Lithuania’s older generation is very much familiar with Armenian culture. The latter country, known for its hospitality, has always left a lasting impression on the travellers. Ema Bojadžian is living proof of that – her story began when her Lithuanian mother met her Armenian father. Ema, a charismatic Kaunas-based pianist teaching in J. Gruodis conservatory, also leads the Armenian folk ensemble named Hayrenik (Fatherland), which acts as a link between the two cultures. The group includes local Armenians as well as Lithuanians that are seeking new experiences. Ema simply “infects” people with the Armenian culture – after our talk we felt a sudden urge to look for flights to the capital Jerevan online.
We met Ema at the Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations, the head of which – Dainius Babilas – we interviewed some time ago. This institution down the Owl Hill became a second home to many Armenians living in Kaunas. Knowing about the magazine’s theme for February, Ema brought four national outfits to the interview! Some of them came from Armenia, others were made here in Kaunas by interpreting the age-old traditions today.
Portrait by Dainius Ščiuka
How did you decide to initiate the Hayrenik ensemble? Tell us more about it.
Together with the young Armenians of Kaunas, we’ve decided to establish a kind of group where we could dance, sing and keep our national culture alive. The ensemble will be ten years old this November. It’s not an academic one as many members don’t know the notes and just sing the melodies after first hearing them. I’m a professional musician, however I take part in creating choreography and other things…
Are the Armenians who live in Kaunas close with each other? Do many of them join the ensemble or foster their culture in different ways?
Well, Armenians are southerners, so if we would look at this nation as a whole, we’d see that family and connections between relatives are crucially important. But not everyone wants to sing or dance, therefore certainly not all of the locals join in. The Armenian senior citizens are also members of the community, hence they gather to talk and this way maintain the culture strong. We celebrate on various occasions, many people come to our concerts as well. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s mostly the younger generation that takes part in the ensemble’s activities. The older generation is our source of knowledge, our base, yet we all know nothing really happens if you don’t engage with the young. Our ensemble includes twelve members; half of them are Lithuanians.
What do Lithuanians find here that they’re not able to find in Lithuanian folk ensembles?
We’ve noticed that these Lithuanians often talk about the warm welcome they received, the closeness between the members. Maybe they can’t find it in their own environment, that’s why we try to create a family atmosphere. The trust of Lithuanians needs to be earned, you need to “reach” them in some particular way, whereas Armenians typically are open-hearted people packed full of bursting emotions. Perhaps it’s Armenian rhythms and temperament that attracts calmer Lithuanians – the youngsters feel free here, open up their creativity, they say our “fire” inspires them.
Have you played in Armenia with this ensemble?
Yes, there is a biannual festival “My Armenia” that many folk groups from all over the world go to. We’re planning to take part again next year, unfortunately getting to Armenia with the whole ensemble is not that easy.
You can meet Armenians from very different places there – Brazil, Russia, the US, and you can feel their own specific identity that’s evident in the way they talk, especially in their accent. That’s very interesting to experience. Whether we like it or not, the Lithuanian environment affects us too.
How old are the traditions of the Armenian national costume?
It’s very hard to tell: our country’s history begins all the way back before Christ, and, by the way, it’s the first Christian state of the world. The territory of Armenia was changing constantly, shaped by various wars and migrating nations. Our national costume was influenced by many countries and cultures, including Georgia and Turkey as well as more exotic territories. So the actual costume itself was being crystallised throughout the ages, affected by an array of international factors.
Photo by Mantas Matulionis
Can the costumes you use with your ensemble be pinned to any specific period or region?
No, they’re not from a particular time or place. For instance, we have four ethnographic regions in Lithuania. Armenia has twelve – all of those have their own costumes and there are even several deviations in each of them.
The national costumes in the four regions of Lithuania differ quite in a subtle manner, while Armenia sees not only a whole palette of colours, but also complete changes of ornaments and overall design. To give you an idea, let’s take the northern regions, which have more layers in the outfits and warmer materials are used. And the second biggest city Gyumri gets mighty cold during the night, but then the sun hits hard on people the whole day – this is taken into account when making the costumes.
What symbols can you usually see? What do the colours mean?
Pomegranate is definitely one of the most popular symbols, representing vitality and fertility. Whether we can see pomegranates in photographs or on costumes, they will only be held or “worn” by women, as only women can give life.
The national costume allows you to determine a woman’s social or family status. For example, a married woman would wear an apron, a single one would only wear a belt or a band. Men’s outfits can also tell us a lot: the military cult is quite powerful in Armenia, so it is believed that a man ought to be prepared to defend his country from possible danger, and you can see that in his costume. Of course, the social class could be identified quite accurately by the garments too: farmers and shepherds dressed differently from aristocrats.
Colours vary according to what region you’re in, yet red is the most dominant one, made in Armenia from a bug’s carmine. Red colour symbolises protection in the Armenian culture, that’s why it was customary to dress in red first and then add other cloths, details or colours.
How often are national costumes worn in Armenia? What are the occasions for it?
Much like in Lithuania, Armenia has many folk festivals, dance events, song celebrations and so on, all of which are occasions to wear it.
Both a while ago and now, people like to use folk elements in contemporary design. This is happening in Lithuania, but Armenia has more of a passion for it – designers are constantly examining variations of the national costume to create new handbags, clothes or accessories.
Finally, no Armenian wedding avoids the old traditions. It’s not even a question whether traditional music should be played, folk dancing should take place or national costumes should be worn.
Find out more about Hayrenik here and be sure to follow the updates from the Kaunas Cultural Centre of Various Nations here.