Gor Mkhitarian, United Fantasies: Exit Ahead, compact disk, Los Angeles, CA: PE-KO World Music and GorMusic, 2008.
Reviewed by James R. Russell, Harvard University.
The new album by Gor Mkhitarian, a musician and poet from Kirovakan/Vanadzor, Armenia, has twelve tracks in Armenian with one remix of “Dream” (Yeraz), a song from a previous album. Gor’s early records deal with life in Armenia; after recent forays into English-language lyrics and an appeal to the mainstream of the US market, Gor returned in his last album, Acoustic Folklore, to Armenian language and themes. The heroic ballad of the region south of Van, Mokats Mirza, recorded by Komitas Vardapet, receives an exciting, ingenious new interpretation on that record, as does the ancient folk song of the Bingöl region northwest of Van, Tehkonda. The latter, titled after its first line Inch’u Bingyole mtar, can be enjoyed also as an animated video clip on Gor’s site and on YouTube. These modern arrangements are an important contribution in the World Music genre and are a welcome phenomenon on the Armenian musical scene as well. All the songs on United Fantasies are in Armenian; and the booklet in the CD case contains full texts with English translations. The artists are new: though one misses Aaron Stayman’s virtuoso banjo picking from the old band, the all-new ensemble, from the electronics and percussion to the keyboard (especially on “Last Letter”), are excellent.
The focus of the album— when not on personal issues— is not so much on Armenia proper as on the Armenian life of the Diaspora. So there is a dark piece on being ground down and alone in New York; another, in an appropriate reggae beat, deals with the racist harassment Armenians and other Caucasians and Central Asians suffer in Russian cities (“Moscow”). Many families in Armenia survive on remittances from abroad, and most of those workers are in the Russian Federation. In recent years, one sees more and more often pairs of cops at Metro stations stopping and hassling anyone who looks a shade darker than the Slavic norm. The skinheads paint swastikas and slogans like Bei khachei spasai Rossiyu, “Kill the Khachiks and save Russia!” This is a modification of the pogromist motto of Tsarist days, where the intended victim was not the generic chornozhopaya gnida “nigger-ass worm” from the southern and eastern lands, but the zhid, “kike”. It’s not just harassment: an Armenian teenager was knifed to death at Pushkinskaya station in Moscow— the equivalent of, say, Park Street on the Boston T— and on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, not far from where I often stay there, a 14-year-old Tajik schoolgirl was murdered. These concerns may seem remote from life in Glendale, CA, perhaps, but they are critical for the wider Diaspora.
Gor on his site lists multiple inspirations and influences, including Narekats’i, Ch’arents’, Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan, Elliott Smith, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and God. Though the list is long, the artists cited tend to folk rock and the bardic mode, more across-the-Channel European chanteur than US/UK kick-ass. Which is all right, so one hears in songs like “Good Morning Defeat” and “Song Unvisited” (yes, they’re mostly downers) a little of the guitar artistry of Phil Ochs and a little of the Slavic folk beat of Russian bands like Chizh (cf. their rendition of the loud Cossack desperado anthem, Vot pulya prosvistela, “The bullet whistled by, and hit me in the side…” a live performance of which can be enjoyed on YouTube).
The hauntingly beautiful song “Walk with me” (K’aylir indz het) begins, K’aylir indz het, hents’ hima, hima yev vaghe, vaghe yev misht “Walk with me, right now,/ Now and tomorrow,/ Tomorrow and forever,” and is followed by two wordless beats to which I instantly sang A-men! on first hearing (and second and third, as you may verify if you see an aging Armenologist bopping down Mass. Ave. oblivious to everything but his iPod and other people’s motorcycles). It is a love song, as any Psalm, any prayer must eventually be. In my translation:
Walk with me right now,
Now and tomorrow,
Tomorrow and forever.
Turn mine own until
The knock of Sir Death at my door.
At daybreak I will say to you
How till now it was for you I’d been waiting—
And when that mocking shade,
That trickster, happiness,
Comes paying us a visit in the Spring
Gladly we’ll fall for his trap.
Be one with me, to the north we’ll flee:
It’s always cool, nothing wicked there.
And in my house of clay we’ll be,
And have done with cheapened words.
At the break of day smile at me
And I shall know that you are near me,
That you are with me still.
If you are out of the habit of praying, this is a good way to start back in, in Modern Eastern Armenia, perhaps before attempting the Book of Lamentation of St. Grigor Narekats’i in grabar. Another song, “Hallucinogen”, evokes that different sort of synaesthetic experience of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds my learned Harvard colleague Dr. Timothy Leary considered religious as well:
The notes of this song have a scent;
Its melody, a taste in the vortex
Where my music mixes:
Ringing telephone, you are blue
To my sight once again,
Visible as the wind stands still
And flashes me a smile.
Paradise unknown, chromatic hell:
Slowly did I visit the blink of an eye, a century—
Transparent cage, there’s no way out.
You can’t return back down
Those everlasting, multicolored hours.
There’s nothing to lean on
And never was.
Insubstantial clouds the shape of parachutes
Enfolding convey me above
To a place beyond pain and astonishment:
Impatiently I looked on
And in spectral lightness
Palpated the nerves on my skull
That had burst into flame.
One recalls the reveries of Yeghishe Ch’arents’, in which time stands still. And all of this is rock and roll the way it should be, full of poetry and the depth of the long tradition, as passionate and despairing as King Lear’s cry, music that you want to become the soundtrack of your life.