Reality check

Stepan Partamian and the quest for cultural sobriety
by Ishkhan Jinbashian
Armenian Reporter Arts & Culture June 14, 2008

Hang your ego and expectations of genteel etiquette at the door. You don’t have to tip-toe in, but do be ready to hear – and see – things that the Armenian mindset would deem outrageous at best, traitorous at worst. Welcome to the world of Stepan Partamian.

Few individuals in the past two decades have spearheaded and juggled so much in the service of Armenian culture in the diaspora. Even fewer are those who have done it with a singular vision of change, or with such passion and humor.

Partamian started out as a producer of new Armenian music by emerging artists. He went on to become a music impresario, organizing a long string of concerts by the acts he had discovered and helped promote. Last year Partamian’s solid reputation among the music establishment of Los Angeles enabled him to produce, for the first time, an entire evening of eclectic Armenian music for the Hollywood Bowl, as part of its prestigious World Music Festival. The sold-out July 29 event registered, among other things, as a powerful statement about the relevance and potential of modern Armenian music, something Partamian had been preaching for years.

Somewhere along the line, Partamian branched out into television, publishing, and the type of broad cultural promotion usually reserved for full-fledged nonprofit organizations. While the arts magazines he published helped introduce the cutting edge of Armenian culture to a wide audience, his gleefully controversial talk shows promulgated his guerilla take on the politics of culture and identity. And while feathers were being ruffled through the airwaves, Partamian continued to show his serious side by fostering his arts organization, with projects that sound equal parts impossible and necessary.

This year Partamian pulled yet another stunt, by assuming the role of programming director for USArmenia TV, a 24- hour channel based in Glendale.

Why would one possibly care about yet another Armenian channel on the crowded local lineup of “ethnic” fare?

“USArmenia TV is the first full-scale, high-definition broadcasting project dedicated to building bridges between the diaspora and Armenia,” Partamian says. If “building bridges” sounds vague and hackneyed, it’s because it is – until, that is, you’re informed of the specifics.

Beginning in mid-September, when USArmenia will be formally launched (it’s already on now, 24/7), it’ll feature a slew of programs to justify the bridge idea. Try a talk show fed live from Yerevan and Los Angeles simultaneously, complete with studio audiences in both cities. How about soap operas boasting Armenian casts and storylines, comedy shows lampooning the myriad idiosyncrasies of Armenian life, and reality shows such as My Big Fat Armenian Wedding, poised to chronicle the traditions, excesses, and foibles of tying the knot, Armenian-style. Partamian also has plans for children’s and women’s programming, as well as documentaries on a smorgasbord of topics. Apart from programming, one area that holds great promise for the bridge idea is linguistic in nature: Partamian has every inten- tion of throwing Western-Armenian- based programming into the mix. Hallelujah for that.

Can you (#@!!) believe what he just did?

On April 22 last year, Partamian appeared on his live television call-in show, Pari Luys (Good Morning – now broadcast on USArmenia TV), 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, 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 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.

Down with the sacred cows

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. Over the years, Garni releases a long list of topnotch Armenian recordings that have earned both critical and popular acclaim. The label is responsible for launching a number of celebrated acts, among them the 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 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 an arts foundation, calling it, simply, the Armenian Arts Organization, and launched a weekly call-in talk show, Tser Gardzike (Your Opinion – also now seen on USArmenia TV). 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. And in a bid to secure the long-term sustainability of the Armenian Arts Organization, he established the auxiliary Armenian Arts Fund and started another publication, the Armenian Arts Magazine. The following year, Partamian dropped a bomb when he produced, through the Armenian Arts Organization, recording by Winds of Passion of Komitas’ Divine Liturgy, performed entirely on duduks. He also announced plans for The Armenian in America, a long-term Armenian Arts Organization project that he said will take him on a “magical mystery tour” of the United States, to document off-the-beaten-path Armenian-American life, in both book and DVD form.

Cleansing the lenses

Partamian 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 to the successful World Music Festival he produced last year, which proved to major American venues such as the Hollywood Bowl that including Armenian music in their programming could draw huge audiences and make for a happy bottom line.

“What happened to your moving to-Armenia plan?” I ask Partamian. “It’s still on,” he says and tells me he a will be relocating in December this year. While in the homeland, Partamian continues, he will produce a reality show based on his own experiences as an Armenian-Lebanese-American expatriate living in Yerevan. There are also plans, he adds, to produce Tser Gardzike in Armenia. “The point is to continue building bridges,” he says. “It’s all about fostering a higher consciousness – as Armenians, as world citizens. I think we can never achieve that unless we first cleanse our cultural and spiritual lenses… Unless we change, radically, the way we see ourselves. And the way we see ourselves in relation to the world.”

USArmenia TV is broadcast 24 hours a day on Charter Cable’s channel 286. In the coming months, the station’s programs will also be carried by Globecast satellite and be seen across the United States.