After a whirlwind tour of the Middle East (Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan) in February, Los Angeles-based Lebanese-Armenian multi-genre music producer Baruir Panossian, aka Bei Ru, sat down with Audio Kultur’s Jackson Allers to discuss the legacy of his own music, whether he’s the 21st century equivalent of Alan Lomax, and whether what he produces is a form of musical resistance, particularly at a time when Armenians around the world prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide.
When music is taken from a culture, there is little way to recall that cultural remnant once it’s purveyors are gone. I’m reminded of Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sasamouth, Pan Ron, and Maes Samouen – the main voices of the Khmer rock sound that flourished in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
Killed alongside nearly two million of their compatriots during leader Pol Pot’s genocidal attempt at total extermination of anyone he felt stood in the way of the agrarian utopia he had envisioned (1975-1979) – the death of these singers represented the culling of nearly all of Cambodia’s musical artists and intellectuals during that time period.
Despite Pot’s best efforts, however, Khmer rock withstood complete eradication via the cassette tapes that were the remnants of their ad hoc recording sessions – usually one-take live sessions that showcased the influences of Western music broadcasted from US Armed Forces radio; surfer guitar riffs, psychedelic feats of distortion, tight horn sections, tied together with unique Cambodian melodies that oozed from the voices of Cambodian stars like Ros and Sinn Sisamouth.
Still, the human elements these artists represented, and the evolution of a Cambodian music scene which they could have helped develop, will tragically never be known because of their deaths.
When I bring up the idea of cultural loss like this with Baruir Panossian, a respected member of LA’s multi-genre music production scene and himself a descendant of the Armenian Genocide, it digs deep into his artistic innards.
His first album, Little Armenia, was self-released in 2010 (Musa Ler Records) and was created almost entirely from samples of rare Armenian music, some of it produced in the early 1970s with a sound and feel that was every bit as radical and funky as Khmer rock.
“I look at what I’m doing as a form of cultural resistance,” he tells me from his apartment in Los Angeles, “I really felt that taking little bits and pieces of music from my culture that has largely been forgotten by people in general let alone people from my own culture – is one of the best ways to preserve what’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
Baruir, known as Bei Ru to his growing worldwide fan base, is the son of ethnic Armenian parents from Lebanon who grew up primarily in the LA-suburb of San Fernando Valley. I interviewed him via Skype one month ahead of the 100th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, which, for most Armenians in the Diaspora, is a heavy subject. So heavy, in fact, that it is a topic we’d managed to avoid during a 2-week tour of the Middle East in February 2015 which I documented as part of the regional debut for his second album release, Saturday Night at the Magic Lamp (Backside Records/Musa Ler Records, 2014).
We did spend time talking about our ethnic heritage and growing up Armenian in the United States after he learned that I too was the descendent of a genocide survivor. But unlike Bei Ru, who still had family in Lebanon and Armenia that he has visited over the years and are those with direct connections to the Genocide, my Armenian family in Iraq had left by the late 1970s and I had no family in Armenia.
My own direct connection to the Genocide, my mother’s father – Garabed Melik-Keramian, or Garo, as his family and friends in our small Texas community of Armenians called him, made his way to Baghdad as a child refugee – the only survivor of 7 siblings massacred in his family home by Turkish soldiers in the Keram province in Eastern Anatolia.
His was a story told more through the lens of others. He rarely talked to his grandchildren about his experiences during the Genocide. I lost that fountainhead of knowledge when I was 12 years old, and the memories over the years that I associated most with my grandfather after his death came in the form of songs that triggered movements back in time – Armenian records that he’d play during parties or cassettes that he’d put into the component stereo system and be so proud of in the late 1970s.
And that was something both Bei Ru and I had in common: the use of song to trigger memories, though it wasn’t something he and I explicitly discussed. Rather, I felt it more through the study of his music.
With his first album, Little Armenia, Bei Ru wasn’t just mapping the music that he had heard growing up in his family home, such as Armenian priest, musicologist and composer Komitas’ early 20th century song “Der Voghormia” (“Lord Have Mercy”), from his Divine Liturgy, and music by ubiquitous – at least in Armenian households – turbo pop singers Harout Pamboukjian and Adiss Harmandian. Rather, with Little Armenia, he was mapping out a sort of run-through of Armenian recording history the likes of which had never been done before.
The bedrock of Bei Ru’s production sensibility was sample culture – made possible through years of crate-digging in Los Angeles, and during trips to the Middle East – rifling through bins in dusty thrift stores, back alley antique stores, and public markets – for rare and out of print Armenian records to sample alongside the funk, rock and soul records that formed the musical roots to Bei Ru’s other big musical influence in LA – hip hop.
