A Journey into the Soul of Armenian Music with Lilit Pipoyan

As a passionate listener of her music, I had the honour of having a sincere conversation with the esteemed Armenian musician and composer Lilit Pipoyan for Agos readers. While Armenian music triggers a memory that has become the language of pain and conscience, countless works by Armenian artists have inspired many cultures and are in danger of being translated into other languages and lost. We had a conversation for more than two hours with Lilit Pipoyan over the Zoom, who interpreted Armenian songs from centuries ago and brought them to the present day, breathing heart into her voice.


I would like to express my gratitude to all the Agos Newspaper team who prepared this special and sincere interview with Lilit Pipoyan, who amazed me with her delicacy, elegance, and sensitivity. Lilit Pipoyan’s musical journey starts from the humble musical tradition in her family and extends to the Armenian cultural heritage, which she embraces with deep love. Pipoyan’s music transcends borders, and it is a privilidge for me to promote her artistry as a contemporary talent who brings her timeless melodies to listeners around the world. Pipoyan’s voice, while hosting a worldwide sadness, offers listeners a fine balance between hope and sadness. Her elegant and clear voice and colourful interpretations bring a bittersweet smile to listeners’ faces.

Dear Lilit, it’s a great honour to speak with you. Thank you for accepting my interview request. I’m a huge fan of your music, and I’ve been searching for English interviews you might have given but unfortunately, I haven’t found any. The ones I found were only in Armenian. So, I appreciate this conversation.

Well, you’re the first to ask. No one has approached me for this before.

That’s intriguing. Let’s create some history then.

Sometimes, I receive Facebook messages, mostly from Turkey. There’s a fan page created in my name where I interact with some people in English.

I noticed on YouTube that many users share your videos independently, garnering thousands more views than those on your official page. It’s quite fascinating; your music resonates deeply with listeners. Many viewers leave comments in Armenian, English, Turkish, and sometimes Kurdish on these shared videos, sharing their stories and emotions.

These comments and expressions of emotion are invaluable to me. They provide inspiration during periods of creative drought. Knowing that people connect with my music on a personal level rejuvenates my creativity. I’m deeply grateful for their feedback and support.

Are you considering going on tour to engage with your fans?

This is a hard question for me to answer. Booking a tour is no small feat; it requires professional organisation, which I currently lack. While I often arrange small concerts in Yerevan, organising large-scale tours with multiple musicians from different countries is beyond my capacity. I rely on invitations for such endeavours.

Would you be open to collaboration if offered?

Absolutely. Collaborative opportunities are always welcome. I’m open to exploring partnerships with musicians from around the world for concerts or events.

Can you tell us about how you became a musician? Were you born into a musician family?

My father was an artist, a painter. My mother was an economist, but she was very musical, very gifted. She had a good voice. My father had a good voice. My uncle had a good voice. My brother had a good voice.

We all loved singing. But we weren’t professional musicians. However, in the Soviet Union, especially in Armenia, it was a common and valued tradition to enrol children in music schools. It was almost customary. Most families wanted their children to have a musical education.

So my mother enrolled me in a music school. We had specialised music schools alongside regular ones. I learned to play the piano, studied musical theory, and delved into music history.

I admire how you blend ethnic folkloric music with a modern sensibility. Your musical journey has clearly evolved. In your earlier albums, there was a hint of melancholy and sadness, but with each subsequent release, there’s been a noticeable shift. Your songs now radiate tranquillity, relaxation, and meditation, while also conveying hope, inspiration, and liveliness. Could you share your thoughts on this transformation?

Absolutely. I’m glad you noticed. In my life, it’s been the opposite. When I was young, with all the feelings of love, whether unrequited or reciprocated, I was more melancholic than I am now. I was also very playful. Say, at that time I didn’t appreciate rock music, but now I enjoy its energy. Regarding the music I’m interested in, I can’t list many names, but I have a wide-ranging taste. So I can say that I am interested in multicultural music apart from the Far Eastern. That’s not my preference.

Once, I attended a concert at a local music school named after Sayat-Nova, where a Kurdish ensemble performed. It was beautiful music. As for European and American music, I enjoy listening to either classical or contemporary genres.

One listener wanted me to ask about your musical evolution. They noted your transition from guitar-centric compositions to incorporating wired instruments like string instruments. Can you share your thoughts on this journey?

Well, my musical journey has indeed evolved over the years. Initially, my focus was primarily on the solo guitar or piano, but as time progressed, I delved into incorporating a diverse array of wired instruments into my compositions. This evolution reflects my ongoing exploration of various sounds and styles, enabling me to continually expand as a musician.

When you’re solely playing the guitar or piano, it’s akin to a minimalist approach to music, with only one instrument at play. However, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of incorporating ritualistic harmony into my work. This led me to contemplate how I could integrate a string quartet into my compositions, a thought that emerged even during the creation of my earliest album, where I made use of records.

