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Song | 'Where were you, God, when prayer froze on the lips of my nation?'

C-rouge and Sandra Arslanian/Sandmoon

December 31, 2020

Song

By Loucig Guloyan-Srabian

525 views

Song | 'Where were you, God, when prayer froze on the lips of my nation?'

Hearts quiver with the questions posed in Arthur Meschian’s uniquely rebellious rock-prayer “Ur eir, Astvats” (“Ո՞ւր էիր, Աստուած” | “Where Were You, God?”), especially after a year of loss, heartache, and looming dangers in our homeland. While many Armenians struggle to come to terms with the catastrophic changes in Armenia and Artsakh, Sandra Arslanian, a Beirut-based Armenian singer, and C-rouge, a Yerevan-based musician, collaborate for a celestial rendition of the song. Why would it matter that a new version of an old favorite was premiered just before the end of the year? H-pem reflects on the origins of the song and the remarkably cathartic new single, with illuminating quotes from exclusive interviews.

Genre

Cinematographic 

Released

Dec. 28, 2020

Location

Beirut; Yerevan

Language

Armenian with English subtitles

Duration

3:31 

Link

YouTube

 

It is the most awkward New Year’s countdown ever: a time of carols, hymns, and prayers, marred with acute suffering and uncertain future. Yet, the newly released version of the all-time classic, “Ur eir, Astvats,”  which has been dubbed “cinematographic” by its producers, strives to raise a dignified cry and offer a twinkle of hope in these hazy days.

“The war in Artsakh was the reason Sandra and I collaborated on this specific song. “Ur eir, Astvats” was written about the Armenian Genocide  and, sadly, I would have never imagined that it would be also relevant in 2020. We are ending the tragic year with this special song as a prayer for peace and hope to our beloved Artsakh,” says Serouj Baghdassarian (aka C-rouge), in a phone interview with h-pem.

C-rouge is much acclaimed for integrating electronic sounds with Armenian traditional melodies. However, it is the first time that Sandra Arslanian, the founder, singer and guitarist of the Beirut-based Sandmoon band, is tapping into the power of Armenian songs. 

“Sandra proposed to collaborate on a project last year. It was her idea to have this song as our debut single. My role was to arrange the song. It’s a unique project because it’s full of emotions. I think she was able to express her feelings with her smooth and light voice,” says Serouj, highlighting the lyrical touch that Sandra brings to the song.

For Sandra, it took a national crisis to motivate her to make an Armenian song.

“It didn’t materialize until the war happened in Artsakh, and I felt now is the time! I told Serouj, let’s go for it; let’s go for this song, “Ur eir, Astvats,” says Sandra, who was born in Lebanon and raised in Belgium.

“As Sandmoon I sing in English because the music is often sung in English, and I think I am truthful in doing it in English. But a tribute song for Armenia and Artsakh had to be in Armenian, the language closest to my heart,” she explains in downright confidence. 

Sandra calls French and English her “strongest” languages, but speaks Armenian as her mother tongue.

“Armenian is the first language I spoke. It’s the language I speak with my nephews and nieces—and with my dog!” she says, and laughs.

As someone whose music is connected to her personal growth, Sandra is no stranger to Armenian music either. “I do sing in Armenian—in my kitchen, in my living room, with my mother—we often sing church hymns, but I have never released a song in Armenian,” she says.

Sandra’s music has always been an eclectic fusion of indie folk-pop, rock, and blues, with a touch of oriental magic. Was singing “Ur eir, Astvats” in line with her genre and style? Was it a new experience?

“I had my own perceptions of Armenian music, but I didn’t have the chance to sing, to give my own vocal interpretation. Sandmoon music is very emotional, yet this [“Ur eir, Astvats”] is even more, because it’s in Armenian, and because of the subject matter,” she reflects.
 
“Where were you, God, when an entire abandoned nation went crazy?” (Screenshot: "Ur eir, Astvats")
 

Armenia has always been a nation fighting for existence at the crossroads of empires. It’s hard to tell how it has survived through centuries of invasions, turmoil, massacres, and exile. There are more churches than castles in the lands historically populated by Armenians. More often than not, pious prayers of the faithful, “May God protect and save all Armenians,” were drowned out by the thundering battle-cries of charging enemies.