“When I started finding these Armenian records that were damn near forgotten, it instilled me with a sense of just how much I wanted people to be aware of this music and to share it. To be the person that happens to be able to expose other people to the things – the music – that I was exposed to, I think is a beautiful thing,” he said.
A sort of self-styled ethnic-revivalist of the neo-Alan Lomax variety, Bei Ru’s own musical discoveries of rare Armenian musical acts from the Diaspora he said were like a “cultural map” that told him “how far the Armenian Diaspora had gotten” – with much of this Diaspora flung to the far reaches of the world because of the Genocide.
According to Bei Ru, unearthing vinyl with Armenian musicians from Iran, that were released before the Iranian Revolution, or from Armenian musicians from Latin America – Uruguay, Argentina – or closer afield in Syria, Lebanon and Armenia itself, has helped him see an evolving Armenian musical identity forged with “the sounds and instruments from their surroundings” and so, he says, “we find this beautiful fusion of Armenian music as a result.”
“I feel like if more people were exposed to the same type of Armenian music that I began finding in my travels then they would similarly be blown away and take steps to discover this music more. And not just young Armenians! I think it could lead to a whole preservation movement.”
As he began to amass a buzz on the independent music circuit in LA through a series of residences and appearances at tastemaker spots like Dublab.com, Bei Ru caught the attention of LA-based production company Mochilla, and in 2010 they co-released a mix of late 1960s to late 1970s Armenian songs that he cherry-picked from his vinyl excursions – music that made it into Little Armenia and that he said represented one of the “most fruitful” and experimental periods “in modern popular Armenian music history.”
As he explained during our interview, “I know there are a lot of these musicians still out there that I’ve discovered. And a lot of them aren’t aware that what they did 30 or 40 years ago is even still being listened to or relevant.”
Bei Ru relayed a story of connecting with one of the sons of the French progressive-rock group Zartong. “Zartong – which means rebirth in Armenian – were these four French Armenian dudes – and they made this album in 1979 that was only released in France. I remember the first time I saw it. That’s a great example of ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe something like this was actually done!’ It’s this combination of Armenian folk-music, with electronica and progressive rock arrangements. It was a beautiful combination. So it’s those kind of jewels that I find sometimes – and I really want other people to hear them. For me, it becomes a matter of musical archeology really.”
For his 2014 sophomore release Saturday Night at the Magic Lamp, Bei Ru crafted a concept album that showed a clear maturity in production when compared to Little Armenia – more based on live production elements (electric oud, guitar, bass, keyboards and piano) that is marriage to sampling, adding to his live show the possibility of morphing into different back-line configurations.
The album concept stems from a record sample of an Armenian bandleader welcoming guests to a place called “the Magic Lamp” – which Bei Ru then turned into a mythical venue – a secretive place that resides somewhere in between reality and Baruir’s imagination. It took him three years to produce the 18-track LP, whittled down from some 100 songs that he had composed as possible entries on the album.
Burbank-based Backside records began distributing Saturday CDs in 2014, noting the much more Middle-Eastern influence of the album – a result of Bei Ru’s continuous search for great sounds from the Near East. According to Backside: “The sounds coming out of this record made me feel like I had entered an intimate nightclub in Beirut, Lebanon circa 1968. There are no chairs, only pillows to sit on, there are belly dancers, there is a potent smell of flavored tobacco in the air, a live psychedelic Middle Eastern band performing…and to set the mood off, the light bulbs in the place are purple and dimmed very low.”
With a Backside vinyl release in the works, and as he plans more trips to the region in the near future, I wondered if there was a percentage of his growing fan base emanating from Turkey.
“It’s crazy man. People from all over the world have reached out. It’s an incredible feeling that the music can go that far and reach that many people, including a percentage from Turkey,” he said.
And on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, another question loomed: as the grandson of Armenians who were among the 4,200 survivors of the legendary 53-day siege at Musa Dagh (“Mount Moses”) near the Mediterranean-Syrian border against Ottoman Turkish forces in 1915, I also wondered if Bei Ru was conflicted by a Turkish fan base that might deny the Genocide, and thus his own family’s history of survival as a result?
“It’s a very difficult question to answer. I’m here doing music, and I can’t help but think certain things or wonder certain things about how a person feels if they’re Turkish,” he answered. “I feel it’s also important for me to voice my opinion about the Genocide when necessary. I think if you feel a certain way and are educated enough on the topic, then you should not shy away from it just because you don’t want to offend someone. But at the end of the day, I’m also not afraid to confront my own history even if it means upsetting the ‘Armenian brand’,” he said.
Unlike Pol Pot, Armenian music and its musical class not only survived but flourished. And outside of the efforts of the metal group System of a Down, there’s certainly no one out there helping to bolster the Armenian brand musically more than Bei Ru.