Local Music in Yerevan: Listen Harder, You Might Like What You Hear

On October 12, 1981, TIME Magazine released a review of the Soviet Woodstock that drew 80,000 youths to a bicycle racing stadium in Yerevan, Armenia. It reads, “When the Yerevan festival was approved [by the Armenian Ministry of Culture], young Soviets came from as far away as the Baltic republics, central Russia and even Siberia… They loved it. They loved it all in Yerevan.”No more than a few days later, as one website recalls, an article was released to the Soviet press reprimanding the activities that took place at the festival, presenting it as “a disgrace to Soviet art”–despite the messages of acceptance and solidarity that the festival encouraged amongst youths.

Today’s popular music in Armenia is, thankfully, no longer governed by an iron Soviet fist, however, the local music scene seems, on the surface, relatively quiet. But it may be that this time, rather than the government, it’s the crowds who aren’t listening.
One example from today’s local rock music scene is 1243K, an electro-acoustic rock band made up of lead singer, Leslie Diaz, guitarist, Lucas Perez Monsalvo, bassist, Armine Ghazaryan, and what the band insists is their 4th member, a computer named Arshaluys. 1243K is an anomaly in Armenia for several reasons.They are fearlessly outspoken on some of Armenia’s most pressing socio-economic issues. In fact, the name 1243K translates to 12 hours for 3000 Drams [~6 USD], a rate of pay. Much of their music is written with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, like the provocative ‘Sugar Free,’ a love song to an Armenian oligarch who controls 96% of the country’s sugar imports. The song was written in 2013 when Coca Cola opted to import its own sugar to Armenia after discovering that the quality of local sugar was below its company’s standards.Initially, the band was formed by American and Latin American expats living and working in Yerevan, with no prior relationship to Armenia. The founding trio included Monsalvo, Diaz, and guitarist, Roberto Furtundo, a Brazilian diplomat who left Armenia about 6 months after 1243K’s formation. Soon afterwards, Ghazaryan, a local Armenian architect and veteran of Armenia’s punk rock music scene, joined the band. Gharazaryan recalls that when Diaz suggested she join the band the summer of 2013, she jumped at the opportunity, having been forced to abandon her last band after a member fled the country when her pub was bombed by neo-nazis in the city for being gay-friendly.

To some extent, 1243K’s multi-ethnic make-up explains their emphasis on speaking up about social injustices that have become normalized into Armenian society. Monsalvo, an architect from Argentina, has been living in Armenia with his wife for the last 11 years working with the same firm that designed and constructed Zvartnots Airport.10295526_1055432831145442_1826325588096342019_o

Diaz is a Mexican-American who moved to Armenia 6 years ago to finish her master’s in social work. She says she decided to stay, as Yerevan reminded her of her hometown San Antonio, Texas she thought it was great place to continue her work studying migration. Despite the fact that the issues 1243K sings about are cross cultural, Diaz says she feels her not being Armenian makes people less receptive to the criticisms in her music reaction. She says she wrote the song ‘Criminales’ after about a year of living in yerevan and “understanding the governmental structure with oligarchs that everyone freely speaks about.”

Of the trio, Diaz is the most outspoken about their efforts to spread awareness of these issues. She recalls, when the band first started, insisting on subtitles with their lyrics visible for audiences at live shows. This dream did not materialize until recently, when they handmade 1243K ‘Hymnals’ for audience members, encouraging them to digest their lyrics and to sing-along.

The band’s final performance took place before the new year. After 11 years of residency in Armenia, guitarist Monsalvo has decided to return to Argentina and the remaining bandmates are still discussing plans for the future. The last concert was an extravagant show that took place at Vivaldi Hall, in front of an audience of hundreds, at a company party for several leading enterprises in Armenia. In light of their valuable contributions to the city’s underground music scene for the last 3 years, it seems bizarre that this article, released in the wake of their disbandment, is the first ever written evidence of their existence in Yerevan’s musical circuit.

What’s with the lack of incentive to record (both in journalism and in the recording studio) what’s happening in Yerevan’s music scene today? Is it the bands, so few in number they are recycled from pub to pub and often lack the dedication to practice regularly or even record their work? Or perhaps, it’s the lack of a critical and devoted audience, willing to reflect on the music they hear in writing and demand more of its performers, that will provide a stimulus for a scene to develop?

If 1243K is proof of anything, it’s the fact that bands in Armenia may be few in number compared to other cities, but they do have some important things to say, but as in any music scene, it’s a two-way street. Audiences also have a responsibility to respond to what’s going on. Otherwise, it’s hard to know who’s listening.

Karine Vann
photos by Unity Production