“We should support each other” – an interview with Lena Chamamyan

The Syrian singer-songwriter Lena Chamamyan (born to an Armenian family in Damascus, living currently in Paris) is one of the friends guitarist Jan Akkerman invited to play at his anniversary concert at Carré in Amsterdam on September 17. Her participation was one of the highlights of the show, especially the magical dialogue with trumpeter Eric Vloeimans. For News and Noise it was a good opportunity to speak with Lena about her work and the situation in Syria. We met her and Maher Sabra, her manager, in a busy Amsterdam terrace cafe a few days before the concert.

by Hatim Suleiman and Charlie Crooijmans

How did you get connected to Jan Akkerman?

“Jan came to Damascus as part of the activities of “capital city of Arabic Culture” in 2008. He performed at the Jazz Festival. He took home some albums from Syrian artists and my album was one of them. He called me in 2010 to do a concert here in Amsterdam. We played two songs together. It was great to work with him! It was a new experience even for me because it’s so complicated to combine the guitar with the voice. Jan learned how to look differently at music. The result was so beautiful, lots of people asked for some albums but we didn’t have an album because it was the first time that we were playing together. Two or three months ago they reconnected with me and told me Jan is giving a concert to celebrate his 50th year old career. I am so happy that I am invited. This time we are going to perform five songs together.”

What is the impact of the ongoing situation in Syria on Syrian artists? Is there an option for artists and musicians to stay silent and not to choose sides?

“You can’t be Syrian and just live above or beside the situation. Every Syrian is affected by the situation, especially artists connected to the people. There’s no work, so no money, being confronted with too much death and unfairness daily. We feel lost. As if we’re losing our country and losing the trust in each other. I feel we reached a point where no one is protecting the Syrian people. The politicians’ actions cause more deaths and my first concern is in stopping the bloodshed and the deaths and to give the people hope. I keep asking myself questions like where are we going? What can we do? Well, we should never lose our relation with Syria, keep caring for each other, keep supporting each other. We should keep caring about every death because it’s all human blood being shed. Everyone has the right to say his opinion. It’s not possible to just stay silent, but sometimes you just can’t talk.”

A lot of artists left Syria since last year?

“Yes, it has become really hard to live there. Before it was so good for us, particularly in Damascus. We had a lot of concerts. Since 2008 they just started to organize more festivals. Even the Syrian TV drama was blooming. Now it’s hard  being under the pressure of getting arrested or just being in the middle of the fire. I don’t think the Syrian people are just two sides (pro or against the regime, CC). There are many people, 28 million people inside Syria. So you can’t simplify it to just two sides. The artist can focus on representing the Syrian people and their diverse opinions, be with the civil society and try to get the Syrian people together again, to find mutual points and to stop the ongoing separation and death. That’s the only solution for now for us, because we need to live. The first goal is just to stay alive.”

How about your personal situation?

“I had to go out because I had some problems there and I had also decided earlier in 2010 to go out to work on my career. I never however easily found the courage to do it and leave back then. I left last year, at one point I felt like I couldn’t say my words in Syria. You need to be so extreme and I am not an extreme person, I couldn’t have an extreme view. It took some time to understand what’s going on and to decide what I am going to do and where I am going to stay. Now I am more courageous to say my words.”

So what have you been doing in Paris?

“There were a few concerts and projects, for example in Beirut (Beirut Music and Art Festival BMAF 2011, CC). I performed in two concerts for the UNESCO in Geneva and Paris. Those concerts were against the militarization and military intervention in Syria. It was really hard to go there and publicly give this message: we have problems and we are dying there, but more militarization and intervention will only cause more death. I am against the war. I want the war in Syria to stop, but I support the civil society. I was also invited to Italy to represent Syria in a special Day of Peace (3rd of July) concert where my new compositions were arranged and performed with the orchestra.”

There will be a 20 minute documentary on line about the making of that project with rehearsals and some interviews, link will follow soon.

“I am also taking piano classes; I am studying harmony and arrangements. I’ve composed 12 songs! This was a surprise even for me. I used to write lyrics, but I rarely wrote my own music. Living alone away from Syria I discovered that most of the oriental women are spoiled. We get too much support in the Arabic society from our parents, from colleagues, from the society in general. It’s not like here.  In Paris, I have become stronger and more independent. I traveled around a lot before but actually living on my own in Europe is a completely different experience. It gave me a lot of inspiration and confidence in myself and even in my musical capabilities. You see, when making music in Syria, everything was so easy even though at the same time so “heavy”. The musicians, who almost all of them were male and strong characters would be like: “Don’t worry about doing that, you are the singer, we will do it, keep it for us”. When I was here it was like: I improvise so I thought that I couldn’t compose. I tried it and it was a surprise when European musicians and Arabic musicians who live in Europe told me that I compose very well. I enjoy it and I will keep doing it.”

So this means we can expect a new album from you?

