Gyumri is known throughout Armenia as a city of artists. Its old city, for example, boasts a unique style of architecture that you'll see nowhere else in Armenia. While the rest of the country, particularly Yerevan, is an amalgam of Soviet apartment blocks and modern architecture, Gyumri’s old city is reminiscent of Armenian homes in Gharz and Erzurum, now cities in eastern Turkey. While much of Armenia is currently built with pink toof rocks, architects in 19th-century Gyumri built their homes with black toof. Levon from FAR’s Yerevan office took me on a tour of the old city, known by the locals as Slabotka. The buildings there are in different states of ruin because of the 1988 earthquake.Yet, even in that state of dilapidation, it’s easy to envision how beautiful this city once was. The buildings boast arches and intricately carved wooden doorways. As I walked along the narrow streets paved in cobblestone, I imagined women sipping coffee on their wooden balconies, and men exchanging the day's news on their wide stone stoops.
Surprisingly, it was the Slabotka, and not the soviet built buildings, that withstood the earthquake. The rest of the city, approximately 88 percent of it, was completely demolished; 22 years later, evidence of this disaster is everywhere. For example, a large portion of the population still lives in temporary shelters that were set up in the wake of the earthquake. They’re an ad hoc collection of metal bins that resemble shanties. They are not all alike. The differences between them serve as a microcosm for the larger patterns of stratification that have gripped this country. You can determine a family’s means by the embellishments on their domiks. A family that is a little better off, has fortified its shelter with stones. Levon, of FAR's Yerevan office, invited us into his parent’s shelter for coffee. In the past 22 years, his father has added rooms, they’ve grown a flower garden, and tried to recreate a semblance of their prior home. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, families live under tin roofs that barely cover the extent of their homes.
ASP had the privilege of visiting the Octet music school, located in one of these temporary metal containers. On Wednesday afternoon, its teachers and students gathered at the site and treated us to a concert. We were all humbled and amazed at what these children have accomplished with such meager resources. They walked us down a narrow hallway, into a carpeted music hall. We barely fit.
The first thing I noticed, was a grand piano situated on a tiny wooden stage. Imagine—such a grandiose instrument sitting in a metal container in a sprawling shanty town. It sounds out of place, but these students make it work. We were treated to a steady stream of harps, violins, duduks, piano players, and vocalists. One of our participants, Arman Ayrapetyan, was even invited on stage for a guitar duet.
Graduates of this academy typically continue their studies at the music conservatory in Gyumri or Yerevan. One vocalist, Nune, has just graduated. She will be moving to Yerevan and majoring in English this fall. The Octet school has no luxuries and amenities. Year after year, equipped with the bare minimum, it churns our very talented musicians. Amidst all the dust and debris, these students are making beautiful music, and giving Gyumretzis hope.