Micah Hendler Contributor,
The Armenian people have a storied history stretching back thousands of years. From language and culture to religion and politics, Armenians have a distinct identity that has developed over centuries. Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity on a national scale (in the 4th Century AD), and Armenian monks settled in Jerusalem soon thereafter, founding an Armenian diaspora community that lasts until this day.
After the Armenian Genocide during the First World War, many more Armenians came to Jerusalem, fleeing persecution. Armenian people, and identity, continue to be beleaguered by violence more than a century later (as evidenced by the recent conflict in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabagh), even close to home. And in Jerusalem, the Armenian community is dwindling in the face of many challenges related to the political, economic, and cultural realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which Armenians often get caught in the middle of).
One musician, born and raised in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, is trying to change that trend, and is staking out a new place for Armenian music and identity in Jerusalem, Armenia, and beyond.
I had the opportunity to chat with Apo Sahagian in depth about his life and his music, how he navigates multiple national realities and what his music stands for. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. MORE FOR YOU‘Dune’ Tops Foreign Box Office With Promising $77M Cume‘Shang-Chi’ Box Office: Marvel Movie Tops $360M Worldwide4 Series Coming To Netflix In October That Are Worth The Binge
Q: Let’s start with Apo & the Apostles: the groundbreaking Palestinian indie band for which you are best known. How have you struck such a chord with your listeners?
Apo: When it comes to the music of Apo and the Apostles, I’ve always tried to keep it simple and fun and catchy. Apo & the Apostles is a pop-rock band—emphasis on the word, “pop.” We jam very heavy, but at the end of the day, it’s a business; because I’m a musician I have to sustain the business that allows me to be a musician. I make sure to compose catchy, pop-rock songs that speak to the market; they might not last for years, maybe have an expiration date. But within these years it’s worked tactically for me.
The branding is that Apo & the Apostles is a Jerusalemite, Bethlehemite band; it represents the Jerusalemite, Bethlehemite clique that me and the guys come from—the party animals, faya3a (“to go wild” in Arabic). We understood from early on that Palestinians love faya3a, they just want to have a good time. Some people said, “Why aren’t you talking about the politics?” I say there isn’t a vacuum of bands addressing those issues by musicians who are much better than me. We’ll stick to lovey-dovey pop songs.
Genre-wise, the music is not Arabic music. The music is linguistically Arabic. Musically, it infuses Armenian folk music, Balkan, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern stuff. But it also comes with a responsibility. We managed to be one of the pioneers of the alternative Palestinian music scene, which is now developed and has evolved. Now there are artists, especially rap artists, who are bringing in millions of views a week, who have surpassed our statistics by a lot, which is great. But we know that this was a small contribution that we made to advance the Palestinian alternative music scene. The musicians and audiences deserve to have a music scene that is worthy of them.
Q: What about your solo work?
Apo: Apo Sahagian is different in that my solo project has a much smaller market: how many Armenians are there around the world? We’re like an endangered species. In Jerusalem there isn’t much market for an Armenian folk musician. And even if I go to Armenia and do shows there, I don’t get a lot of profit from it; that’s why I call it a passion project. When I approach my solo project, I am not approaching it in a business way; I approach it as a patriot. Because I’m a product of a people that has seen their share of the darkness, I sometimes feel like by doing these Armenian folksongs, it shines a very dim light in this very dark tunnel.
I really think there is magic to Armenian folk songs. It’s to give some sort of a feel-good moment for the Armenians. They can take a step back and breathe and say “Ah; our folk songs are pretty cool.” It alleviates the black cloud. Right now the Armenians, we have fallen into the abyss; but having some folk songs playing in that abyss is better than not having them at all.
Q: Can you tell me more about the role that you have seen Armenian folk songs play in your people’s daily life and history?
