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Fragments of Armenian identity in Turkey

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Fragments of Armenian identity in Turkey



A look back at a project of revitalization of Armenian culture and preservation of Armenian identity in Turkey. The “Van Project”: a three-year ethnographic and ethno-musicological research project to recapture fragments of the Armenian identity preserved by local people in Turkey.

In 2010, the French-Armenian NGO Yerkir Europe launched a vast program towards the Turkish civil society including in particular the creation of the Van Project aimed at reviving the Armenian identity and legacy in Western Armenia (today’s South-Eastern Turkey). In the beginning, the Van Project organized around a study group based in Yerevan and composed of professionals in the field of traditional Armenian music – historians, ethnologists and ethnomusicologists – under the supervision of Norayr Kartashyan. In November 2010, a musical ensemble made of around 15 students from the Yerevan Music Conservatory was formed thanks to a partnership with the Rhône-Alpes Regional Council (France).

Excerpt from Van Projet concert at Münzür Festival in Dersim and Hozat, 30th July 2011.

Armen Ghazarian, coordinator of the project at Yerkir Europe explains: “The music ‘Van Project’ as a whole is the backbone of a larger project which was created as an ethnographic and ethnomusicology research laboratory enabling to revive in Armenia the instruments and musical genres that have been perpetuated, after the 1915 genocide, among people who had been in contact with Armenians living in Eastern Turkey (now Western Armenia), such as Kurds, Hamshens, or Zazas from Dersim.”


Excerpt from Van Projet concert at Münzür Festival in Ovaçik, Dersim, 29th July 2011.

In order to perpetuate the teaching of Armenian traditional music, some amount of research was necessary, as Norayr Kartashyan explains: “In Armenia, the most widespread music is Caucasian Armenian music. It is not purely Armenian music, but specific to the area. In that particular case, the problem was extract what was signature Armenian folk music from it. In Armenia, even the gusanakan (minstrel) folk songs have unclear origins. They have expanded far and wide and still are under Caucasian influence. We have traveled towards Little Armenia (Pokr Hayk), now in Turkey. There, we listened to various music samples and listed them. We went to Hamshen (Hemşin) where we collected more material. Not to mention the Armenian bagpipe (the tkzar or parkarpzuk), a very interesting instrument currently threatened with disappearance as there are only three players left in Armenia. We have studied it as much as possible, met the musicians, and bought some Hamsheni bagpipes (tulum) in order to compare them, and reassembled the instrument.”


Demonstration of Armenian bagpipes (tkzar or parkarpzuk), Erevan, March 2010.

The Van Project in Turkey, in the footsteps of the Armenian legacy.

Several missions were conducted in Turkey between 2011 and 2013, when the whole Van Project music ensemble accompanied by groups of experts (turkologists, ethnologists and ethnomusicologists) from Armenia and the diaspora went to meet crypto-Armenians from the Dersim and Hamshen Islamized Armenians. Traveling the roads of Eastern Turkey, the group thus took part in several music festivals (Dersim, Diyarbakir, Malatya, Van, and Istanbul) where they produced themselves in front of thousands of people, an audience enthused at the sight of this unique band.

Excerpt from the Van Projet concert at Arguvan Festival in Malatya, 24th July 2011.

These journeys were also an opportunity to meet many Turkish, Kurdish, Zaza and Hamsheni musicians and share powerful moments both musically and socially. The discovery of an Armenian legacy in the Turkish and Kurdish musical traditions was also an important dimension of that journey as underlined by this encounter made by Norayn Kartashian: “In Harput (Elazığ) we met a clarinetist and asked him who had been his teacher (varped). He said that it was his father. I asked him: ‘And who was your father’s varped?’ He said it was an Armenian, ‘Varped Harutiun’.” And this other story showing the pervading presence of Armenian identity through territories of Eastern Turkey: “I also remember that young saz player we had met during interaction with Zaza musicians in Dersim, and who befriended the Van Project musicians. He followed us along our whole stay because when his father heard that he had met Armenians, he told his son that his grandmother was Armenian and passed on to him the only heirloom she had left him, her cross, which his son was now wearing around his neck. These anecdotes show that there are Armenian traces everywhere.”

"Sari Gelin" Excerpt from a Van Project concert in Istanbul, September 2011

The ethnomusicological search was also was fruitful, enabling to make hundreds of priceless sound and visual recordings which will serve further research. Margarita Sarkissian, an ethnomusicologist at Yerevan University, who took part in the missions around Turkey, underlines the importance of such a project: “Until I went to Turkey, many of my musician friends told me that they had never done such work in Armenia itself, so why go elsewhere? But there, the situation is really critical. We have to focus our attention on it because everything is quickly being shrouded by forgetfulness, facing the threat of total disappearance. Here [in Armenia], traditional singing and dancing bands keep the Armenian musical legacy alive at a high level, whereas over there, the Armenian identity features are on the verge of extinction.” These various meetings in Turkey have allowed us to establish collaborations with the teams of Diyarbakir City Hall who hosted the Van Project in September 2012 for a week-long music residency. Workshops were organized allowing Van Project musicians to work and study together with students of the Aram Tigran Conservatory of Music in Diyarbakir.

Excerpt from the Van Project concert at the Aram Tigran Conservatory of Music in Diyarbakir, September 2012

Over those three years, the Van Project was able to reinstate Armenian instruments and music styles and also revive the Armenian identity in Turkey and create entirely new connections between people who previously had little or no contact between them. Almost a hundred years after the Armenian Genocide, the action undertaken by Yerkir Europe shows that although much remains to be done in this land forsaken for much too long after 1915, and that they can be reinfused with Armenian identity.

Van Kültür park açılışı'nda Van Project ve... par aris-nalci

Excerpt from the Van Project concert for the opening of the Van Kültür Park, 8th  September 2012




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