Story of a Song… Long Forgotten, Now Remembered: Khani Yerka


 

By Dr. Carolann S. Najarian

It took years for me to find the courage to listen to my father’s voice as he recorded it on 20 or more cassette tapes telling the stories of his village, Sheykh Hadji in Kharpert, his family’s escape in 1915, and resettlement in New York City. He had just retired and my mother’s sister, Hasmieg, suggested he record his memoirs. It would not only give him something to do, but something that had meaning for him and for our family.

And so Dad undertook the task and worked on his recordings over the next five years.  The more he dictated the more he became involved in the project.  He researched the era of his birth and the genocide, he talked to friends and relatives about their experiences, and he resurrected the stories — some of which he had told us, but many of which were still buried in his memory, now to come out and be pieced together. At one point on the tapes he observed that working on his life story must be similar to undergoing psychoanalysis. He worked away day after day.  The years passed, he became ill and died in 1979.

I put the tapes in a case and placed them in the back of a closet with the intention of transcribing them in the next year or two.  But, I could not bring myself to listen to them, thinking that hearing his voice would put me into an emotionally tailspin which I didn’t want to face. Thus, I carefully stored them in a case and put them away, until now.

Now, more then 30 years later, with the centennial of the Armenian Genocide approaching, I decided it was time to listen to my father’s voice as he was a Genocide survivor and his story needed to be heard. I placed the first cassette in the tape deck, adjusted the audio and the distinctive timber of my father’s voice came over the speaker.  Instead of the waterfall of tears I expected, I felt a great peace, and wonderful sense of happiness — just as I did when he was alive. His voice was so like him — alive, warm, and without doubt able to command the listener’s attention even all these years later.

Slowly I worked my way through the tapes. Some were not in good condition, but most were still clear enough for Dad’s words to be understood. I got to tape #19, the year was c.1920, in the city of Batumi. Dad was describing his experience as a boy of 14, walking the streets of that city, late at night, wanting to go to Armenia to fight for his country.  Both he and his brother wanted to go to fight, but their mother wouldn’t let them. All he could do was march through the streets behind the men, the fedayeen, who were going to fight singing along with them as they marched. As he told the story, he started to sing — to sing! I don’t think I’d ever heard my father really sing a song.  And now, he was singing on that tape, sharing his heart’s most inner desire — to fight for Armenia. He wanted to follow those men to the front — the Russo-Turkish-Armenian border where Armenians were trying to hold back the advancing Turks.

 

Lousin ch’gar, moot kisher er

Me ghoomp gehr’tar, arak, arak…

 

That was all he sang — a few lines about a dark night, no moon, a group of soldiers going quickly… quickly….

I didn’t think about the song much at that moment, but knew I would have loved to hear more of it sung.  I played it over and over just to hear his voice telling the story of how he walked behind the marching men singing.

In May of this year, the Gomidas Institute published Dad’s memoir, Avedis’ Story: An Armenian Boy’s Journey. Since then, I’ve asked a number of friends if they’d ever heard this song, Lousin Ch’gar, but the answer was always the same, “No.” I searched the internet, but came up blank there, too. I began to feel it was a lost and forgotten song and that finding anyone who knew it was highly unlikely.

Then, a series of happenings showed me how wrong I was. It started with a trip to Toronto to take part in a symposium on Armenia.  After the day’s events the participants gathered at one of the organizer’s homes. After dinner, everyone sat around singing Armenian songs.  Our host played the violin, and Dr. Zareh Ouzounian played the piano.  One Armenian song after another flowed, all from their school years — children’s songs, love songs, nationalistic songs, folk songs — on and on.  It was wonderful, but I was weary and hoping the evening would end soon, as I had an early flight to catch in the morning. But the group didn’t show signs of breaking up and since the person taking me back to the hotel was one of the most ardent singers, it was not possible to ask him to depart. So, I hung on.

A point came when the songs stopped and someone said, “Anyone have any suggestions?  Requests?” I piped up, “Yes — I do. Does anyone know Lousin ch’gar?” I was greeted with blank stares. Someone said, “Sing some of it… maybe we’ll remember.” Then, one of the participants, Garbis Korajian, an Armenian born in Ethiopia who now lives in British Columbia, said, “I know it,” and started to sing in full voice, the words mixed with ‘la-la’ when memory failed. I couldn’t have been more delighted. He asked, “How do you know this song?” I countered with, “And how do you know it?”  He said, “I learned it as a little boy of six or seven in Ethiopia”

Later he told me, “Our family lived in a large compound in Addis Ababa, given to my grandfather as a reward for his faithful service as palace treasurer and advisor to Emperor Haile Selasie. My mother’s father was one of the famous 40 orphans — the National Music Band — adopted by the Emperor. My father taught all of us in the family the songs he had learned when he was at the Armenian school in Paris. He had a big book of Armenian songs from which he taught us every song from beginning to end. The first song in the book was Mer Hairenik, the second was Antranige kach, and the third was Lousin ch’gar. I haven’t heard it or thought about that song for many years.  I don’t remember all the words. If you find them, send them to me.”

I began to have hope that I would find others who knew this song as well.

Two weeks later, I was having lunch with my aunt (the same aunt who got my father to dictate his memoirs), my friend Sonya Nersessian and her mother Betty. The conversation turned to Dad’s memoir, and I told them about the song. Betty said,  “I know that song. My husband and I used to sing it a long, long time ago. I haven’t thought about that song for years.” She went on to explain that as she remembered it, it was an old Dashnag song, which the soldiers used to sing. And now she began to sing the same two lines my father sang but didn’t remember any more of it either.

The very next day I was at the office of my dentist, Dr. Vatché Seraderian. After the visit I asked, “Vatché, do you know a song that goes like this…. Lousin ch’gar….?” I didn’t get to sing even the little I knew when he began to sing it finishing the first lines. His eyes opened wide and with a look of disbelief he asked, “What ever made you think of that song. Where did you hear it? Of course I know it. My father taught it to me when I was a little boy.” I told him the story about my father singing the song as a little boy. Vatché started to sing as much of the song as he could remember.

That night Vatché went to see his father, Vartan, specifically to ask if he remembered the words to this song. Now in his nineties, Vartan was for many years a deacon and the choirmaster of St. Stephan’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown. Before coming to the US in 1980, he held teaching positions in Aleppo and then in Beirut, where he served as a choirmaster and teacher of many in liturgical and ancient Armenian music (as he was a master of the ‘khaz’ Armenian note system) and Armenian folk music.  He was also a master of Armenian nationalistic songs, which he sang and taught as well.

Vartan’s response thus was no surprise. “Of course I know the song, but I don’t remember all of the words. I will look it up in my yerkaran — my song book now 100 years old.” Interestingly, he too had learned this song when he was a little boy of eight or nine years old in Aleppo from soldiers who had escaped the Genocide and had gone to the front to fight the Turks.

The next night, Vatché’s dad arrived at his home with the song written out in his own hand and sang it from beginning to end. Vatché described the powerful emotions of the moment. Both father and son, with tears flowing, embraced each other as they remembered singing this long forgotten song. They remembered the peaceful days at their summer cottage in the mountains surrounding Beirut, the family lying on the ground on a moonless night gazing up at the stars and singing, “Lousin ch’gar….. moot kisher er…”

I have no such memory, only that of hearing my father’s voice singing it recorded for me all those years ago. My image is of him as a little boy singing it as he marched through the streets of Batum. The name of the song is Khani Yerk.

I am sure that there are those of you reading this who know this song and for whom it brings back some special memory.  If it does, please send me a note and tell me about it… I would love to know how this song has touched you. Please write to me at [email protected].