Mariam Matossian: ‘I don't just sing on stage. I tell stories. I tell my grandmother's stories.’

Destination: Armenia, Via South Carolina
Armenian Vocalist Mariam Matossian Finds A New Niche In World Music, A New Home In America
By Alli Marshall
(originally published at

When vocalist and composer Mariam Matossian made the move from her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia to Greenville, S.C., she didn't figure on meeting any fellow Armenian musicians. In fact, for her first year in Greenville, when Matossian performed it was mostly at venues thousands of miles away with her Canadian backing band.

Vocalist Mariam Matossian blends Armenian stories and songs with world music savvy. "Just last summer, someone suggested I get in touch with River Guerguerian through MySpace," she tells Xpress. Surprised to learn that a Middle-Eastern influenced percussionist was living just an hour away in the mountains, Matossian checked out Guerguerian's tracks—and was blown away. "I was like, 'No way,'" she remembers.

At the same time, Gene Berger of Horizon Records in Greenville passed a disc on to Matossian's husband (and promoter), Haro Setian. It was Free Planet Radio's album, with Guerguerian on drums. Two recommendations seemed like more of a sign than a coincidence, so Matossian contacted Guerguerian to see if he could suggest a local band to back her East coast performances. The percussionist suggested Free Planet Radio. Matossian describes her first meeting with the world-jazz trio (including multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser and bassist Eliot Wadopian) as "probably one of the most amazing rehearsals I've ever had."

Mariaam Matossian and Free Planet Radio perform her song, ‘Nor Yerk,’

But finding a band that could relate to and riff off of Matossian's exotic sound was only half of the challenge. The other side of the coin was finding an audience in her new home. Three years ago, the singer relocated after marrying Setian, a Greenville-based realtor. The two met when Setian purchased one of Matossian's CDs on Web retailer CD Baby, which tracks the e-mail addresses of its customers. "Because I was raised to be a polite Canadian, I wrote people thank-yous," Matossian explains. That sparked an e-mail exchange and subsequent courtship. The two share not just a love of music but their Armenian heritage and a desire to do good for their ancestral homeland (neither were born there, but both have traveled to Armenia and volunteered in its orphanages).

A former republic of the Soviet Union, Armenia is sandwiched between the oft-tumultuous territories of Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It's an area rich in history (its patriarch is the great-great-grandson of Noah of arc fame) but rarely registers on the American radar the way other ethnic music hotbeds (Africa, India, Brazil) do. So, when Matossian booked her first Greenville gig in February 2009, she billed it as "A Night of World Music" because "I didn't want to be too specific and scare people away."

Far from alienating her audience, she sold out the Warehouse Theatre and drew crowds from across the region. A later show at  the White Horse venue (with Free Planet Radio) attracted fans from as far as Nashville.

From the White Horse Web site: "Last time these folks were at White Horse we were sold out and the audience was transported to ecstasy." Last time was actually a Free Planet Radio concert with Matossian sitting in for three songs. The return engagement was Matossian's show.

So what does Armenian music sound like? Filtered through Matossian's world-view, it's delicate yet rhythmic, mystical yet earthy, melodic yet invitingly groovy. "It's totally a fusion," the vocalist says of her style. Raised in Vancouver (which, she points out, has a smaller Armenian population than Toronto, New York or Boston), she was classically trained on piano; her vocal coaching in opera.

Mariam Matossian, live in Toronto, summer 2005. In the Armenian folk tune ‘Dle Yaman,’ the singer compares the pain of being separated from a loved one to the pain of being separated from her homeland.

"I grew up listening to Latin, jazz and Middle Eastern music," she notes. "I'm not a purist; that's not how I grew up." The end result, instead of an Armenian cultural program, is more of a jaunt through world cultures with an emphasis on the songs Matossian has collected from her mother and from the Armenian orphans she met. At a radio performance, a Chinese musician told Matossian how much her music sounded like traditional Chinese tunes; Setian points out that Irish listeners recognize a commonality to Celtic songs.

