Earthquake Memories Keep KOHAR Star Thankful

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Kayane Manougian, a concertmaster with the KOHAR Symphony Orchestra, counts her blessings each day at surviving the earthquake of Dec. 7, 1988. (Photo: Tom Vartabedian)

GYUMRI, Armenia—Kayane Manougian knows about the earthquake all too well and still counts her blessings 27 years later.

The date—Dec. 7, 1988—continues to remain etched in memory. The earthquake resulted in 25,000 deaths in the region, untold destruction and countless displacements. A country was reeling with disaster.

The one-time concertmaster with KOHAR Symphony Orchestra was at home with a newborn child when the earthquake struck. She ran out into the street and saw buildings crumbling over as screaming voices filled the air.

“Two minutes can lead to a lifetime of tragedy and hardship,” she told me. “Many of my closest friends were lost. Every time I think about it, I’m devastated.  God spared me and my new child. For that, I am thankful.”

We met in 2009 during a tour of Gyumri. It was my second trip to Armenia and my first visit to the country’s second-largest city behind Yerevan.

Since music interested me, a trip to the N. Tigranyan Institute was an automatic stop.  At the time, there were 390 students and 75 instructors housed in the school—a new dwelling—after working out of a trailer during renovations.

The dwelling was a restored factory building under construction for 20 years. Manougian was serving as principal and was ecstatic over the new quarters.

An 85-year-old institute had toppled to ruins. Life was uncertain. Recovery was slow. But they were determined. Trailers were serving as temporary classrooms amid the rubble along Apovian Street.

“For six years, we worked out of a fallout shelter; then moved into a building with no heat,” she recalled. “Winters were severe. For 15 years, the school operated like that. People were poor. Homes were destroyed. The ultimate sacrifice was always being made.”

A tear trickled down Kayane’s cheek as she recalled the grim moments of that horrific day. She sat behind her desk, her folded hands trembling. I was joined by my friend, Joe Dagdigian, who was also moved by the encounter.

We had shown up for a tour of the institute and received a first-person account of the earthquake.  In recent years, Manougian had joined KOHAR in a whirlwind tour of the United States. The principal offered to escort us through her classrooms.

In one private room, a violinist was at practice. Another unveiled a cellist. Musical instruments of every order were receiving a workout, not to mention the auditorium where singers aged 7-15 were extending their vocal cords.

Students attend normal school elsewhere, then matriculate here for further instruction.  It makes for a long, but productive day. Gyumri is noted for its rigid artistic and music venues. Choreography is yet another staple.

To think it all ended abruptly in 1988 was any country’s worst nightmare.

“The children here are too young to remember the earthquake but continuously hear the stories,” Manougian pointed out. “They know that being in a program with KOHAR and traveling the world to perform would be the ultimate opportunity and possibly a career. They want to make a big impression. Without my students, I’m very lonely. They mean the world to me.”

As concertmaster and first violinist with the KOHAR Orchestra, Manougian was serving as a role model to her students. It was more than music here on this given day, but a lifestyle. Many have carried the name of Gyumri and KOHAR to prominence.

It’s a story about how a city and a nation is reborn after being crumbled—a phoenix rising from the ashes, brick by brick by mortar.  Resilience has always been a strong tenet of the Armenian people.

The day ended with a cup of Armenian coffee and some freshly-baked pastries. She thanked us for dropping by and told us to spread a good word to our people back home.

“Tell them we are alive and well,” Manougian confirmed.  “Let the people know that it will take more than an earthquake to destroy our culture and heritage. A genocide didn’t do it.  Neither can an earthquake.”

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: Earthquake Memories Keep KOHAR Star Thankful