I am really a jazz player. Humanitarian avant-garde

An interview with Arto Tunçboyacıyan, Armenian folk avant-garde musician

Janis Lipsans

I am waiting in the lobby. It is close to the end of his stage appearance at the music hall Daile in Riga, which is where the world music festival PORTA has claimed residency. You wouldn’t expect the artist to leave the stage and make his way to the lobby as part of the performance. Taken by surprise, I happen to be the only one there, and it seems like we have been introduced whilst the audience keeps on applauding. I missed out on an opportunity to score an interview in person, and it is only weeks later when I finally manage to land it. Where do I start?

How is it that the Internet in Turkey is funny?

It’s very slow. Sometimes you can’t even access it.

Well, at least I can hear you clearly, and I hope you can hear me clearly as well.


First and foremost, thank you for taking time out to do the interview. Let me start by saying that I didn’t do any research on you as an artist, which was on purpose. However, I was present at the concert hall Daile, where you made an appearance during the Porta festival. It was my first experience of your music.

Thank you.

It was quite provocative. As you came out on stage, you instantly got the audience involved. Is this an approach you choose every time – getting people engaged from the very start?

Yes, and it’s not only during performing. It is the music itself – to get people involved in life.

Arto Tunçboyacıyan. World Music Festival Porta, Riga (2016)

How do you feel about the response you got from the crowd in Riga?

There’s hope in this world if there’s a country like Latvia – if you develop your own confidence, it could be a great example for the whole of humanity. I feel...I  don’t want to use clichéd words like home – but for me, everywhere is home if you are welcome, you know. But honestly, I feel the same way when I go to Iran, for example. There are people who destroy everything, and then there are the other ones, who have patience. And those who have patience, at the end of the day, they know that they are the ones who are going to win. It’s the same feeling. Have patience, have confidence – in a cultural sense. Today, globally, everything can be communicated so quickly. Look, we have the telephone, the Internet, we can see each other from another part of the globe. Communication today is fast. But the main foundation is culture, and I feel very happy to see cultures like the Latvian one existing.

Speaking of countries, given that you are residing in Turkey, and with the historical background of genocide against the Armenians – how does that play out?

You have to be honest with yourself and dedicate your life to humanity. Nationality and religion become secondary. All this stuff that happens between’s not just Armenian and Turkish – it exists everywhere. They are human problems. And hopefully, people will learn how to be humans again, and the world will be our country, you know.

But has the very fact of the genocide affected you and your family, and the music you make?

Obviously, it has. Although my mother lives in the USA now, she visits me here every year, and even if there’s something positive being said about Turkey, she still has that fear and closes the windows, you know. We all have that. But we cannot obsess on that. April 24th is a happy day in my life because I am still alive, and we Armenians still exist. But for me, the most important date is April 25th. Because, where are we all going as human beings, you know? I approach it that way. Otherwise, I will drink alcohol and play one duduk song, and then – nothing.

Arto Tunçboyacıyan. World Music Festival Porta, Riga (2016)

As a national instrument, the duduk has come a long way; there are certain Armenian artists that come to mind – from Sayat-Nova to Tigran Hamasyan. To what extent can you relate to the narrative of Armenian generations in music ?

I wasn’t really brought up in the traditions of Armenian folk music. But whatever it is in me – when I hear Armenian traditional music, I get confidence; for example, like doing this traditional music project with the Armenian Navy Band. I am influenced by everything! These are just the thoughts of one person. And I don’t mean to copy, but I guess that every generation comes with its cultural flavours to give.

In return, I don’t mean to put you in a certain theoretical box in terms of musical genre, but would it be fair to call your particular expression avant-garde? It also has that genuine openness, a feel for humanity and the world, calling for unity.

I call it avant-garde folk music. For the people. It’s present. I am trying to make people not have a fear of these two – the avant-garde and folk – because both are present today. Sometimes, when people hear the word folk, they think about 200 years back in history, an old thing. No, folk is people. Avant-garde is the person they imagine in the future. We see it in what the jazz world has done, and sometimes it creates a big psychological problem. When you say jazz, you have to prove that name to somebody, you know. I am for the most open form – no matter the genre – just you, yourself, and however you want to express yourself.

Not so long ago, I had a heartfelt conversation with Deniss Pashkevichs, the Latvian jazz musician and a good friend of mine, and among other things, we spoke about the jazz state of mind...The very word – jazz – carries a spiritual notion.

The meaning of it – yes, you are right. But the problem with jazz nowadays is that it is more popular in terms of its form, and not its meaning. If you think about the meaning, it doesn’t tell you to play it in one or another form. When I went to New York in 1981, there were many jazz musicians. And I would never hear them say:“Play jazz!”. They always said:“Tell us your story.” I just learned how to be a part of the form that they played. That is my avant-garde style. And then there is my folk side. When you say blues or jazz – they tell you the story of their life through that sound. So, when Europeans say they play jazz, when in fact, it was actually invented by the ancestors of black slaves, I am really happy to hear from you about the true essence of jazz music. Jazz is not something in spades. Jazz keeps growing, it renews itself. So, if you think about it like this, I am really a jazz player. What I understood from them, when you analyze Herbie Hancock and where he came from, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all of them are saying – don’t stop, keep renewing, you know. And they brought hip hop here. The latest form of jazz is hip hop.

