The Voices of ‘Zulal’

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Zulal trio

When the a cappella trio “Zulal” (meaning clear water in Armenian) first performed in the Chicagoland area in the fall of 2004 at Sts. Joachim and Anne Armenian Apostolic Church in Palos Heights, I was captivated by the artistry with which the singers Teni Apelian, Yeraz Markarian, and Anais Tekerian presented Armenian folk songs to the audience. With each song, the trio not only brought to life the songs of our ancestors but for a brief while we, the audience, were transported back to another time—as the singers described, “a simpler time.” In the winter of 2011, they again performed in Chicago, at the AGBU Chicago Armenian Humanities Festival. In May 2015, the trio performed in Washington, D.C., at the National Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide Centennial, and this past summer, they once again performed in Chicago, this time at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church. Songs sung in the various regions of historic and present-day Armenia, as well as in Javakhk, Georgia, reverberated through the church hall—songs such as “Tsolak and Shogher” by Komitas, “Akh Nino” (Van/Vaspurakan), “Kele Lao” (Talin), “Ha Nina” (Moush/Poulanouk), “Tamzara (Palu, Dikranakert), “Lachin” (Basen, Shirak Province, present-day Armenia), “Vai Leh [Yana Yana]” (Javakhk, Georgia). As I listened to the stories that introduced the songs, and then to the songs, and as I watched the manner in which the trio sang them—with such spirit, grace, and heart—I thought: Traveling from city to city, these singers are our modern-day ashoogh(s).



Who were the ashoogh(s) of long ago, when did they first appear, and what did they do? G. Tarverdyan, in his book Hye Ashooghner [Armenian Troubadours] (Yerevan: State University of Yerevan, 1937), wrote: “Armenian ashoogh(s), fundamentally, came into existence in the 17th century. Before that period, in the Middle Ages, similar types of poet-singers and traveling singers or troubadours were called goosan(s). Generally, the goosan(s) were clergymen cloistered in monasteries, where they composed spiritual and personal dagh(s) (songs or poems) for themselves. Besides the clergy, though, there were also laymen… Without exception, they were literate and educated…”

The ashoogh(s) of long ago, when the world, especially to those living in the villages and remote areas of Armenia, was yet a wondrous mystery, served not only as traveling entertainers but also as teachers and historians, who through their songs and poems and stories captured the customs, ethics, and vernacular of the various Armenian regions. With great skill and artistry, they presented them in the oral tradition. At times, through their songs, poems, or stories, they also served as messengers, particularly in cases of alerting people, especially villagers in remote areas, to imminent danger.

Susie Hoogasian-Villa, in her book titled 100 Armenian Tales and Their Folkloristic Relevance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966), wrote: “Patriotic literature in the form of the oral tradition was safer in Turkish Armenia where a large number of people would be reached by skillful storytellers.” Sometimes, the ashoogh(s) had the difficult task of informing family members that their loved one, who had gone to a far-away land in search of work, was dead.

An example of such a situation is described in Rafael Aramian’s short story titled, “She Took A Pitcher And Went For Water,” in the book, We of the MountainsArmenian Short Stories, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972). The main characters in the story are Komitas Vartabed (archimandrite), a widow, and her young hars (meaning bride in Armenian, also daughter-in-law). After telling the vartabed of their great concern for their loved one, who went away in search of work and was not heard from, Komitas promises to find out the fate of the woman’s son and the young bride’s husband. After many months, Komitas receives a letter to his inquiry from the Baku Diocese stating that “… Andranik Tekmekchyan, a wanderer, died in Baku last autumn. May the Lord bless his mother and widow…” As was their usual practice on Sundays, the peasants in the village, among them the widow and her hars, gather in the Sarigiugh church, where Komitas, the visiting clergyman, spots the two women in the distance kneeling along the wall. One was praying, the other—the young bride—was not. She was staring at Komitas, “her eyes demanding: ‘Have you brought word of him?’”

Instead of beginning Holy Mass, Komitas Vartabed looks at the two women and sadly sings, barely above a whisper: “She took a pitcher and went for water. She did not find, she did not find her loved one… She took a pitcher and went for water.” Komitas was singing the song of a loved one lost—the same one he had heard the young bride in her tattered dress sing by the spring to her beloved husband gone for so long and so far away. It was a song Komitas had heard in many places—places such as the Aragats, Bingyol, and Sipan mountains. As she looks at the vartabed, intently listening to him, the bride rises and runs out of the church. Having finished the song, Komitas says a prayer for “the souls of all wanderers who had left for foreign parts and would never return to plough their fields, to tend their gardens, to water their oxen…” The mother whispers, “May the earth over his grave in a foreign land be light.” The young hars goes to the spring to fetch water so that if a wanderer should pass by she could offer him a cool drink.

Next May (2016), Zulal will once again perform in Chicago (University of Chicago), and Teni Apelian, Yeraz Markarian, and Anais Tekerian will, through their stories and songs, for a brief while, transport the audience to another place and time, where village girls “cast fortunes by the moon’s light, morning smoke rises from the tonir, young brides weave golden threads through their hair as others spin wool into gossip…”


Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: The Voices of ‘Zulal’