, the so-called Sick Man of Europe continued to contend with the revolts and uprisings being staged by ethnic minorities demanding independence. For the Young Turk triumvirate in power, these uprisings and outside threats provided added fuel to their pan-Turkic conception of the empire—a self-conception in which there was no room for an increasingly belligerent Christian minority with nationalist aspirations of its own. The arrests on April 24 served as an ominous prelude to the unprecedented massacres and deportations that were to follow in the coming months. All told, approximately one million Armenians would perish. With the trauma forever etched into their cultural memories, the survivors formed a widespread diaspora whose identities rested on the sense of Self initially forged in those chaotic years leading to 1915.

 

2 New York, 1932–1958

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“You know which one is my favorite? ‘Yankee Doodle.’”

I was sure he was putting me on, and told him as much.

“No!” He laughed. “I’m completely serious! What performance better captures who they were than that?”1

I had just sat down with Ara Dinkjian, the world-renowned Armenian oudist, when we began discussing a series of recordings made in 1939 of Armenians who had settled in California shortly after leaving the Ottoman Empire. Recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell (who also provides audio comments) and held by the Library of Congress, these recordings are a fascinating document of the rich and varied musical life of the Armenian-American community of that time. Having been an admirer of Ara’s music for years, I was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to discuss these recordings with him. On the surface, these recordings hark back to the distinctly Ottoman world from which these Armenians had come. They play instruments such as the oud and the zurna, they sing in a mixture of Turkish and Armenian, and the villages they sing of are those they left behind. The soundscape they evoke is clearly of home.

 

3 Beirut, 1932–1958

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“Remember: before they spoke Armenian, they sang Armenian.” Perhaps that was the key?1

Dr. Roubina Artinian’s comment, made to me a number of years ago while we sat in her office at Haigazian University—an institution established in Beirut by the Armenian Missionary Association of America and the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East—struck me at the time as a way of simply explaining the role music played in the teaching of Armenian to a generation in Lebanon who did not speak the language. Still in the early stages of my research, I had just arrived in Beirut after completing some preliminary fieldwork in California and New York. As I made my way around the Haigazian campus before my conversation with Artinian, all I could think about was a recurring theme that had emerged throughout the conversations I had had back in the United States. “So much changed when the Lebanese-Armenians came,” I was told, in one way or another, by the musicians who grew up listening to and later playing the Anatolian and kef music that was popular among the communities in the United States. “It wasn’t the same.”

 

4 Beirut, 1958–1980

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“She never saw peace.”

Invariably, interviews always returned to acknowledge the specters in the room.1 The looming presence of victims and survivors now gone at times seemed to fill every space, every silence, and every self-consciously contained tear. In these moments I hesitantly and, admittedly, not too willingly attempted to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand. Had these specters not been haunting me as well, perhaps I would have been able to approach these moments with less trepidation, more confident in my ability to retain my objectivity. Instead, they became the moments when the balance I had struck between my insider and outsider selves collapsed. The stories of those gone—those ancestors whose names will never be known, those empty branches on the family trees—belonged to me as much as they did to my interviewees, a fact I found myself forced to confront when I realized that, in maintaining the distance from my insider/outsider dichotomy, I was avoiding questions I thought would compromise my objectivity.

 

5 California

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“I will never forget what he said. As we were dancing, my friend turned to me and with a smile on his face, he said, ‘This music. . . . It isn’t Armenian, but it kept us Armenian.’”1 Emphasizing that last part, she implored: “Please, write that down. Yes, it may not be Armenian, but it did—it kept us Armenian.” I looked up from my notes to make sure I had heard correctly. This was not the first time I was hearing such a sentiment, but the context and what was being referred to were quite different. I was in Fresno, California, speaking with John and Barbara Chookasian, two U.S.-born Armenians who, as professional musicians, had made it their mission to bridge the divide between eastern (that is, Armenia-born) and western Armenians by bringing together the musical traditions of both. Barbara was recounting a recent wedding reception she had attended, where the kef-time music being performed inspired in the attendees both joy and nostalgia. With tears in her eyes, Barbara continued: “And, you know, he was right. He was right. Yes, maybe some will say that this music isn’t ‘Armenian,’ but it’s ours. It was our parents’ music, our grandparents’ music. It connects us to them. It connects us to each other. Really, you must write this down.”

 

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