27 October 2014, 12:47
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Datevik Hovanesian: One of Armenia's Contemporary Voices

It has been 24 years since jazz singer Datevik Hovanesian has been living in US, teaching and touring around the world. In this article, we felt the need to revisit her career, taking it out of and back into context and pinpointing how this woman’s hard work has contributed not just to Armenia’s global community, but to 20th century popular culture in general. Here is ImYerevan's list of 5 reasons why Datevik Hovanesian has won not only our ears, but our hearts, as well.

Jazz has had a rich and complex history over the twentieth century, particularly in the Soviet Union. Initially received as a form of Western propaganda and explicitly condemned, it eventually wormed its way into Soviet intellectual settings. By the second half of the twentieth century, Soviets were serious about demonstrating they, too, could contribute something unique to the cultural phenomenon that was jazz.

Curiously, despite being the smallest republic in the Soviet Union, Armenia was a hotbed for jazz. Its smallness and distance away from Moscow actually made it the perfect breeding ground for the subversive music to develop and thus, the Armenian State Estrada (the Soviet name for jazz) Orchestra, which had been formed in 1938 became one of the most impressive in the USSR, particularly once it came under the leadership of Konstantin Orbelyan in 1956.

We’re not just saying this because we’re an Armenian organization. If you’d like to consult a scholarly resource for confirmation, please refer to Frederick Starr’s Red and Hot: Jazz in the Soviet Union (1994) [See pg. 180; Starr refers to jazz orchestras that emerged in Armenia and Estonia as notably high quality because they had the opportunity to operate like “little laboratories of jazz”].

So what does this have to do with Datevik Hovanesian, you ask? Well, we'll tell you. As we just explained, the Armenian community has had a particularly fascinating interaction with jazz music and Datevik Hovanesian has been made a significant contribution in that regard in the second half of the 20th century. However, we find it important not just to marginalize her accomplishments to being just 'Armenian' ones, because this woman is so much more than that!

Thus, here is our attempt at pinpointing how this woman’s hard work has contributed not just to Armenia’s global community, but to 20th century popular culture in general.

 1. Hovanesian entered the jazz scene in Soviet Armenia's cultural prime.

Hovhannisyan contributed significantly to Orbelyan’s famous band. In it, she toured all over the USSR, from Murmansk to Yakutia and everywhere in between. Datevik was voted "First Lady of Jazz" in the entire Soviet Union for 9 consecutive years by jazz critics and writers of the time. Another cheeky title we’re quite fond of that the singer has donned is the “Ella from Yerevan," and in fact, they have compared her with Ella Fitzgerald. Although we at ImYerevan don't feel the need to validate Hovanesian's achievements by comparing her with a Western counterpart, we'll admit... it's a pretty awesome compliment. 

2. She pursued a musical genre, that presented an obstacle on nearly every level.

When most people think about jazz, they think about the United States. More precisely, they think about African-American culture. And even more precisely, whether they’re aware of it or not, they’re usually thinking about men. If we’re being forced to generalize, jazz is a male-dominated, African American, Western genre. Cutting it as a woman in the jazz industry ain’t no small feat, and for that reason, Hovhanissyan has earned our serious respect. 

3. She is proof that it's not all about 'making it'

Jazz in the United States a jungle. The competition is unbelievable and for many, too daunting to face head first. Datevik is proof that those that come to the U.S. hoping to get rich quick better be prepared for a reality check. She confirms, “I haven’t gone to America to become a star, but to learn and study. I have passed through thorns, tried to learn all the layers of jazz." Preconceived notions of success prevents many from valuing their smaller successes, which build up over several decades, the way Hovanesian's have. It's diligence, she says, that keeps you going in creative fields and she confirms that many, especially from Armenia who are US-bound, lack an awareness of this reality.

 4. She was not afaid to take risks in her artistic choices.

One of the most attractive features about Hovanesian for the more patriotic amongst us, has been her ability to seamlessly weave the stylistic ornaments of Armenian traditional music into her vocal style. She didn’t start off this way, however. This kind of artistic experimentation takes a great deal of courage, especially in a competitive marketplace like the United States. It was only after she had been singing there for about 5 or 6 years that she began attempting to combine characteristics of Armenian ethnic music with jazz sounds.

At one of her US concerts, she recalls ending with a song by Komitas, Andzrev Ekav [Rain Came], not knowing what reactions from her audience would be like. Afterwards, the audience stood up and enthusiastically approached the stage, hoping for more. After that concert, Hovanesian made it a routine to end each of her concerts with a jazz arrangement of an Armenian folk song. She has done this particularly well with New York-based Armenian American jazz pianist, Armen Donelian. Here is an example of one of their collaborations from their tours in the early nineties, another Komitas song called Chem Krna Xagha [I Can’t Play]. It’s a particular favorite of ours here at ImYerevan.


5. She (and the musicians she has worked with) have helped give traditional Armenian music a new and contemporary voice, literally and figuratively.

When asked about how Armenian folk music influences her art, Hovhanissyan has responded: “Folk music is my root, and the rest is just the leaves.” Armenian traditional music has ancient roots. While this is a cherished aspect of Armenian society, it sometimes has the effect of focusing the community’s collective interests in past (and oftentimes, imagined) achievements, rather than the present – or more importantly, the future. That’s why Hovanesian’s sound is, for us, revolutionary. Compare her arrangement of Ervum Em [I Am Burning] with a more traditional performance of Komitas’s original arrangment.

Datevik Hovanesian and her band's arrangement:

Komitas's Traditional Arrangement


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