As a Lebanese Armenian musician in international arena, it’s a double fight

Lebanese Armenian musician Eileen Khatchadourian has been recently in Turkey on April 24, for the Memorial Concert. This time she came for the Hrant Dink Award Ceremony to İstanbul. At this special evening she sang songs from her latest album ‘Titernig’ (Butterfly). We came together with her and talked about her identity shaped in various lands, her authentic interpretation of traditional Armenian songs and her feelings arising while being in Turkey.

Your last two visits to İstanbul coincide to heavy dates, always with a special meaning. First In Memoriam concert on April 24, and now, Hrant Dink Award given on his birthday on September 15. What does it mean to you?

For me, both have the same meaning. The first time is for the memorial, it was very important; it was symbolic for me to be in Turkey, because our grandparents were in Turkey. And to perform on the stage in the Istanbul Congress Center and perform in Armenian; I have never imagined that this can happen one day. I was very emotional. I don’t know, I was seeing my grandparents everywhere, I was feeling good, because I feel at home in Istanbul. I don’t if it’s the country. I am pretty sure that it’s the people that I meet every time. The other day, I was telling my friend that, maybe I shouldn’t say this to Armenians but, the best Armenians I met are the Armenians from Turkey. I feel very close to them; closer than the Armenians from where I live, where I was born. Or the Armenian of France or Armenian of the US. Probably it’s because our grandparents are from Turkey. So, that’s why I feel his proximity. So this time, it was very moving. It was the first that Armenians of Turkey and some Turkish people listen to me. It was a challenge. I was very stressed, I didn’t know how they are going to react, especially because I have a tendency to take old Armenian songs and change them how I want and I know that some people can be shocked. So, it was all these together and above of all, it was 24th of April. So, it was a very meaningful date. And I think that my being here today is the continuity of April, I presume. I feel very flattered to be invited tonight. When I got the e-mail, I was jumping like I can’t imagine, because, I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about Hrant Dink before he died. I think many didn’t, probably. Especially because, we, the Armenians of Lebanon, are very far from the Armenians of Turkey. The Armenians of Lebanon are afraid to come to Turkey, they don’t want to go to Turkey as long as the genocide is not recognized. I am not that type, I have always wanted to come and thought that there should be dialogue between us and the Armenians of Turkey. And I believe that they need us, because I saw how you live, how you are oppressed in a country where you cannot talk, you cannot say anything. And I think that we have to go, I mean to the government to recognize the genocide. So, I started to get interested in Hrant Dink when he died, unfortunately. And I discovered a man who wanted freedom of speech so badly that he was about to go to France to stop the law against the denial of the Armenian genocide. So, many Armenians were happy about this law and he wasn’t, because he wanted freedom of speech so much; even if it is positive for us, he wanted people to have the freedom to say anything. Then, I discovered all these faces of Hrant Dink and then of course I met Rakel Dink after the concert. And I was very amazed by this woman. I don’t know, she has such strength, she fights for the rights of her husband, she continues. I admired her. So, when I got this e-mail from her asking me to come to perform, I was like… I don’t know, I cannot explain the feelings, because I couldn’t believe that I will be performing at this award ceremony. So, I am very happy to be here, extremely happy. I am very stressed. I am full of emotions.  I might sound arrogant, but I am very happy that one day, my name will be associated to Hrant Dink. People will say about the ceremony, “Oh, Eileen Khatchadourian performed there.” For me, it’s an honor. I couldn’t imagine a bigger honor. I have to say that it means more than an award. This year, I may have got the best female performer of the Armenian Diaspora, but to be on stage here today is much bigger than the award that I received actually.

You are performing in your own style, independent versions of these traditional songs. I guess, it also symbolizes the way you are as a person. How do you manage to bring together all this identities, being an Armenian woman artist?

I have to say that I am traveling a lot since I was a kid. So, I really don’t consider myself “Armenian” Armenian, I don’t consider myself Lebanese, I really consider myself a citizen of the world. The fact that I am Armenian is… I mean, I perform in Armenian, because I decided to perform in Armenian when I was living in Paris. I have always dreamed to have an album and to be on stage. I used to be on stage, but it was not professional. And I said, “Why wouldn’t I perform in Armenian?” I mean, everybody can perform in English, but not everybody can perform in Armenian. It is almost a dead language. And I liked this idea, it was a challenge for me. I said, ”Let’s see what’s going to happen.” And when I was in Paris, I was learning all traditional Armenian songs. So, it’s very funny how this woke up in me, because I was someone, to be honest, who hated Armenians when I was a kid. I was ashamed to be Armenian, because all the kids used to laugh. I am sure you know this well. “Oh, she’s Armenian, ha-ha!” So, I have always felt different and said I am French, British… Actually, that’s how I begin to learn languages and try to imitate languages, because I have never wanted people to know that I am Armenian. But then, when I grew up of course, I realized that I have a big wealth and tradition. When I was Paris, I decided to do the album, and decided that I will sing in Armenian, because I started to learn traditional Armenian songs. Then I came back to Lebanon, I was thinking how I can do this, because lots of artists have done it already, but no one have done Armenian rock. I think that I have a more modern approach compared to other Armenian artists.  

