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Performers hope music will inspire Armenian genocide protest

April 24, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

The feelings flow out of his heart, through his fingers and onto the strings of his guitar.

Sometimes, said Armenian American songwriter Shant Bismejian, he feels anger over Turkish denial of the genocide of his people in the early 20th century. Sometimes he feels sadness over stories of children forced to witness the massacre of their parents. And sometimes he feels joy that the Armenian people survived the atrocities and rebuilt a nation.

Bismejian, 22, expects all of those emotions to flow tonight as he and his band, Visa, perform a concert to memorialize the Armenian genocide, one of several commemorative events planned in the Los Angeles area.

The concert, called Silence the Lies, Rock the Truth, scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, will also feature other Armenian American musicians and poets in what activists say reflects a growing youth movement to raise awareness about the genocide.

The Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1918 claimed the lives of about 1.2 million Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The Turkish government disputes that a genocide took place.

This year's memorials are punctuated with the drama of whether President Obama will make good on his campaign pledge to recognize the genocide in his expected statement today.

Armenian Americans overwhelmingly backed Obama for president, in part because of his outspoken and unequivocal recognition of the genocide, said Andrew Kzirian, a band member and executive director of the Armenian National Committee's Western region office in Glendale.

The Armenian community plans political protests at the Turkish Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard and a laying of wreaths at a genocide memorial monument in Montebello. Band members say they hope particularly to raise awareness among young people through music.

The band plans to play as its opening number "Adana," an Armenian folk song that laments the suffering during the genocide, band members say.

"There's nothing wrong with speeches, but music is the easiest way to connect to people because everyone can relate to music," said Alex Khatcherian, a 22-year-old UC Santa Barbara student and bass player.

The band, which plays a mix of world music featuring hints of rock, Mideastern rhythms and traditional Armenian instruments, such as the flute-like duduk, has attracted fans beyond the Armenian community.

Setareh Mortazavi, a 21-year-old UCLA senior of Persian heritage, said she was captivated by the band's music the first time she heard it a year ago. That prompted her to attend Visa's genocide memorial concert last year and do her own historical research on the massacres. She then join a protest against the refusal to recognize the genocide.

"Usually political speeches seem a bit boring," Mortazavi said. "The entertainment aspect is more effective to get non-Armenians interested in the issue."

Arek Santikian of the Armenian Youth Federation's Western regional office in Glendale said bands such as Visa and System of a Down, which also addressed the Armenian genocide and other human rights issues before breaking up two years ago, reflected growing youth activism in raising awareness. The federation's members have grown from 350 to 500 in the last decade and have staged several events, including a 215-mile march from Fresno to Sacramento in 2005, a five-day Fast for Remembrance in 2007 and an 11-mile bike ride from Encino scheduled this Saturday.

Part of the enhanced activism, Kzirian said, was prompted by then-President Bush's opposition to genocide recognition legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007. The community expects Obama to behave differently and will be furious if he does not, Kzirian said.

But Hakan Tekin, Turkey's consul general in Los Angeles, urged Armenian Americans to focus instead on progress in Turkish-Armenian relations, illustrated by an agreement this week on a framework to normalize relations.

"We hope especially that the Armenian community in California supports these talks rather than get involved in activities that instigate hate and poison the minds of young Armenians with what we see as distorted history," Tekin said.

Visa was started in 2000 by K'noup Tomopoulos, a native of Greece. He moved to Los Angeles in 2002 and eventually hooked up with his current band of nine members, five of whom are ethnic Armenians. Tomopoulos said Greece's history with the Ottoman Empire, which ruled his native land for four centuries, has helped him connect with Armenian pain.

"Getting out the message about the manslaughter that took place in 1915, which is so important to Armenians, is also important to me," he said.

Bismejian said his family history inspires his music. His grandfather and great-grandmother were sent by the Turks on a death march to the Der Zor desert, where mass killings took place, he said, but they escaped and moved to Syria. The emotions triggered by those stories influence nearly all of the songs he writes.

But there are also songs of joy. He calls one of them "Look at Us Now" because every time he plays it he thinks:

"After everything that happened, we're still here and look how strong we are," he said.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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