Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Armenian rabiz, ballet, and public diplomacy

Over the past two "democratic" decades, the Armenian culture has experienced a boom: a "rabiz" boom. It's hard to explain what the rabiz sub-culture really is (you know it when you hear it, I guess - and unfortunately, it's very hard to escape in current Armenia), but I believe the word came from a Soviet-era Russian language abbreviation which stood for "worker of art" ("rabotnik iskusstva").

In search of a better "definition" I googled the word and here's what the Urban Dictionary tells me:

Rabiz (n). A slang word describing a social class of Armenians that exhibit socially questionable behaviors. The "rabiz" are similar to the "redneck" class of Americans [...]. Those typicalled dubbed "rabiz" by the Armenian community generally exhibit the following characteristics, although this is not a definitive list:
1. materialistic flamboyancy,
2. the desire to wear sunglasses on all occasions, regardless of weather conditions,
3. formal clothing typically consisting of imitation Italian leather shoes, slacks, and collared silk shirts,
4. strong blend of Russian and Armenian slang words
5. "rabiz" music which, ironically, is an adaptation of Turkish songs adapted for a rabiz-Armenian audience.
6. strong body odors, prominently onions.
7. over-confidence of "picking up" girls regardless of location, occasion, or setting. 

I wouldn't want to say I like this description, but it's pretty close.

Students of anthropology, cultural studies or sociology can surely fill books writing about this weird phenomenon, but here I just wanted to mention the music. The Balkans have their pop- and turbo-folk; Azerbaijan has "mugham"; while Armenians go for rabiz. Here's a quick intro:

The great irony is, of course, that despite the supposed national conviction and the ever-present propaganda that everything Turkish, Azeri and/or Arabic-related is inherently evil, the fans of rabiz seem to have no qualms about adopting themes and styles (and sometimes even the translated lyrics) from these cultures. For instance, here is a "song" that has absolutely nothing "Armenian" about it culture-wise (if we are to take the typical ethnocentric, xenophobic and isolationist perspective).

I cannot stand this music (just as I despise the so-called sub-culture) and I do my best to avoid it as much as possible. Yet, the tragedy of it all is that over the past several years it has come to play a central role in Armenia's public diplomacy, especially within the aspect of the popular culture.

Thanks to Armenia's geography, history as well as economic "well-being", there are more people who would identify themselves as "Armenians" abroad than within the country itself (some estimates of the Diaspora range from 4 to 6 million, while the country has, officially, a population of about 3 million, though many would say that's a gross over-exaggeration).

The significance of public diplomacy in reaching out to diasporas, as well as mobilizing them for the work of public diplomacy is already a much-discussed (and well-practiced) theme. It becomes even more important for tiny and insignificant countries, like Armenia. (And, although I dislike this example, I'll draw the parallel with Israel since prominent Armenian leaders at home and abroad always seem to be looking up to it.)

The numbers of these expats (essentially, emigrants) increased over the past couple of decades as the Soviet Armenia, as well as its economy, collapsed. With them, they took their most recent culture and music tastes - often along the lines of the rabiz - inevitably making the latter the representatives of modern-day Armenia. This view is further reinforced by the Armenian TV channels broadcast from Armenia over the satellites (I believe there are about 4-5 different channels of "Armenian origin" that people can get in various parts of the world).

Here, for example, one can witness the extraordinary blend of an Oriental Armenian pearl with American-Armenian rap. (Horrible...)

It's not just TV, though. The very prominent Armenian oligarchs (the so-called "major businessmen") based in Russia, for example, have recently started sponsoring major Armenian concerts and musical festivals, usually held in Moscow, that feature - more often than not - rabiz "artists". Earlier this yearone of these events stirred up a major controversy, for instance. Yet, I guess one should be grateful that they are not making it to places such as Eurovision; not just yet, at least (although this year's Armenia's representative wasn't much better, even if she was different).

Why all this intro? Just to demonstrate why it pains me to see "decent" culture, and especially high culture, virtually absent from Armenia's cultural and public diplomacy. Yes, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as certain other artists do sometimes travel abroad, but I can (most definitely) bet that the audience they reach numbers in the hundreds, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) reached by the rabiz.

Photos by Yelena Osipova

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a ballet - Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet" - performed by the National Opera and Ballet Theater. Yes, perhaps there is nothing "Armenian" about this piece, either (written by an Englishman, and composed by a Russian); yet, the choreography as well as the performance was all done by Armenian artists. What is more, the Armenian Ministry of Culture was the one to provide the major chunk of the financial support. Why not use this opportunity for "high culture" public diplomacy, whether live or televised? After all, the Montagues and Capulets can speak for the Armenians as well as for the British... as long as there is will.

