Fortress City: Armenian Songs from Nagorno Karabagh
Recorded on location in Shushi, Nagorno Karabagh Republic
Performed by the Vararakn State Choir of Artakh/Varanda Youth Choir of Shushi/Mrakats Chamber Choir of Karabagh
Produced by Raffi Meneshian
Executive Producer: Tufenkian Foundation, Inc.
This CD was made possible by a generous grant from the Tufenkian Foundation, Inc.
This special recording of Armenian songs from Nagorno-Karabagh paints a vivid picture of local choral life, set against the proud backdrop of a land that has been revered by Armenians for hundreds of year. The men, women, and children of Nagorno-Karabagh have overcome extremely difficult conditions recently to create music with radiant choral intonations. Indeed, the boys and girls/men and women of Vararakn, Varanda, and Mrakats had grown accustomed to hearing not only the melody of song, but, the whizzing of bullets during wartime. We might say that the parents of each choir member fought to liberate the borders of their homeland, while their children became the liberators of Armenian song and culture.
Recorded inside Shushi's Ganach Zham Church in just five days, Fortress City gives the listener a sampling of each choir's repertoire. All three groups have a broad scope of songs in their catalog from which to choose. Their individual concerts in Nagorno-Karabagh, Armenia, and abroad have generated enthusiastic responses from appreciative fans who have marveled at their dedication to the art of Armenian song. This recording presents a wide-ranging program of classical and modern choral works from Armenia's finest composers. Included in this program are works by composer and ethnomusicologist Komitas Vartabed (1867-1935), Makar Yekmalian (1856-1905), Kristapor Kara-Mourza (1854-1902), and Parsegh Ganatchian (1885-1967). Then, there are the medieval hymns and chants of Grigor Narekatsi (10c.) and Nerses Shnorhali (12c.). Modern composers and arrangers such as Robert Petrossian (1930), Garo Zakarian (1895-1967), and Yervant Yerganian (1951) are represented as well.
The musical selections offered here present the broad spectrum of choral works from the 10th through 20th centuries in areas of Armenian spiritual, folk, and village-lyrical spheres. Consider Fortress City your formal invitation to the rich culture and tremendous will of Nagorno-Karabagh's Armenians.
About the Artists
Founded in 1990, the Vararakn State Choir of Artsakh is based out of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabagh Republic (NKR). Vararakn contributed two songs to the highly successful "Music of Armenia" CD series released on the Celestial Harmonies record label in 1997. Led by choir director Nina Grigoryan, Vararakn specializes in the music of Komitas in addition to Western European and modern works. The group consists of graduates from the Stepanakert School of Music (NKR) and the Komitas Conservatory (Armenia). In 2003, Vararakn was awarded a gold medal in Barcelona, Spain at an international contest-festival of national choruses. The group has also performed in Armenia, Italy, and France.
The Varanda Youth Choir of Shushi was formed in 1992 by Zakar Keshishian, just days after the recapture of Shushi from Azerbaijani forces. With over 130 current members in four different age divisions, Varanda has been designated as the official youth choir of the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic (NKR). Varanda has a musical repertoire of over 200 songs and is the recipient of new compositions by well-known Armenian poets and composers. Aside from being the subject of two documentaries, Varanda has routinely been featured on Armenian radio and television. Varanda is traditionally in session during the summer season and has given concerts throughout Nagorno-Karabagh, Armenia, and Lebanon to critical acclaim.
Mrakats Chamber Choir of Nagorno-Karabagh was founded in 1999 by its director, M.S. Mesropyan. Since then, Mrakats has maintained an active performance schedule throughout Nagorno-Karabagh and Armenia. The group's trademark repertoire includes pieces by Komitas, Kara-Mourza, Ganatchian, Zakarian in addition to their knowledge of Western classical music. This CD is the debut recording of the Mrakats Chamber Choir of Nagorno-Karabagh.
SHUSHI: FORTRESS-CITY OF KARABAGH
Found in southern Transcaucasia, Nagorno-Karabagh is a tiny, mountainous enclave that was largely unknown to Westerners until 1988, when it burst onto the international scene amidst the rapid demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, the enclave's Armenian majority sought to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan and join neighboring Armenia, citing discriminatory rule and their own right to national self-determination. They did so by challenging authorities with bold, unprecedented displays of activism-gathering thousands of signatures, holding mass rallies, petitioning Moscow for redress-followed by massive solidarity efforts in Armenia, where non-violent protests grew in size to nearly 1 million. However, when Azerbaijan responded with violent repression of its Armenian inhabitants, ethnic grievances quickly spiraled into bloody confrontation pitting Armenian partisans against Azerbaijani occupation forces.
With the unraveling of Soviet power in 1991, the Karabagh struggle became an all-out war, involving not only Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also neighboring Turkey, Russia, and Iran. During the next three years, the war would claim thousands of lives, tens of thousands of refugees on each side, and bring widespread physical and economic hardship to the region. After driving out Azerbaijan in 1994, Karabagh's Armenians agreed to a tentative cease-fire, which holds to this day, and which has enabled them to build close ties with Armenia and establish the trappings of independent statehood. Still technically at war and under blockade, Karabagh's Armenians now struggle to rebuild their land, to restore dignity to their lives, and to create a hopeful future for themselves and their children.
