So, as alluded to earlier, I travelled to Armenia (AKA Hayastan), a place simultaneously marked by an ancient, uninterrupted history as well as by its relatively recent past as a Soviet socialist republic. Armenia’s current status is a small, landlocked, ethnically homogenous nation-state of around 3 million. There’s a large diaspora of around five million Armenians throughout the world, people who fled either the Turks, the Soviets, or the current poverty rampant in the country. This scattered nation is held together by a shared alphabet and language, religion (the Armenian Orthodox church), and foods (pomegranates and apricots are national symbols). And, of course, genocide recognition. Although I read stories that lauded Turkey’s Eurocup achievements as sticking it to White Christian Europe, it shouldn’t be forgotten that for many, Turkey was the imperial aggressor. I caught the Germany-Turkey match at a bar in Yerevan; when the Turkish team sang their national anthem, the bartender immediately muted the TV to raucous applause. Nevertheless, Armenia’s president sees soccer as a means to bridge borders. Music too provides a common bond for Armenians, but to me Armenian pop music belies its external influences more than a coherent internal character.
The Soviet Union looms as the largest influence when one wanders the centrally planned streets of Yerevan: lots of concrete, large garish buildings that are at once imposing and cheap, and a personal sense of style devoted to major European luxury brands and excessive ornamentation — were I of less proletarian sympathies, I might call it nouveau riche. Armenia, like most of the Soviet world, never had the tension between elites, bourgeoisie, and workers to create tricky strata of “taste” and “sophistication” in fashion: quite simply, more means more. If you can add screen printing, ruffles, rhinestones, or bows to a dress, you do it and charge that much more for it. And like Russia today, Armenia has its own class of oligarchs in charge of the nation’s industries (the guy who owns the sugar monopoly also owns the tobacco monopoly, hence Grand Candy and Grand Tobacco), as well as its own mafia in charge of smuggling and sex traffic. They hang at the numerous strip clubs around the city, as well as the karaoke bars that wouldn’t let me in. There’s such a market for Soviet kitsch in the former USSR that the markets have bootleg Soviet goods. There’s even a commie theme restaurant in the center of the city.
Russian pop music, itself in thrall to European dance-pop, is everywhere on the radio, as well as on television — Yerevan gets about 20 TV stations, half of which are Russian, and several which show music videos throughout the day. In fact, the major pop radio station (there are several devoted to classical music and jazz as well as Armenian traditional music) is instructive in tracing the influences running through this tiny country. About a third of the music is straight-up Russian pop and dance music. Perhaps the most arresting of these was a remix of 50 Cent’s “Ayo Technology” by DJ Baur.
Yes, the 50 Cent global hegemony is in full effect in Yerevan. Hip hop is popular, but only the biggest rappers — 50 Cent, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg — show up on the radio. Tupac has a presence due to the large Armenian diaspora population in Los Angeles. There are also Armenian rappers, most of whom hail from LA (Glendale specifically), none of whom I found very interesting. Hip hop is either club music or the realm of a few over-serious acolytes with lots of dour beats — if there is any insurgent or politically-aware hip hop, I didn’t find it. If you are the rebellious type of Armenian, you are probably into metal. Super Sako is one of the more successful Armenian rappers: his latest hit “I Love You” features English rapping and traditional style Armenian singing on the hook, an oft-repeated formula for Hye-rap division of labor.
More compelling to my ears was the increasingly strong native pop industry. Following the progression of Turkish popular music (a strong, if stridently unacknowledged influence on Armenian pop), Armenia has incorporated “R&B” structures into the relentless Eurodance onslaught, with melismatic singing and danceable syncopation. They even have some nice video budgets on occasion. The biggest song in Yerevan during my visit was the quite excellent “Vortekh Gitnem” (Where I Find) by Sofi Mkheyan, which is also probably the most entertaining music video I saw.
Sofi is about as close to girl power as it gets in Armenia; unlike most female pop stars, she eschews tight dresses and sexpot sultriness for straight up kicking ass. An older Sofi hit shows her battling between her good girl persona (preferring trad Armenia ballads) and her more defiant “hip hop” persona who wants to jam to Daddy Yankee. Oh yes, reggaeton is popular here (along with salsa), but again, you only hear the biggest hits.
