Traditional Armenian village music has traveled hundreds of years and has faced major hurdles in order to survive and tell an important story about the Armenian people. So much has been lost due to the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, but we are fortunate to have the music that survived. Now we need to nurture and protect its history.
One of today’s leading musicians of this style of music is Mal Barsamian. He has continued to perform and preserve traditional and village sounds of Armenian music for the last 50 years. His latest instrumental album, The Exciting Sounds of the Mal Barsamian Band, is not only a tribute to the rich music he is trying to preserve, but also an homage to his musical mentors—he says, “…to the many musicians and band combinations that I have watched and had the pleasure of performing with.”
The genesis of this recording comes from the song Yarimo by famed 20th century Armenian composer Tatul Altoonian. Barsamian first recorded this song for a few fellow musicians to prepare for an upcoming concert. After hearing how the song came out, he decided to record more on a home recording unit, and the end result was this new album. This is a vibrant recording meant to get you to dance and enjoy some of the happier Armenian music that is still performed at gatherings and weddings throughout the diaspora. If you ever had a chance to hear Barsamian perform music in a live setting, this album emulates style and energy on-stage. He sets the tone of this album by including a faster version of Yarimo.
Another great example of his dexterity on these instrumentations is the song Laziko, performed in a 7/8 rhythm. Both Greek and Armenian variations of this dance are taken from the ancient lands of Laz, part of historic Turkey inhabited by Armenians, Greeks and other ethic minorities.
Most of Barsamian’s new album features the clarinet as the main lead, but on the Tamzara Medley he switches to alto saxophone for this 9/8 dance song. Not to be ignored is Mal’s percussion abilities. He is a solid drummer providing as much effort on the dumbegs as he does on the lead instruments. His style of playing drums is reminiscent of the late Armenian percussionist Bobby Sohigian from Massachusetts.
Barsamian’s prowess as a musician is highlighted with a Tunisian musical piece on an album that is mostly Armenian music. Itr al-Ghajar (Gypsy Perfume) is a modern song written by composer Anwar Ibrahim in a 4/4 syrto rhythm. “It was different and I liked the different accents that it displays within the piece,” said Barsamian. It’s definitely a great track that brings the oud to the forefront along with the alto saxophone.
Another song on the album is Koo Ghimetn Chim Kidi by troubadour composer Sayat Nova led by Barsamian on oud. His soulful feel on the instrument captures the essence of this folk song. He takes care in presenting this song as it was written. Ironically, the translation of the title means I’ll Never Know Your True Worth. One might say that this title is a fitting one given the great lengths traditional Armenian musicians have taken to preserve what has been sometimes referred to as a dying style of music. This album is yet proof that the music is alive and well.
As a third-generation musician, Barsamian was heavily influenced by his grandfather, father and great-uncle. In fact, his first paying gig was at the age of 10 with his father. Knowing that he wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts, he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in classical guitar performance under Robert Paul Sullivan at the New England Conservatory of Music. Today, Barsamian performs around the country at concerts and festivals. When he isn’t performing, he teaches Middle Eastern music at the collegiate level, as well as give private lessons.
Whether it is the clarinet, oud, dumbeg, saxophone, guitar, violin and in recent years, bouzouki – Barsamian has left his mark on all of these instruments. Over the years, I have heard comments that any musician can play traditional Armenian and Middle Eastern music. Not only do I disagree with this concept, I would challenge those to find another artist capable of performing (at the highest musical level) these many instruments. This is a true definition of a virtuoso, which is evident on Barsamian’s new album.
In fact, the title of the album, “The Mal Barsamian Band” is a tongue and cheek reference to all of the roles he plays on each song without the help of any musicians. Having had the opportunity to hear and perform with Mal over the years, it is difficult for me to choose which instrument I enjoy the most when he plays as each one provides a great deal of enjoyment.
Barsamian 10/8 Medley
Hye Aghchig-Hay Nar
Hicaz Ten Eight Medley
Itr Al-Ghajar (Anwar Ibrahim)
His Koo Ghimetn Chim Kidi (Sayat Nova)
Ussak 10/8 Medley
You can also download this digital album from Spotify.
Other recordings of Mal Barsamian include:
The Mal Barsamian Ensemble, Vol. 1 and 2; Camp Haisatan Favorites; Farsarotul Favorites; The Tulip & The Sword; Armenian Melodies; Turbo Tabla: Arabic Music Re-Imagined; Mystical Veil; One Take; Homage: A Tribute to Armenian Musicians.
This article was originally published in the Armenian Weekly.