Known as "Karabagh" since the 15th century, the enclave is named apparently for the fertility of the land; ghara meaning black and bagh garden or vineyard. Armenians often refer to it by its medieval Armenian name, Artsakh. For centuries, Karabagh has been populated mainly by Armenians, who maintained relative autonomy despite living amidst turbulence and instability: The enclave has repeatedly been a marchland and a bone-of-contention between many competing empires. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Sasanid Persia annexed the region to its province of Arran (Albania), extending from the northern banks of the Kura River to the Caspian Sea. In subsequent centuries, Karabagh was successively annexed by Arab, Seljuk Turkish, Mongol, Turkmen, Ottoman Turkish, Safavid Persian, and Czarist Russian empires, until it was sovietized in 1923.
Despite its history of subordination, Karabagh possesses marked features, such as fragmented relief and long-held martial traditions that have made direct occupation difficult for outsiders. This has partly buffered the region from social and demographic upheavals occurring elsewhere in Transcaucasia. Indeed, while a large Muslim presence consolidated on Karabagh's peripheries, a compactly settled Armenian presence continued through most of the Middle Ages and on to the modern era. Until the 19th century, authority was maintained largely through satrapies whereby Armenian princes (meliks) paid fealty to Muslim khans in return for the right administer their feudal principalities. Even with the advent of Soviet authority, the enclave's Armenian population never dipped below 85% in most areas, despite Azerbaijan's systematic attempts to tip the demographic balance.
Shushi: From Antiquity to Modern Times
One of Transcaucasia's oldest cities, Shushi sits atop the eastern plateau of the Karabagh mountain chain, surrounded by deep gorges on three sides. Often called the "Fortress City," Shushi has in fact served as a fortress-both for local inhabitants and for would-be conquerors-at various points throughout its history. As far back as the Middle Ages, Shushi was sought as a military staging area and strategic vantage point, and passed through many hands, even as its inhabitants remained largely Armenian. In different periods, it has been called Karkar ("Great Stone"), Shikakar, Karaglukh, and finally with the advent of Persian rule in the 16th century, Shushi.
The oldest surviving record of Shushi comes from the Arab geographer Yakut al-Hamavi (1178-1229). Citing the historiographer Ibn al-Asir (1160-1230), he writes in his "Geographical Dictionary" that the Persian King Khosrov Anushirvan (6th century) reconstructed a number of fortresses there in order to strengthen the northern part of his empire. Another early record comes from the medieval Armenian historiographer Movses Kaghankatvatsi. He writes of upheavals during the 9th century, when Arab conquerors stormed the city, taking many hostages before Armenian mountaineers managed to disperse their attackers. Yet another record belongs to the local Armenian scribe Ter Manuel, who created his handwritten Bible in 1428 in the city's Astvatsatsin Church. (This manuscript is now in the Repository of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan-the Matenadaran.) Other artifacts attesting to Shushi's rich Armenian heritage include cross-stones (khachkars) dating to the 8th century, as well as the preserved Kromlekh graveyards.
Beginning in the 16th century, a large Muslim presence consolidated around Karabagh's borders. This was due not to Persian influence, but to the Turkification of Transcaucasia, which had accelerated with the arrival of nomadic clans from Anatolia. While Turkic presence remained sporadic and numerically slight within Karabagh's interior, Shushi became a battleground and eventually gave way to Turkic incursions and a small resident population. By the 19th century, a large minority of Turks occupied the city's lower reaches, while the upper section resembled an Armenian-held fortress.
The 19th century brought first turbulence, then calm and stability, as imperial Russia sought to extend its rule into Transcaucasia. Under Czar Alexander I, Russia fought victorious wars on two fronts-the two Russo-Persian wars (1804-1813), 1826-1828) and the two Russo-Turkish wars (1806-1812, 1828-1829)-through which formal Russian presence became entrenched. Russian-led modernization would reduce Karabagh's insularity, causing Shushi to develop into Transcaucasia's third-largest city (pop. 40,000) by century's end. Found along a mountain pass near the newly built Tiflis-Baku railway, Shushi became Karabagh's capital city, its gateway to eastern Transcaucasia, and a major access point to the all-Russian market. As it steadily grew in size, the city also became a flourishing center of commerce and culture-for both Armenians and Turks-without equal outside Tiflis or Baku. Shushi's growth facilitated the export of locally produced silk, copper, crafts, fabrics, and alcohol, and fostered the emergence of a small entrepreneurial class. As it grew into a cultural hub, Shushi also became the site of an active theatrical life, several schools, printing presses, and numerous newspapers and periodicals (mostly in Armenian or Russian). During the 19th century, five churches and three mosques were built there.
