By Sona Mirzoyan
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
YEREVAN — If you like jazz and live in Yerevan then you have probably been present at Arman Mnatsakanyan’s gigs or simply know his name. Chances are that his energetic beats wake you up every morning on Armenian Public TV. Even if you live far away from Armenia, wait for him to reach the world’s top stages as this guy never settles for less.
Arman is a 24-year-old drummer from Yerevan. Due to his consistency, hard work, and dedication he managed to build a successful career in his hometown. Currently, Arman participates in more than 10 ensembles (State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia, Vahagn Hayrapetyan Trio, Dialog Project, New Quintet, Karen Grigoryan Quartet, Kind of Trio, etc.), without sticking to a particular genre and playing almost every known jazz style. He plans to further promote his career and reach new heights. We’ve talked to Arman about his perception of music, obstacles on his way, sources of inspiration, and future endeavors.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “drums”?
If we talk about a band concept, drums are definitely the pulse and the foundation on which the music is built. Apart from this, there is an interesting connection between the bass and the drums, as they are pretty close musically. In general, good relationships between the bassist and the drummer are always beneficial for the music.
I never wanted or tried to associate the instrument with hitting. Many people ask me questions like “How long have you been hitting the drums?” or “Can you hit this rhythm?” It’s not about just hitting; it’s about playing. The stereotype about the minor role of drums is upsetting, and one of my missions is to break it. If we regard this prejudice from a theoretical point of view, when you tune the drums, you do it with notes, and a melody can be easily played with the instrument.
As a young musician you might have encountered problems and obstacles from the very beginning of your career path. Which are the issues you wish the next generation wouldn’t face?
The most urgent issue relates to practice rooms. If you live in an apartment, the neighbor factor makes it almost impossible to arrange practice sessions at home. I have faced this problem a lot, even dealt with the police (laughs). I didn’t manage to reach a compromise with my neighbors. Nevertheless, their point of view is reasonable. This problem exists all over the world, but the prevailing culture of apartments in Yerevan makes it more relevant.
My generation is lucky enough to have access to online platforms. There is no lack of information like it had been twenty years ago. However, in Armenia, it is a bit difficult to get that information “physically,” from a specific person, as there is not as much emphasis on the percussion instruments as there should be.
One of the problems I have personally encountered is getting a response to a specific musical question in real-time. It took months to find the answer to that question. But if I were in the United States, for example, in Berkeley, I could find four people on every square meter who would have been able to give a clear and comprehensive answer. In my opinion, the information deficit is the biggest problem in our city today.
There are people in our lives to whom we owe our success and the very state of becoming who we are. Who do you consider a mentor or a teacher?
First and foremost, I would like to mention my father, who himself is a musician, a drummer. Musical taste, mentality and the formation of musical individualism are the qualities I utterly owe to him. To this day he is present at my gigs or listens online to give his opinion, which is the most important assessment to me. My father is always very impartial and fair: bad is bad, good is good. He rarely praises me. He always kept me from so-called “musical racism” [i.e. when musicians limit themselves to a specific genre and avoid experiments]. He has always encouraged me to listen to whatever I like, not to follow stereotypes, not to create idols, and not to be afraid of experiments and new ideas.
Another very significant person in my life is Vahagn Hayrapetyan, a fantastic musician, whom I met at the age of fifteen or sixteen. The love towards jazz initially inculcated by my father started to expand through communication with Vahagn. The experience and the vision I received from Vahagn are irreplaceable. The acquaintance and further cooperation with him have become a springboard in my career, which is now still relevant. Even though Vahagn is a pianist, I have learned a lot from him as a drummer. This comes to prove that one should not be merely a pianist, a drummer, a singer, etc. One should be a musician first.
I should also mention my teachers of percussion instruments, especially my personal teacher, drummer Alexander Grigoryan, a representative of my father’s generation. The foundation that he has laid in achieving and honing the mastery of playing percussion instruments is irreplaceable. Till now I keep that practicing routine every day.
