The Armenian rock group The Bambir will come to Winona for Mid West Music Fest next Saturday. The intergenerational band got its start when Armenia was still part of the U.S.S.R. and Western rock and roll was censored.
by CHRIS ROGERS
There is no contest over which band at this year's Mid West Music Fest (MWMF) will be playing the furthest from home. When The Bambir headlines at the historic Masonic Temple Theater on Saturday, April 30, its musicians will be more than 5,000 miles from their home near the Turkish border in Armenia. The Middle Eastern rockers did not travel all that way and secure U.S. visas just to play in Winona — they are about to tour the U.S. — but the island city's springtime music festival will be one of the band's first of several shows in the states in years. The others were pretty big, including South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. It is a trip that was hardly imaginable when the band got its start.
Many musicians try to escape labels, but The Bambir are particularly hard to categorize. Musically, they sound like a reggae- and funk-inspired jam band on one song and a hardcore rock band on the next. Trilling flute trades phrases with a rapid-fire guitar, and their mostly English-language songs are intermixed with tunes in Armenian that let the band's Near Eastern heritage shine. "They can do everything," MWMF Managing Director Parker Forsell said. Then there is the fact that "a band" is perhaps too narrow of a term to capture what The Bambir is. Originally, "The Bambir" was a band that guitarist Narek Barseghyan's father, Jag Barseghyan, started in the 1970s, blending Armenian ethnic music with contraband rock and roll. Over the years, more than 60 musicians have filtered through its ranks and launched blues and Armenian folk music side projects using the same name. Jag still plays under the name back home, but Narek and his bandmates — flutist Arik Grigoryan, bassist Arman Kocharyan, and drummer Vardan Paremuzyan — have carried the name as they climb their way to international success.
When Jag started blending rock and roll and Armenian ethnic music to form The Bambir, much of the Western music that inspired him was contraband. Armenia is a small, mountainous country tucked between the Black Sea and the Caspian next to Iran and Turkey, and dominated by a form of Orthodox Christianity. Until 1991, Armenia was also part of the U.S.S.R., where the music of many Western rock bands was banned and American albums and films could often only be found on the black market. "Finding records was like a gold mine," Narek recalled from his father's stories. Normally, the Beatles, Hollywood, and many of the Western cultural icons that were shaping the rest of the world were censored, but for some reason one particular Soviet film featured a two-second clip of a Beatles concert. Korchayan's father and all of his friends rewound the film to watch that clip over and over again, Korchayan said. "It was the only oxygen," Narek said of the rock and roll in Soviet Armenia. "It kind of became a religion. It was the only window to get the air of freedom."
Despite the efforts of Soviet censors, rock and roll music eventually swept Armenia. "Everyone wanted to play an instrument," Paremuzyan remembered. Several of the members of The Bambir — the four-piece band that is playing Winona — were lucky enough to be born to artistic families with parents in the theater business, and they grew up being surrounded by music. "Almost every day our parents would play together," Korchayan said. Korchayan, Grigoryan, and Narek were childhood friends, and at age nine they got the idea to learn some songs themselves and surprise their parents with a performance. Over the years, American musicians were big influences on the Armenian boys. Narek and Kocharyan said that at one point, they exchanged letters with Jethro Tull. They idolized Jimi Hendrix, and after being so immersed in 1970s music while new movements were building in America, they were puzzled at first by Nirvana before embracing grunge. They kept on playing and playing until they became one of the most popular rock bands in Armenia, winning the country's national music award in the early 2000s. In an effort to break into the European music scene, the band spent 2012 living and playing across Ireland and were hailed by Irish music critics. In 2014 they were invited to the major U.S. music festival South by Southwest, and this year they are spending a year traveling and playing around America. After Los Angeles and before Chicago, Winona will be one of their first stops.
MWMF organizers made the connection with The Bambir through Chicago musician Sima Cunningham, who played MWMF in 2014 and encouraged festival leaders to check out the Armenian band. "We listened to it and were like, 'Whoa, these guys are awesome. We have to bring them here," Forsell explained. For The Bambir, the festival is a chance to build an audience and support in America.
When asked why they love music, Grigoryan joked that, the way his parents' raised him, he never had a choice. Music is drama, Paremuzyan said. "It is like shock therapy," Narek said. Even a small dose of rock music can cure people of lots of frustrations, he explained.
The Bambir will play at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at the Masonic Temple Theater on Fifth and Main streets in Winona, after a set by Nashville-based Americana band Los Colognes. "That night is going to be blazing," Forsell said. Videos, music, and stories from The Bambir may be found online at TheBambir.com, including the band's latest album "Upsessions."
Mid West Music Fest runs from Thursday, April 28, to Saturday, April 30. More information including schedules, listener's guides, and tickets are available at www.midwestmusicfest.org or by visiting the Mid West Music Store before the festival, at 168 East Third Street, or Burke's during the festival, at 226 East Third Street.