Armenian violinist Tamara Khachatryan on Arabic music, coming to the US, and the soul of the violin
Interview by Kimi Eisele
Tamara Khachatryan is an Armenian-born violinist who taught and performed in Syria until she fled the war and came to the United States. She plays both traditional and classical Armenian and Arabic music. She is the recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award, and has been working with her daughter Angelina, to transmit knowledge about Armenian culture and folk music.
How did you come to be a musician and violinist?
I learned music when I was very young. My father was a great cellist and he also played guitar. It was a family activity. Any time people came in our house, my sister and I would sing and play music and there would always be singing and dancing. I learned a lot of songs from my father, especially Armenian folk songs. They were trying to decide which instrument was better for me, piano, violin, or guitar. I was only three years old, and we went to musical store. I saw this whole wall of violins and I just grabbed the tiniest violin, a 1/32. They said, “No, you need the 1/16 violin.” But I said, “No, it’s my perfect size!” I grabbed the scroll and ran away from the store. When they tried to pull the violin from my hands, pop! went the scroll. I broke the violin. It was so sad, but another musician who was working with my dad said, “I will fix it, no problem. But I think your daughter should be violinist.”
That was my start. After that, my sister and I start to duet together. They called us to be on an Armenian TV show and we played duets, including Armenian folk arrangement for two violins with my father on guitar. So that was how I started to become more professional.
I went to music school with Caturyan Marjick Paruirovna. She was my first teacher. She used to work with classical and Armenian folk music, including music theory. She encouraged me to practice more. I start to play in orchestra in school. We learned Russian and Armenian composers, and I was really interested more in Armenian composers because the music was very colorful.
When you play Armenian, you can express your emotion. Like with Komitas, the composer. It was 1915 when a genocide comes to Armenia. A lot of people get killed. You really feel that stress, that emotional sadness that Komitas was trying to express that with his music. I would play Komitas and I would get very sad about Armenia. Eventually I composed a song. I composed ten to fifteen songs and I started recording in our Arzagank studio in Armenia, where you can go and record your songs. I started doing that when I was in college. I went to Arnobabajenia school and graduated in 1997. That was when I started wanting to become a professional violinist. My mother wanted me to try something else. She likes music, but she didn’t want to me to become a professional musician, she wanted me to become a lawyer also. My dad’s side, it’s more musicians. His father was composer. My aunt was conductor, she had a choir. She was a great musician and violinist, and she inspired me to continue our musical line. Even though my mom wasn’t sure, I continued my dad’s side because that’s my way.
When did you leave Armenia?
I left Amenia in summer 1998. My sister was in Syria. She got married there. She was calling me every single year to come to see Syria. “You can see a horse in the street. You can see different culture, different music.” When I went to Syria, it was so different than Armenia. It’s a totally different people, more closed. It was hard to understand at first. I started working at Ganachat, an Armenian community where I taught music, violin theory. Then I found the state conservatory, the Arabic Music Institute, and from 1998 to 2007 I worked there. I met my husband there.
Fadi Iskandar, also a violinist.
Yes, Fadi. He was a teacher. Our rooms were close by. It was Ramadan so the students were only coming for two specific hours because they were fasting or breaking fast, and so as teachers, we were sitting around trying to do some interesting things, and we started to play duets. Fadi had a small Arabic chamber orchestra. He had a beautiful arrangement for the singer Fairuz, and that became the beginning or our musical life together. It turned into an engagement and after that we got married. But it all started with music.
What were some of the similarities between the Armenian sounds and what you were learning from Fadi?
I was very interested in the scales. In Arabic music from natural to natural there are nine commas. In English they might be called quarter-tones. In Armenian music, we have a sharp or a flat between the two naturals. So it goes natural-sharp-natural or natural-flat-natural. But we used to have the nine commas in Armenian music too, but Komitas changed that get an arrangement for four sounds. I always feel that comma when my grandfather was singing, or when my relatives were singing. It was that comma. I started to play that comma, and that was beginning of my interest in Arabic music.
Fadi he taught me a lot. He had a cellist friend and I started to go every week to just learn that comma, how it sounds on violin.