When it comes to the music industry, we often face a dilemma: does demand generate supply or does supply generate demand? In your opinion, what is the reason why we have so much poor quality music today in Armenia?
I think we have a problem with delivering and distributing quality content. Sometimes the music we create with inexhaustible devotion is not showcased properly to reach the listener. First of all, we shouldn’t underestimate the marketing steps. Being a virtuoso and just performing well is not enough to shape a market. You should take into account the listener’s prejudice and type before starting any gig. In many cases, the musicians just come, greet the audience and start playing. It seems to me that before playing each piece one can give background information, the prehistory, or any other subtle details.
For example, in the case of the hard bop genre, no matter how well you play, an average listener may not understand it right away, as this particular style is known for its complexity. Therefore, it is necessary to approach the question a little differently, try to give some insights to the listener, and have an educated audience at the end of the day.
Furthermore, you need to have quality content on social networks. The low-quality music we are talking about now often has a better “package” (video- and sound production), and it has a direct influence on the final “product.” In the case of quality music content, these factors are sometimes ignored.
When you just come and play what you love, you do not want to make it accessible to the listener and you do not care who will judge it: this approach is a bit wrong. The musician is a messenger and you cannot ignore the opinion and predispositions of your listener. The musician has a mission and should try as much as possible to convey that message to the listener.
Answering your question, I would paraphrase and say that the means and packaging of supply generates demand. Quality content should be encouraged at the state level via special platforms that may help musicians provide the same packaging to create a fair and healthy competition.
Currently, you participate in more than ten ensembles․ Given that workload, is there any hobby or pastime that helps you recharge and relax?
I have been playing tennis for five years. Later, when music began to dominate my life, it became a hobby. Daily communication with my friends, appearing in the role of a listener, are the activities that bring a lot of energy. Listening to good concerts and good artists helps me a lot. On the days when I do not play, I listen to performances or do my practice, because the way to my happiness lies in this. When a musician does not practice, it is a catastrophe. Apart from hobbies, in my free time, I practice or engage in activities of ordinary human beings (laughs) — meeting with friends, outings, etc.
I know that you love Yerevan very much. Are there places in Yerevan that are of special importance to you?
First, there are streets that have a special significance. One of them is Abovyan Street․ It stores so many things – romantic stories, life stages that I particularly value.
I would like to specify the Ulikhanyan Jazz Club. For musicians, it’s like a second home, a meeting point where everyone gathers. And for those who are at the beginning of their career, Ulikhanyan is like a forge. What happens there is pretty close to the concept of New York jazz clubs.
Sakharov Square is another sacred place for me. My first studio and practicing space were right there. I discovered that place myself – the old building that used to be a fire station turned into a working space for various artists and sculptors․ I was probably the first musician to appear there. Throughout five years I used to be there most of the day. Recently I started to practice in another space. In any case, that area remains irreplaceable in terms of self-development, self-knowledge, and maturity. It is one of the most important places in my life and in our city.
We’ve touched upon your past experience, present activities. What are your long-term and short-term plans?
Back in 2018 I won a scholarship at the Berklee College of Music while I was doing a summer program. I haven’t sued this opportunity yet, but soon I am planning to leave for the US – to Boston, and to continue my studies at Berklee, one of the world’s top educational institutions for musicians.
I am looking forward to exchanging experience, communicating with various musicians, and most importantly spreading that experience here and reducing the information deficit that I have mentioned before.
The most ideal music career and future I can imagine is to travel a lot, perform with different artists, and create an opportunity for myself to live where I want to – in Yerevan. To achieve the aforementioned goal, to build ties, I should live abroad for a while. Working on a fifteen-second video for social networks is one thing, holding jam sessions in a club is another thing. It requires an extraordinary level of experience and professional growth. This is what makes me leave my comfort zone and career here and go to the US.