Samvel Galstian Group: “Tonight”
Samvel Galstian is not the typical front man. Shy and reserved, he offers almost no banter, explanations, nor translations of his Armenian lyrics between songs, preferring instead to sit in silence looking down at his microphone, waiting for the musicians of his group to finish tuning and begin their next piece. But for all this seeming emotional restraint, it was easy to hear the sense of loss that underpins the music of the Samvel Galstian Group.
With songs such as the haunting “Tonight,” Galstian yearns for a homeland that never was and will never be. His voice contains a slightly coarse, husky quality, as if he has sung these songs so many times that a part of himself has worn away. In observing this pain, so beautifully expressed through the group’s performances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, one gets the feeling that Galstian sings this music not because he wants to but because he has to.
Almost as compelling is the interplay between Galstian and the other musicians in the group. Drummer Karen Kocharyan, trained as a jazz musician, constantly reacts and plays off Galstian, keyboardist Vardan Ovsepian, and bassist Joshua Davis. This interplay drives the group’s music forward, providing an energetic contrast to the weariness of Galstian’s voice. This combination won the group a loyal audience, many of whom returned to the Festival day after day to hear their set on the Aygi Stage.
Jazz figures prominently into the group’s sound. In addition to Kocharyan, Ovsepian and Davis are both virtuosic jazz players, and all three musicians performed in several other jazz groups during the Festival.
To understand why jazz is so popular with Armenians in both Armenia and the diaspora today, one has to look back to the history of the Soviet Union, which introduced the genre into Armenia very soon after the Russian Revolution. The first jazz band in Armenia was founded in Yerevan in 1936 with the state’s support and soon became massively popular. While the beginning of the Cold War after World War II led to the USSR publically disavowing the genre, jazz evolved from a popular music to a high-class art music during this time, and this change led it to become the favorite music of the country’s political elite, who established jazz programs in universities and conservatories. Many of the Festival participants in the Armenia program were trained in these conservatories. From Armenia, jazz spread throughout the country and eventually throughout the diaspora.
However, jazz is not the only music that influences the Samvel Galstian Group. In addition to listening to Armenian folk music when he was a young, Kocharyan recounted that he was introduced to classical music and jazz when he was young. “My mother always played the piano when I was a child, and my uncle was a jazz promoter in Yerevan.” All of these genres influenced his development as an artist, and the same is true for other Armenian artists of his generation.
Working within this fusion genre, the Samvel Galstian Group binds the tradition of Armenian folk music with the tradition of jazz through referencing the pain that forms the core of both genres. In many ways, jazz is also the music of the homeless and dispossessed, and both jazz and Armenian folk music can demand a lot from the musicians who play these genres. Davis, the only member of the group who is not Armenian, described to me the physical toll he felt when performing the group’s music, as if it forces him to live the experiences of social engineering, oppression, and displacement of the people Galstian sings of.
The Armenia of the group’s music only exists in the hearts and minds of a few, but it lives on in the ragged voice of a very atypical front man.
Russell Star-Lack is a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota and was an Armenia program intern for the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.