Category: Armenia

Bala Melikyan – Xaric Segah

I reached out to Excavated Shellac followers on Facebook, asking for suggestions in an attempt to give myself a much-needed kick to complete a new post. One of the primary requests was string music from Iran. I decided for something in the ballpark, geographically and musically, though slightly more complicated.

The artist featured here, Bala Melikyan, was an Armenian from Nagorno-Karabakh, the currently autonomous, disputed territory inside present-day Azerbaijan. Mountainous Karabakh has been a region with ethnic strife between the majority Armenians, who refer to it by the ancient name of Artsakh and are allied with Armenia, and the Azeris. The conflict dates back well over 100 years, rooted in the Bolshevik takeover of what was then known as Transcaucasia, and is something I will freely admit to being only a novice at grasping. What I can say, however, is that when it came to recording music in the Caucuasus prior to the Russian Revolution, the region was ethnically complex. Whenever a recording engineer went to Tbilisi in Georgia (considered the cultural center of the Caucasus at the time), or Baku in Azerbaijan, multiple ethnicities were recorded, and often the musicians played with each other, regardless of ethnicity. Singers commonly performed in multiple languages. This, on its own, naturally suggests deep musical ties all across the Caucasus, and of course, Iran.

Such is the case with Bala Melikyan. Born in 1888, Melikyan was a Christian Armenian from Shusha in Karabakh, a city known for its musicians who practiced the Azeri musical form known as mugham, and one of the primary cities for Armenians in the Caucasus, along with Tbilisi. His instrument was the tar, the long-necked lute of the region with a resonator that is “waisted” with an hourglass shape, traditionally is made of mulberry wood, and with three sets of double strings. Melikyan was the son of a famous tar player from Shusha known simply as Grigor (1859-1929). I’ve documented Grigor as having recorded for the Gramophone Company in at least two sessions in Tbilisi, under the names Balitka Grigor (1909) and Bala Grigorevich (1910), respectively.

Prior to the Russian Revolution (as discussed in this earlier post), the recording industry in the region was for the most part run by Europe-based multinational corporations. Even smaller labels, liked Extraphone in Kiev, who recorded in Baku, were sub-branches of European companies. After the onset of World War I and the Russian Revolution, there was a dramatic slowdown if not a full shutdown. Recording in the Caucasus and many other places under Soviet control essentially ceased after 1915 (and the 1915 sessions made by the Gramophone Company were completely lost). The industry began to pick itself up throughout the 1920s – but this time, it was governed by the State.

According to Anzor Erkomaishvili, after the Revolution there was no recording in the Caucasus until 1930*. This is one of the first – a tar improvisation by Melikyan in the Azeri mugham repertoire, in the segah mode. It was likely recorded in Tbilisi, as the flip side is from the same sessions and features a kemanche (violin) solo by Sasha Oganezashvili (1889-1932). Oganezashvili, a Georgian who was also known as Alexander Ohanyan Arshak, had actually recorded with Bala Melikyan’s father in 1909, for the Gramophone Company.

Melikyan died in 1935. This disc was issued first on the MuzTrust label, then reissued a few years later on the SovSong label. SovSong was pressed by the Aprelevka pressing plant – long before the famous and well-distributed Aprelevsky Zavod imprint of the giant Soviet recording apparatus.

Bala Melikyan – Xaric Segah











Label: SovSong
Issue Number: 414
Matrix Number: 1010

*This seems to hold true. There were, however, Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri songs pressed on 78 on the Muzpred label in the mid-1920s, all performed by a man named Armenak Kahurov. It may be very likely, however, that these were all recorded in Russia.

Levon Hampartzoumian – Menk Arghez Zinvor

levon.jpgNow, we move from Azerbaijan to Armenia. Well, not exactly Armenia per se, but Istanbul/Constantinople, where this Odeon recording was made probably in the late teens-early 1920s.

While I could not locate any information on the singer, Levon Hampartzoumian (not to be confused
with the present-day banker in Bulgaria of the same name) or the accompanying two violinists, the song is a stirring, Armenian classic. It’s true title is transliterated as “Menk Angeghdz Zinvor Enk” and is an example of an Armenian patriotic, revolutionary song. A song sung by many in the past to unite Armenians across the world and give recognition to their struggle, it is still sung today (see here).

The English translation is roughly “Honest Soldiers Are We” (thanks, Tina!), and is associated with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. I was able to find the lyrics translated into Western Armenian, so you can follow along here.

Levon Hampartzoumian – Menk Arghez Zinvor

Technical Notes
Label: Odeon
Issue Number: 46266
Matrix Number: x.c. 2085

A. Kevorkian – Gigo

columbia-kevorkian.jpgAnother one of my personal favorites, thanks to the folks with foresight working for Columbia Records in the late 1920s, who managed to capture some of the greatest folk music by American immigrants (Ukrainian, Polish, Albanian, Armenian, Irish, etc.).

Mr. Kevorkian sang this track in January of 1929 in Los Angeles, and is accompanied by violin, oud, and Mesrob Takakjian on clarinet. Takakjian must have been well-known in the 1920s, as I’ve found his presence on several Armenian, New York City-based labels around that time. (Pharos records, in particular. Sohag was another short-lived label associated with Pharos.) Other recordings from this session were released by Columbia.

For more by A. Kevorkian and Mesrob Takakjian, again try The Secret Museum of Mankind, Vol. 5.

A. Kevorkian – Gigo

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 28009-F
Matrix Number: 110266