So it was this word “Home” in the title of Sylvia Alajaji’s book, Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile, that drew me to read it. I also was drawn by its cover: a photograph of a group of boys and young men, all of them cousins and many of them holding musical instruments. They seemed to be inviting me to get to know their stories and their music.
For Alajaji, whose family roots are in the modern Armenian diaspora, writing this book must have been a work of love. It is, however, also a scholarly work, based on extensive archival and field research, including numerous interviews, many with prominent Armenian musicians. Before I began reading the book, I worried that I might struggle with the finer points of musicology, but I took the dive and am very glad I did.
In the introduction, Alajaji twice begins paragraphs with this sentence: “Who are the Armenians?” That sentence and a related one—“What is Armenian music?—are what this book is about. Throughout the work, Alajaji explains and addresses these questions sensitively and thoroughly. What do they mean?
Armenia, a former Soviet republic, is today a sovereign state bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. At its height about two millennia ago, the kingdom of Armenia covered parts of those four countries, as well as Syria and Iraq.
During the 19th century, small groups of Armenian immigrants began settling in the United States. Then, as a result of the Armenian genocide that accompanied the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and during which more than one million Armenians were killed, much larger numbers of immigrants began to arrive in the United States, settling in cities in the Northeast, in California (especially Los Angeles and Fresno), and elsewhere. By the 1940s and 1950s, the Armenian population in the Northeast was large enough to support Armenian-owned and Armenian-operated resorts that had “proliferated [in the Catskills] to the extent that the area came to be affectionately known as the Yogurt Belt.” Another large Armenian community in exile formed in Beirut, Lebanon, and before long, Beirut became “the center of the diaspora’s identity formation.”
Regardless of where the exiles settled, their new communities were populated by Armenians who had come from different places, spoke different languages, and played distinctive music. This diversity is the basis of Alajaji’s question, “Who are the Armenians?” In Beirut, after Armenian communities established schools where children learned to speak and write Armenian, it wasn’t unusual for children to speak Armenian better than their parents. So, too, for other aspects of Armenian culture: “Armenianness had to be taught.” In effect “Armenians in diaspora and exile were “nation-building outside the nation … .” by teaching language and culture in this newly formed, diverse community in exile.
As an ethnomusicologist, Alajaji is particularly interested in addressing the question, “What is Armenian music?” To the untrained ear, the music from different Armenian communities would sound similar or even identical, but to the trained ear, the differences are clearly discernible. Which of these “musics” was truly Armenian? Given the depth with which humans experience music, it’s not surprising that disputes—heated ones—often arose over what was truly Armenian music. Such disputes are ongoing.
Music was a key ingredient of the mortar Armenians used to build a nation. Choir music, especially, connected immigrants to their past Homes and present homes. “By singing in Armenian—and doing so cohesively, in unison—[Armenian] choirs exhibited an important component of the mobilization efforts put into place in Lebanon shortly after the genocide.”
By the late 1960s, Armenians’ lives in Lebanon became increasingly difficult. Factional disputes within Lebanese society among Maronite Christians, Palestinians, Shi’a and Sunni factions, and others—with external support from Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria, and other countries—began to escalate, leading finally to outright civil war in 1975. As a result, the Armenian community in Lebanon was exiled again—a re-diasporization—to North America and Europe.
Members of Alajaji’s family were part of both the first diaspora (a result of the 1915 genocide) and the second diaspora (out of Lebanon during the civil war). After the genocide, Alajaji’s maternal grandparents met as exiled children in an orphanage in Beirut, where they grew up, married, and raised a family. Then as a result of the Lebanese civil war, Alajaji’s parents immigrated in the mid-1980s to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Alajaji was born. However, most immigrants to the United States from this era settled in California, and “by 1991, the population of Armenians in Los Angeles had swelled to over a hundred thousand, and the city could lay claim to having the largest number of Armenians outside of Armenia.” A much smaller community is centered on Fresno. These Armenian communities—and others in exile elsewhere—argued about what was truly Armenian music. They also invented new genres of Armenian music; for example, estradayin.
In the last chapter of her book, Alajaji returns to this question: “What is Armenian music?” She answers by writing, “For the Armenian diaspora, the layers, the traumas, and the homes are many, and, as these snapshots reveal, so are the meanings. Thus the only possible answer to ‘What is Armenian music,’ if one is to be given, is a simple ‘Well, that all depends.'”
To write this review, I listened to Armenian music, as well as music from Greece and the Middle East. If you are new to music from these parts of the world, I urge you to listen to a live performance of “Meno Ektos” (“I Still Remain an Outcast”), performed by Greek singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki and Armenian composer/musician Ara Dinkjian and his band. You can find an English translation of the lyrics here. This song expresses the longing for Home felt deeply by exiles. Surely this song and others like it comfort exiles in the same way that music comforted me at a difficult time in my life.