- Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile by Sylvia Alajaji
To someone unfamiliar with Armenian culture, history, or music, the subject of this book may seem quite innocuous. To ethnomusicologists and historians familiar with diaspora studies, Armenian music may seem to be a tangled but manageable group of threads to examine, preserve, or examine. However, someone familiar with the path of the Armenian peoples—their various cultures, histories, and experiences in multiple contexts—would approach this book with apprehension and care, hoping and perhaps dreading to learn from the complex history, genocide, and rebirth/remaking of the Armenian people. In Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile, Sylvia Angelique Alajaji presents and explores all of these things through music and perspectives on music with clarity, compassion, and open eyes, in ways that are appropriately challenging and accessible to social scientists, historians, and anyone with a deep interest in Armenia or Armenian people.
Throughout the work the reader will find welcome references to additional online music materials, accessible from the Ethnomusicology Multimedia Web site (https://ethnomultimedia.org/book.html?bid=36, accessed 27 June 2016). Details are included in the book itself, and it is a straightforward system to navigate. The inclusion of online materials is a decision that increasing numbers of authors and publishers make in an effort to engage and attract readers (while also avoiding the substantial costs of including physical media like CDs and DVDs). For ethnomusicologists, this approach also sidesteps several potential issues invoked by forcing non-Western music into Western musical notation styles (or any written styles). Access to the audio recording allows the music, for the most part, to freely stand on its own.
This approach is read and felt in Alajaji’s theoretical stance as well, if on a larger scale. She presents interpretation and analysis of musical performance styles, musical and textual content, interviews with musicians and music listeners, print and online media—yet her goal is not to define Armenian music, but rather to show the pluralities of what Armenian music was and is, and the variety of shifting meanings it held and continues to hold for Armenians. Alajaji presents her case in a way that allows for, and even encourages, flexibility in interpretation, and that does not attempt to speak definitively for Armenians. She says, “In presenting the case studies in this book, I do not propose a neat, linear narrative of [End Page 279] continuity from one moment to the next; I cannot offer a new essentialized narrative to replace the widely disseminated one I interrogate here. Rather, the musical trends under consideration exist as something more contrapuntal, interacting and adjusting to the multiple dimensions of the various realities of the diasporic communities under study” (p. 18).
Alajaji’s theoretical stance incorporates the work of ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and historians, including (among others) Stuart Hall, Robin Cohen, Carol Silverman, Fredrik Barth, Edward Said, and Tina Ramnarine as well as Armenian studies by Jonathan McCollum, Vrej Nercessian, Anahid Kassabian, Khachig Tölölyan, Melissa Bilal, and Ronald Grigor Suny. In addition, while her own experiences and knowledge as an Armenian certainly play a productive role here—and not just in practical matters of language—this study is not a reflexive journey. This book is meant “as a telling of Armenian music history—one that must necessarily be understood for its impact on each generation’s understanding of the meanings and definitions of Armenian music” (p. 23).
The broad framework for the book is in examining five communities and time periods of Armenian music and culture: the Ottoman Empire 1890–1915, New York 1932–1958, Beirut 1932–1958, Beirut 1958– 1980, and California as a junction point of these discourses. Though Alajaji treats each context separately, she also connects the experiences and reflections of these contexts to highlight the importance of “Armenian music...