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Rabiz as a Mainstream of Armenian Popular Culture

Rabiz as a Mainstream of Armenian Popular Culture

Bach or Baribach?

Armenians who are even remotely familiar with their culture, by all odds know what is rabiz, as one can hear this word so often, but if you ask them what it is, you are unlikely to hear an intelligible answer to it.   That figures: this word is used as a negative adjective for everything: from the interior to the behavior and physical appearance of a person. Regardless the straightforward negative attitude towards rabiz by the Armenian society, it is very active in the music field and more over is the mainstream (or style-whatever you want to call it) of popular culture in Armenia and in some communities of Diaspora.

So, what is at the bottom of it all?

In fact, in the past the word “rabiz” had a quite specified definition and only afterwards it became blurred and intergrew with the modern Armenian reality. 

Rabiz, by default “rabis” is an abbreviation, meaning «работники искусства» in Russian which is translated as people working in the arts.  This union arose in parallel with the formation of the Soviet Union and initially it comprised only art experts.  But gradually the union turned into bureau that gathered around itself amateur singers-loafers, who sang at weddings and funerals. 

The representatives of rabis and their end-users were officially considered as fringes of society and their music was reckoned as low quality correspondingly.  Rabis musicians were not admitted to Radio and TV, they were not covered in media world.  The only alternative for self-expression of rabis musicians, were some restaurants and, one can say, that distribution of this music was “under the counter”. 

Nothing stands still, and rabis too underwent modification, by obtaining newer accents.  Admirers of Azerbaijani mugham and melodies slowly started to reshape and create similar music in Armenian style.   There appeared ensembles playing folk and gusan music on the order of socialistic realities, by using Oriental (later - folk) instruments.   Thus, rabis from the fringe direction rose to the level of Soviet “middle culture”.

The love of Armenians for this kind of music through history is explained by the fact that the nation living as an oppressed minority was under the influence of dominating culture and eventually absorbed that culture.

«Armenians became so intimately linked with Tatar (Turkic) language that even stopped singing their own folk songs and were listening with delight to the motives of Tatar music.  As a result, ashughs (folk singers) started even to compose and sing songs in Tatar language. (Collection of materials to describe the areas and tribe of Caucasus, number 2, 1882)

For a long time, end-users of this kind of music were the residents of rural areas, but everything started to change along with the social-economic transformations in the USSR.  In 1960’s, the new processes of industrialization and urbanization make up a new working class from the rural residents.  The government of the Republic of Armenia starts to detach the rural population from their former homesteads and massively resettles them in the city.   Considering their multiplicity, the working class soon becomes the mainstream of the popular culture in the city.

The second half of the XX century becomes a true ordeal for the Armenian intellectuals who had to confront the new “fashionable” trends. In the book “Conversations with Saryan” (2002) by art expert Wilhelm Matevosyan, there is a passage related to the period of 1960s.  Martiros Saryan recalls on how difficult it was for them to set up conservatory after Komitas:

«There were extremely tense and unpleasant debates between the musicians when there was a question as to what kind of music to teach and, in general, advancement of music culture.   There were rural “wise men”: demagogues, beating their breasts in the name of the nation and saying that we are an eastern nation, our music is eastern, oriental, our instruments are oriental, and the country is ruled by the nation.  Consequently, musical teaching, musical facilities and all other organizations must be mainly eastern oriented and not have European content or direction as it is foreign and strange for us».

Whereby the supporters of the “Oriental” option, those that identified the Armenian music with the oriental one was noticeably larger:

'Their army as the opponents of the progressive activities was larger, more united and combative, they had many supporters among other intellectuals: writers, poets, historians and so on.  When I look back I realize that it was a true tragedy.  Poor Romanos (composer, music teacher, founder of the Armenian romance songs – editor’s note) was in insufferable psychological state.  He did not want and as a true patriot he could not  take a back seat.   He knew that his inactivity would make his supporters to give up and in the end the consequences would be very painful. On these heady days, one rainy evening when things were getting really tense, Romanos Melikyan, torn apart by stupid and demagogic conversations, could not stand this anymore, he approached the tribune, slammed his fist down on the table and exclaimed: “either Bach or baribach!” That was all he said (everyone understood what he had in mind when saying baribach, as the composer meant the primitive Turkic song, very popular back then “Ay baribach”. He exclaimed this word and left the audience in desperate condition. In the end, of course, likeminded people secured the victory.'

The battle that took place during this period and continues until now, shows that not only the supporters of rabiz disappeared under the “onslaught” of the active intellectuals of the city but they have increased in quantity.

Rabiz has successfully made its way from the musical direction to a whole lifestyle, system of values, that includes a large segment of the people.  Thus, the society is polarized not only in terms of social-economic aspect, but also in cultural way: those that reject the traditional Armenian culture and those who seek to preserve it by all means.  There is a significant influence of the mafia-style from the TV on this segment of the people and deification of wealth.  They do not support the true Armenian culture that is presented in the music, painting and architecture. 

As to the music itself, the main characteristic of rabiz about twenty thirty years ago were the arrangements reminding the pop music of America and Britain in the 1980s, accompanied by duduk, that emphasizes the gloomy atmosphere for talking about cherished people, parents, brothers, friends and of course about unhappy love.   All this was accompanied by throaty vibrating sounds (called subtle rabiz opponents: “Turkish-Arabic runs”).

The performers, who in particular diligently vibrate their voice and have practically approached to their ideal: mugham could receive a well-deserved appraisal not only among the Armenian admirers listening to the sounds of music with a painful expression on face reflecting their inner feelings, but also among the Azerbaijani audience if they were not separated by the boundaries of mutual hostility.   

Today the industry offering the audience rabiz music is actively developing and the musical works of other genres continue to remain as a minority.  This phenomenon is dissolved into the Armenian environment so much that has become a rather subjective characteristic meaning both vulgarity, pretentiousness, trickster behavior and special way of oriental performing and style of musical accompaniment. Currently rabiz is “operated covertly” under lyrical songs enjoying high rate of popularity in Armenia.  This being said it is worth noting that not all the rabiz performers admit it.   It should be noted that all the merry, dancing Armenian music in Armenian is rabiz, with very rare exceptions. Consequently, there is no Armenian feast without it.

Over the years not only the lyrical songs were performed in rabiz manner, but also practically all the folk songs, and certain layers of society assumed that the songs performed in rabiz style are the Armenian folk songs.

Like in every business, in show business as well, demand begets supply: indeed, most people listen to rabiz, for example the views on YouTube, that clearly show the statistics. Currently the most popular song of Armenian performers on YouTube is “Mi Gna” (Don’t Go), performed by famous rabiz singer Spitaktsi Hayko.  In two years 160 million people have viewed the song, and the main content of listeners are Arabs, Turks and other people from the Eastern countries, who have even created the remakes of the song. 

The war with rabiz is not over yet, today rabiz is a regular army, whereas the high-quality music with Armenian elements are the warriors, but ideological warriors, that put up the quality over money and this way they hold out hope that the Armenian society will move towards the traditional Armenian and high quality contemporary music.


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