Armenian Folk Music



The following text is an abbreviated version of Cynthia Rogers’ programme notes to a concert by Shoghaken.

Armenian folk music is one of the world’s richest musical traditions, burgeoning with an extraordinary array of melodies and genres (for example, exquisite lullabies renowned for their haunting lyricism). Since the 1880s, ethnographers and musicologists have travelled to remote villages and towns in Anatolia and the Caucasus collecting Armenian songs and dances. Currently there are over 30,000 catalogued in various archives, each with rhythms and modes characteristic of both broad Near Eastern influence and particular rituals and dialects not seen or heard beyond the next mountain pass.

Mount Ararat, Armenia

Noravank Monastery, near Amaghu (Vayots Dzor), Armenia

This wealth of folk material was honed and passed down over many generations, its depth a result of the Armenians’ long historical presence at a remote, biblical crossroads of the world. It was as early as 7,000 BC that the Armenians settled in the eastern Anatolian highlands, the land coursed by the Euphrates and dominated by Mt. Ararat, on which Noah’s ark set down. Speaking their own Indo-European language and following their own kinship and religious traditions, they formed a unique culture that thrived through centuries of conflict and usurpation. Sandwiched between the Graeco-Roman and Persian empires in the classical period and the Ottoman and Russian empires in the modern period, and for years a valued trade route on the Silk Road, Armenia was continually reconquered, divided, governed and taxed by invaders, spawning a large diaspora as early as the Byzantine era.

Occupiers and merchants invariably introduced new customs, and Armenians were adept at assimilating and transforming neighboring traditions, from Persian Zoroastrianism with its worship of fire to Roman bureaucracy to Central Asian and Middle Eastern musical instruments. Armenians’ cultural autonomy in the region was buttressed by theology and literacy—they adopted Christianity in 301 AD and an alphabet in 404, leading to an extraordinary monastic culture that churned out countless manuscripts, many gloriously illuminated, that preserved both the classical heritage (some original versions of Plato are only available in Armenian copies) and a received Armenian tradition. The elaborate modal music of the liturgy was theorized in writing and notated as it developed, becoming part of an intellectual clerical tradition that remained cohesive for centuries. Meanwhile Armenia’s remarkably stable feudal courts and large towns and cities supported professional bardic ashughs, who prospered especially between the 17th and 19th centuries travelling from town to village singing of forsaken love and Armenians’ historical feats.

Yerevan, Armenia

The Kitka Ensemble performing in Armenia

Armenian folk music, forged over centuries in the language and rituals of everyday life, traditionally accompanied everything from family celebrations to sowing fields to funerals, and remains a rich brew of historical elements. Pagan ritual can still be traced in songs foretelling a maiden’s future retained as part of the Christian festival of the Ascension, not to mention the beloved circle-dance, with its prehistoric and Zoroastrian antecedents in the Near East. The folk repertoire is in many cases highly differentiated—specific songs, each with distinct modal characteristics, are tied to dozens of moments in the wedding ceremony, from blessing the wedding tree to the entry of the bride to male-only dances. As in much of the Middle East, Armenian music is modal, based not on an octave with major or minor notes, but on an untempered scale.

Folk instrumental ensembles heard to the west might include the oud, while the duduk is the main folk instrument to the east, where melody is always accompanied by a drone that holds the tonic note. Such musical differences solidified in the wake of the genocide of 1915, in which over a million Armenians perished and the remainder fled either to the West or eastward to what would become a few years later the Soviet republic of Armenia, today an independent nation.

The Armenian Genocide Memorial on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan

Hasmik Harutyunyan playing the oud

The oud, a short-necked fretless lute widespread throughout the Middle East, is generally associated with the instrumentation of Western Armenia, in the regions of Anatolia that are now part of modern Turkey. Only since the mid-20th century has it been common in eastern Armenia, where it has typically been used to play the bass line within the ensemble against the melodic woodwinds, rather than as the dominant melody instrument more typical to the west.

The duduk, a double-reed pipe made of apricot wood, is native to Armenia and considered its national instrument, though variants can be found in Turkish, Kurdish, Georgian and Azerbaijani regions as well. The best musicians use subtle lip and finger techniques to extend its tonal range. The duduk is always accompanied by a second duduk which emits an unbroken drone, achieved through circular breathing, around which the principal player weaves complex melodies and improvisations.

A duduk on its stand


Intermezzo 3: Zora

Now a woman is asking me for a light. Her dark locks tumble to her breasts as her cigarette crackles in my cupped flame.

̶ Look, she says, there’s a wind whipping off the hills. It will rain hard tonight.

By the bend of the cypresses, by the whirling of the trash in the street, I know she’s right.

̶ You must be the only tourist in the city. What are you doing here?
̶ Trying to forget a woman.
̶ I can help you.
̶ Why?
̶ Because I love your green eyes. Where did you get them?
̶ From an Irish sailor.
̶ Your hair’s not red.
̶ From a Dutch trader.
̶ Your skin’s not white.
̶ From the man who fell to Earth.

Orest Kiprensky, Gypsy Woman Holding a Branch of Myrtle, 1819

Jules Pascin, Gypsy Woman, 1923

She takes my hand and holds it.

̶ Look, it’s like mine. I’m Armenian.
̶ I’m not.
̶ Why did she leave you?
̶ Because she loved me.
̶ Well! She’s an original!

I like the touch of her hand.

̶ What’s your name?
̶ Zora. And yours?
̶ Hunter.
̶ Pleased to meet you, Hunter.

I finish my Metaxa, she her cigarette. Before the rain comes we go to my hotel.

In bed, after we’d made love, she sang me a folk song that resonated deep inside me. Then we took a bath together. In the wilderness in her eyes I found a certain freedom. I didn’t write an ode to her instep, though I could have. I didn’t memorialize her tits, with their nipples that turn from nut brown to plum after just a few tugs from my lips, though I could have.

̶  Shall I be your labyrinth, do you want to get lost in me?
̶  No, just sing to me again. I feel at home in your voice.

We ran some more hot water then she sang me another song. Her voice had a viola’s timbre, and through its anguish and nostalgia I felt time surrendering to eternity.

Ernst Friedrich Hausmann, Gypsy Woman with Lute, n.d.

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, Gypsy woman, 1870-72

̶ You move me, Zora. That’s a heart-breaking song.
̶ It’s a woman’s lament. She’s been spurned by her lover. It happens all the time, Hunter.
̶ Of course. I know I’m not the only one.
̶ But do you know that in the world there is one path that no-one but you can walk?
̶ I do. But I don’t know where it leads.
̶ Do not ask. Walk it.

The rain drummed on the pavement, the wind howled through the trees. Zora stood up.

̶ Come, make love to me again.

Smooth as a conch’s lips, the convolutions of her sex; her breasts, calabashes. We dried down and went back to bed.

I entered her body like a monk the mysteries; it took a while, but I finally got her natural scent to emerge through the perfumed soap. When she came she screamed my real name; how she knew it I’ll never know. All I know is that in the morning I woke up alone, with your name on my lips.


The Gurdjieff Ensemble, Komitas | ECM | Guardian article

Hasmik Harutyunyan & the Shoghaken Ensemble

Music of Gurdjieffe | ECM | Guardian review


Mara Marietta