Norayr Kartashyan and The Van Project

Norayr Kartashyan

Achod Papasian | Music of Armenia, Yerevan

Sitting in the concert hall of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, looking out on Yerevan, I was staring at the stage, which was filled with microphones and traditional instruments on the chairs, waiting for the musicians to play.

But who exactly are those musicians and what is the Van Project about? The ensemble conducted by Norayr Kartashian was established in 2010, by the French-Armenian NGO Yerkir Europe. The project’s goal is to study and play traditional folk songs from Western Armenia, and through music, create intercultural connections between Armenian and Turkish people, especially Hamshetsis, Alevis, and Zaza populations.

The band is also famous for having toured Western Armenia in 2011. They performed concerts in the Hamshem and Malatya regions, and played in Argovan and Mndzour festivals in Dersim. They were also invited by the Hrant Dink Foundation to play a tribute concert in Istanbul, and participated in the International Youth Congress in Diyarbakir.

The show began with a serene introduction and straight away it was clear that the communication between the conductor and the players was very powerful. Each indication from Norayr brought sparks of complicity to their eyes. In the middle of the song, the percussionists came in, hitting their instruments with vigor, developing a march on which Norayr improvised on the zurna.

The second song, “Ani”, started with a duet of percussions, evolving from brisk flutters into a tribal beat, later covered by layers of duduk. The bass guitar gave depth to the ensemble, and breathed life into the rhythmic duet. It was then Norayr’s son’s turn to take a solo on beloul, and to enjoy juggling with the theme. “Akh Nare, Nare!” announced Norayr to the audience before the next piece, lifting his arms like a bird flying away. A young girl joined the band and sang with her eyes closed, losing herself in the interpretation of the acute melody while swinging her right hand in the air.

Between the songs, Norayr took his time to give indications to his musicians, and to make them feel at “home”. Two musicians came out of the shadows - the tar player, with a placid expression, and the kamantcha player, who remained stiff, keeping his eyes straight ahead of him. Their duo led to an intricate theme, followed by a duduk solo played on a groovy bass line, which could have emerged from a Doors song. “Play for us, Davit jan!” yelled Norayr to the oud player, who got into a nimble introduction, later joined by the qanon player. Behind them, the percussionists just could not wait to play, and already beat the rhythm on their thighs until they eventually broke in with an explosive rhythmic part.

“The most important thing for us as artists is to bring joy to people. We are a three-year old band, and by the way, we have no sponsor”, said Norayr laughing. “Our sponsor is the Armenian people”.

The band then played a long piece called “Noubar”, opened by a qanon solo, which put smiles upon the faces of the players. Every musician took a solo and it was interesting to notice how every instrument developed its own world through its own sonorities. The tar player delivered a brilliant solo, while always keeping an impassive and melancholic face. The interpretation of Komitas’ “Qele, qele” was quite surprising - the string instruments, and especially the bass, seemed to play on tip-toe! 

“Before, I had to conduct them, but now they are so good that I could just sit back and listen to them!” said Norayr with a smile. “When we toured Western Armenia, we collected some melodies from our Hamshenahay compatriots, and we shall now play it before you.” Straightaway, we knew we had entered another universe, which was more spirited, and supported by a lively rhythm. It would be perfect for the soundtrack of a road movie!

After a few instances of monochord bass notes, we entered the tragic world of duduk cries. But then, an energetic dance took over, and the duet of percussionists fell into a wild improvisation, distorting the rhythm, while Norayr and the audience clapped together over the trance. A very magical moment!

“For the first time, we are going to play one of our compositions”, said Norayr. “It is called Kyanqi Get (The River of Life). Life is like a river, it takes us to eternity. Some may try to swim against the tide, but it will all take us in the same direction.” The song began mysteriously, with a few touches of qanon and the rubbing of oud strings, out of the silence. The romantic theme that was played on beloul took us to a dreamscape, and the player’s fingers seemed to hover over his instrument and modulate the notes, like a continual and invisible stream.

What followed next was one of the most mystical pieces of the concert, where Norayr’s versatile duduk wandered on the landscapes of bass guitar, backed by unshakeable percussions, marking the tick-tock of time that never stops.

After a composition dedicated to the memory of Father Komitas, the band played Sayat Nova’s “Ashkharhis Me Panjara E” (My World is a Window). The duets of duduk and tar-kamancha responded to each other, as if they were sharing the melody. For the last song, “Merik Batolla”, both singers played out a romance on a fast rhythm, and closed the show with a beautiful a cappella segment.

Besides the quality of the performance, I was very charmed by the spontaneity of the musicians. They seemed to evolve on stage - just like in life, and felt very free to share their emotions with both, Norayr and the audience. Whether it was in conducting, solo playing or in the relationship with the public, Norayr Kartashyan’s influence is predominant and settled in an atmosphere of intimacy. Let us hope that they spread this in all corners of our historical homeland!