Ensemble Karot, Traditional Songs of Armenia, Volume 1 (Face Music, 2000)

Let us ponder Armenia for a moment, an ancient nation which once stretched its boundaries to include parts of modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Georgia. Right there you know that whatever musical tradition exists will encompass the music of the Mediterranean, Arabia, and southern Russian styles, as interesting a blend as you are liable to find anywhere. Ensemble Karot is a vocal group dedicated to preserving the older elements of the musical tradition of this nation, and the aural tapestry they present is quite interesting.

A family group, Ensemble Karot spend this disc exploring different song styles, from work to dance to love. This style is fairly reminiscent of Turkish vocal styles, but with a bit more of the "group chorus" chant common to Russian folk styles. Arabic-tinged flights of fancy come often as well, like on "Garoon Batzver," where sole male vocalist Aleskan Harutyunyan displays his tenor prowess. The Georgian style is nicely alluded to in "Zinch u Zinch," with an alternating vocal between Harutyunyan and his sister Hasmik. Of special interest are the songs by Harutyunyan's young daughter and niece: their sweet voices on "Aghaves" add a nice touch to this homey sounding disc.

The vocalists are all superb, especially Hasmik Harutyunyan; her "Kessabi Lullaby," which closes the disc, is especially striking. The recording quality is excellent and uniform throughout. The disc, however, is a little long in tooth. Stretching to 31 tracks, many in the same form, it does get rather repetitive at times. Also, as wonderful as these songs are, there is little to hint at a unique Armenian "style." These songs echo what is heard throughout the region and sound little different than Turkish or Eastern Greek songs. Not that that is really the fault of the singers: what they present is lovely, just not too unfamiliar to me.

This is a fine disc of vocal music from the middle European East. With great singing and great presentation, Ensemble Karot present their Armenian musical heritage in a wonderful light. Though not entirely spell-binding, this is a decent a cappella disc.

Big Earl Sellar