Life, Love and Destiny: A Glance at the Beginnings of the Hamazkayin Sayat Nova Choir

The Hamazkayin Sayat Nova Choir

BY VICKEN SOSIKIAN

Stepan Bairamian arrived in the United States when he was 23 years old. Shortly after, he joined the US Armed forces and was stationed in Georgia and later continued training in Maryland. Friends and family were not surprised to learn that Stepan had joined the army – after all he was the son of Col. Joseph Bairamian, a well-known leader in the Syrian-Armenian community.

A tall and well-built gentleman Stepan was an asset to his group. However, after being diagnosed with kidney failure he was discharged from the army as a veteran and returned to Los Angeles to begin dialysis at the age of 26.

The optimist that he was, Stepan did not let his health problems change his lifestyle; he continued to pursue higher education. His passion for singing, music and Armenian culture remained top priority.

He enlisted in singing classes with renowned vocalist Arpineh Pehlivanian and enrolled at California State University Northridge pursuing a degree in geological engineering. Upon graduation he embarked on a career with the Internal Revenue Service.

Destiny begins
Just about this time, in 1985, Nora Roumian’s sister, husband and kids were moving to the United States, she decided to join them to help out with the move, to take a break from her busy life in Beirut and simply to see what “America” was all about.

It didn’t take long for Nora to realize that she did not enjoy America one bit, she missed Lebanon. She did not want to stay and was eager to return home. However, her parents soon informed her that they too would relocate to Los Angeles and as such she should stay put.

It was difficult for her.

Back home Nora was a public figure of sorts. She was a graduate of the Lebanese National Conservatory of Music, a recipient of a scholarship from Geneve’ Musicale Du Liban where she attended master classes in piano and chamber music. She was chosen to perform for the Belgium National Radio and Television and studied at the International Music Academy of Nice, France. Nora was chosen to be the soloist for the Touring Chamber Music Orchestra of Tubingen Germany. She taught music at Nshan Palanjian Jemaran and was active in the local Hamazkayin as an executive member working with youth. She even taught a blind student to play piano at Tekelian Music School where she was the head of the piano department.

She had to start all over in America.

Just about this time, the Glendale Hamazkayin Anoush choir was looking for a pianist. While of course this was a voluntary position it was still close to Nora’s heart as she was able to work with her beloved Hamzkayin.

Shortly after accepting the pianist position, the choir was invited to perform at a community event being held at the Glendale High School auditorium, where Karnig Sarkissian was scheduled to sing the ARF anthem. Last minute, word was received that Karnig would be unable to attend due to unforeseen circumstances. Quickly, a replacement was assigned the responsibility of singing the ARF anthem. Nora was reluctant to accompany a singer with whom she had not practiced, but as she was mulling over how to address the situation, a tall, dark and handsome gentleman approached her and handed the notes to the song. Turns out that Stepan was also a student of Ms. Arpineh Pehlivanian and this would be the precursor to a special relationship.

Destiny grows
Before they got any more serious, Stepan informed Nora of his health condition. She didn’t care. Stepan was kind, polite, caring, loving and generous. Nora loved him and he loved her.

They got married in November of 1986 despite discouragement from friends and family who urged Nora to reconsider given that those with Stepan’s health condition are usually given a 10-15 year life expectancy.

Stepan and Nora’s relationship was truly special and remarkable. They loved one another endlessly. Nora showed her love by standing beside and caring for her husband throughout the many surgeries, extended hospital stays, failed kidney transplants and life threatening emergencies. As for Stepan, he was always happy, grateful and optimistic. He always had hope that he would be healed. He never complained and was always content. He never fell short on finding ways to show Nora how much he loved her.

Destiny plays its course
As with all kidney failure patients, the illness takes a toll on the body. Fortunately, Stepan had already surpassed double his life expectancy, but had started experiencing vision problems and difficulty walking.