“This means there are 12 new songs. I am singing them in concerts. I am trying to get financial support to record them in an album. This is not easy because I refuse to change the songs to make it fit to one or the other side. I’ve lost many friends and relatives but for me they are my family and closest friends whatever political opinion they have. In the first place I am with the Syrian people, hoping they stay together. This is what I want to sing about. The conflict will be over one day as all conflicts end. The songs however should stay forever. I am looking for a production company, a label or an association in Europe that can understand this in producing the album. I understand the motives of those who carry arms and respect the pain of those who suffer, but I just don’t believe weapons will be the solution and instead of taking sides I want to talk directly with the people. You see Syria is everywhere in the news and many people are looking for what’s behind the news, the contemporary culture of Syria”.

Can you tell us about your music?

“The Armenian part is very strong in my music, it’s unique because it’s oriental but mixed with harmony. On the other hand, the Arabic text and lyrics is very strong in my culture. So for me it’s mixing between the Arabic text and the Armenian music. I used to work on folk music mixed with soft jazz. We were trying to find the best form to fit in with the Arabic music with its micro tonality. So we could have a western audience and we can connect to the Arabic audience and help them handle the jazz, because for them it’s different  music.”

Why is jazz so popular with you and some other contemporary Arab musicians?

“I always loved jazz. I grew up in a house where my father played the trumpet and saxophone and listened to Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. I cannot speak for the others, but for me my music culture was western mixed with the oriental. Recently I discovered that because I used to work with composers who are actually instrumentalists, the human voice wasn’t as important for them as the instruments. That’s what I felt on stage, there is something missing. In my new songs I had a chance to make the human voice much more present than before. I work on finding and discovering a new space, on the human voice and the natural harmony between voice and the few acoustic instruments I want to use.”

We listened to one new unreleased song Tariq El Shams (the road of the sun) which was composed by Ahmad Al-Khatib. How was this?

“With Ahmad it was very special. We worked together very well. He was the first composer I have known who told me: “you are the human voice and the human voice is always the most beautiful thing in the band, so you go for your voice, find what is good and we will arrange it.” He and Youssef Hbeisch were the first musicians that were talking that way to me, working on their music and rearranging everything for my voice and my ideas. I loved it so much.”

What did you listen to while growing up?

“It was like era’s in my life. In the beginning it was Armenian folk music instrumental music like Duduk and also orchestral works. The Armenian people used to arrange folk music for orchestras so I used to listen especially to Sayat Nova and Komitas. I remember an old tape with the name of Golden Armenian Voices, they were actually opera singers. I also grew up with church music. My father’s Armenian Church music and my mother’s Syriac church music and I sang in both choirs. Then I discovered oriental Arab music. So I started to fall in love with Fairouz and Asmahan. My grandmother wanted me to sing like Asmahan.

Did she discover your voice?

“Yes, all the family! My first solo concert was when I was only 5 years old . It was Christmas time and the school’s teacher was trying to teach the kids the season’s songs. I knew the songs very well and was constantly making corrections so she said: “okay, you come and sing in my place” and I said “okay, thank you!” (laughing out loud). The teacher called my parents and said “she has a gift in singing.” After that I discovered jazz and then a little bit of rock, but I prefer jazz. I didn’t recognize anything about the scales but I like the different tuning on the scales. It’s not like classic, it’s not like oriental, I love this difference . I joined the conservatory where I studied classical singing (mezzo soprano). I made my first album when I was in my third year. The style of singing was a mix between classical, jazz and oriental. Nowadays, when I am alone I like to listen to Fado. I love Dulce Pontes, because she is a bit experimental. I also like contemporary Sufi music, Indian classical, like for example Shakti, with John McLaughlin. I listened carefully to how the flute plays with the guitar chords and learned a lot from this album. It was like magic for me! In the first two years of the conservatory I was listening more to the instrumentalists not to the singers. That’s how I got to understand the philosophy of the musical phrases, how they express without lyrics.”

What are your lyrics about?

“They vary but the main themes are human beings and their country, the commonalities between the people. At one point I was so saddened by the situation in Syria, seeing hatred and fighting increasing. Maher, my manager who’s Lebanese and in Lebanon they have gone through an awful war, helped me to see I should try to help and add value through my work. Armenians also have had to go on with their lives after a genocide. In music there were a lot of values that helped the Armenian people get back their lives and keep on going even with the sadness. You can always be loyal to your roots and to your pain but you also need to build your life, perfect it and find genuine passion. That’s the philosophy of the Armenians. Their culture is part of their personality. When you’re an Armenian child you have to learn how to dance Armenian, to think Armenian, to cook Armenian. So it’s not enough to talk about the current situation, we have to add some values.”

Later (9/18) by email we asked Lena about her coming plans.

“I will try to record my new album (The Road Of The Sun). There are going to be concerts in Austria (Salam Orient Festival), in Paris (IMA) and we are talking about other concerts in other places (Armenia, Lebanon). And I hope we are going to record the project (with the Italian orchestra). And… hope always to keep composing and singing.”