Several of my songs from that album and beyond have embraced the inclusion of a string quartet. This practice has persisted throughout my career, including just yesterday as I was crafting some new pieces.

What’s intriguing is that in these recent compositions, I’ve mostly foregone the use of guitar or piano—opting instead for a focus solely on strings. This shift has prompted me to question whether I’m undergoing a genre transition. It’s amusing that you bring this up now because it’s a contemplation I’ve been wrestling with myself. Using only strings presents a unique dynamic; while I hold a deep appreciation for classical music, my vocal style diverges from the traditional classical mould. Thus, what emerges is a fusion, a blending of influences that I find particularly compelling.

Where do you draw inspiration from when the music you listen to, such as other folkloric musics and musicians?

I’ve been teaching the history of Armenian architecture at Yerevan State University for 20 years, additionally I teach art history but my primary education is in architecture. I mainly focus on those periods of Armenian culture that reached their zenith. The pinnacle periods were in the Middle Ages, starting from—I don’t delve into more ancient times—but from the 9th to the 14th century. There was an Armenian kingdom in Cilicia that boasted a highly developed culture, including music, miniatures, and architecture, also there was an Armenian kingdom of Bagratides with beautiful capital Ani, some of ancient monuments of which still stand there silently.

Since my youth, I’ve yearned to discover that period of arts and music, the highest expression of which is the mediaeval Armenian sacred music which I desire greatly, the folkloric music as well. I want to add that I received a classical musical education. So this classical European and classical Armenian musical background intersects with my understanding of the Armenian tradition. This influences my singing style. I’m not a purely ethnic singer.

How do you source the narratives behind your songs, and what’s your process for transforming them into lyrical content?

Firstly, I didn’t write songs initially. When I started singing, I would perform other authors’ songs or interpret folklore songs, such as traditional ones, adding my own touch and light instrumentation. That’s what I did. At the time, I didn’t think I could write songs.

You know, I didn’t consider myself capable of that. It didn’t occur to me. I saw myself simply as an interpreter. And I would. The only thing I did was prefer to sing newer songs, recently written by someone or those that had been forgotten. Forgotten songs. Those that weren’t popular anymore. I wanted to revive them. Bring them back to life. Occasionally, I would write some poetry for myself, but I never held them in high regard. I just did it for myself. Over time, I accumulated several small notebooks. Recently, maybe a few years ago, I revisited those notebooks, selected the best lyrics from them, and set them to music.

Your song ‘Gulo’ is greatly loved by people. Can you tell us the story behind ‘Gulo’?

The story is about a man who loves a woman. It is a song from a man’s perspective. Most of my folk songs are sung from a man’s point of view. Most folkloric songs are sung by men; few are sung by women, especially love songs. I didn’t dare to alter the lyrics to suit a situation where a woman is singing. Sometimes, during concerts, I would explain to the audience that I am singing from the man’s perspective.

I am that woman about whom he is singing. But I don’t want to change, you know, this ‘he,’ ‘she,’ all this story, because the story is about a woman. And I am not a male singer. I am that woman.

Could you provide more detail about the narrative?

Of course, so the man who loves Gulo expresses, “Why do you play with my emotions? Why do you toy with me? You approach me slowly. I call out to you, and you gesture with your hand, but when you draw nearer, you refuse to acknowledge me. You stand on the roof of your home. I call out to you, yet you ignore me. I wish I didn’t know you, didn’t see you, because you broke my heart.”

His heart is profoundly broken. It’s agonising. He’s heartbroken because Gulo disregards him. These songs, particularly ‘Gulo’, include allusions to ancient Armenian songs called Hayrens, which evolved since 10-th century to almost 18-th. The most famous among them is the name of Nahapet Kuchak, who lived in the 16-th century and he wasn’t the only one, there were several. Among other themes they crafted exquisite love songs. However, only the lyrics have been preserved because they were written down, the melodies, for the most part, have been lost or dissolved in folklore. Occasionally, through Armenian folklore, we encounter songs with exceptionally professional and high-quality lyrics. You can discern that tradition dating back to the 14th century in them. Very ancient.

It’s fascinating to realise that we are listening to songs from 600 years ago that you’ve brought to us today.

Some of these songs preserve some parts of these lyrics. But that tradition wasn’t from village culture; it was more like aristocratic cultural tradition.

Who wrote them? When were they written?

I don’t know when exactly they were written. So, I’m talking about their antiquity, but I’ve only arranged them. Yeah, you may suggest the 14th century again, something like that. They’re anonymous, though some of those songs have known authors like Frik, Hovhannes Barcraberdci, Khachatur Kechareci. Some of those songs are part of Armenian folklore. Yes, I’m not sure, but they should be from that time.

Another song you have that is filling my heart too much is ‘Yes saren kugayi’, translated to English as Coming from the mountain. Is that also an ancient song?

