BY RAFFI WARTANIAN
Life sometimes has a funny way of blending your past, present, and future. Eileen Khatchadourian, the Beirut born bridge between Armenian folk music and alternative rock, did just that.
January 2009. I was in Achrafieh, Beirut writing my first book. The months prior had been marked by poetic journeys, aimlessly direct or directly aimless, through arid Portuguese farms, charred Spanish meadows, high-browed Florentine stones, patrolled barriers in Cyprus, and the white cloaks of Hajj. My two month sojourn in Beirut was the first I had ever taken without the rest of my nuclear family, a test of how much I truly belonged in the city of my baptism, of yearly summer vacations, of my mother’s highest praises.
My grandmother’s apartment, where I lived, inspired and suppressed. The view of the mountains, of Bourj Hammoud church steeples, of Jaques’ pink apartment building down the hill, of the “Do You Regret It?” laser-tattoo removal billboard peering over the highway. Just beyond that a trash heap, and in the distance, the murky Mediterranean, far bluer, I told myself, beyond the expansive horizon.
Early one evening, I decided to visit the agoomp I played in as a child. It was attached to the Armenian Catholic Parish of Annunciation, a five minute walk door to door. The gates to the parish were open and in the courtyard I recognized the sign to the agoomp entrance. Ararat, it read.
I entered and immediately, before noticing the absence of lighting or children playing and before noticing the dust left over from a half-finished construction job, I heard a sound. Its identity evaded me at first. It was the high-pitched hum of a drill, I thought, or children playing in the street.
The hallway was faintly lit by distant streetlamps. I passed the basketball court where I once played, searching for the sound. Up the stairway. Sound growing clearer, a song, focus deterred by a flood of memories, the agoomp’s main room, dark, empty. I imagined baron Eli, my chess mentor, hunched over the bar like he had been the first time I walked into that loud, lit room. The twins, Harout and Whatshisname, ping ponging while my cousins watched on, waiting their turn to enter the plastic-paddle colloseum.
Visions vanish. Vibrations. I was standing over the sound. A voice. A beautiful melody, a capella. I ran down the stairs and found a door that might…but instead it fed into a different hallway. Another locked door, but the sound louder than before. I ran around the building to the other side, sure of my target, and opened the door.
Plush, red carpet padded the ground of a vast theater. A contemplative, purposeful voice rang from the stage. Eileen Khatchadourian sang Dele Yaman into a microphone, eyes closed, swaying to the melody. Her band mates, Miran Gurunian from the Beirut rock outfit Blend, Mazen Siblini, Haitham Shalhoub, Jad Aouad, absorbed the sound as I did.
Sometimes you stumble upon something beautiful by pure chance. Inchoate, but beautiful. You admire it. The scent of a steady snowfall. A street painter surprising you with skill and determination. You know the world would appreciate it. But for that moment it does not matter because it is just yours. I stumbled into a sound, one that whisked me away. Eileen and gang let me sit in the auditorium and watch the rest of their rehearsal.
The songs of Midan, an alternative-rock style arrangement of nine traditional Armenian songs, took me to the past, present, and future. I knew what I was hearing was special. I could imagine an Armenian farmer shaking the mulberry tree in her Adana backyard, singing to pass the time. Then a suited official with gelled hair, a stern expression, and blinking lights pulsing behind sunken eyes would escort her to a time machine. She follows because the mystery entices more than the present’s predictability. She enters the time machine, still singing that melody. She is transported to Beirut, 2009, singing now on stage with alternative rock musicians. She is Eileen. The music is dutifully modern, the singing effortlessly blended. “We want the young generation to care about their traditions and rediscover their music,” she explains. Crunchy guitars and delayed synthesizers, it seems, were born to accompany these exact songs. This is what a ripe mulberry sounds like.
“Why alternative rock?” muses Eileen. “Simply because the songs are very old and the young generation, myself included, wouldn’t have been interested in them.” In her musical journey to rediscover traditional Armenian songs, Eileen uses a contemporary lens. The project has put traditional Armenian music into an alternative rock time capsule that will make music from the past relevant to present generations, and preserve it for the future. Midan does not just blend styles, it blends time.
“If we don’t keep our heritage alive,” Eileen explains, “then our culture and identity will disappear, and I would never want that to happen.”
After Midan’s release and a number of performances around Beirut, Khatchadourian’s message connected to audiences worldwide, the spirit to preserve culture and identity manifested on her own terms. On December 13th, 2009, less than a year after a single voice cloaked the halls of my past, Midan was awarded Best Rock Album at the tenth annual Armenian Music Awards in Los Angeles. Those of us who heard her perform in Beirut earlier this year were not surprised. Europe, North America, watch out, a tour may be in the works.
Politicians around the world, particularly in the United States and the Middle East, could learn a thing or two from the artistic reconciliation exercised by Midan. Alternative rock or traditional Armenian musical purists would scoff at the notion of combining the elements of their respective genres. In refusing to imagine a collaboration, progress stunts. But what Midan shows us is that two opposed elements can unify to create something beautiful, greater than the sum of its parts. It takes compromise, patience, creativity, and faith that will can, and sometimes must, supplant circumstance.
In the Age of the Internet, as interconnectedness grows, the future of functional humanity indeed rests in the prosperity of reconciliation and compromise. Politicians in the United States compromise begrudgingly at the expense of expediency and urgency. The thrill of healthcare reform has been delayed and diminished by political divisiveness and a lack of substantive compromise. In Eileen’s native Lebanon, the failure of politicians to overcome their divisiveness has left the Lebanese people lacking in the fundamental services we in the West take for granted: smooth roads, subway systems, social security. Eileen Khatchadourian and Midan have shown us that artists, specifically musicians, can spearhead our progress not only as a people, but a humanity.