A Tribe Called Quest recently released their latest album [“We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service’’]. What is your relationship with hip hop ?

I supported it from the very beginning when it came out. For me, it was like a continuation of jazz, how it has been and how it’s developing. Herbie Hancock made the first video, so it’s a part of that, and I support it as an idea and a form. But what’s going on today is standard cliché marketing. Miles, Coltrane and all those guys, what they offered their generation – they were performing. If you look at the top commercial ones, the majority of them are really cheating their generation. They are not offering any kind of performance. You put together an act – two guys out of tune, together with a DJ – and they’re making millions of dollars. This generation pays attention only to the words because there is nothing really going on musically. Instead of that, I would expect every top hip-hop guy to have a band of 20 or 30, so that their generation could see them really performing. I think they’ve done a really great harm. When you are playing with a group of ten, they look at you like you are from Mars or somewhere. Because performing, for them, is something else now. This is the only thing I regret – not the form, but the mentality in which hip hop is staying now.

In this respect, Kendrick Lamar does stand out since he brings not only a message, but also musicality. And he speaks to the masses. How would you explain the phenomenon of him being able to be very successful commercially, and maintain that sense of what music is really about, all at the same time?

I’d say it is up to him being a really creative and experienced artist. There is nothing wrong with being creative and commercially successful. It is not only for a certain group of intellectuals. It is just the quality we can discuss. It is all a form of music. And you shouldn’t put any boundaries on it. The artists should know how to explain their thoughts. It is not up to the people to spend 20 years getting educated. And that’s why there are the really good-ones – people that are clever, very popular, and have a reputation of being creative artists. In my opinion, that’s fantastic!

Arto Tunçboyacıyan. World Music Festival Porta, Riga (2016)

Music as a means of communication.

It’s a choice for the artist to make, because it depends on who do you want to serve. I enjoy serving the people. But some just want to serve a certain group of intellectuals. I mean, I don’t look at them as my enemies; there’s nothing wrong with that, it is just a choice.

But then again, there’s the notion of all that is put out there by people who have nothing to say – how do you respond to that “de-communication’’, if you like?

Everywhere I go, I see good people. The only problem is that they don’t come together. It’s the same with music. If good people don’t come together, this type of stuff comes out – all this music that is just rubbish. It’s not their fault. It is because we are not doing enough. When I went to New York in 1981, there were music clubs everywhere – musicians were playing and people would go out, listen and watch. Then, suddenly, in the mid ’90s it all was gone. We, as artists, must create a new system, bring in new ideas. You can’t turn back time, and we ought to find ways to adapt. I mean, people are no longer buying CDs due to Youtube, and vinyl seems to be coming back, but that’s 30 years in the past. Perhaps – do you remember the mini disk? – we could now have vinyl, but in the form of a mini disk. And it is not only the music, but also the technologies. A musician is not just a player/engineer today – we should embrace that.

Well, these are funny enough times we are living in. In many ways. Moreover, the recent outcome of the presidential election in the USA, and the character of Donald Trump.

It is the same thing as with that rubbish music. Nobody wants to get involved and be a part of government. They know how ugly it is, and that it’s almost impossible to change it. You have directors, one on top of the other, who can make a better life for their families, but they can’t change the foundation. It only can be changed if good people come together for the same reason, and at the same time, to make a decision. I am trying to encourage young people to do what they decide. For example, I am doing some performances with DJs now, and I want to make a DJ big-band. Say, every DJ will have a sound, and we are going to make music as we play the song. When I came to Latvia and spoke to musicians, I said – Jazz is great, just don’t wait for someone to tell you how to do it. Just play your own story. Why wouldn’t I be able to make a DJ big-band here in Latvia? See, we lack that confidence.

Was it the trip to the US that somehow gave you that confidence?

I can say these very general things about going to the United States, but one thing is for sure – I feel more like being myself there than here in Turkey. You can smell that the moment you land. Now, I am not supporting the political system of America or anything, but America, with its creative space, gives you so much room to be yourself.

An overwhelming drive to become all you can be, by being honest with yourself, could lead to you driving yourself crazy – like Kanye West, who has been very vocal on the question of why we are truly here. His own desire to serve and to make people’s lives better has come at a high cost to him lately.

My daughter worked at one of his offices for one year, and you can understand that this guy can be, in a way, like a freak sometimes. He doesn’t have enough experience for certain things – for music arrangements, for the sound – since there are other artists that can do that much better than him. But that is what I am looking for in the young generation – their sound – so that I can hear something new, too. [Smiles] And get inspired. Sometimes, you look at yourself in the mirror, and you don’t get inspired anymore. [Laughs]