It was right at this time in 2009 that the Valley “Baruyr Sevag” Hamazkayin chapter approached Nora to help launch a choir. She was reluctant due to her husband’s advanced illness, but discussed the proposition with Stepan, who loved the concept, encouraged Nora to accept and was eager to be one of the first members of the new choir.

Nora felt that by accepting and helping launch the choir, she would boost Stepan’s morale. It would be a tough challenge for Nora. Between teaching music at Chamlian, piano lessons to her private students and tending to Stepan’s increasing dependency on her; it would not be easy. But it was not in her nature to turn down an opportunity to volunteer for Hamazkayin; especially if it would make Stepan happy.

And as such in May of 2009 the Sayat Nova choir was formed with 27 members, led by Nora who was not only the choir’s pianist but also the conductor – an unusual combination by all accounts.

Nora Roumian-Bairamian with her late husband Stepan

Initially, the newly-formed choir met and conducted practice sessions at various members’ houses, but as Stepan’s condition worsened the group took up Stepan and Nora’s home as the primary practice venue. The gatherings began taking place more frequently to prepare for the group’s inaugural performance.

Destiny has its own plan
Just days after celebrating New Year’s Eve with family and just before Armenian Christmas Stepan passed away in his sleep at the age of 58. It was truly a difficult time for Stepan’s entire family, but especially for Nora who had literally dedicated her life to Stepan.

“The choir members proved to be my second family,” said Nora. “They were always visiting, supporting, helping and encouraging; they motivated me and gave me strength – for which I am always thankful.”

The Hamazkayin “Baruyr Sevag” chapter executive decided to dedicate the choir’s first performance to the memory of Stepan. With every song they sang, they out-did the previous. It seemed as though the choir had a new strength; an additional mission.

“We sing because we love music,” says one choir member. “We sing because we want to promote our rich culture,” says another. “We sing because we love Hamazkayin.” “We sing to encourage the next generation.”

While each choir member may have her or his own reason for joining and diligently attending practice sessions; the fact is they are all collectively, serving the Hamazkayin mission, promoting Armenian culture and enthusing the audience that follows them.      Practice sessions are anything but regular. A group of nearly 40 women and men, from all walks of life gather Tuesday and Friday nights converting Nora’s living room and dining area into a makeshift music hall. Foldable chairs are set in semi-circle rows, the AC runs full blast and several fans work at full speed to keep a room full of beautiful voices semi-ventilated.

None but one of the choir members are professional singers; most began singing when they first joined the choir. Realtors, accountants, attorneys, business owners, teachers, therapists, designers and government workers – who otherwise don’t have much in common; seem like lifelong friends when they come together at practice sessions.

They all put in several hours each time to perfect some fifteen songs they will perform at their next performance on October 13th.

“While some of the pieces are traditional Armenian songs, most are unique interpretations of popular pieces including English, Arabic, French and even Russian songs, which I have arranged for choir, “ explains  Nora. “Our aim is to please the audience with exciting selections and a unique flavor.”

“From the Middle East, to Europe, to the United States and Russia; Armenian’s have lived in and contributed to various societies, while acquiring hints of cultural influence. Our selection of pieces is a reflection of the evolutionary Armenian culture, which in turn is a direct result of a people who were forced from their homeland during genocide.”

While attending a performance is quite an experience, witnessing a practice session is uplifting to say the least. The fact that average people dedicate several hours a week for the pleasure and enjoyment of their audience; is impressive in of itself. The choreographic exchange of versus and lines between various voice types within the choir and the pursuit of perfecting a single verse through multiple repetitions is just a couple testaments to what it takes to prepare for a major performance.

However, most impressive of all is the passion and emotion that is spurned out in the voices of each choir member. Team work is defined here and it is here that you see the peace in Nora’s eyes and you feel the smile in Stepan’s soul.

The choir members are passionate and dedicated people. Stepan was an exemplary human being. Nora is a strong and committed Armenian woman, whom I am proud to call my aunt.

I look forward to seeing it all come together at the upcoming performance where destiny will dance to the beautiful sounds it so quietly composed many years ago.

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