Stepan Partamian and his New World of Traditional Music

by Sylva Dakessian and Linet Bedrossian

AIM March 1996

If you walk into Garni, a small music store in Glendale, California, you may be struck by its homey feeling, or perhaps you will notice the music playing on the boom box. But you won’t miss the friendly and humorous proprietor, Stepan Partamian, who doesn’t hesitate to give you his opinions on anything, be it the world of music or community politics. This storefront, with its posters of performers on one wall and Armenian woodwind instruments on the other, holds the actual products of Partamian’s labor, the CDs and tapes themselves.

Partamian’s story, however, goes far beyond the realm of this shop. Garni began six yeats ago as a hobby for the 34-year-old Partamian and slowly developed into a full time business. A 23-page informative CD catalogue of Armenian music.
that he put together later expanded into a mail-order service. Next came the retail outlet and Partamian’s role as a producer.

Partamian began producing music to fill a gap in the market. Not that there is a lull in the Armenian recording industry. On the contrary, production is in full swing, with 10-15 recordings of Armenian music being made each month. “We probably have more Armenian singers than Armenians” jokes Partamian. But it is precisely what is being recorded by most Armenian companies, and what is being omitted that motivates Partamian to produce alternative selections.

For example, there is the practice of Turkish music being recorded and sold as Armenian. “There is nothing wrong with enjoying Turkish music. And if I’m going to listen to Turkish music, I’Il listen to the real thing. What is destructive is labeling it as Armenian,” states Partamian. The copying of popular Turkish songs is so blatant that some artists don’t even try to hide it. Often it is the melody alone that is appropriated; other times the lyrics have also been translated into Armenian. What is especially upsetting is that these imitations are the very things that are hottest on the Armenian market: Even an unknown singer recording this genre can sell more than 2000 copies.

Eschewing profit and popularity. Partamian has something altogether different in mind when he decides to produce a project. Preserving authentic Armenian music in its basic form was what motivated him to work on a single-instrument series. The first release was Dhol, Armenian Drum, which he says has “nothing but the academic style of rhythm. It’s not the talent of the artist that is being highlighted. It’s not what he’s capable of doing. Instead it’s the Tamzara rhythm, it’s the 6/8 rhythm, the 4/4 rhythm.” Responses to Partamian’s idea were far from positive. “Everyone thought I was crazy, and they still do,” he says. But Partamian considers this series his most important work, since he feels he helped create something that will last. He has made the CD available to all producers and musicians as a sampler source. Dhol was followed by Shvi, Armenian Flute, and a selection focusing solely on the kamancha is next on the list.

But Armenian music is not bound to the notes of tradition. Partamian strongly believes that in order for a culture to remain vibrant and alive, it must produce new work. Thus, he seeks out new talent and pl-ovides opportunities for songwriters and musicians creating contemporary music. Partamian produced Scvada’s Palpitation of Soul, which “utilizes traditional Armenian instruments and melodies but is written and performed with a more 90s style called world fusion,” he explains. He has also just completed a CD by the band Spurk, called Gaghartakan Shghta, which is very danceable music that takes its lyrics from the poems of Vahan Derian. With such products, Partamian hopes to interest the younger generation in Armenian music.

Another item on Partamian’s agenda is to make Armenian music readily available to the world. There already appears to be a growing interest, as evidenced by the popularity of Djivan Kasparia’s duduk playing ant Vatche Hovsepian’s duduk as featured on Peter Gablriel’s Passion, the sound track to Martin Scorsese’s The Lest Temptation of Christ.

Partamian’s game plan to accomplish this is simple: he believes in marketing a product to get results. It worked for Oratorio, Khatchatour Avedissian’s melodic composition that was re-released on the 80th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. During an Apr·il 24 public gathering, it had sold just three copies. However, placing a small albeit costly ad in a music industry staple, Fanfare magazine, provided exposure as well as a review–both of which attracted attention to the now popular recording.

Meanwhile, Partamian has been courting mainstream music stores to encourage them to carry Armenian recordings. Partamian distributes his CDs to the Virgin Megastore and Tower Records; he is also in negotiations with other major national retailers. To further expose Armenian music to the general public, Partamian sends CDs to public radio stations to garner air time and arouse new listeners’ interest.

In Partamian’s opinion, “once a product is recognized or appreciated by the outsiders, by the mainstream, then we our-selves start appreciating it.” Thus, pushing Armenian music into the larger market fulfills a dual purpose: If a CD gains widespread attention, then it will probably become a hit within the community as well.

Partamian is currently working on several new releases, including a second Winds of Passion CD that will feature Armenian dance music performed by a woodwind ensemble; a new-age CD entitled Art Ashes; and a compilation of traditional Armenian wedding music. Also on this busy producer’s to-do list is a CD dedicated to the Armenian Genocide with original contemporary songs of survival.