From my Files: Songs from the Streets: A Charles Aznavour Story


The article that follows was published (with different visuals) in August 1993, in Armenian International Magazine.  Warning: Some of the material here (related to Armenia) is woefully dated.  In the last 15 years since its publication, a great deal has changed in the political life of Armenians in Armenia and in the diaspora, while Charles Aznavour has continued his political and humanitarian work on behalf of Armenia, and in the arena of genocide recognition, Armenian-Turkish dialogue, and criminalization of genocide denial in France. In 2006, Aznavour was appointed Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland, where he lives.

Close to 90 years old, Aznavour is on his 4-year farewell tour, which ends this year, we’re told.  Aznavour’s staying power, the range of his  “borrowings” from other musical cultures, his singing forays into languages other than French, his innumerable collaborations with other famous singers–all this is the stuff which makes for a multicultural artist, when the idea was neither popular nor particularly well tolerated, at least in his native France. But his career of six decades of song cannot suggest otherwise– the  lumious and unequivocal successes and the shortcomings, the former outweighing the latter.

With the farewell tour, the “Aznavour decades” are coming to a close, but the legacy of this larger-than-life performer is as solid as it is open to questions of the sort lovers of Aznavour’s songs will always raise:  Which Aznavour? Which songs? Which style? The answers may vary, and the debate may sometimes be heated, but one thing is certain:  There rarely has been such a distinct, memorable voice on the world stage of song–its gravely, “broken” lyricism; its melancholic energy; and its quotidian, sullied poetry. And rarely have such  seemingly unimpressive musical credentials with which this short, thin Armenian began his career, resulted in such a large, varied, and popular body of work.


Charles Aznavour is in Washington, D.C. on the third leg of a four-city North American concert tour with Liza Minnelli.  They are sharing the stage  of the Warner Theatre in a series of concerts which include some of Aznavour’s best-loved songs.

His half of the evening is vintage Aznavour.  It spans the entire spectrum of his career, invoking the recurring themes and demonstrating the range of musical idioms which have found a place in his songmaking.   At times the songs hark back to the chanson-style of the 1940s and 50s; at others they pay homage to jazz and Broadway and to Aznavour’s long romance with America;  at other times still they become soulful and dolorous like the songs of the eighteenth century Armenian minstrel Sayat Nova.

Age has not substantially diminished Aznavour’s talents and energies.  He criss crosses musical conventions, leaps across some five decades of song-making, navigates in the bilingual maze of meanings, and revels in the technological wizardry of the post-MTV stage.  Nor has it changed his artistic persona : a diminutive, gestural, and very talkative Frenchman of Armenian descent creating characters and situations with that distinctive combination of streetwise wisdom and realism, mime and melody.  At 69, while most of his generation of French singers of the 1940s have either died or retired, Aznavour remains a performer of extraordinary flexibility and staying power.


On this June afternoon, Aznavour  sits back in an armchair, gently sipping coffee from an ornate demitasse cup.  He is dressed casually, in youthful clothes — white pants, striped shirt, and a beige vest.  Against the afternoon sun, his grayish hair takes on a silver tint, and the eyes look a bit tired.  Yet they retain that distinctive Aznavour gaze — a bit melancholic and burdened, yet wry and direct —  which Francois Truffaut’s film Tirez Sur Le Pianist immortalized 33 years ago in the character of Edouard Saroyan that Aznavour portrayed.

The conversation quickly turns to Armenian topics: being an immigrant in France in the 1940s, the atmosphere of his paternal home, the sources of his success, the recognition of the Genocide.  But it is to the present moment — to the blockade, humanitarian and political action, relations with Turkey — that  Aznavour invariably returns.  And he does so not only as an international celebrity, or a French-Armenian whose parents survived 1915, but also as a spokesperson for Armenia.   In March,  President Ter Petrossian appointed Aznavour Ambassador-at-Large in recognition of his humanitarian work for Armenia.

The appointment came in the wake of some five years of relief projects initiated or sponsored by Aznavour.  “For a year after the earthquake,” says Aznavour, ” I set aside my work to consecrate time only for Armenia.”  Immediately after the earthquake Aznavour contacted some 90 French singers for a We Are the World-style recording of Pour Toi Armenie which he wrote with his long time musical partner George Garvarentz.  The song became an instant hit throughout Europe.  The proceeds from the sales were used to launch his relief organization, Aznavour Pour Armenie.

