Review | Sylvia Angelique Alajaji – Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile

Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile. By Sylvia Angelique Alajaji. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015 [xix,  192 p. ISBN: 97802530176611 (hardcover), $75; varies (ebook).] 6 black and white illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, 10 audio examples, companion website.

In Music and the Armenian Diaspora, Sylvia Angelique Alajaji traces the roots and routes of a diaspora whose homeland borders were violently redrawn, and for whom the exilic impossibility of return incited a fear of impending cultural erasure. Within this fractured state of multi-sited exile and often-liminalized political subjectivities in host countries, Alajaji posits that music played a vital role in asserting the diaspora’s sense of Armenian identity, community and reimagined constructions of a homeland left behind. Significantly, music also allowed these diasporic subjects to codify histories of The Armenian Genocide of 1915, which were otherwise refused state recognition.  

Alajaji carries out this arduous transnational musicological task in an introduction and five chapters that focus on geographically and temporally distinct migration waves and settlement sites for the diaspora: The Ottoman Empire, New York City, Lebanon prior and post-civil war, and finally, Southern California. Through archival research and qualitative ethnographic interviews, Alajaji meticulously details the historical contexts in which Armenia was sonically constructed differentially among disparate diasporic sites, and provides a theoretical infrastructure for scholars of diasporic cultural studies who must contend with translocal soundscapes and contested notions of home. This is a critical read for scholars of diaspora, new musicology, ethnomusicology, and sound studies. 

In the introductory chapter, Alajaji traces the political and social context preceding the Armenian Genocide in the late 19th century Ottoman Empire. Despite concerted attempts at constitutional reform, the Armenian population remained relegated to a second-class millet status. Alajaji argues that in the face of this institutional marginalization, Armenians worked locally to cohere a collective cultural identity and sense of ownership to a national territory through music. She posits that the secularizing Armenian intelligentsia successfully utilized this “vernacular mobilization” to curry a “return to their ethnic heritage and vernacular cultures to mobilize the middle, and on occasion, the lower, classes for political action” (42).  It is through this appropriation and politicization of indigenous cultures that Armenians were able to create an imagined community with a unique culture and substantiate their claim to nationhood.

The remainder of the introductory chapter centers on the musicologist Komitas Vartabed, whose work made foundational contributions to this cultural construction of a sense of authentic Armenian identity. Alajaji provides a cursory biographical sketch of Komitas: a Hungarian born orphan who was educated in Berlin as a musicologist, returned to Ottoman Armenia, and sought to discover authentic Armenian music. He believed this music was untainted by foreign/outside influences, Western notational practice, or Western harmonizing. Komitas carried out this work by conducting ethnographic/notational transcriptions of rural peasant folk music – particularly  focusing on areas in the borderlands between East and West Armenia – and touring with a choir he conducted that performed this music on both sides. Alajaji contends that Komitas’ musicological labor provided the cultural reference point to Armenian authenticity to which later diasporic waves would refer in (re)articulating their cultural and political identities. 

Chapter one provides further analysis into the politicization of Armenian cultural production by elaborating on Komitas’ musicological contributions and analytically centering the Genocide as the ‘unspeakable’ undercurrent for all diasporic subjects. Alajaji highlights three of Komitas’ central contributions to Armenian identity formation within this chapter. First, as delineated in the introduction, Komitas conducted ethnographic field work and notational transcription of rural Armenian folk music. This provided the sonic archive that future generations would reference in their attempts to rearticulate a sense of authentic ‘Armenianness’ and which Komitas would cull to generate his philological argument for an Armenian antiquity. His second intervention purported that the khan notational system provided philological evidence for a mythical claim to an ancient Armenian musical culture, since the khan notation could not be traced to Western or Turkish notational systems. Following the nationalist trajectory of the German Musicological tradition in which he was trained, Komitas’ second contribution was thus deploying musicological analysis toward the articulation of a mythical national identity. The third contribution crystallized this intention, as Komitas argued that Armenian music was fundamentally based on a series of interlocking tetrachord monodies. Alajaji complicates this otherwise neat narrative of musical nationalism by interjecting that Komitas sought to: 

“introduce polyphony to Armenian music, but in a way that he felt did not compromise its nature. Many descriptions of his approach explain that he treats each voice within a musical texture as an independent—or monophonic—entity….he did this by subordinating conventional rules of harmony and polyphony to methods originating in the folk material” (58).

Alajaji provides a thorough and incisive history of the political role these musical contributions played prior to the Genocide. However, she leaves the reader hoping for a contrapuntal reading of Komitas’ efforts at producing authentically Armenian polyphony through appropriated indigenous soundscapes (and German musicological methods!). This gap provides an opening for continued reflection and study for scholars interested in deconstructing the intersections of nationalism, indigenous dispossession, and notions of cultural authenticity. Alajaji’s otherwise rigorous first chapter would have benefitted from including these critical inquiries, even if only as open-ended analytic invitations for the reader’s contemplation. 