Rivaling Sofi’s chart domination was Arame’s “Ur E.” Arame has recently ventured into R&B after sticking largely to ballads, surprising to many Armenians because as someone unnaturally tall (6 feet!), it was assumed he could not dance. He probably won’t win contests with his moves in this video, but he has some!
Notice the celebrity cameos, ripped from films and pasted in the video. Bruce Willis shows up in his Fifth Element gear, and I’m pretty sure he’s not getting any royalties from this. Armenia shares Russia’s cavalier attitude towards intellectual property, and bootlegs can even be found in official videos! Bootleg DVDs and CDs were the norm — there were no places to buy “official” licensed copies, although the bootlegs claimed their own copyrights in a bid to imitate every aspect of a legitimate release.
You have two choices — a top-of-the-line bootleg compilation for 1500 dram ($5), or a much more economical MP3 CD which holds 6-10 albums for about the same price (even cheaper in the countryside). I bought several of each, and perhaps my most interesting MP3 CD was “Best of Rabiz Music” by Grisha Aghakhanyan.
“Rabiz” is a hard-to-translate slang term that was variously described to me as “flirt” or “low-class,” but essentially means an Armenian version of an East Coast “guido.” Grisha is part parody, part homage to rabiz culture. Most of his songs are covers of songs popular in Armenia, many of them American (Grisha now lives in LA). Here’s his version of “Gasolina,” which I am pretty sure is bemoaning high gas prices (about the same price as the U.S. with a much lower per capita income) while lampooning Armenian car culture.
“Bom Bom Ashotik”, which interpolates the Macarena at the end, strikes me as very ghettotech:
National questions always loom large for Armenians, especially since they have been without a state for so long. What makes all this stuff “Armenian,” or any music part of a nationality)? The language plays an important part: Mesrop Mashtots, inventor of the Armenian alphabet, is still revered as a national hero.
And partially it is music produced for a specifically self-identified Armenian market, which spans the globe in spite of its largest distribution channels existing in the nation itself. But it’s also Armenian because of the parts from “outside” seeping in: the Russian electropop, the Turkish melodic structures, Middle Eastern instrumentation, U.S. fashion. There is no ontological core of Armenian-ness to any of this music, and just as Armenia historically had to shift alliances with larger powers to preserve its autonomy, so it selectively appropriates foreign musical traditions to shore up its sense of ethnic identity, without which those dollars and rubles and Euros and pounds and lira made by diasporans wouldn’t be converted back into dram in the motherland.
Ok, enough reading – time for the bangers!
1. Sofi – Vortekh Gitnem (best Armenian pop song ever!)
2. Arman – Khutchutch Aghchik (“curly girl”)
3. Gayane Torosyan – Zepiur Nman (“like a breeze”)
4. Grisha – Tash Tush (“Tash Tush” is slang for “party” – a cover of “I Like To Move It”)
5. Super Sako and Hayko – I Love
6. Kreativ Techno Hamuyt – SMS (This sounds JUST like Brazilian eletro)
7. Arame – Ur E
8. Gayane Seobyan – Manushak (“Violet”)
9. 50 Cent feat. Justin Timberlake – Ayo Technology (DJ Baur Mix) (Ok, it’s technically Russian)
10. Serjo – P.S. Club (Serjo is the biggest dance producer in Armenia)
11. Grisha – Bom Bom Ashotic
12. Vartan Sargisyan – Mi Kayl (“One Step”)
13. Grisha – Yerevan (cover of a song by Tata, the biggest Armenian pop star)
14. Vache – Hishatakner
15. Arame – Inch Eh Katarvum (“What’s Going On” – not a cover!)
16. Lilu – Im Sere Kez Hamar Eh (“My Love Is For You”)
17. Sofi – Qez Kanchum Em (Sofi’s earlier, more Turkish-style pop)
18. Kreativ Techno Hamuyt – Hayastan-Hrazdan-Zodiak (Hrazdan is the district where they make bread)
19. Grisha – Loer Misha