One Russian traveler offered the following snapshot in 1865:
Shushi is a city unlike the others. Her homes are well laid out, large, and beautiful. The many windows make for bright, well-lit interiors.... The streets are wide and paved with cobblestones.... From the outside it is difficult to distinguish the home of an Armenian from that of a Tatar. The exteriors of the houses reveal no difference, but the layout of the interiors is totally different... In this city, rich and commercial, communal life is unknown. Interests are divided and each race keeps to itself.
Not surprisingly, Shushi also emerged as a center of political ferment. In the Armenian case, Shushi was much more than a cultural hearth; by the late 19th century, it had become a breeding ground for nationalist intellectuals and a key node in the circuitry of revolutionary parties operating throughout Transcaucasia. This involved especially the peripatetic Dashnaktsutiun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), whose criss-crossing activists developed party cells in Karabagh, drawing many budding nationalists to its ranks. Among these were Shushi-born revolutionaries Nikol Duman, Mikayel Varandian, and Sarkis Mehrabian, whose exploits included transporting arms to assist the 1908 Persian revolution, gathering conscripts to defend Armenian communities in eastern Turkey, and organizing Armenian self-defense efforts during the 1905 hostilities of Baku.
The Twentieth Century
The 20th century ushered in decisive changes that would turn Shushi into a veritable battlefield. Beginning in 1905, Karabagh became engulfed in inter-ethnic warfare on a regional scale-the so-called "Armeno-Tatar Wars." Provoked by "divide-and-rule" policies of Czarist Russia, riots broke out in Baku and quickly spread to the countryside, where armed Turkic bands attacked a bus on an important road linking Shushi to nearby railways. In August, the number of incidents multiplied on this strategic route and in the city itself, which was attacked and set ablaze. Nearly four hundred Armenian homes were burned to the ground, but the Armenians continued to hold the main road and their high ground. Similar outbreaks occurred in 1906.
Unfortunately, these outbreaks led to irreconcilable tensions between Armenians and Turks. These tensions finally exploded at the conclusion of World War I, when British forces occupied Shushi and authorized Karabagh's incorporation into the newly formed republic of Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijan sought to impose military occupation, Armenian inhabitants resisted the move, and the spring of 1920 became the bloodiest in Shushi's modern history. Facing blockaded roads, periodic massacres, and troop reinforcements, Shushi's Armenians organized an uprising during the night of March 22-23, 1920, the Muslim New Year. But the capital was already saturated with Turkish soldiers, and on March 23, the Armenian districts were put to fire and sword: Thousands of homes were reduced to cinders and the majority of the populace was massacred. For several days the Armenians were able to cut themselves off from the rest of the region where battles raged, but by April 3, Azerbaijani forces broke through the battle lines and entered the upper-city, where they summarily executed Armenian leaders. By month's end, outside pressures had brought the massacres to an end, but the damage had already been done.
Having thus been cleansed, Shushi would be gradually remade into a bastion of Azeri Turkish culture. The city's rich Armenian character had been destroyed, and the possibility of multi-ethnic coexistence had been lost forever. Decimated by massacre, Shushi saw its population reduced from 40,000 to 5,000. Partly for this reason, Soviet authorities moved Karabagh's capital to low-lying Stepanakert, found beneath Shushi's rocky cliffs, a few miles away. During the Soviet era, overt violence practically disappeared, although the Turkification process continued as Armenian cemeteries were uprooted, churches defaced, and cultural monuments allowed to fall into disrepair.
Shushi Since 1988
With the advent of the modern-day Karabagh struggle, Shushi re-emerged as a strategic stronghold and vantage point. As Soviet authorities sought to crack down upon Armenian dissidents, Shushi's prison became infamous for its use as a detention and interrogation center, with cases of torture widely reported. Later, with the eruption of all-out hostilities, Shushi became a principal launching point as Azerbaijani forces struck Stepanakert and other sites with hundreds of GRAD missiles, leaving Armenian inhabitants in shock, ruin, and perpetual siege. Later, however, Shushi became a crucial site of resistance as well: On May 9, 1992, Karabagh's Armenian guerrillas scaled the rocky cliffs leading to Shushi's seemingly impregnable heights, which they captured in a matter of hours. This proved to be a turning point in the Karabagh war: With its strategic advantage neutralized, Azerbaijan's occupation began to loosen as Armenians steadily assumed control over the remainder of the enclave.
Today, Shushi is firmly in Armenian hands. Although it still bears heavy imprints left by the war, the city is gradually returning to life as resettlers arrive from throughout Karabagh and Armenia. Young families abound, as housing, infrastructure, and public institutions are being rebuilt under the supervision of Karabagh's government. Cultural life has rebounded as well, with the city featuring several fine singing groups, arts and music festivals, carpet-weaving facilities, and growing opportunities for tourism. In addition, there is the ongoing renovation of cultural and religious monuments: The impressive Ghazanchetots cathedral and historic Ganach Zham church have both been restored to active use under the watchful eye of Archbishop Pargev Martirosyan, Primate of the Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Church. As these efforts continue, Karabagh's Armenians look forward to a day when Shushi will re-emerge as their cultural hearth and fountainhead, amidst a land of freedom and prosperity.