Chapter two focuses on the Armenian Diasporic community in New York, most of whom arrived in the tumultuous years preceding the Genocide. Alajaji examines the performances of Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical traditions alongside their Americanized re-articulations. Through this comparative musicological work, Alajaji argues that “performing Armenianness musically meant navigating within and between the ‘flowing currents’ of their exilic reality. In these performances, past home and present home are brought into a sonic simultaneity” (57). These interstitial soundscapes were reflective of Armenians’ multiple homes and changing social-material realities—in which ethnic authenticity carried less valence than racialized integration. Alajaji posits that by tuning into the 8th Avenue Music Scene where these Armenian musicians congregated with other marginalized Eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants, we can listen for musical histories of racial formation in the U.S. The music created by 8th avenue artists crossed national borders and rejected ethnic rigidity. However, while the 8th avenue music pushed for culturally pluralistic musical forms, Armenian musicians used their music to argue their cultural and ethnic distinctness from Orientalized Turkish tropes. Alajaji holds space for the complexity of these New York soundscapes, examining the musicological minutiae of these moments of inter-ethnic immigrant convergence while also shedding light on the mobilization of music toward the inclusion in U.S. whiteness. She deftly weaves this critical interdisciplinary examination into a broader historical narrative, in which she urges for the importance of listening for the changing and contested musical enunciations of translocal homes. 

Chapter three delves into the history of pre-civil war Armenian settlement in Lebanon. With the largest population of resettled Armenian refugees, Alajaji posits that Lebanon formed a unique cultural center for the diaspora. While geographically exiled from their homeland, Alajaji argues that the density of the diasporic community provided the context for an enduring commitment to the preservation of “true Armenianness” and Armenian cultural production. Schools proved to be a pivotal site for this cultural reproduction. Many of the resettled children were orphaned during the Genocide, and community organizations prioritized the care and education of these children in immersive Armenian boarding schools in order to ensure the continuation of Armenian language, music, and histories. Through school and community choirs, youth participated in the intergenerational reproduction of Armenian culture in diaspora, seeking to maintain the soundscapes of their exiled homeland rather than integrate them with their host-culture as their New York diasporic contemporaries had done. These early refugees lived in relative cultural and political autonomy from the Lebanese state, allowing for these culturally immersive schools and the rise of local community organizations that would continue to build a strengthened sense of authentic Armenianness that imagined itself as distinctly removed from Lebanese culture. This chapter provides plentiful examples of exactly what Komitas dreamt his discovery of authentic Armenian music could accomplish: uniting an ethnic group through language and music that staked claim to the political nationhood that Ottoman Armenians and diasporic subjects were consistently denied. Alajaji adds to a growing body of work that examines the nexus of education, music, and politicized identity formation for subaltern subjects.

Chapter four discusses the heated cultural contestations following the civil war in Lebanon for Armenian communities. Here Alajaji’s commendable strength is her ability to navigate the nuances of intergenerational changes in political, linguistic, and musical cultures. The post-war children who had only ever known Lebanon as a home were deemed to be a lost cause, drifting away from a fixed sense of Armenianness (and its classical repertoire) toward acculturated estradayin(hybridized) soundscapes. Alajaji culls from her 70 interviews to provide a moving counter-narrative to these static notions of Armenian identity—positing that through the estradayin musical formations that Armenian-Lebanese youth participated in and produced, they were articulating a new sense of their diasporic subjectivities. Rather than the militantly authentic notions of Armenianness that earlier generations were deeply invested in, she discusses how these estradayin songs permitted the space for a new generation’s interstitial subjectivities by speaking directly to them in their bilingual dialect and referencing Lebanese-Armenian culture. Through these intergenerational differences, Alajaji commendably weaves various narratives through musical examples to argue for the existence of multiple Armenianness-es, neither more authentic than the other for integrating external influences. This chapter would be helpful for scholars working on second-generation diasporic youth cultures and transculturation.

Chapter 5 follows the Armenian diaspora to California, focusing on Fresno in Northern California as well as Glendale and Pasadena in Southern California. Here Alajaji traces the diasporic communities that largely migrated post-Civil War in Lebanon—displaced twice from their homes in Western Armenia and their resettled homes in Lebanon. For these dually displaced communities, estradayin music could not be separated from the violent contexts that led to their exile. Thus, Alajaji picks up the thread of how music came to carry differential political significance across diasporic generations with varying investments in cultivating or adhering to an authentic Armenian identity. Alajaji posits that coffeehouses serve as central sites for this musical reimagining of the diasporic community as well as a social locus—primarily for men—to engage in the reproduction of public coffeehouse culture reminiscent of old Western Armenia. This intragroup connectivity through music, and third spaces such as cafes, became increasingly important as Armenian immigrants faced institutional discrimination in the housing sector and labor force as well as the socially vexed position of choosing to assimilate to access their liminal inclusion to whiteness. Perhaps in this chapter more than any other, we hear Alajaji’s reflexive voice the loudest. She offers incisive commentary into her own reception in the fieldwork she conducted and accessible explanations of the identity designations within the Southern California diasporic community. Closing on the impossibility of producing or preserving any authentic notions of Armenian identity, Alajaji’s monograph instead provides dutifully researched analytical apertures for future scholars to take up in their own work on cultural production throughout diasporic communities. 

Through careful musicological analysis and unwavering critical theoretical reflexivity, Alajaji challenges the essentialism of Armenian historiographies and identities while demonstrating the cultural power of music in challenging dispossession and erasure for communities in exile. 

Diaspora studies has long contended with how to conduct meticulous research that spans temporalities, geographies and linguistic divides. Postcolonial scholars provided the theoretical ground on which Alajaji could pivot her work away from essentialist notions of the Armenian diaspora—and its many scapes—toward the conceptualization of diasporic communities bound together by a changing same, a common root and route through trauma. Perhaps her most poignant contribution to diaspora studies and musicology is how the same music could carry contrasting political valences within and across different diasporic waves. This is a necessary read for scholars working though notions of diaspora, migration and intergenerational connections to music and nationalism. 

By Kristie Valdez-Guillen