Notes From Hairenik
December 11, 2007
Although the following article has appeared in publications like Hetq Online and The Armenian Weekly, I am reprising it here since it is more timely than ever and also because I simply feel like it. Nothing has changed in the two years since I wrote it with the exception of some faint tweaking of fashion styles. Generally the phenomenon has expanded rather than having retracted and there is no sign of letting up. I have refreshed a few details but for the most part the article remains unaltered.


The Rabiz Phenomenon

Since the fall of the Soviet Union a new style of popular music emerged in Armenia, which branched out to communities containing large populations of Armenian expatriates, most notably around Los Angeles where much of the music is produced today. The sensation that has tens of thousands of Armenian youth captivated is called “rabiz,” and the ramifications of its popularity have affected Armenia’s cultural as well as social norms.

There is no consensus on the exact origin of the word. Most people verify that the term stems from the Russian phrase transliterated as “rabotniki isskustva” which translates to “worker’s art.” According to some sources, the word’s usage in Armenia dates back to the 1920s. There are some who believe that the word comes from Turkish or Arabic roots. In Urdu, the word “rab” means creator or god, while “rabt” is defined as affinity or relation. The Arabic name “Aziz,” which is used by many Armenians as meaning “darling,” could perhaps be considered another root.

The rabiz song form varies in interpretation and comprehension. Some attribute the term to describe modern Armenian dance music, usually fast paced and laden with upbeat tempos. The music of a particular artist performing within the full spectrum of current Armenian pop can subjectively be considered rabiz depending on the tastes of the listener. It is also said that rabiz music existed in one form during Armenia’s Soviet years. However, the more accepted affiliation now is to a song structure based on the popular ballad, usually sung with a specific person in mind while conveying a message of love or longing. Rabiz singers are with few exceptions male. The vocal tone is usually sung in tenor and mimics the traditional as well as mainstream vocal styles heard in Turkish or Arabic music, the singer wailing alongside the main melody in a kind of improvisation, usually with vibrato if one can be produced. Many of the songs themselves are Middle Eastern but with Armenian-language lyrics. The orchestra is usually comprised entirely of synthesized instruments, occasionally accompanied by the Armenian duduk woodwind to accentuate the intended somber mood. The arrangements of the ballads are reminiscent to those that could be heard in American or British popular music from the 1980s. The traditional rabiz song is addressed to loved ones, primarily to parents or a significant other. There are countless rabiz singers in Armenian popular music today, and their audience is usually young men in their twenties or thirties, although older generations listen to the music as well.

Stereotypical descriptions of rabiz performers and their followers have expectedly taken form, especially in the last five years. In fact, they themselves are labeled as being rabiz from their appearance as well as practiced popular culture. The clothing and grooming styles of men who have an affinity with the music are specific, thus the result has become a kind of uniform. The common color scheme is all black, but a white dress shirt or pullover is accepted for contrast, although now other colors, predominately dark, have come to be worn. Young men wear either black single-breasted suits or faux leather jackets with black trousers or jeans. Dark, rectangular sunglasses and black belts with large, square platinum-colored buckles are worn as accessories. A small case containing the latest mobile telephone model is strapped to the belt and placed on the hip. The footwear chosen are leather loafer variations, usually black in color and narrow in size, with a high heel and an unusually sharply pointed toe, which as a variation curves upward or is squared off. The hair is cut very short, sometimes shaved close, with a part from the far right or left, although fashion trends in Moscow are turning the tide, with some men growing their hair longer in the back of the head and bangs. The posture of rabiz men is usually poor, slumped shouldered, or they squat low to the ground, with their forearms resting on the knees. Those who can afford an automobile drive the Lada 2107, 112, or Niva sport utility vehicle, although now relatively new European as well as Japanese sedans are common. The Ladas are most always painted bright white, with the exception of the 112, featuring black tinted windows and premium shiny chrome wheels, not to mention custom license plates.

As prejudice as this description may seem, young men throughout the country’s capital fit it to a tee, while others living in rural areas strive to achieve the same look. Accordingly, the rabiz lifestyle has taken true form amongst young men who call each other “akhper,” or as abbreviated “aper,” a slang word meaning “brother” and who are often negatively labeled as “apero.” Not surprisingly, people in society who do not condone the rabiz lifestyle find it as being in bad taste.

Woman who are considered rabiz are less obvious to spot, nevertheless a particular fashion sense is attributed to the stereotype. Facial and eye make-up is almost always heavily applied. The hair is occasionally dyed in dirty to light blond shades, sometimes in streaks for contrast against the natural dark hair color that most Armenian women are born with, and if the hair is curly it is usually straightened. In clothing shocking colors are preferred—reds, blinding bright whites, or hot pinks particularly. Short acid-washed or artificially faded jeans are worn very tight that rise up to the knee. Tight mini-skirts or pants, usually black, are fitted as well. Blouses are taut or loose but cut low from the neck. For footwear, long boots or pumps with unusually high, thin stiletto heels are preferred, and the toe is usually pointed sharply.

