California is known as a melting pot of immigrants. People from Western Europe, Asia and Latin America are among the most visible in California's cultural landscape.
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But Los Angeles also happens to hold the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. One group of Armenian musicians is bringing the traditional sound of that community to Washington, D.C. for Smithsonian's 2016 Folklife Festival, Sounds of California. Armenian Public Radio will play two concerts on the National Mall during the festival.
“We're all first-generation born in the U.S.,” says Mher Vahakn Ajamian, percussionist and guitar player. “All of our parents were born not in the U.S., they were born in the Middle East. Lebanon or Syria.”
Most Armenians in California arrived as they fled various wars during the 20th century. “My grandfather was born in Syria. The reason my grandfather was born in Syria was the Armenian genocide,” when the Ottoman government that later became Turkey systematically exterminated around 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915.
“My great-grandfather escaped during the genocide and ended up in Syria. My grandfather gets married, moves to Lebanon, has my dad and my aunt. They came to the U.S. due to the invasion of Lebanon in the Lebanese Civil War.”
Armenian-American culture and music has a distinctly multicultural flavor due to the experiences of so many refugees spending years (or even generations) in other countries before settling here.
Traditional Armenian folk music was all around as Ajamian was growing up. As was other music from the family's history. “At weddings, we also listen to Arabic music and Greek music being played. You'll hear the Gypsy Kings and Latin music.” Ajamian's father grew up listening to Pink Floyd and Simon and Garfunkel while in Lebanon.
Armenian Public Radio, a trio consisting of Ajamian along with Ryan Demirjian, guitarist and Saro Koujakian on lead vocals and guitar, exclusively performs traditional Armenian folk songs with a modern American sensibility and on modern acoustic guitars. “The Nirvana Unplugged album, the Alice in Chains Unplugged album. Those are things we listened to over and over again,” says Ajamian. “What we want to be is Armenian music, but sounding like Nirvana playing.”
The easy comparison with Armenian Public Radio is the well-known metal band, System of a Down, led by fellow L.A. County-raised Armenian-American, Serj Tankian. “System of a Down did some great things for our culture, especially as far as getting recognition for the genocide,” says Ajamian. “But I'm not into heavy metal. The other two [band members] listen to them, some albums more than others. I don't know that it has influenced us musically. The Armenian musicians who influenced [SOAD] also influenced us. Definitely in our audience, most people our age here and even a little bit younger, they love System of a Down.”
Armenian folk music is filled with references to the nation's history. During the past century, much of that music evolved with lyrics about what happened starting in 1915. But Armenian Public Radio prefers to maintain a different attitude. “Are we affected by the genocide, yeah, obviously,” says Ajamian. “But we also come from the philosophy that our history goes back thousands of years with folklore and tradition. As much as the genocide history is important, I don't want our entire cultural narrative to become about that.”
“We're a very proud culture.”
Armenian Public Radio performs July 7 and July 8 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival for its "Sound of California" program, running from June 29 to July 4 and July 7 to July, 10 on the National Mall. Other performers include Quetzal, an “East LA Chicana rock group;” Grupo Nuu Yuku, a large ensemble of Oaxacan Mixteco immigrant farmworkers from the Madera area; for a total of 16 world renowned bands and artistic organizations.