Marina Hovhannisyan of MarinaHov Band Discusses Folk Music for Diverse Audiences

Although I haven’t written an article in a hot minute (thanks grad school!), I’m thrilled to pick back up by interviewing an incredibly talented artist, Marina Hovhannisyan of the MarinaHov Band. After being pleasantly surprised by the band’s innovative take on Armenian folk music at their July 25th show at The Mint (shourj par at a rock club in L.A., anyone?), I was lucky enough to sit down with the lead singer and founding member of the group to discuss their unique role in creating, evolving, and engaging with ancient melodies and sounds.

The MarinaHov Band is unique in its creation of a powerful new sound accomplished by combining Armenian folk music and contemporary Western instrumentals with musical elements drawn from jazz, classical, and Middle Eastern sounds. The quartet features Aaron Kruziki on saxophone and duduk (a traditional Armenian double-reed), Karl McComas-Reichl on [upright] bass, Matt Buckner on the drum kit, and Marina Hovhannisyan, the innovative young Armenian-American woman who’s the subject of our interview, on lead vocals. Laced with improvisation and not averse to a little psychedelic experimentation, the MarinaHov Band creates breathtakingly refreshing new music for the future conjured from the distant past. Read further for Marina’s own perspective on her role in creating this especially crafty interpretation of centuries-old folk, prepared and performed for the present day!

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

Hi Marina! What is your background, and how did it inspire you to come to create and perform music?

Ever since I was young, I’ve been sort of always singing and playing music. Starting at eleven years old, I was playing the guitar and singing songs, and from then started to pursue singing when I went to college [read: she’s a Berkeley alum] and joined the Armenian choir. About a year into that, I became the conductor of the choir, and started to sing a cappella. From there, the choir expanded, and I started to do more solo work, and that’s when I started singing with individual bands, and as an individual performer. But other than that, my background professionally and academically has always been in math and science.

In terms of Armenian folk music, when I was performing with a choir, it was sort of very traditional, and I was performing arrangements by composers such as Komitas and Sayat Nova, sticking very closely to the original folk sounds. As I began to expand in choir, I started to enjoy making my own harmonies and making my own parts for the songs, and I got feedback that it sounded very good, in the sense that it was original. So, whenever I started to collaborate with other musicians, I would pitch an Armenian song once in a while, and they would pick it up and it would become something new, a completely new sound. Slowly but surely, we started to accept that novel approach, rather than sticking to older, more traditional ways of singing. We started to be open to interpreting folk music and making it our own. Because it is our own, it’s folk music — it’s a very interesting medium. In some ways, it’s already there, but in some ways, you can do whatever you want with it. Exploring the medium of folk music more and more, it became a passion of mine, and whenever other people started to get involved and be interested in it, it became even more fun. 

I really like how you conceptualize folk music, as a music of the people in that everyone has a stake in innovating it.

It’s the best-kept secret. You can do whatever you want with it.

Definitely. What made you decide to pursue your musical talents within the realm of Armenian and folk music?

Obviously, being from an Armenian background, it sort of influenced me a lot to listen to Armenian music. I came from a musical family, as my dad is a professional musician, so I’ve grown up only listening to classical music, and folk music was always something that I could grasp and be good at, and still make it my own and enjoy it. I wasn’t a classical musician, so classical music was always something more stringent and it required more training. It started as that, sort of, as that medium, and it grew into a passion. Having the history, the words, and the people connected to it made it all the better.

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

In terms of your band members, what was their experience in coming to know, engage with, and perform Armenian folk?

From the current band members, Aaron is the only other one who has had any experience with Armenian music before. Whenever I met Aaron, he was already playing duduk, and he already knew some Armenian music, as he had spent time in Armenia, learning it from professional musicians there. He was very knowledgeable of the rhythms, because the rhythms and instruments and tunes of Armenian music are unique, and he also has a very strong background in jazz, as do the other musicians. They’re all very strong jazz musicians. Since jazz has that natural collaborative aspect to it, where you’re all jamming together on stage, it’s never the same, it’s always changing and dynamic, and you’re open to that. So, I think it works very well together, the folk and the jazz, in that sense. With Karl and Matt, their background is more in jazz, and everyone has that creative attitude, so we really harness that collaborative aspect, and we’re really open to that.

We started to be open to interpreting folk music and making it our own. Because it is our own, it’s folk music — it’s a very interesting medium. In some ways, it’s already there, but in some ways, you can do whatever you want with it.

You beautifully perform songs that have been part of the Armenian and Anatolian musical and cultural repertoire for decades, such as Sayat Nova and Komitas, if not centuries. What is the experience of bringing these songs in front of diverse audiences, in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, such as at The Mint recently?