When my director in the Arabic conservatory saw my interest, he invited me into his chamber orchestra. That encouraged me more to play Arabic music. We traveled with him to Kuwait. After, I started to play with Majida El Roumi, a great Lebanese singer who played with Fadi, so that gave me more opportunity. We traveled with Majida El Roumi to Qatar, Kuwait, Tunisia, Australia, Ivory Coast, and Canada. That was so fun. Those were the best years of my very beautiful musical life.
It was a busy time, the six years after we got married. I was 23 to 29. There was no time to even think about kids. I was a working in a chamber orchestra and with singers and with a lot of private students. I decided it’s time for baby. After I got pregnant, it was too hard for me to travel to three hours every week to Homs to teach so I stopped. I kept teaching three different other schools. It was so hard, but I was enjoying really it. My time in Syria was kind of a short time, just 15 years. It was very full musical life. And then the war started and it just destroyed all our life.
Tell me that chapter.
When the war started in Syria, our daughter Angelina was only four years old. First it started far from Aleppo, where we lived. But by February 2012, it became a problem in Aleppo. I sent my daughter to school. It was Christian school. It was very good school, close to my house, like five minutes. She was very excited. I remember my neighbor was always giving candy to Angelina before her ride to school. We were really happy. That day she went to school and I came back home. It will close to nine o’clock. I felt two, big, huge bombs explode. At the time you don’t really recognize what’s going on. You think, did I just hear that? You don’t know. Because we weren’t having problems in Aleppo. I went to my husband and said, “Fadi, is what I heard explode the bombs?” He said, “Yes.” It was so hard. I don’t even want to remember it. I just tried to cover myself and do what I needed to do. I said, “Let me go and grab Angelina, maybe it is dangerous,” because you feel the shooting everywhere. Fadi said, “If you go, maybe you cannot get back home and your daughter will die. So please stay. We’ll call the school.” We tried and called for one hour, two hours. Nobody was answering at that time. I don’t know what happened. I’m so lucky because our relative was working the same school. I called her and she told me my daughter is in school. No worries. Stay home. Don’t move. Because if you come here, it will get even worse. That was the beginning. After that, it got even worse.
How long did it take you to get out?
It started getting worse, but you know, you don’t really want to destroy your life. How can explain? You still have hope. There was a tiny shop under our house. It was a shopping center. The people start to hide with guns in there. They shot our balcony. It got worse and worse. My students, they weren’t rich, but they were people who had enough to pay for music lessons, but their houses were so far. Every time I would go to somebody’s house, somebody got kidnapped somewhere or there were bombs in the middle of the street. I said, “I cannot go that far to even teach the students anymore.” And they didn’t want to come to me. One place I worked was a school very close to my house and even that was too dangerous—no lights, no electricity. It was so stressful. You had to tell the student to keep playing, even though there were bombs. I said, “Fadi, sorry I cannot continue anymore.” I started to have stomach problems, shaking hands. People said, “Maybe you need to wait a little bit more. Maybe it will get better.” But finally, I said, “No, I think I need to leave even though I have a beautiful house here. Even though I had a lot of friends. I need to leave.” I traveled to Jordan and got a visa because of my daughter. I was thinking just for a few months and then we’ll come back when it gets better. But it never happened.
All three of you came to the United States together?
I came with Angelina first. I got a visa just for a few months. Hopefully, like six months, I will back, I thought. But then more bombs. They destroyed a very huge hotel near my house, which also destroyed the street. That’s when Fadi decided he would try to get the visa. But the first time he tried, he didn’t get the visa. Every day Angelina looked at his picture and said, “Please help my dad come home.” God was listening to her praying, and finally it happened. The the second time he got the visa. That was an exciting day.
And when you left, you just brought a suitcase and your violin?
I looked around my house and I just grabbed my violin and my cookbook. That’s the first thing I’m thinking. It’s a very good cookbook because it was my aunt’s, the musician and conductor who encouraged me to be a musician. So I took those two things. I took just a little bit of shoes for Angelina and some clothes. The worst thing happened—they stole our bags in Cairo. So, I came here without shoes, without clothes. Without anything. Except for the violin and cookbook.