I have always tried not to work with Armenians, because I want an outsider’s opinion. Working with an Armenian won’t be objective for me. And when I sing in Armenian,  I don’t want my songs to sound very Armenian, because I want to reach as many people as I can. I love old traditional Armenian songs, but I think that the way they have been done before were not very available to the young generation. Armenian, or European or American young generation. So, I am very because I like to shock people. It’s in my character. So, the first album that I did, I knew that it will shock many people, Armenian rock. And the second album I did, Armenian electronic, I know that it shocked some people as well.

Actually, I like to shock, but I am not doing this only to shock. I want to do what I want. I mean, when I finished the rock album, I said, “Okay, I am done with rock. So let’s now do electronic.” Because electronic is everywhere now. So, I usually do whatever I feel like doing and whatever I want to do. I don’t care at all what people think. When I am criticized, I am very happy.  I always wander why they don’t like it. It is easy to say, “I don’t like it.” But why don’t you like it? And most of the time, they don’t like it, because it’s not traditional, because they are not used to it. That’s it. So, they have to get used to it. And if they don’t want to get used it, let them not get used to it.

This also explains for me your symbolic interpretation of Der Voghormia in contemporary rock syle. Last time it was highly appreciated by the audience.

I performed Der Voghormia first time in Lebanon, but it didn’t make the same impact that it did in Turkey. I was very happy, because today when I was performing Der Voghormia there was an Armenian priest in front of me. I was singing and looking at him and I was like, “Yes, listen to this!” You know. It gave me more strength. After concert, the catholic priest came, I am an Armenian catholic by the way, I am very proud to say it, and he said, “if we played your Der Voghormia in church, I am sure many people would come to church. And for me, this was a very nice compliment. I wasn’t anxious, but I was very curious to see how people will react Der Voghormia. And I think that the reaction was above what I expected. I have never expected that people will love it that much.

Your identity as a woman affects your performances and music a lot. How  do you see and live your life, as a woman artist.

It’s true what you said. When I am on stage, I fully live each song. I always have this anger in me, when I am on stage. I fight for something I don’t want on the stage. I want to make a statement. And only statement that I can make is that I am here performing and please feel with me. I feel this and I want you to feel it with me. And when I feel that you don’t feel with me, that leaves me in a very bad condition. Being a woman artist is I think… I am lucky to be a woman artist and I am not lucky as well. Being an artist already you can pass a message more easily than when you are not an artist, because you have your art to use. I use my voice, I use my songs, I use my music, I use my stage presence to pass the message that I want. The thing is that people don’t expect this from a woman. People think that women are always vulnerable, but actually, we are stronger than men. This is what I think every time I am on stage, I want to show people that I am woman, but a very strong one. And I am strong with my voice, my music and my acting. So, I am very happy to be a woman artist, but being a Lebanese woman artist is not easy, an Armenian as well.

I have two identities that are hardest I think, because being in Lebanon, I am geographically very far from everywhere. And unfortunately, people in the world have something against Arabs, let’s be realistic. So, when you say I am Lebanese, you are automatically an Arab. And then, I am an Armenian, not an Arab. What is Armenian? Who knows Armenian? No one knows. So for me, it’s a double fight as a woman and as an artist, because it is very hard for me to get on the international scene. Thanks for the internet and thanks for some concerts I am becoming international, but for my identity it is still hard. And I started to sing in Armenian to keep the language alive in my way. I said, “Okay, if I sing in Armenian, maybe with the internet, with the concerts abroad, I can get to people who have never heard of Armenian.” And it happens a lot. People say, “Oh, it’s Armenian, it is a beautiful language.” And I say, “Is it beautiful? I don’t find my language beautiful, it is my language after all.” And when I started to sing in Armenian, automatically it was very Armenian. I wanted to put couple of songs about the genocide in every album, because I think that if people buy my album, they will listen to those songs and they will learn about the genocide, because the genocide is not known, to be honest. So, it’s a double fight as well, I mean. 


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Karin Karakaşlı