Rabiz transforms to a degree as men age. The pot belly, varying in size and shape, protrudes over the belt line in a primitive display of wealth and affluence. German luxury cars are a prize reflected by the vast number that can be found in Yerevan’s downtown area. Japanese and European sport utility vehicles are also now a sign of self-perceived prestige. Otherwise, the newest model of the Russian Volga is preferred. Automobile colors are not important, but black is predominant nevertheless.

But there is no clear definition of the term as it applies to culture. Young Armenians living in Glendale, California, located just outside Los Angeles and contains one of the largest communities of expatriate Armenians, claim that rabiz applies to those trying to conform to the local popular culture fostered by inner-city African-American youth there. Rather, it subjectively applies to any young man who does not conform to the social and cultural expectations of the observer.

The Armenian language has even been directly affected by rabiz culture. A new vernacular, which could be considered as a sub-language, has developed. Words are pronounced with exaggerated deep “o” and “a” vowel sounds, and the resulting effect seems as if the speaker is chewing on what is being spoken. An automatic expression used in the contexts of “give me a break,” “giving you a break,” or as a term of endearment, but is literally translated as “I take your pain,” is incorporated in such frequency during conversation that the term no longer takes on any true meaning. It was introduced in casual speech long ago by Armenia’s now senior generation, but its usage has become a phenomenon in its own right. Russian and Turkish words are thrown in for color in everyday dialogue as jargon or figures of speech so frequently that many if asked do not realize the terms they are using are actually foreign.

In architecture, new structures being constructed by businessmen, who arguably conform to the rabiz standard, are most always ostentatious in design and do not match the monumental Stalin-era buildings that surrounds them—which are incidentally being cruelly destroyed. Neon in various hues is the preferred form of luminance, not only on business signs but in interiors as mood lighting. Shiny surfaces in the forms of mirrors, dark glass, highly polished stone tile, or marble are predominant in both exterior and interior décor. The buildings themselves stand as symmetrical blocks with smooth planes and little to no distinctive ornamentation, contrasting with that often found on older apartment or retail buildings throughout the city designed with a classical European architectural influence.

Thus society is being polarized not only socio-economically, as a new middle class has clearly taken hold, but culturally into two camps—those who reject traditional Armenian culture and those who strive to preserve it at all costs. The rabiz evidently are increasingly influenced by the general look and gruff habits associated with Russian mafia portrayals on television and Hollywood-produced gangster films. They do not adhere to the arts and culture that is uniquely Armenian, namely displayed in music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. The attitude that is fostered, an indifferent, to-hell-with-it chauvinist stance, affects those who coexist in their immediate surroundings, both young and old. It affects the older generations in that they are appalled by the phenomenon they now encounter daily, while the new, budding generations regard the rabiz as their heroes.

Rabiz also transcends political spheres as well. The orchestrators of big business in Armenia--some of whom are considered to be rabiz by public opinion--are becoming involved, although minimally, in politics by being elected members of parliament, who by law are granted immunity from criminal prosecution. Thus they are protected when conducting any business transactions that may be considered or are in fact illegal. Protests in the recent past against figures comprising the government establishment, who are protected by thugs referred to as “skinheads” and are considered to conform to the rabiz lifestyle, are put down, sometimes violently. One such incident occurred during the public protests made in reaction to the presidential elections held in 2003, which were widely believed to have been falsified. Journalists were reportedly running for their lives, some having their cameras smashed and were themselves beaten for photographing the events.

It cannot be predicted how long the rabiz trend will continue. Some believe that the song form will eventually lose popularity, and seemingly the culture and lifestyle associated with it will also wither away. However, the latest music being played by Yerevan-based radio stations and in video clips on television demonstrates that Armenian popular and rabiz styles are already fusing. A clearly emerging alternative popular culture amongst youth is defying rabiz, and Western pop music is steadily gaining in popularity as well. There already are established, near cult-like movements formed by those who prefer rock or jazz music genres. But such individuals are victimized by the rabiz society that still predominates.

Whether the ramifications of rabiz on a political scale will be suppressed, however, depends on the citizens of Armenia. Only they can determine in the end how they wish their country to be run and under what prevailing conditions or objectives. And the entire Armenian nation is depending on their decision.

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Blogger nazarian said...
To tell you the truth, the only innovative area in the Armenian pop music is rabiz. At least it has its distinct niche. The rest are nauseating imitations of 80-s and 90-s music in the US.

Anonymous fiona said...
Armenia has no future.turkey armenian borders are opening the armenians becoming more and more alienated from their true roots.