With Songs Of Syria, A California Musician Rediscovers Her Armenian Language
Bedouine has a Laurel Canyon sound with a Syrian soul.
Photo by Antonia Barrowman.
There’s a moment on Bedouine’s self-titled debut album that tugs at the heartstrings in an unexpected way. The song “Louise” is the first of two bonus tracks on the album in which singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian veers away from the English language that has dominated the album’s low-key, folksy sound. Instead, she offers lyrics in Armenian. That alone is unusual, perhaps even radical. There is said to be more than 5 million Armenian speakers globally — not much in the grand scheme of widely understood languages.
“It just occurred to me at one point that I do have this language that I could sing in,” says Korkejian by phone from Toronto, where she has just finished a tour supporting Swedish musician, Jose Gonzalez. “I felt a little self-conscious because my Armenian is not perfect.”
She continues, “I don’t even read or write [Armenian], I just know it from around the house, but I would say I’m fluent, but it ends up being a little bit spotty.”
Korkejian fills in for the language barrier with the tones of her voice, tender and comforting, as if she’s singing a lullaby on a stormy night. Through her use of Armenian, Korkejian is able to reflect on a personal story that speaks to a larger issue.
Korkejian herself is of Armenian heritage, born in Aleppo, Syria, which itself has long been home to a significant diaspora community. Korkejian’s immediate family had relocated to Saudi Arabia when she was a child and later headed to the United States. Her family was awarded green cards through the immigration lottery system that Trump is trying to eliminate. Members of her extended family, however, remained in Aleppo and were there when the civil war began in 2011. While some members of her family emigrated to Armenia, others remained in their home country. WIth “Louise,” Korkejian sings in Armenian about the difficult decisions people must make as a result of this war.
“I was thinking a lot about which of my family members decided to stay in Syria during the war and which of them decided to leave,” she says. “I was getting pretty concerned about the ones that were staying. There are a lot of near misses with bombings and stuff. I was talking to my parents and asking, why would they stay? Shouldn't they leave at all costs?”
But Korkejian’s questions had more complicated answers. “We talked about it a little bit and the more I thought about it, the more I sympathized with their position and how difficult it must be to start over again and leave everything behind, everything you’ve invested,” she says. “I started to sympathize with that more, and I started to think about how difficult it must be to be stuck in this idle time and waiting out a war.”
For “Louise,” Korkejian focuses on the decision. “The verse talks about trusting in your own decision, whether to leave or stay, wait out a war and having the conviction to decide for yourself and not really giving into what other people are doing or thinking,” she says.
While subject matter is heavy, the song itself isn’t. “It’s strangely upbeat,” she says. “The song is hopeful for sure. The chorus talks about keeping that spark in your eye and staying lighthearted enough to keep going and make it through.”
Eslewhere on the album, Korkejian addresses the Syrian civil war with the bleak “Summer Cold.” Specifically, she comments on U.S. involvement in Syria with the lyrics, “Why must they get involved? What on Earth could this solve?” With the final line, she makes a declaration: “I’ve had enough of your guns and your ammunition.”
“I kept reading that the United States was sending arms to the rebel fighters over there, but they kept getting into the hands of terrorist groups,” says Korkejian. “It was an emotional reaction to hearing that over and over again and the frustration towards the violence.”
Korkejian brought her own memories of Aleppo, which she last visited about eight years ago, into the song with a soundscape that concludes the piece. She used both found sounds and recreated sounds to design a sonic scene that resembled her recollections of the city. Ambient beds were used to imitate street noise, upon which she layered the clicks and clacks of donkey hooves and game pieces on a backgammon board, as well as the clinking of tea and coffee cups against saucers. “The sound of the cup hitting the saucer, that’s pretty loaded for me,” she says. “It triggers a lot of memories.”
In songs like “Louise” and “Summer Cold,” Korkejian draws upon big issues as subject matter, but she addresses them with a sense of intimacy that’s reflected in both the delicate production and the personalized content of the songs. Elsewhere on the album, Korkejian’s introspective lyrics venture into other territories. On “Back to You,” she sings about finding a place to belong in Los Angeles. “It was a song about staying in L.A. for somebody, for a romantic partner, despite not necessarily knowing my place there,” she says. With “Heart Takes Flight,” she sings about “giving yourself permission to love somebody and become attached to someone.”
Korkejian says that she didn’t do too much planning with her debut album. “I don’t think I have that much control over it. It's so instinctual, song to song,” she says. “When it came time to turn something in to the label, we were cherry-picking our favorite songs so I think they’re all cohesive in some ways, but they weren’t planned to be together necessarily.” Put together, though, her debut as Bedouine forges a strong identity of an artist bringing together past recollections and present-day wishes in a collection that reveals that multifaceted nature of identity. Now, she’s sharing her work on the road. She’ll be crisscrossing across the U.S. and Canada through April, making a stop at the Newport Folk Festival in July. Much like her music, her journey continues.