Yeah, we do a lot of the traditional composers, but also play a lot of unnamed melodies from unnamed artists that have just been absorbed into the traditional folk catalogue. We also play a lot of music from the region of Hamshen, which is in modern-day Turkey. It has a lot of unique rhythms, dialects, lyrics, and scales. 

In terms of the experience of playing these songs, it’s funny, because if somebody told me I would be doing this five years ago, I would think it’s so crazy, like how are people going to react to that, nobody’s going to want to hear that. But because, in some ways it happened so organically, people have been very receptive to it, and surprisingly, mostly non-Armenians. Initially, I thought nobody would be interested in that, besides Armenian people, maybe. The fact that people have been receptive is actually one of the most amazing things to me, because I never would’ve imagined people being so open to it. It’s just been surreal to have people come up and ask me for translations of folk words that I barely know the meaning of, and it just feels great to spread the culture in any way to new audiences in new locations. It feels amazing, and I love to do that. Part of it is that newness, and people don’t expect it, so they always ask, “where is that from?” It’s always a topic of conversation, because Armenia isn’t very well-known around the world, so the fact that people learn about Armenian culture by just hanging out at a regular Thursday-night venue is amazing.

Right?! The Mint is one of the few venues in L.A. that I hadn’t previously been to, and I would never imagine dancing shourj par on a Thursday night in 2019.

You can see how organically it happens. People are very receptive to it. I think it’s the artistic culture of L.A. and San Francisco where we get to have that from the audience, and it’s a huge privilege. 

From your perspective, as a young woman performing these folk songs in 2019, what are the distinct and unique challenges for this particular genre of music and performance?

So far, a challenge has been trying to find the right people to collaborate with, because not everybody can just pick it up and do it. You can be an incredible soloist or band musician, but when it comes to certain rhythms and scales, not everybody is able to pick it up naturally — which is totally understandable, because it’s so ancient. So the biggest challenge has been to find the right tight-knit group, where everybody understands each other, and everybody communicates with no words. For example, we had a couple gigs during the last week, and our first gig was our first time playing together as an ensemble with the bass player. I had never met Karl in person, we had only been collaborating online. The first time we met, we performed a whole show on stage together without saying a word to each other, and we barely had any charts, we were just looking at each other and feeling out the music, and I think that is a huge challenge. You can’t find that with just anyone — the chemistry with the band members.

Within the folk community, we do a lot of medleys, so we change it up. Some people who are more traditionalist are a little hesitant with what we do, but we haven’t really had any adverse reaction, and people have been happy to hear what we’re doing. 

Do you foresee any difficulties or challenges in terms of entering the music space as a performer of this specific type of music?

I think a lot of it, especially modern-day bands, are expected to have an image, as it’s a very image-first society that we live in, so you kind of need that. Starting out being about the music, it’s kind of difficult to push that on people, like “the music’s great, trust me, if you just come and listen to it you’ll like it,” so I think the difficulty is establishing some sort of image that people will be into. I’m not about that at all, and neither are any of the band members, so I think if we do have the opportunity to grow, it’s only going to be through the music, and I do foresee challenges with that. I’m ready to do that, though, because I don’t want to sell an image.

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

Courtesy of MarinaHov Band

Thus far, what has been your biggest accomplishment or moment that you're most proud of?

I wouldn’t say there’s one specific moment, but it’s the fact that we’ve been able to bring this music to an audience that would have never, ever listened to this music otherwise, and have people enjoy it and ask us for more recordings and shows. I would have never expected that to happen initially, because we were just doing this fun little game of “what would happen if we did this or that to the traditional music,” but we had such responses from the audience that it’s been a great accomplishment in my opinion. A dream come true in some ways.

A lot of people who've heard your music and seen your performances are eager to see you live. Do you have any plans to perform in more venues and locations?

As of now, we’re looking at a few performances in October. We’ve been confirmed to perform at Abril Bookstore in Glendale, on October 26th. We’ll also do a few more in L.A. and the Bay Area, so stay tuned!

Awesome! What is in the near future for the MarinaHov Band?

I think for now, we’re going to try and do a few more recordings with the music we already have, and definitely start to arrange new stuff, since we’ve had a recent change of personnel in the band. We definitely want to write and record more songs, and perform them in October!

Thank you so much to Marina for the interview! Be sure to follow the band on Bandcamp, Instagram, and YouTube for updates, and you can also find some of their recorded songs, along with lyrics and translations, on their website! And of course stay tuned for their show at Abril Bookstore in October!