Musical Tourism in Armenia; or, Second World Ghettotech + Armenian Bangers Mix

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.


Note the All Rights Reserved

Note the "All Rights Reserved"


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!

Armenian Bangers 2008 Mix

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



14 Responses to Musical Tourism in Armenia; or, Second World Ghettotech + Armenian Bangers Mix

  1. […] Late recently visited Armenia and posts an extended entry on the local music scene. The post is accompanied by music videos and analysis. Posted by Onnik Krikorian Share […]

  2. Birdseed says:

    Great post! I liked (predictably) the Ghettotechish remix the most.

    My only experience of Armenian music prior to this post was their Eurovision entry this year, which seems to run fairly close to the standard domestic pop of the country. It did very well indeed in the voting, finishing fourth. One interesting thing about the voting was that all former warring states in Europe gave each other points (so the Croatians gave votes to the Serbians, etc.) EXCEPT, that is, Armenia and Azerbaijan, who didn’t give each other any points at all. Did you feel and anti-Azeri sentiment while you were down there?

  3. rachel says:

    i love this post, its cool to see everything broken down like that – and fresh too. everybody’s going to all these countries and just posts whatever best resembles ghettotech there, i feel like i actually got an interesting little sense of Armenian music from this. props.

  4. Gavin says:

    Thanks for the comments. Calling this stuff “ghettotech” is a bit of cheek, really, since in all the discourse, the Former Soviet Union (which can be pretty ghetto!) is automatically left out. Birdseed, I didn’t notice any specifically anti-Azeri feelings (and I went to Nagorno-Karabagh, the “autonomous republic” Armenia “liberated” in the war). Some anti-Turk stuff definitely, which might include Azeris, who are ethnically Turkic. The wounds are still fresh there: Shushi, where a lot of fighting took place, hasn’t been rebuilt at all, and bombed-out mosques mark the skyline some sort of solemn memorial.

    Haven’t tried to follow Eurovision seriously in a while (and you definitely have to try in the States). Here’s a remix of Armenia’s very successful Eurovision 2008 entry, currently dominating the airwaves:

  5. katya says:

    great post on the modern music of my ancestral homeland. actually – my family was from turkey – but the armenians call that “big hayk” (hayk being the eponymous name for armenians) anyways…

    a few points to clarify – grand candy man does indeed own the grand candy company and grand tobacco (and even an elephant at the zoo – named “grand-ik”) but he does not hold the monopoly on sugar – or tobacco for that matter. the sugar man is lefiq samo – or bra samo – named as such for importing bras into armenia during soviet times (a tough job – but someone had to do it.) in fact, many oligarch names include references to their soviet-era occupations. there is no monopoly on tobacco.

    i, too, am intrigued by the “low-class” reputation of rabiz. a friend here said it has the reputation that country music has in the states – popular but really annoying. i think being high-class thing is particularly important for ex-soviet republics. Whereas taste was once determined by the state, today – this indoctrination appears hard to shake (opera is on tv every night – actually attending the symphony or opera is commonplace and cheap – classical music blasts out over republic square every evening.) beyond music – armenians use the word “elite” – spoken with an armenian accent – to describe good or rich things/neighborhoods/restaurants/etc. i find very few ppl here embracing low-class culture…whereas back in the states, my friends wear the nicknames of “trash” and “dirt” with pride.

    In the aftermath of Armenia’s presidential elections this winter, members of the opposition (pro levon ter-petrossian) gathered in the streets, protesting the outcome. the kocharian administration’s response (forced dispersement) left several dead and hundreds arrested and ushered in a new level of commitment for the opposition movement. i mention this because – they have some sweet songs! i will pass these along as soon as the internet stops frustrating my efforts.

  6. […] Music Blogger Gavin Mueller on Contemporary Armenian Pop Music Here’s Gavin Mueller, blogging at his Unfashionably Late blog, on his recent trip to Armenia, and Armenian pop. Includes an online mix of tunes. Delicious […]

  7. […] is based at least partially out of L.A. That explains dude’s hackneyed Tupac style. As I’ve said before, most Armenian rap is pretty weak, especially lyrically, and Kro, who raps in broken English, is no […]

  8. patamunzo says:

    Hey! Thank you for a very interesting post. I came across your blog as I have been thinking about the ethics around labels such as Sublime Frequencies for the last few days, and indeed the orientalist aspect of it was torturing me mentally, so did a google search … so I was very surprised to see this post as I clicked past your very excellent reflection, as I was in Armenia exactly during the same time this year! Very much as an outsider as well. Would you mind uploading this mix again? I’m used to blogspot not wordpress so I don’t know how (if at all) I can send a private message … but if u can see my address, do send me a mail … would be very interested to exchange experiences some more. :)

  9. Gavin says:

    Mix has been re-uploaded… enjoy!

  10. patamunzo says:

    Shnorhakalutyun! I especially like the Grisha stuff. I’m wondering, did you also get to hear some of the more patriottic folk pop artists, accompanied by a band rather than just electronics, such as Harout Pamboukjian? Or the folk rock side, such as Lav Eli, Gor Mkhtrian etc.? If not, I can also compile for you a set of my favourites … And were you able to make any interesting field recordings? It seemed to me that, besides the occasional duduk player on the streets, the only folk music practice not ‘spoilt’ by cheap keyboard sounds or bombastic soviet orchestrations is probably found at weddings and funerals … which I did not attend.

  11. Gavin says:

    I have some field recordings but they are very poor quality — a couple street musicians, the clanking escalator to the top of the Cascade….

    I would love another compilation — I stuck mostly to the pop and dance side of things, but I did catch some more traditional vocal performance on television. There was also a restaurant I went to with a “traditional” theme (can’t think of the name) that had a good folk band, with an excellent zither player!

  12. Lily says:

    Very interesting post, but you are not right concerned with the lack of licensed CDs and DVDs. CDs of Armenian Music Center production are originals and licensed. You can find them in every shop, they differ with their excellent packaging and cute design. Guys are doing great work there.

  13. […] yes, ARMANIAN BANGERS!  Another great post I just found on the great great great UNFASHIONABLY LATE blog. Excellent and […]

  14. Hopar says:

    Thanks, good job.

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