Little Armenia is more than a neighborhood on the eastern side of Hollywood. And it's more than the title of hip-hop producer Bei Ru's latest album. It's a state of mind.
"We grew up in L.A., but it was amongst family, friends, it was kind of like they brought their version of Little Armenia here," Bei Ru says when we meet for tea on Ventura Boulevard. "So, we grew up in our own Little Armenia."
Born Baruir Panossian in Los Angeles, Bei Ru is the son of ethnic Armenian immigrants from Lebanon, who introduced him to the sound of famed Armenian pop singers such as Harout Pamboukjian and Adiss Harmandian. He grew up primarily in the San Fernando Valley, where he attended an Armenian day school for a time, and occasionally traveled with his family to Lebanon and Armenia. All this has informed Little Armenia (L.A.), an album created almost entirely from samples of Armenian music.
Little Armenia (L.A.) is the sound of a diaspora that settled in Los Angeles, Armenian music filtered through the influence of albums like Dr. Dre's The Chronic and the seminal underground hip-hop compilation Beneath the Surface. For his album, Bei Ru borrows from cultural staples — like "Der Voghormia" ("Lord Have Mercy") from Komitas' Divine Liturgy and Aram Khachaturian's Gayane — as well as obscure funk, soul and jazz artists from the '60s and '70s, occasionally layering the samples with live bass, drums, guitars and even some horns. Linking together the tracks at times are snippets of dialogue from 1970s English-language movies about Armenians coming to America.
"It was a cool '70s cheesy funkiness that I felt complemented the music," he says of the footage.
Bei Ru arranged the album carefully, always making sure not to take away from the soulfulness of the source material.
"So many people aren't aware that there was that element in Armenian songs," he explains. "A lot of contemporary Armenian music is the same songs played the same way for the past few hundred years, all acoustic. It was a short era in the '60s and '70s that has this cool funkiness to it that's kind of forgotten. I wanted to focus on that era for that reason."
It's the obscurities that seem to give Bei Ru a sense of purpose with his music. "There were other artists that got popular, but there are so many obscure albums and artists from that era that no one remembers," he says [see sidebar]. "I felt like it was a mission to expose people to that. And, of course, I love the music. It has a special place for me in my heart — there's just something about it."
Bei Ru has dug through crates in record shops from L.A. to Lebanon to Armenia in search of forgotten gems, no easy task in a culture that long ago abandoned vinyl in favor of compact discs.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people I spoke to had these old records and they just threw them away," he says of his experience in Armenia. "They said, 'We don't listen to them anymore, there's no use for them.' So it was difficult to find them. It's perseverance and luck. I came up with some good stuff over the years."
Bei Ru recalls trying to score vinyl at Vernissage, a large outdoor market in Yerevan. "They have old metal parts from the Soviet era, everything you can think of, but I couldn't find records," he says. "So I was asking around and one guy gave me another guy's number and he told me, he referred me to someone else, so I had to call him and meet him in the coffee shop. It was this really long process of meeting him, and at the end of the day I got a couple of records that I had no idea what they were. It was all in Russian writing." He took a chance on the purchase and ended up using one of the songs on the intro to Little Armenia.
Bei Ru's album plays like a love letter to his heritage. Though he plans to continue working with Armenian music, either on a more "experimental" release or with live bands, Bei Ru says he does not foresee a "sequel" to Little Armenia.
"I feel like I said everything I had to say on this project, so I think it would be silly to try to re-create it."
The quest for Armenian vinyl, though, will continue.
"It's like archaeology to me. They're kind of like artifacts, a lot of these records, they were never repressed or anything. You can't find them anywhere. Finding them is like finding a piece of history. It's so awesome to me."