A beginner’s guide to Armenian folk music
June 15, 2018
Ever wanted to find that sweet balance of music that would have you, your odar best friend, and your néné jamming out (possibly together)? Look no further—this is your list!
Armenian folk music is an ancient genre with a seemingly endless repertoire, formed and reformed, shaped and reshaped, by centuries of inflections and influences. With the development of new musical styles in the West, such as jazz, rock, hip hop and, most recently, house and techno, folk music around the world has adapted to the changing audio palettes of her new audience.
Armenia is no exception. In the last decade, we have seen the burgeoning of a new sound in her music scene. Influenced by the rhythms, lyrics, and melodies of her parent genre, modern folk music (what we’re calling “Armenianfolk”) has taken the nation—and its diasporan adherents—by storm, and, luckily for us, it looks like she’s here to stay.
Why this list?
After returning from a youth conference on the Armenian arts this summer, I and a dozen of my colleagues received a message from a fellow attendee: what is our go-to Armenian playlist? For the next few days, a group of us began populating the thread with our favorite covers and renditions of folk classics. At the end of the experience, one thought became increasingly clear: even the most highly engaged Armenians have difficulty in finding the proper channels through which they can learn and appreciate this expanding genre of music.
Thus far, no easily accessible resource exists for introducing young diasporans to our rich musical tradition. So, we created a list—in no particular order and by no means comprehensive—of the hottest covers, remakes, and remixes of our favorite Armenian folk songs. These songs have taken on a life of their own—separate from the originals. As a result, these artists are reinventing the wheel of this classic genre, injecting their own style and breathing new life into timeless standards.
How to use this list
We have organized this guide alphabetically by the name of the song, but perhaps we could have just as easily arranged it by theme. Read on for a quick background on some of the most common leitmotifs in the Armenian folk genre.
A common staple of the Armenian folk genre is the frequent reference to the lands of Western Armenia. You may be familiar with Moush and Sassoun (often mentioned in fedayee or revolutionary songs), Van, Kharpert, Karin, Sepastia…the examples are countless.
Many survivors of the Genocide penned sweet homages to their homelands from their exiled diaspora or Eastern Armenia (the Republic of Armenia today). Examples include "Msho Gorani" (a song about longing for the village of Mush and the singer’s lover), "Bingyol" (the singer is a foreign vagabond, searching for his lover in the village of Bingyol), and "Barov Yekar Siroun Krunk" (“You Came Pleasantly, Beautiful Crane,” where the singer requests news about his homeland from the bird, who is free to fly and roam the lands on which the singer is now unwelcome).
Other songs that originally had a different—often times, lighter—meaning have, since the Genocide, served a different purpose—usually as a weighty declaration of love for a lost land and peoples. Examples of this include the songs Dle Yaman, a song once about a tragic love between two villagers now almost exclusively serves as a requiem for genocide victims, and Sareri Hovin Mernem (“I’ll Die for the Wind of the Mountains”), which is about a woman who longs for her lover, whom she has not seen or heard from in over a year, but this too has also become an emblem of the Genocide).
Western Armenia, though not within the borders of the Republic of Armenia today, continues to remain an important source of inspiration for Armenian artists and musicians, especially in the preservation and progression of folk music.
Ah, the tale of the tortured, repudiated lover, and their agony—an all-too familiar topic, as universal as love itself. Of course, this theme is not unique to Armenian music, but we, Armenians, are quite good at it—varpets (“masters”), in fact.
In the ballad, "Kanchum Em Ari," the singer pleads for the affection of his beloved, while blaspheming her when she repeatedly rejects him, wishing her “flame would extinguish.” In the song, Nino, the singer claims to be sad since his lover rejected him; while he is in mourning, she is in kef (aka partying like it’s 1999). It’s a bit tough to catch this “mourning” spirit, though, from the super up-tempo dance vibe of the song. The bipolarity of these songs embodies everything that we are drawn to (and familiar with) in the genre of unrequited love.
