A Jolt to the System

Stepan Partamian and the Quest for Cultural Excellence

By Ishkhan Jinbashian

On April 22, 2007, Stepan Partamian appeared on his live television call-in show, Pari Luys (Good Morning), with an Armenian flag hoisted behind each of his ears. To my knowledge, no one has yet worn a couple of tricolors on their head, whether to declare unfettered patriotism or make a fashion statement. Partamian looked perfectly ridiculous. As he worked the phone to keep his bemused audience perpetually on guard, he kept jiggling his head left and right, for the added special effect achieved by having the small flags wave and flap against his cheeks. He also didn’t forget to cede a discreet smirk now and then. The joke was on us. But he was dead serious.

On this particular occasion, Partamian was having a blast by laying bare what he views as yet another hallmark of Armenian-style collective hallucination: jingoistic bravado passing for political activism. As it often happens when his callers are bent out of shape after he drops the gauntlet of provocation, Partamian had to spell out his point, which roughly amounted to this: you can have all the April 24 demonstrations you like; you can wave the tricolor ad nauseam, as though not doing so would cast doubt on your loyalty to the cause; but all that pageantry is just that unless you take your protest to Washington, DC, as Americans. Imagine one million Americans bearing the American flag and making the case for Genocide recognition. Only then will you have Congress’ ear.

For the better part of the past 20 years, Partamian has engaged the Armenian-American public in an intense, no-holds-barred dialogue spanning the full spectrum of social, cultural, and political hot buttons. His preferred modus operandi has been shock therapy laced with an accurate reading of the day’s concerns – all the more disconcerting for a society not used to anything but prim and proper in public discourse. Partamian’s outrageous rants have regularly landed him in trouble. He has been reviled, derided, or at best laughed off as an amusing, harmless charlatan. Yet something curious happened along the way: increasingly, people came to appreciate not only his brutal honesty, but the fact that he spoke to a certain internal truth. He had touched a nerve.

Denial and mediocrity are two words that you’re likely to hear in a typical Partamian tirade, often uttered in the same breath. When it comes to denial, Partamian has a long list of offenses denied by the Armenian mindset – including a knack for living in the past and ancestor worship, confusing cultural preservation with intellectual stagnation, failing to appreciate any Armenian achievement that hasn’t found success in non-Armenian settings, and perpetuating delusions of grandeur. No wonder, Partamian concludes, that failing to address our shortcomings results in cultural and other outputs where mediocrity is the norm.

“In part thanks to the fallacy that there is a chronic lack of funds and professionals to present good stuff, the Armenian public has long been used to enjoying mediocrity, whether on stage, in print, or from the airwaves,” Partamian says. “So if you put out something of genuinely high quality, Armenian audiences are taken aback. They don’t know how to handle it. They’re suspicious. They think they won’t understand it. The net effect is that nobody shows up and the true artists and intellectuals are further demoralized. They withdraw into their cocoons while the public goes on with its complacent ways, either consuming below-average art or flocking only to those Armenian artists who have earned their accolades elsewhere, in the international arena.”

What is perhaps most remarkable about Partamian’s career is that he has consistently backed his talk with action. “Right now we need self-criticism like we need air,” he says, “but all that will come to nothing if you don’t put your money where your mouth is.” From the outset, Partamian has understood that one way to help raise the consciousness of a culturally-jaded milieu is to dispense with the ivory towers, to take great art directly to the public. Early proof of this came with Garni, a record label he created in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Garni went on to release a string of top-notch Armenian recordings that have earned both critical and popular acclaim. The label is responsible for launching a number of celebrated acts, among them the renowned duduk ensemble Winds of Passion.

By the early 2000s, Partamian kept expanding his job description as one artistic endeavor led to the next. Garni’s success encouraged him to produce high-profile concerts at landmark venues throughout Los Angeles, featuring solo or group performances by emerging and established Armenian artists alike. In 2000, his efforts led to the inclusion of performances by Winds of Passion, Gagik Badalyan, and Parik Nazarian in the prestigious World Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. Partamian also began publishing The Sound Collection, an arts magazine that helped put Armenian music on the world-music map. Yet, at every step, he was also aware of the enormous cultural barriers that stood in the way of pulling off ambitious musical projects on the one hand, and making believers of the Armenian public on the other.

Partamian’s response came in the form of two more endeavors, only riskier than anything he had done before. He established a far-reaching arts foundation, calling it, simply, the Armenian Arts Organization, and launched a weekly call-in talk show, Tser Gardzike (Your Opinion) on cable and satellite. The show quickly found resonance as a platform for venting out collective frustrations and exploring solutions, but also, as importantly, reaching out to a far-flung Armenian public.

With so many high-impact initiatives to his credit, Partamian began to enjoy an unprecedented level of popular support. He expanded his television presence in 2005 with the addition of Pari Luys, a daily call-in show. And in a bid to secure the long-term sustainability of the Armenian Arts Organization, he established the auxiliary Armenian Arts Fund. The following year, Partamian dropped a bomb when he produced, through the Armenian Arts Organization, a recording by Winds of Passion of Komitas’ Divine Liturgy, performed entirely on duduks. He also announced plans for The Armenian in America, a project that will take Partamian on a “magical mystery tour” of the United States in 2008, to document off-the-beaten-path Armenian-American life, in both book and DVD form.

Partamian has reached a turning point this year. He has come a long way from his early Garni-Records days, when, despite its obvious merits, producing an album by Winds of Passion could seem like fiscal madness. Contrast this with an upcoming, first-of-its-kind event at the Hollywood Bowl, on July 29, when Partamian will produce an entire evening of eclectic Armenian music as part of the World Music Festival. Partamian is no longer seen on television these days. He has instead opted to produce monthly DVDs featuring his blistering commentary as well as street interviews, which he will distribute on a subscription basis. As for print, Partamian has rechristened Sound Collection, calling it Armenian Arts Magazine, and is already at work preparing a fresh publication, World Music Monthly.

“What’s next?” I asked Partamian recently, as if he necessarily needed to have anything new up his sleeve. As it turns out, he does. “Armenia in 2009,” he said. “Time to be active in the motherland. I’ve spent more than 25 years in the Los Angeles Armenian community, and it’s time to go to the source of it all. I have come to realize more and more that it would be hypocritical for me to live in the diaspora when we have an independent Armenia. I think everyone should consider the return option.”

Ishkhan Jinbashian is an author, literary translator, and journalist. He lives in Los Angeles.