Riveting, Haunting Flamenco-Tinged Armenian Sounds From Vigen Hovsepyan
Imagine you’re in Paris the first weekend of October, 2017. You’re in the midst of a crowd gathered on a barge docked alongside the Seine.
Nobody’s wearing a mask.
On the stage in the back, a man sings in a powerful, expressive baritone, in Armenian, wailing on an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, on a cajon. He’s backed by a slinky rock rhythm section, plus a pianist with an inclination toward minor keys and slashing chromatics. The music has a simmering intensity with flashes of flamenco. The crowd roar in appreciation after every song.
You can experience the highlights of the two concerts guitarist/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan played at the intimate quayside venue Peniche Anako – the rive droite counterpart to Brooklyn’s Bargemusic – on his album Live in Paris 2017, streaming at Spotify. Fans of the iconic Souren Baronian’s work with guitarist Adam Good will love this music, especially since brilliant duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan is on it.
Electric pianist Havard Enstad introduces his gorgeous, allusively chromatic opening number, The Immigrant, then the woody, reedy microtones of the duduk float and stab overhead. Hovsepyan picks up his acoustic guitar for the suddenly crescendoing second number, Zepyuri Nman, with sabretoothed piano and shadowy duduk over a punchy groove.
The night really explodes when Hovsepyan delivers the starkly dancing anthem Habrban as Enstad switches to cello. Then he goes back to play angst-fueled, glittering piano alongside Hovsepyan’s melismatic intensity in the first slow ballad of the night, Gulo.
The group ramp up the suspense throughout Kanchum Em Ari Ani, bass and duduk rising mournfully above the slow, dirgey sway. Chkolyan’s aching upper-register crescendo over Enstad’s neoromantic angst in the towering anthem Zulo is absolutely transcendent.
The duduk gets subsumed in the percussive drive of Dikranagerd: as the band speed it up at the end, the connection to Palestinian shamstep is just a step away. From there they edge toward skeletal Balkan funk with Mairyam and then get a singalong going with the women in the crowd with an epic, ecstatic take of Ertank Mer Yegir Moush Hanina Koshari. Chkolyan adds hypnotic sorcery with his long, otherworldly trilling solo out.
Hovsepian sings a low-key solo version of Charles Aznavour’s La Boheme in Spanish, setting up the wounded chromatics of the album’s final, darkly majestic ballad, Lusnyak Gisher. Midway through the record, there’s a long drum solo – a break for the band, maybe? – that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, this is a souvenir of what was obviously an amazing weekend. How serendipitous that we can listen to it now – and let’s resolve to never, never, let politicians create another situation where crowds can’t gather for transcendent moments like this.