Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

The Ararat of Subculture

»Rabiz,« the urban folklore of Armenia, developed a special and unconventional form in the 20th century

Ruben Arevshatyan

In modern Armenian slang RABIZ can be used as a subjective definition or an adjective for any kind of tastelessness no matter if it is reflected in music, visual art, literature, etc.. In everyday life it can also be used as a characteristic description of fashion, groove or speech style; a way of thinking, any kind of hyper-emotional expression, falsehood, amateurish, natural, naïve, simple, sentimental. RABIZ can also be used as a synonym of kitsch.

Talking about RABIZ as a culture, a subculture or a special local world-outlook it is probably best to start with the history of the very term:

At the beginning of the 1930's, all artistic circles in the Soviet Union as well as in Soviet Armenia were systematized according to the state policy concerning the ideological centralization of the cultural field. Despite the huge number and diversity of the newly established creative unions (unions of writers, artists, composers, architects, etc.) there was one circle of musicians-composers-poets in Armenia that could not find its acceptance in any of those unions. That was the circle of local folklore musicians/minstrels. Since they were not considered as serious competitors to the ideas of a new culture they were not even granted the status of a union, but only the one of an Artel (association for common work) called RABIZ (originally »Rabis«- an abbreviation of the Russian word for »workers of art«).

At the same time, and with the background of the development of a new, revolutionary culture there was also another serious tendency in Armenian culture at that time that focused on the question of the definition of national cultural identity. Having been scattered throughout the world for ages and influenced by other cultures (particularly Near Eastern ones), Armenians have struggled to maintain their sense of cultural individuality.

By the end of the 19th century, parallel to the idea and the historical chance to reestablish the lost nation-state, there was also developing a process of cultural crystallization that particularly got its first reflection in the music sphere. Folklore investigations, identification of the original native motives and rhythms and their filtration from the influence of other eastern music cultures played a serious and important role for the future development of Armenian culture.

That new, artistic, even experimental approach towards the investigation of the musical cultural heritage and the synthesis of Armenian Christian spiritual music with the educed and filtered elements of traditional native folklore had established the spiritual (vertical) axis of a new national culture. The urgency of that vertical axis increased with the appearance of the Soviet ideological cultural axis. In the contraposition of those two verticals, a terrestrial and popular urban folklore music had established the cultural form, known as RABIZ.

In the new developing urban-folklore the archaic-mystical essence of traditional country and city folk ballads was transformed into a mundane genre where the symbolism and the content of ancient ballads in combination with Oriental multicultural melodies were utilized as social order for the lower middle class. In its later evolution, RABIZ began to work as a kind of multicultural sponge absorbing any element of worldwide culture (mainly pop culture) »privatizing« and adjusting it to its own language and format. The exaggerated emotionality, sentimentalism, primitive symbolism, hidden irony determined to satisfy the aesthetic needs of the average city consumer were at the same time contradicting the established and propagated perceptions about the genuine national culture and on the other hand the principles of »ideological, public comprehensible art«. For a long time in-between the two opposing cultural axes (mentioned above) as a culture of the lower middle class consumer, RABIZ developed its own alienated sight on the ideological contradictions between the two. The reflections of those contradictions were mostly balancing between cynical and accentuated sentimental approaches.

Being beloved and hated at the same time by society, RABIZ had gradually developed from mere musical folklore into a city subculture as well as into a special kind of local Weltanschauung, a prism through which the comparison of cultural perceptions transpired.

In Armenia, it has also gradually become a key word or even approach for a special evaluation of different phenomena pertaining not just to the own but to foreign cultures as well. The specificity of that peculiar sight is perhaps one of the most interesting issues about RABIZ that refers to the hermetic essence of Armenian culture in general. The perception of world culture through the prism of one's own cultural experience that has a history of about 3000 years but at the same time a sensation of yet inexperienced teenagers gives to that sight a curious touch regarding the combinations of old and new, tradition and modernity.

With the gradual historic collapse of the ideological cultural verticals during the last decade, the RABIZ Weltanschauung occurred in a prevalent state in the local cultural situation, where the victorious petty bourgeois consumer has established the vertical of social and cultural values. Parallel to the fact that RABIZ music (the term is still in use) is gradually gaining the format of hybrid world pop music, the subculture in its essence became the substitute for the lack of cultural verticals. The former marginal position of the subculture with its alienated sight on the ideological contradictions was transmitted into the present local cultural situation and the crisis of political and philosophical ideas was filled with RABIZ Weltanschauung. Having lost its former role as a kind of cultural equilibrium force, RABIZ had accumulated the aforementioned cynical or accentuated sentimental attitudes towards all the categories glorified by the former cultural verticals, aggravating them in new, accentuated pseudo-forms.

But despite the present reign of RABIZ Weltanschauung there still exists the problem concerning the very term and the phenomenon itself. It has never been so vigorously criticized by the society like in the last decade. The criticism comes from both sides; from the firm believers in the ideas propagated by already out-of-date cultural verticals (which is understandable) and from the victorious petty bourgeois consumers that are trying at any cost to distance themselves from the term. The term is gradually becoming obsolete, and the subculture of RABIZ is gradually developing more refined forms of modern ethnic pop culture. At first sight, it might seem that in this kind of situation the social animadversion loses its object. But the reason for the present social anxiety might also lie in the future development of the RABIZ Weltanschauung and its possible new reflection of the new cultural principles proposed as social dogmas.