Apo: Most Armenian houses will have Armenian folk songs throughout the day and throughout the week. My household was not an exception. Music is very important to Armenian culture—not only the folk songs and the religious songs, but also our modern Armenian revolutionary political history is conveyed through the revolutionary songs. These are songs that were composed in the early 20th century when the Armenians fought back the Ottomans before, during, and after the genocide. My father came with the baggage of the political revolutionary songs that were in addition to the folk songs. Armenian culture was experienced through these songs.
Q: Did you always love Armenian folk songs?
Apo: When I picked up the guitar, naturally I was playing Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana but there was a special place for Armenian folk songs. My father has four sons. He wanted at least one of his boys to be able to accompany an Armenian feast—there is toasting and there is singing. Toasting, he has it covered. But singing, that needs a guitar, an accordion, a piano; so I became well-versed in playing these Armenian folk songs. But then I started to really love these songs.
Unlike other people who believe that it’s a trend to shit on folk songs, I usually saw it through a musician’s eye: folk songs are actually the basis of all musical genres that are out there. It may have four chords that people have been singing for thousands of years. Everything on Spotify now is rooted in thousands of years of folk songs. Songs that we still love are tapping into a timeless magic that modern songs don’t. If they’ve lasted this long, it’s my responsibility to remake them in a sort of way that will make them last throughout the 21st century, until some Armenian comes and remakes them in the sounds of the 22nd century.
It’s a musical passion – I really like playing these folk songs, I like how our ancestors were able to compose these melodies. I also see it as a national obligation—to preserve the rich heritage that Armenian culture has. I started playing these Armenian folk songs about a decade ago. I didn’t buy a following or anything; I kept everything very organic. I might not be getting millions of streams, but I’ve been getting enough of a following in Armenia and in the [Armenian] Diaspora that when I do a show, it sells out in a day. A small or medium-sized venue. And there’s always somebody from a cultural institution who will reach out and say, “We want to do an interview, we really appreciate what you’re doing.” There’s a sense, whether a right perception or a misperception, that Armenian folk music has been represented in a non-Armenian way—that some Armenian music represents Armenian folk songs in a way that they believe doesn’t truly represent the Armenian melodies. Sometimes they refer to my versions as “truer” to the original form of the folk song, or at least more preferable when it comes to Armenian folk music and how it should be presented; more proximate to how it should be.
Q: How would you define your approach to interpreting Armenian folk songs?
Apo: This is a long discussion that Armenian musicologists have been arguing amongst themselves. Even on the surface, a musical debate can turn into sociopolitical debate. Lyrically, the themes of the folk songs are not limited to the era of 100 years ago: they’re love songs. Every good folk song is a love song, and in every good Armenian song there is a girl, there is a boy, and there is a mountain in between them. We are the inventors of long-distance relationships. I’m not sure why people can’t bypass the mountain. We really love staying in our despair, just to give a good folk song, and love is the strongest force we’ve ever experienced.
Folk songs should be simple. They should be simply presented in a way that relays its authenticity and its beauty. Once you add layers and layers like a sophisticated chord here or there, you bury the song. My whole point is not to bury the song, but to resurrect it, in the simplest way possible.
That’s how I think, why I believe that it’s been able to find favor amongst the Armenians, even amongst the younger ones. In Jerusalem, some of the songs that I did, nobody sang them—and then I did it, so I shared it on Facebook, and some of the younger ones here listened to it, and now they like it. They don’t say it’s Apo’s song, but it’s their song—they claim it as their national heritage. The vehicle was Apo. That makes me really happy.
Q: I know you mentioned that Apo & the Apostles aren’t singing about politics. Is there a political element to your solo work?
Apo: Some of the folk songs hail from Western Armenia, which is a geographic name for Northeastern Turkey. These songs were preserved after the genocide by the refugees, by the survivors. By singing these songs, we maintain our rightful connection to our ancestral homeland.
In the Armenian songbook, we have a lot of songs that talk about the day we will redeem the lost lands—Western Armenia, parts of Artsakh—and I play them very well: I am like a jukebox for these songs. Each one is four chords but I know how to play those chords. When the war started in 2020, you heard these songs everywhere. These songs are a century old; they give hope to the Armenians that they’re going to beat back the darkness.
