The Role of Armenians in Persian Music

The Role of Armenians in Persian Music

By Hooshang Samani

Translated into Persian by Dr. Peyman Nasehpour

For the Gregorian New Year, 2011

The Role of Armenians in Persian Music

It is exactly four centuries* that the first group of Armenians immigrated to Iran. Because of different reasons, the small land of Armenia has caused its citizens to immigrate and the biggest immigration occurred four centuries ago, during the Shah Abbas of Safavid Dynasty. The second rise of immigration happened at 24th of April, 1915 and after that during the Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Enver Pasha and Djemal Pasha. Most rescued Armenians went to Syria and Lebanon. In addition to this, during 29-year governing of Soviet Union by Stalin, the Armenians under the pressure of Soviet Union, immigrated to different places and as usual Iran was one of the countries who hosted this oppressed nationality. Loris Tjeknavorian, the world famous Iranian-Armenian musician is the result of this immigration.

But definitely the world is not surrounded by only bitter events and often sweet life comes out of the bitter and bad ones. Armenian immigrants have always found Iran one of the best asylums for themselves and Iranians have proved to be decent hosts for them. While this relationship has been one-sided beneficial at the beginning, but gradually after settlement and peace of the immigrants, the Iranian-Armenian relationship has become mutual, in this sense that today not only they are no more refugees and in fact are our countrymen/women, but also in industry, architecture and music, they are among the bests.

Armenians in ancient times were the followers of Zoroastrianism. Even now the fire-temples of ancient times exist in the land of today Armenia. And according to historical narratives, this low population ethnicity converted into Christianity about 1700 years ago. Since the most of religious minorities in Iran are Christian Armenians, for most Iranians in their Muslim society, Christianity is the same as Armenian ethnicity, in this sense that when the name of this ethnicity comes to the tongue of Muslims, Christianity comes to their mind automatically and vice versa and while some of our Christian countrymen/women are of Assyrian ethnicity, in the mind of most Muslims, there is no difference between them.

While the Iranian Muslim society has not had that much intercourse with Christians - no matter Armenians or Assyrians - but they have been profited from them in some artistic and industrial areas. At least the traditional and modern music of Iran is very much in debt of the skillfulness of Armenian musicians. Particularly during the unlawfulness of music that Iranian Shias didn't have enough chance to pay attention to music, Armenians helped to Persian music easily because of the freedom given by Christianity.

Vigen Derderian, the Armenian pop singer of the second monarch of Pahlavi dynasty, is a familiar and a pop music icon for a genre of Persian pop music and in despite of the rise of hundreds of young pop singers in Iran, still the pop singers such as Vigen have kept their own places in Persian pop music. Vigen was born in 1929, Hamadan city of Iran and started his artistic activities in 1951. In 1953, by singing for the film "Chehreh-ye-Ashna" (Familiar Face) directed by the Iranian filmmaker Hasan Kheradmand, he entered to the world of acting. Later Vigen was able to cause the Iranian-Armenian director, Samuel Khachikian, to be interested in his acting and he played in his films such as "Bazgasht" (Return) and "Dokhtari az Shiraz" (A Girl from Shiraz). The song Lalayi (Lullaby), is perhaps the most popular one among his songs. Since his style in singing for low-knowledged people of Iran was unknown and usually people are interested to give a name to any new phenomenon, they chose the most misnomered name and he was famed as the Sultan of Persian jazz, while his music had nothing to do with jazz music that was popular among African-Americans.

Perhaps the society of Persian art musicians do not recognize the person with the name Hovhannes Abkarian, while they have heard the name Yahya for sure and appreciate his art. Yahya, the best contemporary maker of "tar" (Persian long-necked lute), is the same person with the name Hovhannes Abkarian and the "tar" made by him has a very high material and spiritual value and owning one of his hand-made instruments is like a dream for any tar player.

It seems Armenians are very much interested to be musicians in comparison to other ethnicities and if we consider this low population of Iranian-Armenians and compare them with Iranian Muslims, we notice that the density of Armenian musicians is much more than Iranian Muslim musicians. Though most Iranian-Armenian musicians have tendency toward Western classical music than to Persian art music, but even in their composed pieces, the veins of Persian music can be found. One of the vivid and known sample of such pieces that can be mentioned is "Rostam and Sohrab", an opera by Loris Tjeknavorian.

Anyway, the four-century presence of Armenians in the land of Iran and having peaceful life beside Muslims is neither because of their ethnicity nor their Christianity. But it seems the pivot of humanity is the appointing element of the admitting of Iranian Muslim society to them. The titles, Christian and Armenian, are always with positive imagination. The well-named musician like Emanuel Melik Aslanian is perhaps enough as a sample. And in Isfahan city of Iran, the best craftsmen/women are famous to be Armenians. What secret does lie beneath this touchable fact? Is this because of being Christian or a minority?

* This note was published in Hamshahri newspaper of Iran at 1st January, 2004.

The English translation of the above note was published in this website Dec 31st, 2010.