The eight members of Armenia’s Shoghaken Ensemble (the name means “source of light”) are folk-music ambassadors, representing not only their country’s biggest musical export but a bright torch of cultural pride that dates back to pagan roots, before Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in A.D. 301. The group was founded in 1991, the same year the former Soviet republic became an independent nation-state.
If your ABCs of this music don’t expand beyond the weeping willow of wind instruments, the duduk, delve into one or all three of Shoghaken’s albums. There’s a lot of ground to cover: With more than 20 pages of liner notes each, they’re mini-encyclopedias, really, complete with English lyrics, dance instructions, maps, photos from 1913 and descriptions of all the classical instruments — centered on the duduk, kamancha, kanon and dhol.
The ensemble’s first release, 2002’s Armenia Anthology, is an example of folk music as an oral tradition of largely unknown authors, except for ashughs such as the 18th-century troubadour Sayat Nova, who composed and gathered the treasured bulk of Armenia’s classical songbook, its origins ranging from Anatolia to the Caucasus. Two of Sayat Nova’s ballads for his beloved, “Kani Voor Jan Im” (“As Long As I Live”) and “Nazani” (“Gracefully”), are sung here by brother and sister Aleksan and Hasmik Harutyunyan and played on the upright fiddle called the kamancha, the instrument most associated with the traveling minstrel, which was thought to “console the heartsick, cure the ill.” Anthology also contains the typical village-centric songs born or popularized in ancient Armenian cities or towns now in modern-day Turkey, Syria or Azerbaijan, including “Shiraki Harsanekan Bar” (“Wedding Dance of Shirak”), on which ensemble founder Gevorg Dabaghyan showcases the twittering, birdlike delights of the pencil-thin reed shvi — a sharp and exuberant contrast to the wailing of the duduk.
You can hear more of Harutyunyan’s clear-as-the-wind vocals as she plays mother on Shoghaken’s 2004 Armenian Lullabies, another collection of historic tunes named after villages and provinces such as Sassun and Kessab. With minimal backing — usually the dham duduk, which holds the drone in the background — she repeats the word oror (to rock) with language-defying stillness and comfort, turning these somber songs about the hardships of mothering into aural blankets.
Folk dances are so intertwined with much of this music that it’s really all one art form, from the song-dance baryerg to the popular shourch dance performed professionally for the stage or at social functions. Shoghaken’s other recent release, Traditional Dances of Armenia, isn’t a definitive collection — it’s missing “Im Anoush Davigh” (“My Sweet Harp”), the most recognizable and loveliest melody in all the land — but it features all the standard bars. In the kochari and shalakho, men dance shoulder to shoulder with soldieresque kicks, jumps and cross-legged footwork. (The latter is a familiar tune, and here, Karine Hovhannisyan plucks the lap harp kanon at an ear-boggling, almost unrecognizable speed.) Perennial wedding selections such as the shoror and the favorite tamzara call for everyone to put down the fork, link pinkies or join hands, and dance in circular motion to the pounding of the dhol.
It’s women, however, who’ve elevated the art form on the stage to its highest level. In the naz or zangezuri, they wear traditional costumes with brocade bodices, and headdresses over long braided hair, while executing slow upper-body movements and hand gestures (it’s all in the wrist) that mimic knitting, sewing or rocking a cradle.
This preservation of one of the world’s oldest musical styles has earned the group high praise from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, who invited the members to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002, and Atom Egoyan, who included them in the soundtrack to his film Ararat. Shoghaken’s performance at the Skirball is not only the first stop on their national tour but their first-ever local appearance. They’re guests, but not strangers; it’ll be like a homecoming to a land that has become a second mother country.
Shoghaken Ensemble performs at the Skirball Cultural Center on Thursday, April 1, at 8 p.m., preceded by Lucina Agbabian Hubbard’s 7 p.m. lecture.