In Armenia, Aznavour has become something of a national hero.  He was one of the first persons to travel to Yerevan immediately after the earthquake ; since then he has returned for several additional visits .  “People in Armenia call him ‘our Charles,’ ”  says Rita Balian, chairperson of the Friends of the Armenian Embassy.  During his Washington stay, the Friends organized a fundraiser whose proceeds will be used toward the purchase of the embassy building. Balian arrived in Yerevan in December 1988, a day after Aznavour had left the city.  She was struck, she says, by the affection which Armenians from all walks of life expressed for the singer.  “They spoke of the comfort that he brought to parents that had lost children,” she adds,  “to sisters and brothers who had lost siblings, to children who were orphaned, and to families who had lost all of their belongings.”

“I’ve knocked on many doors . . .  for the cause of Armenia,” says Aznavour. “With the French government, my job was easy because they know me.  But it was more difficult when I go to other countries.”   The ambassadorial appointment, he explains, “gives me the opportunity to meet with presidents, parliamentarians, administrators of international organizations, and bankers in an official capacity.   At the same time that they meet Aznavour, they meet the ambassador.”

“I am not a diplomat,” asserts Aznavour, “but I know what diplomacy means in terms of personal rapport.”  During his stay in the capital,  Aznavour has practiced this kind of personal diplomacy in meetings with U.S. officials.  He recounts an episode which occurred the previous evening.  “Yesterday night I was at the White House, in a very intimate group,” he says.  “I took President Clinton briefly to one side. . .  and talked about the Armenian situation.”  In more formal meetings with U.S. congresspersons, he has urged them to exert influence on Turkey to lift the blockade of Armenia.

Aznavour has knocked on doors  with that same mixture of empathy, savvy, and drive has served him so well in his musical career.  On this June afternoon, he politely dismisses questions about his early years of poverty, adversity, and ridicule and prefers to focus on the future.  Yet so much of what Aznavour has done as a songwriter, humanitarian, and ambassador is related to his biographical connections to dislocation and dispossession.   So many of Aznavour’s songs are about the personal crises which afflict ordinary people caught in the daily business of living and loving.  In fact, some of the most memorable characters of his songs live away from the center of life, quietly enduring its bruises and poundings with a mixture of humor, resignation, and hope: the homosexual of Comme ils disent; the betrayed husband of Et Moi Dans Mon Coin, the failed artist turned alcoholic of Je Bois, the sexually unconfident aging lover of Isabelle, the wise veteran of L’amour et la Guerre, the gypsies of Deux Guitares, and the deaf and mute loved one of Mon Amour.  In song after song, Aznavour gives voice to everyday situations — most frequently related to sexual love — in which something unpredictable lurks just below the surface, making the ordinary appear different, often troubled and a bit poetic.  And it is in this kind of  “ecriture” (writing) that he locates the distinctive feature of his songmaking.  “The language is not poetry, but poetic. . . ,” he says.  “The subjects are deep, profound, and what Americans can call risqué.  Etimologically, risqué means taking risks, ” he adds.


These connections are also at work in the handful of songs which deal with the theme of collective suffering —  Les Enfants de La Guerre, Autobiographie, L’Amour et La Guerre, La Mamma,Pour Toi Armenie, and most specifically  Ils Sont Tombés which he premiered on April 24, 1980 during a concert at the Olympia theater in Paris.   The song was a in memory of those who “were massacred on the shores of the Bosphorous (spelling),” he said in his introduction.   Less than two weeks later, in an interview with Radio Monte Carlo about the Olympia event, Aznavour described the song as the “story of my nation.  But more than that,” he added, ” it is also the song of all nations who have been deprived of their rights.”