Beating around the not-so-figurative bush
“May I be a birthmark on your chest and kiss your cheeks all night.”
Examples run abound in traditional Armenian songs, from romantic tunes (such as "Goghpa Yelan Seleruh" and "Qamin Zana") to laments of lost or unrequited love (like "Bingyol").
We may think of sexual references as a relatively new component in music—strictly a feature of our modern, Western, pop culture world—but actually, there are snippets of innuendo in traditional folk songs across many cultures—and Armenia(n) is no exception.
As a child, I, like most youngsters, would ignorantly sing and dance along to these folk songs without paying attention to—let alone, understanding—the lyrics. Years later, I asked my mother, who grew up in Soviet Armenia, if she knew what these songs were saying. “Yes, and we [kids] would always laugh and joke about it,” she responded coyly.
Now, at this point, you might be thinking, “Why on Earth did you tell me this? I cannot sing along to these songs ever again!” Sure, it may be a bit weird to imagine your great grandparents singing about semi-nudity and sleeping in their lover’s bosom, but do not mistake a little innuendo for trash or debauchery. These songs are all gems in their own right, centered on love and romantic themes of longing and affection.
And for those who don’t scare as easily, the next time you hear your néné singing along to what sounds like a tune from the Old Country, keep your ears peeled to the lyrics; it could be a little naughty…
These are just a few of the countless categories in the extensive genre of traditional Armenian folk music, which is reinvented today through the new Armenian folk genre.
Check out our list for some amazing reimaginings of our favorite folk songs. Some of these covers will make you want to dance; others are great for studying, a few will give you goosebumps. Ultimately, there is something here for everyone to appreciate!
Hear them for yourself!
- 'Alvan Varder': Vibrant roses for unrequited love
- 'Ashkharhums Imn Dun Is': A modern take on a 300-year-old masterpiece
- 'Ari Im Sokhag': Armenia’s favorite lullaby
- 'Avlem Tapem Poshin': The perfect song to clean the house to
- 'Bingyol': The vagabond lover’s quest to find home
- 'Dashterov': Armenia’s hottest album of summer 2018
- 'Doné Yar': A catchy, ‘fruity’ tune
- 'Gorani': Take a trip to Medieval Armenia
- 'Here's To You Ararat': Seeing the mountain from 'the other side'
- 'Janoy Jan' / 'Garo Mare Karke Zis': Matchmaking in Van
- 'Ganchoum Em, Ari Ari': A heart-wrenching declaration of love
- 'Hamayak Jan': The tune that made 'Hamayak' a cool name
- 'Horovel': Sounds of Artsakh
- 'Kele Lao': Let’s go home
- 'Khio': The soothing rhythms of village life
- 'Leylum': Try not to dance when you hear this
- 'Lily': A song about a girl from Sasun
- 'Mokatz Harsner': Hear all about the brides of Moks
- 'Mokatz Shuken': A commentary on the market of Moks
- 'Nino': The most upbeat breakup song
- 'Noubari Boye': Takes 'tall, dark, and handsome' to a new level
- 'PreGomesh'/'Lorva Gutanerg': The international hit that propelled Armo folk to new heights
- 'Qamin Zana': A cheeky folk tune for the ages
- 'Sareri Hovin Mernem': The timeless love ballad
- 'Sari Sirun Yar': Love on the mountains
- 'Shogher Jan': A jazzy spin on a Komitas classic
- 'Sona Yar': Bringing this Mshetsi tune back to life
- 'Tamam Ashkharh': The multilingual gusan's masterpiece
- 'Ton Guka': An intoxicating synthesis of sounds
- 'Yaman Yar': No singing here
- 'Yar Qo Barak Boyin Mernem': Don't take the lyrics too literally
We are sure that we missed many great covers in this list, as it is impossible to even scrape the surface of this new, yet wonderfully rich, genre. Hopefully, though, we gave you a nice start to your playlist!