These songs uplifted us during the war of 2020, but when we lost, nobody wanted to hear these songs. When you hear them you feel like a laughingstock, you feel like a fool. It’s going to take a long time until we get the audacity back to sing these songs. Our country has been shrinking, shrinking, for 800 years. With every shrink you lose the appetite to sing these songs; some will even die out.
Right now, it’s my responsibility to take the people back up again—slowly, there’s no need to rush back into that valor, that audaciousness—it’ll take time. But slowly.
Q: Is it that determination to bring the people back up that leads us to your new album, MENK?
Apo: MENK, which means “us” or “we” in Armenian, is my fourth full length album. This one has a lot more original songs (since I usually reinterpret folk songs). However, the twist is that I did original songs in old and/or rare dialects. I basically wrote the lyrics in standard Armenian and then went to people who knew the specific dialect I wanted and helped me turn the lyrics from standard Armenian to the dialect.
The focus on the dialects is to showcase the rich linguistic history of our language and the expansion it has experienced throughout our turbulent history (Armenian mythological history can be stretched back 4,000-5,000 years).
Eastern Armenian is the main systemized dialect used in the Republic of Armenia which is located in a geographic spot which Armenians call Eastern Armenia. You can say it is standard Armenian nowadays.
Western Armenian is the other systemized dialect that originates in the area of today’s Northeastern Turkey which Armenians call Western Armenia. The Armenian Genocide occurred in these parts and thus the Diaspora that was created due to the Genocide speaks the Western Armenian dialect. Nowadays, it is seen as being endangered since the Diaspora is prone to assimilation. My native tongue is Western Armenian, as it is for all Armenians in Jerusalem.
Then there is the Artsakh dialect. Artsakh is the historic name of what the international community commonly calls Nagorno-Karabagh. Basically the war of 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in Azerbaijan invading large parts of Artsakh, ethnically cleansing cities and towns, destroying churches and traces of Armenian culture that dates back 3,000 years. The war ended after 44 days with a fragile ceasefire between Armenians, Azerbaijan, and Russian peacekeepers in between them. The people of Artsakh have been in a 30 year struggle to have the world recognize their self-determination, to want to be liberated from the clutches of the regime in Azerbaijan. While they succeeded at that back in 1994, the war of 2020 set them back by a long shot.
“Kyass Qiss,” one of the originals on MENK, is in the Artsakh dialect.
The Hamshen dialect is used by a group of people living on the Black Sea coast of Turkey and in Abkhazia. The Hamshen includes both Christians and Muslims are said to descent from Armenians though the Muslim Hamshens in Turkey usually disagree with the association to avoid on possible state pressure on them due to the sensitivity of such an association. However, many Hamshen singers openly embrace their Armenian origins and have made in-roads into the Armenian mainstream, especially since the dialect is somewhat comprehensible and thus trending among Armenians.
And there’s the Kistinik/Musa Ler song, on MENK, “Musa Loyr Ilum,” which was the dialect of Armenian communities who lived on the Mediterranean coast and whose origins are shrouded in mystery. Their history was popularized by the novel, 40 Days of Musa Dagh.
Q: What do you want Armenians—and non-Armenians—to take away from MENK?
Apo: Basically, I’m post-Genocide. I recognize that the history of the Armenian high lands is over 5,000 years old. Sometimes I feel like the world only knows us through those five years of genocide. The world only sees us through the guillotine. The Armenians themselves sometimes see ourselves limited through the guillotine.
But if you check my songs on YouTube, in the descriptions I translate them to English. That’s also to show what the dialect is, what are the lyrics—I think that’s also with a responsibility to show the generations that we have a history of 4,000, 5,000 years. We are not simply a marooned people living across the world with a darkened history of genocide—we are much more than that. As I like to say, “Once more, we will rise and there will be weddings in the mountains.”