Invariably, when Aznavour has spoken about the present Armenian moment, it is these same biographical connections and sensitivities which have come to the surface.  “The situation of the refugees from Karabagh,”  Aznavour has said in a 1991 Yerevan interview with AIM, “is very moving.  These people have been deprived of everything — homes, food, clothes. . . Like our parents, they have been uprooted, and we must help them . . .  every month, every day.”    On this July afternoon, Aznavour expresses similar sentiments which echo the same sort of hidden anxieties and secret joys of every ambitious son and daughter whose immigrant parents lived through unspeakable adversity.  “We owe something to our parents,” he says, ” who have done everything to make us grow up normally in a foreign country where they did not know the language, they did not have the money, and they worked like horses. ”

“In my humanitarian work,”  adds Aznavour, ” I think about my parents, and I say to myself, ‘My mother and father would have been very proud.’ ” Aznavour’s words — simple and direct — seem to come from the center of the furnished one-bedroom Latin Quarter apartment of Knar and Misha Aznavourian and the two children, Charles and Aida, so lovingly described in Aznavour’s song Autobiographie and in the early chapters of his autobiographical volume, Aznavour Par Aznavour.    Together the book and the song present a  deeply felt portrait of the exile family, consoled  and sustained by friendships, wine, and song.  A well-known baritone singer in his native Tiflis, Misha had a life-long devotion for the songs of Sayat Nova which he peformed at gatherings of family and friends in Paris.  Knar, a native of Izmir who witnessed the annihilation of her entire family during the Genocide and who was saved by Misha’s Russian passport, was an actress.  They had arrived in Paris in 1923 in complete distitution.

Aznavour’s evocations of his youth tell of a family which, despite its strict adherence to tradition and custom, was liberal in the artistic realm.  So too with Aznavour who is very much of a traditionalist in matters of family and  community.  “I am an agnostic,”  he says, “But I am near the church. . .  What is important,” he adds, “is that we go to church for the major events of our life  — baptism, marriage, and death.”   In that characteristic no-nonsense tone of his, he asserts that “tradition is what you have in your blood.  Risk,” he adds, “is what you establish because you like the risk.”

The Aznavourian home — with its animated bustle, colorful personalities, and mix of sadness and spontaneity — must have also been a rich artistic repository for the young Aznavour.   On this June afternoon, he admits that it is talent and hard work which make it possible for children of immigrants to redefine the personal tragedy of exile into strength.  But “it is first of all — memory, ” he adds.  “All of that we had at home,” he says. “The fact that I was the son of immigrants gave me the strength to use all that.”   It was also his parents’ deep-rooted love of the arts, asserts Aznavour, which sustained his difficult rise to stardom —  the songs the father sang, the poetry the mother recited, the movies they saw together, in short, the entire artistic texture of family life which encourages a talented boy to try his hand at something risky.

Aznavour’s autobiographical volume, as well as Aida Aznavour Garvarentz’s Petit frere, also paints a picture of Knar and Misha  Aznavourian as a politically principled couple who, in Aznavour’s words, “fed, comforted, and entertained all the men on the run who came to them”  during the Nazi occupation of France.  Among them were Misak and Meliné Manouchian.   Misak Manouchian, the leader of a resistance group who was executed by the Nazis in 1944 a few months before the liberation of Paris, had been a frequent guest at the Aznavourian home, and the Aznavourians had supported the couple when they were in hiding.

Placing patriotism and common sense above ideological loyalties, Aznavour too has been principled about Armenia and Armenian issues.  His long-standing position on the need for Armenian-Turkish dialogue while keeping Armenian demands intact raised some eyeborws in Armenian circles in the 1970s.  Yet he has held on to his earlier beliefs and currently supports the development of economic relations between Armenia and Turkey.  “Today,” he says, “the war is not territorial or ideologcial; it is economic and we have to enter the economic war. . . .Those who are the most stubborn on these issues,” he says,” are the ones living outside; the ones in Armenia are beginning to say, ‘Why not?” About Armenia, Aznavour is non-partisan and affirmative. ” Even destroyed, there is an Armenia today,”  he says.  “We have the flag, we have the government, we have elections.”


In one of the most moving passages of his autobiography, Aznavour lists the bad set of cards that he had been dealt.  “My voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture, my candor, my lack of personality,” he writes.   Absent from this long litany of handicaps is his Armenian parentage.  This June afternoon, Aznavour asserts that he is neither a “chronic Armenian” nor a “guilty Armenian.”  There is no trace of bitterness or contempt in his words.  Song — in its many forms and languages — always takes care of that.  Comfort in times of turmoil, it has served well his exiled parents, Aznavour himself, and Armenia too.


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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