Yeah, that song also has a similar story. It’s a folkloric song. Our great musicologist and composer Komitas collected it among numerous folk songs while travelling across the Armenian villages in Turkey, most of which do not exist nowadays.

When I was a child in my village, the elderly people used to listen to the radio from Yerevan despite the very poor signal reception.  I learned some Armenian folkloric songs and Kurdish songs as well by listening to the Yerevan radio. I find Armenian folkloric music to be rich and inspiring compared to many other cultures because I see the influence that Armenian culture, poetry, and music have on other folkloric traditions. What would you like to say about this?

You know, it actually depends on which period we’re discussing. If we’re talking about recent centuries, like the 18-th to 19th centuries, there was a significant blend of cultures in South Caucasus, including Eastern and Middle Eastern influences.

In the 19th century and beginning of 20-th in Tiflis (the capital of Georgia), in Alexandropol and Yerevan (Armenia) a great number of musicians - ashughs and sazandars - were creating a unique music atmosphere in the region. Armenian musicians also had an impact in Tiflis.

It’s very interesting to learn how the blending of cultures had a significant impact on creating ethnic music.

Yes, during this period, like the 18-th and 19-th centuries, we have examples of very synthetic music, generally falling under the umbrella of Middle Eastern music because influences were coming from various directions to Armenians. I can’t delve deeply into this theme without being a musicologist, of course, but I know that the last centuries were characterized by such a rich musical environment.

Do you listen to any musicians from Turkey?

Not very much. There’s an ensemble in Turkey, I can’t recall the name, but they sing songs from all the ethnic groups of Turkey. Are you familiar with them?

Kardeş Türküler, maybe?

Yes, I like them. They’re really good. But generally, I don’t listen to much music nowadays.

Why don’t you listen to much music nowadays?

I don’t know. There’s a saying here. “I’m not a reader, I’m a writer.” It’s a joke. I mean, when your day is filled with music, you might not seek out other music. I may listen to it during moments of silence, when it’s quiet within me, but not often. Recently, I’ve been focused on fados, Portuguese songs. I like them because they resonate with me.

Who are the fans of your music generally?

Well, I’m not entirely sure. I am really happy to see more young faces during my concerts here in Armenia. Also, of course, the Armenian diaspora worldwide makes up my audience. I’ve noticed on the social net that people from Turkey seem to enjoy my music. Honestly, I don’t keep track of these things. I make this music because I enjoy it, because I love doing it. And then, I don’t follow the further life of the songs.

There is a group of people in Turkey. They are mostly based in Artvin next to Georgia. They are called Hemşin.

Yes, of course, I know Hemşins. Hemşin language is a dialect of Armenian but very much different from classical Armenian.

I was talking to a Hemşin friend about our interview while we’re listening to this Hemşin band, Vova, she wondered if you listen to Hemşin music?

Of course, they are a very good band. I love them. Tell your Hemşin friend I love Hemşin music and the songs. It is specific. Hemşin music’s harmonies are so specific and so close to my heart. I don’t know. All of their songs are so beautiful.

During your travels to various countries, have you found inspiration in the cultures or cuisines that contribute to your music and art?

Travelling itself doesn’t directly influence my music, as it often involves busy schedules with concert preparations and rehearsals. However, I like finding other aspects of culture, like theatre, dance, architecture, Fine arts. As for food, I find fascinating the cuisine of Syria․ The white cheeses and olive oil were exceptional, offering a unique and healthy taste.

As this interview is being published on April 24th, the date of the Armenian Genocide, how do you perceive the representation of Armenian culture and music in Turkey nowadays?

I’ve heard of a few groups, musicians, and trios that sing Armenian songs and live in Turkey. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the names of these groups, just a couple of them. I’m aware that in Hemşin, they preserve their culture, language, and music. However, I’m not sure about other regions. Honestly, I don’t have much information about it. I suppose, there aren’t many musical collectives focusing on Armenian music.

There is an Armenian song I really like. It’s by Komitas. Kele Kele, have you ever performed that song?

Yes, I produced an album with 20 Komitas songs, carefully arranged to stay true to Komitas’s vision of Armenian music. ‘Kele Kele’ is among them. We also created karaoke-style videos for young children to sing along with the songs.

I look forward to listening to you live at a concert one day in London.

I’ve been to London, quite some time ago, maybe 15 years or more. I performed in a church, and the audience was predominantly Armenian. It was a unique experience.

I would love to present my music to international audiences, but I’ve had limited opportunities to do so, though I have experience of performing in Switzerland for a German audience who thoroughly enjoyed it.

Representing Armenian music to other cultures is something I aspire to, I believe it may leave a great impression on. Thank you so much for this interview. It’s enriching to learn about each other. Life becomes richer when we understand how others perceive it, their viewpoints on life, art, and music. Connecting with people who differ from us in these aspects helps us understand ourselves better. Thank you for your time, kind words, and for seeking me out. I’m genuinely pleased, and I appreciate it greatly.


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