The Bambir: Ashughakan Rock & Roll
Achod Papasian | Music of Armenia, Yerevan
Question: Do you know what the middle ground is between the Rolling Stones and Sayat Nova? Answer: The Bambir!
Made up of Narek Barseghyan (lead vocals & guitar), Arik Grigoryan (flutes, vocals, guitar), Arman Kocharyan (bass, vocals) and Vardan Paremuzyan (drums, vocals), The Bambir is probably the most famous and the oldest rock-folk band in the Armenian musical scene. On December 15th, the quartet gave its last concert of the year at UPTown bar in Yerevan before embarking on a tour across the United States next March.
The show opened with “Imitate”, a joyful tune led by a flute riff doubled by the bass guitar. Narek’s lead vocals in English were either backed by Arik’s harmonising or Arman’s energetic exclamations. The song then turned into a ternary rhythm, upon which the lead singer shouted madly, shaking his disheveled hair like a devil.
For the next song, the drummer rolled out a heavy groove worthy of John Bonham. They ventured in a gloomy atmosphere, with the vocals and the flute playing a spectral melody in unison. Suddenly, all instruments vanished and the flute launched into a fast theme with a complex time signature, soon joined by a tribal rhythm taking the intensity to a breaking point.
Arik then played two Komitas songs, using a guitar with a unique slim body and tuned especially to sound like a saz. He interpreted the melody of “Kantche Krounk” in a sober yet mighty style. He then launched into a brisk Indian-like melody on the guitar, backed by buoyant tom-tom drum rolls before singing the free-flowing melody of “Mokats Mirza”. The audience, mesmerised, sang along with the sustained notes of “Hazar Apsos”. A moment filled with spirituality.
Afterwards, Narek’s guitar took us to another universe with “Have a Break”, a gentle pop melody backed by a rockabilly rhythm, but not for long… A victorious guitar riff came up, in the pure tradition of British rock from the 60’s, and the three singers sang a bright chorus perfectly built for the stage all together. Narek then delivered a spirited guitar solo – the man truly masters his instrument.
“Let’s Get Jazzy!” Both the flute and the guitar launched into an upbeat free jazz riff. Narek’s singing on the verses alternated between scat and theatrical answers to the playful provocations of the flute. After a part which sounded like chaos, the main riff came back but this time backed by an implacable speed metal drum beat! A lively flute solo made the transition to the next song, based on an afro beat groove on the drums. Narek again delighted us with an impressive solo, technically very swift and enlivened by the use of the vibrato bar, before delivering a killer riff. While he was torturing his guitar, one may wonder: Does he master the guitar or does the guitar master him?
The next song “Wake Up” featured a hip-hop beat and a guitar riff sounding like a P-funk keyboard. The singing sounded almost like a pop tune: ‘We are playing silly games to establish our sounds on the stage’. But as you may have understood by now, The Bambir can’t stay within the lines for too long. They broke into an upbeat sequence worthy of Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand”, exploding in a deluge of flute solos and cerebral guitar riffs.
After a few songs in English, the ‘guitar-saz’ came back again for a suite of songs that was the highlight of the evening. The band developed a slow and solemn incantation interpreted with outstanding gravity. For the first time in the concert, the two lead singers were singing both on the same wave-length, their eyes closed. Moreover, the association of Narek’s guitar and Arik’s ‘guitar-saz’ created a brand new sound - a universe made of the duality between psychedelic rock and Armenian folklore. The mix of primitive high and low pitched voices took us back to centuries ago and disappeared in a vibrato trick, leaving the audience stunned.
The band continued exploring the folkloric melodies with an adaptation of Ashough Jivani’s “Spitak Mazer”. In the middle of the song, the overdrive guitar broke in savagely. In an instant, the music moved from a traditional song to the heaviest Black Sabbath groove and then to a helter skelter fugue! And then came the guitar solo - a pure moment of glory, out of the conventions, wildly surfing on the cataclysmic drums, before eventually collapsing in blasts of cymbals.
The band then played one of its best compositions, “Walk On”, based on a melancholic ethereal guitar theme and a few chords of an acoustic guitar. While Narek twisted the notes with the tremolo bar, a snare drum roll sped up the tempo and lead to a bouncing section, dominated once again by the lead guitarist’s experiments with oriental scales and the Octavia pedal.
Narek then announced “Hashish”, with an enthusiastic reaction from the audience. He then said: “This song is not so much about hashish but about free speech, freedom…and eshutyun (idiocy)”. A freedom soon to be illustrated by a flute theme played at full speed upon a bass drum pulse. The guitar and the flute’s melodies completely mixed with each other, creating a messy musical landscape reminding us of the Stooges experiments with saxophone and guitar solos.
The show ended with a long trance lead by a vocal theme sang by the whole band and crunchy guitar lines. The audience reached a state of delirium with the final chaotic crescendo. After almost two hours of performing, the members of the band left the stage and I sat at my table, stunned and still thinking about the incredible mix of influences I had just heard. What style of music was that? The answer was not long in coming. I just had to listen to the song that was played in the bar - Bob Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man: “There’s something happening here but you don’t know what it is.”