By Taleen Babayan
On an early fall afternoon in the lower level of the St. Leon’s Armenian Church in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, four lively young girls were tucked away in a Sunday School classroom, their ears positioned towards the stereo speakers, as they waited anxiously for a CD to play. After months of practicing and recording sessions, they were finally ready to hear the results of their efforts. Listening to the first line of the hymn, Hamenaynee (In All Things) that emanated their sweet, angelic voices, their brown eyes widened and they held each others’ hands in excitement as their bright smiles appeared. The biggest smiles, however, were on the faces of the inspirational duo of Co- Producers Nvair Kadian Beylerian and Andrea Arpiarian Carden, who were the visionaries behind the album, We Sing Armenian Church Songs with Nvair & Friends (Armenian Badarak Hymns for Children), which was officially released last month.
The foundation for the innovative project was laid ten years earlier, in that very same spot, when Nvair, then the music teacher of the St. Leon Sunday School and Andrea, who served as Superintendent, a position she holds to this day, were sharing conversation about the growth of their parish’s diversity and the many new students coming from blended families. When discussing how to approach teaching a new generation of Armenian-Americans the hymns of the Divine Liturgy and making it accessible to them, as if by divine intervention, they came across a series of Xeroxed pages of Yegmalian Badarak hymns, which included some English translations. They knew then what they could do to make Sunday School education for their students even more fruitful. Over the course of the next few years, they taught sing-a-longs every Sunday morning and their efforts ultimately led them to the creation of the We Sing Armenian Church Songs album, which contains seven Armenian hymns recorded in both English and Armenian by Nvair with the HYEfamily Children’s Chorus, with a guest appearance by Ara Dinkjian.
“This album is about bringing our Armenian Church life into our daily lives,” said Nvair, who has a master’s degree in education and has been involved in “edutainment,” combining both education and entertainment elements for children, since 2001. “It can serve as a daily a reminder of who we are. By recording these hymns and placing them directly in the hands of parents, we provide them the opportunity to immerse their children in these songs & meaning simply by popping in a CD while in the car or in the play room. Our aim is to eventually have the family singing along together, not even realizing that they’ve learned an essential part of their Armenian Christian heritage.”
“We want the kids to feel comfortable in church,” said Andrea, who holds a master of arts degree and is a special education specialist in the New Jersey Public School system. “Feeling that connection and experiencing that familiarity gives them a reason to want to be part of the Armenian Church experience.”
Nvair and Andrea both grew up in the Armenian Church, Nvair at the Sts. Vartanantz Church in Ridgefield, NJ where she put on a “shabig” at the age of five and began learning the Divine Liturgy as a participant in the church service and Andrea as a member of the Holy Cross Armenian Church parish in Union City. Even after entering adulthood and launching their careers, Nvair in television production and Andrea in the public education system, the Armenian Church remained their home. Joining their talents and forces, Nvair and Andrea came together to educate a new generation of Armenians about the richness of the Armenian Church.
The pair, who share a warm and genuine friendship, are visionaries who believe that by teaching children the church hymns in Sunday School, they offer a better understanding of the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church. Their desire is to make the Badarak a sensory experience for children through music as well as to fully hear, see, smell and feel the service, resulting in the “total experience.”
“The connection you feel to the church when you finally realize what you’re saying gives a whole new feeling of worship in church and this is what we want for the children,” said Nvair. “We want them to feel at home.”
Soon after Nvair and Andrea started teaching their sing-a-longs to students on Sunday mornings, they saw the effects of their collective hard work. On a visit to the United States, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, paid a visit to St. Leon’s and the children confidently and enthusiastically performed for him, despite the fact that the majority of the students did not come from an Armenian-speaking background.
“When we heard the children sing in Armenian, that’s when we said to ourselves, these kids can do this,” said Andrea. “We saw how well the kids grasped the songs as long as we provided them with translations.”
And it wasn’t only the children who benefited from the Sunday morning sing-a-longs. Parents and grandparents started filing in during the first period of Sunday School, eager to learn as well.
“I firmly believe that developing one’s Christian faith is a process and there are steps,” said Andrea. “This may help people to start the process.”
“We want to provide children & their families with tools to empower “krapar” (classical Armenian) to support and maintain our centuries-old Divine Liturgy. After experimenting with different methods, we found that through sharing translations, the younger generation found a relevant and contemporary connection to the Badarak. It has led them to embrace and own the “krapar” as their gift from the generations before them,” said Nvair. “When they attend Badarak we find they not only sing along with the choir in krapar, but understand what they are singing.”
With this album, the first of its kind, Nvair and Andrea’s mission is to spread the word of God to the Armenian youth through song and worship, and create a bridge between the celebrated past, to face the reality of the present and to build the foundation of the future.
“From an educational perspective Nvair and Andrea have taken the right step in making an impact in an environment of Diasporan panic where there is much talk and little knowledgeable action about our concern for losing our identity and spirituality,” said Artoun Hamalian, the AGBU Director of Education, who noted the importance of the educational booklet that accompanies the CD. “Parents who will take the time to read and understand what it takes to cultivate children’s spirits may have a revelation and will appreciate how precious two products of the mutation of the right circumstances Nvair and Andrea are.”