Matossian is passionate about her culture, and about introducing it to others. "I don't just sing on stage," she says. "I tell stories. I tell my grandmother's stories. I'm singing in a foreign language, so I like to talk about the songs."

Asbarez is the official publication of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Western United States Central Committee, and mainly serves the more than 500,000-strong Armenian-American community in the Western US. It is a bilingual daily newspaper, which is published five times a week from 16 to 28 pages Tuesday through Friday and 40 to 48 pages on Saturday.

When Asbarez published its first issue, it did so with a commitment to become a trusted source in providing important news and information to the community, a commitment it has maintained and reaffirmed throughout the years.

The Armenian-American community was still in its infancy when the first ever issue of Asbarez rolled off the presses. In 1908, the eyes of the community were on the fragile condition of the homeland. Today, almost a century later, with the ever-changing developments in the independent Republic of Armenia, the more mature and sophisticated community still looks to the homeland. Throughout the years, Asbarez has covered the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide, the triumph of the first Independent Republic, the growing pains of a community, the catastrophic earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh liberation struggle, which gave way to the independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the ever-changing reality of the people of Javakhk in southern Georgia. For almost a century, Asbarez, not only has been providing news and information, but mobilizing communities to work with the ANCA and counter Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide. It has been shaping opinions and is the arena many turn to for commentary, criticism and thought.


Visit Asbarez online at

Buy Mariam Matossian’s Into the Light at

Buy Mariam Matossian’s Far From Home at


On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak. The earthquakes hit an area 80 km in diameter comprising the towns of Leninakan, Spitak, Stepanavan, and Kirovakan in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The earthquake epicenter was located in the Lesser Caucasus highlands, 80 km south of the main range of the Caucasus Mountains. Historically, this area has experienced damaging earthquakes. In 1899 and 1940 damaging earthquakes occurred within 100 km of the 1988 epicenter. These events had magnitudes of 5.3 and 6.0 respectively. In 1920 a 6.2 magnitude earthquake that killed forty people occurred north of Spitak. In 1926 an earthquake of about magnitude 5.6 occurred 20 km southwest of Leninakan and reportedly caused more than 300 deaths and extensive damage.

Despite its moderate size, the deaths and damage that the December 1988 earthquake caused made it the largest earthquake disaster since the 1976 magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Tangshan, China, that killed more than 240,000 people. The Town of Spitak (population 25,000) was nearly leveled and more than half of the structures in the City of Leninakan (population 250,000) were damaged or destroyed. Damage also occurred in Stepanavan and Kirovakan and other smaller cities. Direct economic losses were put at $14.2 billion (U.S.) at the United Nations official exchange rate. Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless. However, 15,000 people were rescued. Most of these rescues were made within the first few hours following the disaster.

Revisiting The Armenian Earthquake of 1988
Our driver explained: ‘The money doesn't always get to the people it needs to get to.’ People who hadn't suffered any loss were now stealing from the poorest of the poor.
By Mariam Motassian

Date: December 11, 2009

21 years ago this week...

21. Years. Ago.

That seems like ages ago, and then sometimes it seems like yesterday. My parents called us all in the kitchen to share with us the horrific news about a massive earthquake that had occurred in Armenia. We children all stood there in shock.

It was always exciting, albeit rare, when something Armenian was in the news. Whenever we saw an Armenian name in the credits of a film or TV show growing up, we felt so proud and began to call our relatives and friends to alert them—even if we had no clue who that famous Armenian was. it was just such a thrill to see our culture or someone representing our culture in the media.

But this was different. This news event wasn't something to get excited about. In fact, I am sure I began to cry along with my mom. No one from our family had ever been to the Homeland, but we all felt a deep connection to the home of our ancestors, and we were devastated as we saw the images of suffering, the horrors of the aftermath of the earthquake on the news channels.

