- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
March 19, 2004

Plastered by Music: “Speghani” holds together in song

“Buzz, buzzing bug, what are you doing? I'm spinning yarn,” sings Speghani choir.
Sarina Avtandialyan found her "plaster".

If you haven't yet reached the fifth floor of the Yerevan Design Institute, where the choir is rehearsing, then it will seem to you there is a huge nest of bugs upstairs. “Bug” is a song for children, which was written specially for Speghani (a word meaning “plaster”).

When the choir was founded seven years ago, members were eight to 10 year old children who were bound by the same fate: their fathers died during the Karabakh war. Today songs for children don't hold as important a place in Speghani's repertoire, as by now they are bound not by the fate of their families but by the art of song. In January Speghani's first compact disc (of spiritual songs) was recorded in Los Angeles .

The choir was born of tragedy.

Founder Sarina Avtandialyan's husband died in 1992 during battles for Shushi. For a long time she was suffering the terrors of war. “My daughter was born on the day when the first GRAD (multiple-missile rocket launchers) hit Stepanakert. Almost a year had passed and my husband died. Those days my daughter was with my parents in Mokhratagh, which is next to Martakert. I was in Stepanakert at my husband's funeral when Azeris began conquering Martakert. Hundreds of people were escaping to Stepanakert while I was walking against the stream of people towards the village to save my daughter. I had been walking for two days in the rain.”

Sarina saved her daughter but her mother, grandmother and grandfather had disappeared.

For a long time Sarina had been accompanied by the nightmares of war. She was unable to shake the sound of air raid sirens, and the sound of footsteps horrified her. If she heard an airplane, she was sure the enemy was attacking and she would grab her daughter and flee the house.

Then Sarina found her “plaster” – the choir.

“I was dead. I had no life in my heart,” she says. “What could I do?”

What Sarina did was put notices on walls of military commissariats, announcing that she wanted to organize a choir comprised of youth whose parents were casualties of war.

“This choir became my soul and voices began healing me. I forgot my nightmares and terrors of war. They are left behind. My life was saved.”

Eighty children responded to her announcement. They were desolate and hungry and had no idea about songs and music.

“They had no ear for music at all. Only three or four of them could hardly feel tonality,” Sarina says. “They were filled with despair.” But the choir persevered, including its youngest member, Sarina's daughter Marina, who was five at the time.

Sarina is a conductor by profession, a graduate of the State Conservatory and now teaches at the Romanos Melikyan Music College . She had to teach her choir members how to sing.

“When I came to the choir I couldn't sing at all,” recalls 15 year old Asia Movsisyan. “A couple of months later my ma told Sarina, 'May be it is not for her,' but Sarina said, ‘Let her try and stay in choir for some time.' And I stayed and became a singer.”

For a long time the choir was viewed as a social program and only secondarily as a musical group. At every concert they were presented as the choir of children of fallen soldiers. The quality of their performance was noticed only after sympathy for the singers. Sarina recalls how the children were weakened by hunger and that how one girl fainted.

Diaspora benefactors sent clothes and food to the children and Sarina says there were parents who sent their children to the choir simply as a means of getting material aid.

Over time, however, those who were not there for the music, left. Today there are still plenty who suffer from hard social conditions, including some who don't even have transportation money to attend rehearsals.

But social problems are in the background now, and professionalism is the emphasis of Speghani.

Professionalism is the choir's focus.

Thanks to her involvement in the choir, last year Laura Melikyan entered the vocal department of the State Conservatory. “I was one of the first singers. When I first came to choir I knew no notes. I had a bad musical voice. It was weak. But I learned to sing,” she says.

Today there are 35 members of Speghani, including four who are not orphans of the war. Only two members are boys, as those who first joined are either now serving in the army, or puberty robbed them of their singing voices.

In the choir, the buzzing of the bug raises memories of Speghani's founding; memories of first steps made by children in the art of song. Medieval spiritual Armenian songs and works of European classical composers prevail in the repertory of the choir containing more than 100 songs. The majority of their music is a capella, requiring special attention to precise harmony.

During seven years Speghani has performed about 150 concerts. Sarina says the choir has been invited for several concerts abroad, but has been unable to go because of lack of financing. Next month, however, it will make its first tour, visiting Lebanon, Syria and Italy.

Lianna Arushanyan is among those who remember the days when singing was secondary to surviving and escaping.

“Other children were talking about their fathers and I was becoming silent,” says 18 year old Lianna Arushanyan, whose father died during the battles for Karabakh's Karintak village. “Here all of us didn't have fathers and we understood each other much better. Those days it was important for us as we were little.'

The fact of their tragedy is not as important today, Lianna says, “as we are bound by songs.”

Click here to listen online to Speghani Youth Choir

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