BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there was and there was not …
A massive jetliner approaches Honolulu International. It is the size of a feathered crane from six miles away, wings spread, neck sticking out as it passes above a miniature Coast Guard Cutter that’s gliding across the sun-drenched, orange and blue harbor.
Groong, where do you come from?
Crane, do you have news from our country?
(Groong, oosdi gookas, dzara em tsaynit)
In my panoramic widescreen view of the sparkling downtown skyline, the jet with hundreds of stories on board is dwarfed by the Waianae Mountains behind, the dramatic clouds above, and the setting sun that pierces through the clouds, silhouetting everything as it reaches to grab my pupils.
Hello my heart, hello my life,
Hello to you, unfamiliar world, open your door, I have arrived.
(Barev kez, undzanot ashkhar, doort patz, yes yega)
How long have I been staring at the sun? How long has the song asking me for directions to the town of Bengiol been playing, keeping me intoxicated, staring at the skyline and the headlights of the Matchbox cars driving south on King Street?
Molorverem, jampanereen dzanot chem
yes bandoukht em, es deghereen dzanotz chem
kuyrig asa, vor eh janpan Bingioli
How long have I been listening to this voice yearning for a loved one? How long have I been staring at the paradise below but trying to imagine the beauty of Western Armenia, a homeland I have yet to see; a homeland whose tragic history a century ago defined my lifetime and many lifetimes?
It’s the magic hour on a Monday evening on the rock in the middle of the mighty Pacific, and the cable channels via satellite are stuttering about Muammar Qhadaffi’s last stand oceans away. But my TV is muted, and I’m deaf to the world. Instead I’m tuned to the story of a lost love as if this is the first time that the words of Bingiol by Avetik Isahakian have ever been sung. This rendition is that fresh. This version is that haunting.
Kuyrig Asa, vorn eh janpan Bingioli
(Sister, tell me the road to Bingiol)
Did my grandmother from Erzurum ever see Bingiol? Did she know the road there? Did she ever look for her lost love in that city and those cities that were depleted of all love nearly century ago?
mishd seereer, ou khent yegheer, chekeedess klkheet vaghe inch gka
tu heesheer, mi ankam enk abroum ays gyankoum
(remember, you only have one lifetime)
Stories seem to repeat themselves, in one form or another. If there are only 31 original flavors, then are there only 31 original themes? Can everything that happens under the sun setting in front of me be a variation of these? How different can our collective stories be, especially when they have had no resolution, no happy ending, no third act?
Fade up to the happy ending of a story I’ve been telling 1998, when on the outskirts of Yerevan I interviewed a young singer who had just released her first album and was preparing to perform in Los Angeles for the first time.
As I sat in her living room, my nose running from a severe March winter, her mother served us orange juice and sourj, and I took notes as she talked story.
She had married her first love, who bruised her so many times that she found herself hospitalized with broken bones, realizing she had to push through the pain and run away.
In the lounges of 5-star hotels in Syria, she earned enough money, singing love songs, to send money home and support her family. Her story was like the story of millions of bantoukhts — migrant worker — leaving post-Soviet, Eastern Armenia.
But the second act in her story took her from the pages of this newspaper to the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times. She toured the world, recorded nine more albums, sold out concerts, and turned on new generations of young Diasporans to our folk music. Young people in L.A. called her the Armenian Madonna, and she was our ambassador of song for non-Armenians and to foreign lands.
Her tenth album, Sold Out, is what has me staring at the sun tonight, wondering if we will ever find the road to Bingiol, if there is a road to be found, if we can ever stop looking for the unattainable, unreachable, the impossible.
She has matured over the years; we all have. She survived the dark moments of her past, came through with endurance and more strength, ignored the jealous who belittled her fame and success, and she mesmerized audiences in the Diasporan capitals of Europe and the U.S., performing at the Lincoln Center in New York City, the Kodak in Hollywood, the Herbst in San Francisco, and the Saroyan in Fresno.
In Yerevan, she created a Broadway-worthy spectacle musical to pay homage to those who had lost their lives in the September 11 terror attacks, and even that did not warm her up to Armenia’s self-appointed cultural snobs. They dismissed her as a mere villager and went on to celebrate themselves, forgetting that their Soviet Era elitism, their totalitarianism has been suffocating and is destroying their newly independent nation from its core.
But the woman the New York Times called “a Pop Diva with Armenian Roots” continued on, taking her show across the Middle East, Down Under, and to South America, selling out concerts even in remote corners of Russia, where migrant Armenian workers were earning paychecks to sustain their loved ones back home.
Kuyrig Asa, vorn eh janpan Bingioli
(Sister, tell me the road to Bingiol)
With global audiences and their standing ovations and accolades from mass and ethnic media, she began to give back, performing small concerts for the troops on the front lines of Artsakh, raising money for the North-South Highway, special athletes, and scholarships. And that was all Act II.
In this new chapter of her life, she is a mother, a wife, and her grateful voice rises up with prayers, reminding us of other great singers like Streisand and Dion.
Her soundtrack has left behind some of her electronic keyboards and incorporated entire string sections and pianos, and her words and music are reminiscent of Aznavour while channeling the pain of Piaff.
Kirk Kerkorian told the New York Times that she was bound to have broader appeal, and she does. She will. The best is yet to come, as they say.
The sun has left Oahu in the dark, and the heroine of this ‘talk story’ is now singing the music of our 21st century people.
She sings of surrender, making peace with life, never holding a grudge, always being kind and never forgetting to ask for the existential directions to Bingiol. There is even a song in her new album that has no lyrics, just a melody, a lullaby to her son, perhaps, and a title that there are no more words. If that isn’t acceptance, then what is?
Fe ra re ra ra, fe ra fe roo ra, fe ra fe roo ra
La ra, re ra ra, la ra le roo ra, le ra le roo ra
(Pe ra re ra ra, fa ra fe roo ra, ta ra re ra, fe ra roo ra) – vo mi khosq
Meaningless lyrics may be the only way to lull ourselves after our collective losses, because we will never find the way back to the Erzurum or Bingiol of yesteryear. Surely all the singers of this song, in the past and future, will never be able to undo the past.
Together, we are at the crossroads of a present and a world that doesn’t exist. Asking for directions to another dimension — where our kingdoms never went away and protected the masses of Western Armenia to the modern day — is futile and the answers will never come. No justice, no redemption, and no restitution can ever answer this prayer about Bingiol.
But we still have our third acts in the here and now. We can ‘talk story’ about all that was and can never be; however, we should also take our cues from this modern Armenian woman, who came from an abusive relationship in an oppressive, economically deplete, fledgling republic, believed in herself, struggled against the odds, tuned out her critics and touched hundreds of thousands of lives through her songs.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for our pop diva, Nune Yesayan.