I went to my aunt in Los Angeles, but she has a big family, three daughters. Los Angeles was a very busy city. It’s too hard without a car. I had rent for one, two months, but I can’t do more. I stayed there for one week. So Fadi has relatives in Tucson. They came here long time ago, and Marlane called me and said, “Why don’t you try Tucson? It’s not as expensive as Los Angeles and the people here are friendly and there are not freeways everywhere. Please come.” I remember we went to Circle K where there were bus tickets and one of the places was to Tucson. I said if we click the button and it works, we will go there. The person clicked and said, “Yes, you got two tickets.” When I sat on the bus I feel very happy to go to Tucson. I want to go somewhere it’s quiet. I don’t want any fancy things. I just want life. I want a quiet and beautiful life.
Fadi’s relatives are so friendly. It wasn’t easy right away. We had a tiny studio first and it was hard, especially when Fadi came because we were the three of us there in one tiny bed. But if you take it with a smile, it gets positive. So I wasn’t that sad. I said, “We saved our life. It doesn’t matter where we are.”
There was so much going on and so much change, did you find yourself picking up your violin sometimes or were you just not playing it much during that time?
It was a hard emotional process. When I was touching my violin, I always played sad music. Something like Tchaikovsky’s Melancholic Serenata. Or Komitas or songs for church or praying. It was dramatic songs. I wondered, “Why do I like that? Why do I like something so sad? I am not that way.” Before, I’d like to play fast and optimistic songs. But that specific period in my life, I liked to play dramatic and sad music
You were grieving.
I was grieving, yes.
Fadi’s relative, she’s a very good helper, and soon others came to offer help. People I didn’t even know. And just one day, I woke up and said, “Tamara, you have to stand up again. Forget about everything past so you can go forward.” Today is my action. I need to rebuild my life. We have a lot of energy, we can find a job. We can find the life. We can find a lot of friends, we can find everything we’ve lost. It’s hard to forget everything. You still remember sometimes. It was beautiful, my house, but I don’t think that’s the point. I’m trying to think of my day-to-day actions. What can I do? What can I grow? What can I create? So when I changed that, I changed my life.
Did your music change?
My music turns opposite, to bright music. It’s kind of my personality. And I work with Angelina, my apprentice. I’m giving her beautiful Armenian songs. I started to perform again. An audience, you cannot cry for them. Audiences need positive music. No more sad songs. It’s not me anymore.
Could you play a little of the sad melancholic music? And then some of the brighter music?
Your whole face is so different from the first to the last.
That’s exactly what happened with me—going from darkness to light, you know, to hope.
The violin has a whole range, doesn’t it? From the darkest deepest grief to the highest happiness all in one instrument.
When Fadi came, we started to teach our daughter to play violin and piano. She was my apprentice this year. I taught her and she really loves Armenian music. I’m trying to give my experience to her to encourage her. She told me recently, “Mama, I want to be a musician.” And that was the best thing ever. My second daughter she’s playing piano too.
What significance does violin in particular have to Armenian culture?
The very important thing with the violin is that it gives you different emotional situations. For example, when I work with my daughter, I’m thinking mostly the point of playing is a connection with people in performances. In Corona time, for me it was very hard to be a musician. What matters most to me is to show the audience my emotion, so the most important aspect of the violin is its performance. Even though you can play for yourself a lot, if you don’t share it with other people, there’s no point. It’s not just my family tradition.
Maybe the difference between people and the violin is that people can leave you. People can destroy your life. But the violin cannot. I try to explain this to my students. The violin will always remember, it never forgets. I feel it has a soul. There’s a little part of the wood that I think has a soul. I tell my students, “Please don’t put the violin face down because if you destroy the soul, your violin will stop understanding you.”
Sometimes when I’m going to take a small trip to California, I’m taking my violin. And people ask, “Why? It’s just three days.” I say, I can’t leave my violin. My violin is my best friend all my life.
You mentioned that cookbook. Do you make Armenian food?
I’m making lots of Armenian food, I like to cook Russian and Arabic food. Shish-kebob, Lahmacun, which a bread with meat, and Russian blinchik. When I’m cooking that for my husband, he says, “This is the best blinchik I ever tried in my life,” But that’s because he’d never tried them before! I really love Armenian lavash, a bread people bake in a fire made in a big hole under the floor. It’s very dangerous for the people making it. It’s so fiery, so hot, but it’s the best lavash. I really love it.