Down With the Ivory Tower



A conversation with Stepan Partamian


By Ishkhan Jinbashian


On July 29, Stepan Partamian will produce the biggest Armenian concert in American history, called Spirit of Armenia, as part of the KCRW World Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Even while putting the finishing touches, he is busy launching his next initiative, The Armenian in America, an ambitious documentary project that will record offbeat Armenian life throughout the United States.


Q – Denial is a word that you use a lot, in the context of both the Armenian public and Armenian culture. Why?

A – I think, as a nation, we’ve been in denial ever since the Genocide. The brutality that we experienced during the massacres and deportations was of such an unspeakable magnitude that ever since then we have failed to see ourselves as anything but victims. Well, you don’t kick a man who’s already down, do you? That’s why our culture has been extra careful to forego self-criticism. The unspoken principle has been: we’ve received so many blows, we’re not strong enough to handle any more, especially if those blows are coming from our own ranks, in the form of dissent. So in the absence of self-criticism or even self-examination, we have seriously hampered our evolution as healthy, dynamic communities.


What about Armenia?

Even though Armenia was more or less spared the catastrophe that befell the Western-Armenians, it, too, went through a major collective trauma, that is to say, 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism. Obviously, dissent was pretty much out of the question during that dark period. As for the era that began with independence, here, too, honest public discourse is elusive. Criticizing the system, cultural norms, or societal values remains deeply problematic in the homeland, as some of the dictatorial instincts of the Soviet system are very much alive. Armenia is in fact a democracy and you do have freedom of speech, but you exercise that right at your own personal risk, which is considerable. I have the greatest respect for those scant journalists and intellectuals who are speaking out right now, putting their livelihood and even personal safety on the line.


You also talk of denial in terms of our superiority complex. How do you explain the contradiction?

Since we’ve seen ourselves as victims for so many decades, we can’t even begin to imagine that we’re capable or worthy enough to produce great things. So we look back to the past – the very deep past – for affirmation. We glorify our past achievements, our mythic ancestors, we keep trying to prove that we’re one of the oldest and most accomplished nations on the planet, and we define our present through that legacy. Of course there would be nothing wrong with this if, and only if, we also happened to live in the present, if we recognized our present for what it is and worked with it. But we don’t. As we continue to rely on our past glories for cultural sustenance and our self-image, we grow complacent with our status quo and too comfortable in our sense of superiority. Combine our victim mentality with our pathological attachment to the past, and you understand why our present is left in the lurch. We don’t see the point of creating greatness, of going the extra mile, being daring and unusual, exploring novel approaches to understanding ourselves and our place in a fast-paced world. In short, we don’t see the point of change. Is it any wonder that most of what our culture produces these days is an embarrassing heap of mediocrity? And, consequently, is it surprising that we have substituted artistic and intellectual excellence with a materialistic ethos, wearing consumerism and ostentation as our badges of honor?


I think it’s obvious enough that the projects you’ve undertaken are in part a direct reaction to these trends. But, at the end of the day, why do you keep doing what you do?

For two basic reasons. First, I get tremendous enjoyment out of it. Second, I see that some, if not most, of those projects are making a difference. When I launched the Garni record label in the early 90s, people laughed at me for taking a chance on Armenian audiences, for believing that the Armenian public would pay for anything other than Armenian pop clones of Turkish, Arabic, Iranian, or Greek music. But they were wrong. Incidentally, the phenomenon of repackaging non-Armenian musical traditions as Armenian music is nothing new. For instance, though some of the music created by first-generation Armenian-Americans has been accepted by many as authentic Armenian music, we know it’s basically Ottoman-Turkish music with an Armenian twist.

After establishing Garni, when I began producing concerts by cutting-edge Armenian musicians (and not merely Armenian musicians of Armenian descent), it was evident that there was a real hunger among our public for top-notch artistic experiences. Perhaps the biggest test yet came with my call-in TV shows, Tser Gardzike and Pari Luys. With these programs, I wanted to lay all our cards on the table. I wanted to wash our dirty laundry on the air. It was in your face and no holds barred. I said what I thought needed to be said about our hypocrisy and denial, our cultural laziness. I offended people left and right, and was insulted in turn. It was wonderful and exhilarating, the wake-up call I had envisioned.


But having said that, you also know very well that the positive feedback you’ve received from your audiences is far from having reached critical mass. Furthermore, the hostile reaction you get often overshadows the praise. Could it be that your projects are resonating with only a tiny minority and this is all you can hope for?

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a constant uphill battle. Certain attitudes and beliefs are so entrenched in the Armenian psyche that it would be unrealistic to expect miracles overnight. Today, if you organize a concert by some hot wedding singer, the tickets will sell out in a couple of hours. If, on the other hand, you present a musical event featuring a world-class Armenian musician, you’ll be lucky to fill up half the hall. Mediocrity sells. Quality doesn’t. My response has always been to go directly to the people, talk to them, educate them, but do so without looking down on them as though I were perched on an ivory tower. There’s another twist to this story: the Armenian public is so used to experiencing mediocrity, it has become blind to the artistic gems right under its nose. So in order for deserving Armenian artists to gain acceptance in their own communities, they must first earn recognition and fame elsewhere, in a non-Armenian field. I never tire of badgering the Armenian public for this particular bit of hypocrisy.


On July 29, you’ll savor a watershed event in your career, when you’ll produce the Spirit of Armenia concert at the Hollywood Bowl, as part of the World Festival co-sponsored by KCRW and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. What are your expectations?

I worked hard to make this enormous concert a reality. I was careful to book musicians and dance ensembles that have espoused a genuinely Armenian musical vocabulary, rather than simply mimicking fashionable world-music trends. I also wanted to present a broad range of styles and genres, including pop, folk, classical, and fusion. The concert will feature such diverse artists as Adiss, Andy, Silva Hakobyan, Sako, Djivan Gasparyan, Hovhannes Shahbazyan, Element Band, Gagik Badalyan, Araks Karapetyan, Alexander Karapetyan, Winds of Passion, and Vatche Mankerian, as well as the Zvartnots Dance Ensemble and the Vartan and Siranoush Kevorkyan Dance Ensemble. Supporting the pop performers will be a 31-piece orchestra conducted by Roma Kanyan.

Several goals are at work here: I want to have Armenian culture showcased in important festivals across America and beyond; I want Armenian artists to understand that they don’t have to compromise their art to reach an appreciative public; and I want Armenian audiences to realize that we are perfectly capable of putting out extraordinary creations that should be enjoyed both within and outside the community. This is why it’s so vitally important that the Armenian community makes its presence and support felt at the July 29 concert. It’s a basic business equation: if the organizers of the concert see that there’s a serious demand for top-notch Armenian musical events, they (and others) will make sure to present similar concerts in the future. If, on the other hand, ticket sales are disappointing, every festival venue will think twice before presenting anything Armenian. There is a lot at stake. Consider, for instance, that the Spirit of Armenia concert could not have been achieved if it weren’t for the success of another concert that took place seven years ago. In 2000, for the first time ever, an Armenian program was included in the Hollywood Bowl World Festival, at the Hallelujah Night event. It featured Winds of Passion, Parik Nazarian, and Gagik Badalyan. It took a lot of public-relations effort on my part to launch the concert, but Armenian audiences also had a critical role in the achievement. Now the challenge is to show ourselves and others alike that we can and do cherish our artistic riches.

For the Armenian nation today, the benchmark of power is not about oil, industrial output, or a big army; it’s about culture. This is our untapped potential, our own “bomb.” This is where we’ll leave our mark.