Seven energetic youngsters who have a close connection to their faith and culture are featured on the album as members of the HYEfamily’s Children’s Chorus. The album, consisting of the hymns Hayr Mer/Our Father, Hamenaynee/In All Things, Soorp, Soorp/Holy, Holy, Marmeen Deroonagan/The Body Of The Lord, Kreesdos Ee Mech/Christ In Our Midst, Amen Yegheetsee/Blessed Be and Ohrnetseets Uz Der/I Will Praise The Lord, are sung in both English and Armenian and liner notes included in the album explain when and why each of the hymns are sung during the Divine Liturgy. The vibrant singers, most of whom are students of the St. Leon Armenian Sunday School, and whose ages range from four to ten years old, include Sophia Ashbahian, Victoria Ashbahian, Alexa Siran Farah, Liana Sarine Farah, Arpineh Halajian, Devan Vartan Regas, and Nickolas Ara Regas.
“The songs are beautifully sung and professionally accompanied and the translated versions are stupendous,” said Elise Antreassian, coordinator of Christian Education at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern). “Every Armenian who loves God and loves the church and loves the younger generation, should own a copy and give a few as gifts.”
Nvair, who has recorded albums for Armenian children through her HYEfamily song series, which includes the award-winning CDs 2Mayrer, Donadzar and Ari Mer Doon, understood the significance of the children to partake in the recordings and to give them the chance to showcase what they learn in Sunday School on a weekly basis.
“What better way to convey the message than having kids teach kids,” said Nvair, who is the lead vocalist on the CD. “These children have found such joy and there is no way I myself can recreate that.”
The parents of the children involved in the We Sing Armenian Church Songs album, are equally delighted at their children’s participation in such a meaningful project.
“My daughters wanted to be involved because they love music and singing and enjoyed being able to tie that in with their heritage,” said Toleen Farah, mother of Alexa and Liana. “This will be the best gift for their grandparents.”
“It’s a great learning tool for the children,” said Daniella Ashbahian, whose daughters Sophia and Victoria participated in the recordings. “Especially to have the opportunity to learn from other children.”
We Sing Armenian Church Songs is an educational resource for families and teachers who can teach the Divine Liturgy to children seven days of the week. In particular, it serves those who live far away from an Armenian Church and are only able to attend a handful of times a year. The album allows them to feel familiar with the music of the Armenian Church and what to expect when they attend a service.
“Serving a parish which just celebrated its 100th anniversary with members into the 5th generation and faces the challenges of assimilation, I was overjoyed to see the release of We Sing Armenian Church Songs,” said Father Shnork Souin, pastor of the Sts. Sahag & Mesrob Armenian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. “The simple, clear and catchy music will be guaranteed to help Armenian churches throughout North America excite the children and help teach them the profound meaning of the Holy Badarak.”
“So many have sacrificed so much for these “krapar” words to continue to exist and we should honor the memory of our ancestors not only through survival but by supporting the next generation and teaching them to learn and understand these words so it stays alive,” said Nvair.
The album has already been met with great fanfare and praise, not only by Armenian clergy, educators and Armenian-American families, but also by professional musicians who appreciate the recordings and the foresight behind it.
“Once again Nvair has understood that the continuation of our culture and faith depends upon our youth’s involvement,” said Dinkjian, a renowned musician who arranged Kreesdos Ee Mech/Christ In Our Midst and played the guitar, lafta and oud on the track with a solo accompaniment from Nvair. “We Sing Armenian Church Songs presents our Armenian youth singing Armenian sacred music, for the first time in Armenian and English. For my ears, there is very little which is more pure, innocent, and sincere as a child’s voice.”
In addition to the We Sing Armenian Church Songs album, Nvair and Andrea are scheduled to make interactive educational presentations to Sunday Schools across the Eastern Diocese as well as to Armenian communities throughout the country. Their first presentation was held in their home parish during the St. Leon Food & Arts Festival in Fair Lawn, NJ last month. For upcoming appearances and to purchase a CD, please check the HYEfamily website www.hyefamily.com. The album can also be purchased through www.amazon.com, www.cdbaby.com, www.ArmenianVendor.com and can be downloaded on iTunes.
“The church hymns sound so much more beautiful with the angelic children’s voices,” said Dr. Vartan Abdo, Director of the Armenian Radio Hour of New Jersey. “After a century of recuperating, we are moving forward with new voices and discovering the beauty that has remained dormant.”
Reflecting on the achievements of their Sunday School students, Nvair and Andrea want other churches to have the same experience as theirs so they too can experience the joy of worship and love of church by digging more deeply into the lyrics and the meanings of the hymns.
“We want to impart and share with other communities what we have learned and experienced over the last ten years,” said Nvair. “We know that with great blessings come responsibility.”