Sergei Prokofiev - Dance of the Knights

The ballet was well-done and most of the lead roles performed very well. Although there can be very little comparison with Russia's Bolshoi or the Mariinski, I still walked out from the hall quite impressed. And although many would say that high culture is inherently exclusive and not well-fitted for the "cultural enlightenment of the masses", I am more than just confident that when it comes to Armenian public diplomacy, the impressions and formed opinions will be infinitely better than those by the rabiz (and its admirers).

After all, such occasions provide the great opportunity of bringing the more or less familiar and much-liked pieces of global culture (to foreigners, but especially to Diasporans who might, in many ways, be closer to their host cultures than to the modern Armenian "pop folk") with what can be seen as "Armenian packaging".

I just wish the so-called Ministry of Diaspora starts considering musical culture as a real PD issue, as well...



  1. I was just hearing about "rabis" by someone knowledgeable about that phenomenon, a middle-aged academic in Armenia. His account of it was that "rabis" came about exclusively in Yerevan during the twentieth century. It was never officially acknowledged or promoted in any way, as there could not be any "culture" other than the general culture as dictated by the Kremlin for all Soviet peoples. It was an urban phenomenon, he said, which spread among the working class, which was, of course, the majority of the people in Yerevan.

    I disapprove of the pejorative definition and haughty attitude that is taken up with regards to today's "rabiz" folks. In truth, I also dislike the stereotypical aspects of that sub-culture myself. But I don't see why that sort of music cannot be considered a part of society in Armenia and among Armenians, mostly those of or from Armenia. And, why not, this very sub-culture can serve as a means of promoting Armenia and Armenians generally, if directed effectively. I don't doubt, for example, that our "rabiz" artists could easily get to the top of the charts in Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan, as well as Georgia, Russia, and elsewhere.

    I remember when UNESCO declared somehow that the duduk is an Armenian instrument, something I find unfair for the rest of the people of this region that use the duduk in their music. "Rabis", on the other hand, at least according to this man whom I heard recently, is indeed a very Armenian example of very Armenian expressiveness.

  2. As a Western Armenian born in Australia, I would like to add my comment. My comment is very unique and many Armenians like yourself would probably not find my opinion easy. Though I think it is worth expalining the reasons why Rabiz is so popular. Firstly lets get everything straight, Greeks, Indians, Persians have all been singing with the great extensuasion in there voices for thousands of years.. It is not a a turkish phenomenan nor is mugham rather a Turkish mainstream culture and the same for Azeri's. Western Armenians also have this culture and whether Eastern Armenian Rabiz/Mugham music was influenced by western Armenians or Azeri turks I dont know. What I know is mainstream Armenian music is boring(no offense to anyone) and there is no passion to it. Armenchiks best songs are Rabiz (aynpes gouzem) style becasue you can respect his voice and feel the passion, while his latest dance music is not dancable for my standards. I respect the old traditional stuff with Armenian music as it sounds much more passionate than our mainstream non racbiz music. Mainstreram Armenian pop which is non Rabiz just doesn't it on or of the dance floor, whether its love songs or dance music. Not to say I find some artists a pleasure to listen to, its just some mugham style Rabiz is just as good if not better. Why do Armenians dislike a genre of music which is probably originaly our invention or Greek, maybe Persian. Because of turbofolk from the balkans the balkan people come toghether and party it up, while Armenians in Australia dont know the meaning of party. Okay I understand what we have been through but I dought is becasue we dont know how to party my theory is that our music is slow, our dance music doesn't have a beat and our non rabiz love music from Armenia is not passionate enough. And by disliking a type of music that can potentially move us forward with current trends in dance/pop music and get Armenians to party hard toghether we have parts of the Armenian community who feel something is Rabiz or to Arabic or Turkish. We dont even have any Armenian style dance music similar to turbo folk. Armenians need to let go of there self rightousness which is a strong Armenian/Persian trait where we thing everything that is ours is better. Lastly rather than isolating Armenian culture as a specific type lets remember than all the ancient people have cross culture and anything from that part of the world can be Armenian.
    Yes I love having my oghi and listening to Paul Baghdadlian but what do Armenians do when they want to dance western style mixed with armenian with Dance music, we have none. And anything that pops up, we critizise.

    1. You don't know what you are talking about. Also, why is partying so important? What are you celebrating?

  3. You don't want Armenians to get together? You wont be having a wedding celebration? Why is Partying so important, Armenians have been celebrating since prehistoric times, Weddings, Easter your telling me its not important? Unless I have understood you wrong? I don't think today's youth will be getting together at the next opera... Which part do I not know what I am talking about? Please tell me, I would love to learn more about this topic! I guarantee you Armenians have been singing with Melismas since Byzantium times before the Turks arrived. If its about my opinion on general Armenian music well then its a matter of taste, and there is nothing I could do if all my Armenian friends end up at Greek and Balkan parties and that the Australian Armenian community is a laughing stock because where still complaining about how our pop/folk music sounds. Anyway we agree to disagree...