Sometime after 2 a.m., there's a guy getting down in the middle of the crowd inside a downtown loft. He's moving as wildly as one can without losing the beat. A brief flash of light against his bare arm reveals a large portrait tattoo of Saint Vartan, the fifth-century warrior whose image remains a powerful symbol of the Armenian people. Others in the room wave their hands in circular motions, a nod to traditional Armenian dance, even as their feet move to a modern beat.
They're dancing to Viken Arman, a French producer making his L.A. debut. He occasionally plays a melodica to mimic the sound of a duduk, the ancient wind instrument native to Armenia but best known to modern audiences for its use in film and TV scores such as those for Gladiator and Game of Thrones.
“It's my first love, traditional Armenian music,” Arman says prior to the gig. “I grew up with this music. It's a big source of inspiration.”
Hours before his set, Arman is hanging out at the party space with members of the promotion team SBCLTR (pronounced “subculture”), which put together the event. Everyone present, myself included, is part of the Armenian diaspora, heirs of an ancient culture that endured even when, for much of the 20th century, there was no nation tying its people together. Arman is from Paris. SBCLTR co-founders Patrik Khachatourian and Roni Mehrabian were born in Iran and raised in L.A. Fellow SBCLTR member Michael Batmanian was born in Virginia to parents from Lebanon but raised in California.
Despite the fact that Arman had only met the promoters that day, the camaraderie between them is apparent. “I feel like it's home,” Arman says.
Their words bounce off each other as they swap feelings on music, culture and clubs. Khachatourian paraphrases a quote from author William Saroyan, himself of Armenian descent: “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Saroyan's “New Armenia” is alive in this room, and it's brewing internationally in dance music.
Arman's set wasn't part of some highbrow cultural event, nor was it attended just by people from L.A.'s sizable Armenian community. It was a hip, downtown dance night, with a lineup filled out by DJs who pull crowds from the underground party circuit. As dance music becomes more globally minded, more DJs are mixing traditional sounds with modern beats — and interest in the traditional sounds of Armenia, in particular, is growing.
“I didn't realize that it was blowing up until I was on tour a couple months ago,” says Glendale-based David “Davi” Khanjian, a DJ/producer who has released tracks through labels including Rebellion, a subsidiary of Damian Lazarus' Crosstown Rebels, and Anjunadeep. “I went to Toronto a month ago; the opening DJ, who is not even Armenian, was playing 'Dle Yaman,'” a traditional Armenian song with a heartbreaking melody. “It's very exciting. I'm very happy to hear it.”
Khanjian is from Yerevan, Armenia's capital, although he spent some of his youth in Beirut as well. A decade ago, after finishing his studies at Yerevan's Komitas State Conservatory, he moved to the United States and embarked on his electronic-music career. But learning Armenian folk music was a mandatory part of his conservatory education, and it stuck with him.
“The reason I think it's in my music today is because it's in me,” Khanjian says. “Not only is it in my blood, but I remember studying all of those songs. Sometimes I randomly remember them in my head, melodies and stuff.” The influence has peppered such Davi tracks as “Gates of Babylon” and “Metanoia,” the latter of which samples Armenian vocals.
Khanjian credits Burning Man, where he has played, with helping to popularize this new Armenian dance-music wave. Berge “Goldcap” Sahakian, another L.A.-based proponent of the fusion style, agrees. “Burning Man is a great place for experimentation and acceptance,” he says. “It's kind of the mecca for experimenting with new sounds, trying things out, seeing what works.”
Away from Black Rock City, the free-spirited influence of the annual festival has affected a larger party scene. Sahakian, who will be playing the Lightning in a Bottle festival later this month, says “Burning Man–style crowd” has become shorthand for saying, “Play whatever you want.”
It's not just underground parties and Burner events. Armenian-influenced dance music also is infiltrating the club scene. On a recent night at downtown's Pattern Bar, another L.A.-based Armenian DJ, Armen Miran, weaves the mournful sounds of Armenia into a set that somehow manages to be uplifting. That juxtaposition is popular in this small, chic watering hole; there's a crowd surrounding the 28-year-old DJ/producer as he plays near the bar, and the room quickly fills as the clock ticks closer to midnight.
Miran has been a resident DJ at Pattern Bar for about four months and has lived in the United States for only a year. Born and raised in Tehran, he spent some time in Yerevan, where he studied music theory at Komitas, before joining his family in the United States. When we meet at his studio in La Crescenta, he speaks in a mix of English and Armenian, with a friend on hand to interpret when necessary.
His influences run the gamut from Pink Floyd to Depeche Mode to Armenian folk music. All that collides in his track “Marta (Duduk Mix).” It's melancholy and energetic with slightly psychedelic flourishes, and features a duduk, whose plaintive sound peppers both his DJ sets and productions. He appreciates the emotions that it conveys and the way it symbolizes Armenian culture.
In 2008, UNESCO added the duduk to the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” The organization dates the roots of the instrument back to the first century BCE rule of Tigran the Great. Sahakian, also a resident at Pattern Bar, describes the duduk as “the lifeblood of our people.”
So closely is the instrument tied to Armenia that it can be nearly impossible to separate it from a now century-old trauma. In its deep, forlorn cry is the memory of the death march into the Syrian desert, the rapes and murders that marked the Armenian genocide. It's a sound of loss and survival. “That instrument holds a lot of pain and a lot of suffering,” Sahakian says.
Sahakian's parents, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq, settled in the San Fernando Valley and raised their son on traditional Armenian music and Arabic pop music. By his preteens, he'd rebelled and gravitated toward classic rock. “But it all comes back full circle because, after that point of rebellion and exploring my own tastes, I came back and heard Armenian and Arabic music with new ears,” he says.
Now, in addition to playing at Pattern Bar, Sahakian tours and plays festivals. “I like people to walk away with something stirred up inside them, some sort of emotion, a moment where they're taken back, a moment where it can be real for a second,” he says.
In the music of a distant past, Sahakian and others have been able to foster a sense of understanding in the present day. “There's this familiarity [to] it, but people don't understand why,” Sahakian says. “It's because everything is rooted from this music. If you trace it all the way back, you can always trace it back to Middle Eastern styles of music. Middle Eastern and African styles of music. That's why I think people can relate to it, even though it's not their background. It's just universal.”