Hundreds of thousands of native Armenians perished in unprovoked attacks. Fleeing persecutions and wars, many chose the way of eternal salvation, relying solely upon faith and divine grace—a legacy of Gregory of Narek —transcribed on parchment and passed down the generations. History is rife with tales of priests, who crossed mountains fraught with danger, carrying bundles of illuminated manuscripts to safety.

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 was a severe blow that wiped out indigenous populations in Western Armenia—the cradle of Armenian civilization—in most extreme acts of dehumanization and humiliation. It marked yet another chapter in the grueling history of man’s inhumanity to man. 

The world was silent, and so was God, as one and a half million Armenians were marched to their death in the deserts, and their places of worship vandalized.

The nation’s survival was a miracle. And once again Armenians offered hymns  and prayers to God as they built new churches in exile and affirmed their Christian identity. 

Fifty years after the Armenian Genocide, it took a sixteen-year old boy from Yerevan to break away from the conventions of the past and rage against God, demanding an explanation for the sufferings of his people.

Arthur Meschian, one of Armenia’s most versatile artists and the legendary keeper of the nation's conscience during the Soviet era, wrote the lyrics and music of “Ur eir, Astvats” in 1965. As one of the founders of Armenian rock, his own haunting rendition bellowing from deep within his heart, came late to the Armenian world, long after others had picked up the song.

“Ur eir, Astvats,” with its heart wrenching lyrics and rebellious beats, was destined to become an Armenian rock classic. Over the years, many musicians experimented with different interpretations of the tune. However, the core elements of its spiritual dimension—being painfully aware of God’s absence and descending into maddening grief, remain consistent and timeless, so does the rage, poised between the poles of hope and despair.

 

Check out the original version of "Ur eir, Astvats" by Arthur Meschian here.

 

“Where were you, God, when our pleas faded in indifference?” (Screenshot: "Ur eir, Astvats")
 

When asked about what makes the new version of “Ur eir, Astvats” special, Serouj says, “The contemporary cinematic feel, the ambient sounds, and the emotional way Sandra interprets it.

History repeats itself. It is a worn-out phrase, but captures the essence of the massive humanitarian crisis that Armenians have been facing in recent months in Armenia and Artsakh.

“Meschian wrote this song in relation to the Armenian Genocide and the injustice of it all. God didn’t seem to hear our prayers then, and still isn’t hearing our prayers today, in 2020, when it seems there is a second phase of the genocide happening right now, with the war that Azerbaijan started in Artsakh,” says Sandra, mirroring the spirit of the times.

“They [Azerbaijan] took the land, caused war crimes and just got away with it because the West remains silent, despite our screams on social media and elsewhere. Our cries were not heard. The situation in Artsakh and Armenia is still dangerous, and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Hopefully, God will hear our prayers. This song completely fits the present moment. It’s a prayer for things to turn around; a prayer for fairness and justice to happen in Armenia and Artsakh; for Artsakh to be recognized as an independent state. That would be a dream come true,” she concludes.

One hundred years on, after repeated exile, brutal murder, and loss of ancestral lands, Serouj hopes that through this song “we will be able to touch many hearts, so that we can have a unified voice in our cries for justice."

The song clip features three generations of descendants of genocide survivors living in Bourj Hammoud. With its ethereal vocals, epic instrumentation, and Sam Wehbi’s soulful lead guitar, it has all the right ingredients to become a hymn that echoes the muted despair of the downtrodden and dispossessed. 

 
“Where were you God, when our pleas faded in indifference?”“Where were you, God, when they were destroying a beautiful country?” (Screenshot: "Ur eir, Astvats")

 

Through their collective prayer, Sandra and C-rouge invite you to donate to three funds, to “alleviate the pain of those most in need due to the recent war in Artsakh.” 

To donate, check out the links in the description of the video below.

 

Video

  • "Ur eir, Astvats"

    "Where Were You, God?" by C-rouge and Sandra Arslanian/Sandmoon

  • "Ur eir, Astvats"

    "Where Were You, God?" by Arthur Meschian

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