What sort of image comes to mind when you hear the name “Cascade Folk Trio”? Earthquakes, blockades, and warfare are what the group left far behind in Yerevan, Armenia when they immigrated to New York in 1997. Once there, Arman Aghajanyan, Ohanna Mtghyan, and Armen Papikyan joined forces musically, and their collaborations are a true partnership of equals: The music is created by Aghajanyan, the lyrics are written by Mtghyan, and the vocal arrangements are designed by Papikyan. The trio is busy here mixing up a fascinating (and almost indescribable) blend of Armenian folk music with jazz, Latin, R&B, and soul music all made edgy and more dramatic sounding by layering in beats and drum programming. But first and foremost this is Armenian. The melody is always Armenian, the musicians are using traditional folk instruments, and they’re singing in their native language that’s 5000 years old. The result of their mixing old and new is quite successful. Old Street is a very attractive set, even to those who don’t have the language, although their strong attachment to historic Armenian music can do something to explain why the Cascade Folk Trio is one of the most popular musical groups in today’s Armenian Diaspora.
Does any of that describe the eerie modal bagpipe-sounding swirl that leads in the first tune? No, but it’s such a mesmerizing series of tones, it’s like you’re a snake and now you’re being charmed out from your basket. So there you are, edging over the rope coils lured by the music and now, listener, you’ve fully succumbed and you’re gliding and travelling across the floor, wiggling as you’re drifting along in the music, just hypnotized by the call and the sound. Until a frame drum echoes so loudly, you’ll start in spite of yourself. Got your attention? Good, now it’s time for a dramatic and somewhat adamant sounding female voice to pronounce sibilant words in a language that seems to speaks to some ancient part of that old reptilian brain hidden deep in the wrinkles of that modern gray matter of yours, and there’s that weird humming that makes your skin start crawling and soon you’re undulating. So that’s just the intro to the first song, carried by twisty, twining harmonies that are sometimes chilling, whose title in Armenian looks like curvy ancient runes chiseled into moss-covered stone. But suddenly there’s a smooth jazz interlude that seems too smooth, and the song quickly becomes the modern Armenian title which is soon translated into “Gentle Boy, Graceful Girl” and the spell is nearly broken until the trio moves back where they were starting from, playing on ancient instruments made from animal parts.
The incursions into smooth jazz that (admittedly to this listener) border on the cheesy, are the hardest genre appropriations to accept. But, maybe that’s exactly how jazz is supposed to sound to Armenian ears, smoothed out, polished to a gloss, and a bit synthetic. Everything else the Cascade Folk Trio touch seems to turn to gold. Their layering of traditional folk instruments with modern beats and drum programming will win them repeated play for any dance floor patrons. Armenian music seems to have incorporated much rhythmically from Turkish music, which is at least some slight benefit for all those years of imposed misery. Some of the instruments naturally possess that keening wail popularly identified with the Balkans. Though the reedy flutes in particular can have a melancholy sound all on their own, that emotional tone here is tempered. Partially, that seems the result of length of solo time allotted to the instrument, but more perhaps due to the influence of the surrounding arrangements, which are incredibly complex and come across as upbeat and assertive. Still, the traditional instruments find plenty of opportunity to sound off. That includes, of course, the duduk (an oboe-sounding double reed flute so much a part of Armenian music its sound is described as “the soul of Armenia”) and the zurna (another reed flute usually played in tandem with another zurna providing the drone). The singing, especially by the passionate sounding Ohanna Mtghyan, is delicious.
This is an interesting excursion into modern Armenian music, something we’ll all be fortunate to hear a little more of as the recent émigrés begin spreading out and carrying their music with them. It is captivating stuff, especially in the hands of Cascade Folk Trio because their substantial talents for arrangement can’t be underestimated. They’ve done quite some work, learning the old and honored and learning the new, and then yet again to bring in the new on top of the ancient. Their work can be our play: you only have to hear the bouncing beat and the strike of metallic strings leading into “Garden Flowers” to get yourself shaking in a thoroughly modern way.