New York, USA – On their new CD, Old Street (Bandaz Records), the
Cascade Folk Trio evokes a rebirth of Armenian folk music with a modern twist.
Folk music underwent a prior renaissance in the early 1900s thanks to renowned
musicologist Komitas. His contribution was to articulate the true essence of
Armenian music. Komitas penned over 3,000 compositions and nearly cracked the
“code” of the khazer, a lost, ancient form of musical notation.
“We always start with the melody line,” says Cascade Folk Trio’s Arman
Aghajanyan. “The melody must be Armenian.” Many dispersed cultural groups
struggle to maintain ties to their heritage. So this is no surprise considering
the wave of genocide that forced millions of Armenians into exile in the early
1900s. But the Trio—one of the best in the Armenian Diaspora—was affected as
much by more recent history.Armenia has struggled to survive as a viable independent nation for many years.
In 1988, an earthquake left 25,000 people dead and 500,000 homeless. When
Armenia seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991, a war with Azerbaijan erupted in
the East, while in the West, Turkey established a blockade, and from Georgia in
the North, gas pipelines were cut off. The mid-’90s saw brutal winters with
weeks without gas or electricity. Only in recent years has the economy finally
turned. Out of this setting a musical renaissance, differentiating the emerging
nation’s soul from the outside powers that have dominated daily life for
Early in the 20th century Armenia fell victim to a horrible genocide, brought on
by a nationalist government in Turkey, bent on uniting the region under their
newfound dictatorship. Artists, writers, and priests were the first targets.
After massacres in 1915 and the burning of almost all of his work, Komitas
succumbed to mental distress and never recovered. Many Armenians fled their
homes for safer cities like Beirut, Alexandria and Paris. In the late 1990s,
nearly a century after this violence, vocalists Arman Aghajanyan (composer),
Ohanna Mtghyan (lyricist), and Armen Papkiyan (vocal arranger) left for the
United States in a new wave of dispersion.
The Cascade Folk Trio, which keeps one foot in this profound history and one
foot on the pulse of the future, joined forces in New York City. Although
inspired by the diverse rhythms of the city, the group found relief from their
homesickness through Armenian music. In Armenia, they listened to the likes of
Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Earth, Wind and Fire, and each experienced
individual success as pop stars. They joined Artur Grigoryan’s State Theater of
Song—which cultivates new music whose essence is Armenian. Nine of the songs on
Old Street are original, but all of the arrangements balance preservation
and contemporary creation, many of which are credited to one of Armenia’s most
acclaimed arrangers Karen Margaryan. The Trio pays tribute to the historic voice
of their folk music, uniting it with the sounds of American R&B, Jazz, and other
The group’s name is from a district in the capital city of Yerevan, known as a
meeting place for young lovers. “Cascade is one of our favorite areas. The
falling water from the cascade fountain produces a certain breath and sound that
creates its own melody” says Aghajanyan. “Falling in love is a
significant theme in Armenian music” says Aghajanyan, as is evident on the
CD. “Gentle Boy, Graceful Girl” tells of two young people meeting and falling in
love. “Lingering Return” finds the girl longing for her lover’s return. In “You
are a Doe” the man yearns for the grace of his lover, and when he finds her,
greets beauty with beauty, picking for her a bouquet in the song “Garden Flowers”—a
song written in the style of the great troubadour Sayat Nova. Now known as the
King of Songs, the music of this “peasant” born in 1712 became so influential
that he negotiated a coalition between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan against
Persian domination. Never before has anyone attempted such a gospel-tinged
arrangement of “Bad Days”—written by folk singer Djivani (1846-1909)—as is
featured on this CD.
Complementing the deft use of their 5000-year-old language is the prominence of
essential Armenian instruments. The duduk—one of the world’s oldest double-reed
instruments—has been around for over 2000 years. Its melancholic sound came to
prominence in America thanks to Peter Gabriel,
Gasparyan, and the hit TV series Xena, Warrior Princess. With centuries of cross-cultural sharing in the
region, the duduk is one of the only instruments to have truly Armenian origins.
Armenian duduk-makers use apricot wood to produce a tone that mimics the human
voice, whereas elsewhere it is made to produce a nasal sound. Armenian weddings
and celebrations are not complete without a duduk or the zurna—another
instrument prominent on the CD, along with the sounds of the dhol, zarb, shvi,
kyamancha, and kanun.
With Old Street, the Cascade Folk Trio keeps Armenian culture strong.
Says Arman, “we want to provide descendents of Armenia with what they had
forgotten about Armenian folk music.”
Listen to “Gentle
Boy, Graceful Girl” from the Old Street album.