As a community, we began to collect clothes, blankets, medical supplies, and money, lots of money to send to the victims of the earthquake. I remember how comforting it was to know that people all across the world—Armenians and non-Armenians!—were donating all that they could to help the victims in Armenia. I was so moved by the display of love that people were showing to my people. For some, this was the first time that they had even heard of Armenia and Armenians, and yet, they poured out their love for the earthquake victims through selfless donations.

We were all so encouraged when we'd hear reports of how many supplies and how much aid money was being sent to the Homeland to help the people who had suffered such loss. It would be just a matter of time before the people there could rebuild their lives, or so we thought.

And then, years later I had the chance to visit Armenia for the first time. I was the first one from my family to ever set foot in the Homeland and I was thrilled at the opportunity. I was seeing this country that I had dreamed about. It was an amazing experience!

And it was a painful experience, too.

border crossings

I remember one day driving out away from the city. We were singing in the car, laughing and eating delicious peaches when all of sudden something caught my attention. "What is that?" I asked our driver, pointing to the large metal gas container that was lying next to the road as we drove right by. "That is a container," he answered plainly. Well, I knew it was a container, but what I really wanted to know was what it was doing by the side of the road like that. My friend, an American-Armenian who was now living and working in the country, understood I wanted to know more. "That is someone's home," she answered quietly.

I will never forget the explanation that followed. These were some of the poorest people in Armenia; they were victims of the earthquake who had lost their homes, their belongings, and for many, their loved ones. They had lost everything, and now, many years later after the earthquake, they were living in these makeshift homes, in gas containers. All these years later, this was their home.

They were living in containers. Metal cylinders.

I was speechless for a minute. Then I began to cry. "But what about all the money we gathered and sent here?" I remember shaking as I spoke. "What about all the clothes and all the supplies we collected?" People from all over the world had sent aid. So why were these people still living in containers? Why hadn't we helped them live in proper homes?

Our driver slowly began to explain: "The money doesn't always get to the people it needs to get to." He shook his head. Often times, the aid that was sent here ended up in the wrong hands...with ruthless people who kept the money, the clothes, the supplies for themselves. People who hadn't suffered any loss were now stealing from the poorest of the poor.


I could hardly believe my ears; I couldn't believe that this had happened—that this was happening.

I remember how my heart broke that day. Driving past containers by the side of the road and knowing that people lived inside, people who perhaps wondered why no one had tried to help them after the devastation of the earthquake. People who didn't realize that we had tried to help. We had sent the aid. We just hadn't ever expected that what we had sent would never ever reach these victims.

I am remembering that bitter feeling in the pit of my stomach as we continued to drive that day in Armenia...

Ed. Note: We are publishing Ms. Matossian’s first-hand account of the earthquake devastation in her homeland to impress upon our readers that the need for Haiti, today, remains acute. Remember the people in a land where 80 percent were living below the poverty line before natural disaster struck, and send what you can afford to help the recovery. Make sure your donations are going to legitimate aid organizations. Donate directly to the Red Cross at, or go to to contribute online through or to connect to for additional links to support recovery efforts in Haiti. Contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s on-air fabrications, visiting the White House link will neither place you on the White House email list nor will a portion of your donations to any of the aid groups listed there go to the Obama campaign fund.

Ms. Matossian herself is participating in a Haiti fundraiser on February 6 and 7 at Whitehorse Black Mountain, ‘Help Haiti Heal.’ On January 21 she wrote in her online blog:

The news from Haiti has been devastating and the photos have been unbearable to look at. My heart breaks for the people there…and then I think to myself, What good is that? How does my heart breaking change things for people? How does my weeping help them? I look at my own babies and hold them close to me, unable to imagine what I would do if anything were to happen to them…and then I look at the images from Haiti again and again, and think, what are those moms and dads doing right now? Ah, this is too much…

What can I do right now?

I can pray. I can send aid.

And I can sing.

I can sing at this event and hopefully raise money to help this hurting nation in some way.

So, this is what I will do. I will sing.

I will sing and I will pray. -–Miriam Matossian (

Help for Haiti: Learn What You Can Do

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