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Samuum: Armenian Rap, Emigration and Bride Kidnappings

If your music library is feeling a little stale currently, how about some Armenian-Ukranian underground rap with lyrics and a music video that takes a tongue in cheek look at the middle-eastern phenomenon of bride kidnapping?

It may sound like I whimsically typed that opening paragraph out for a laugh, but I can assure you this is the subject matter of the debut single Maria from the Los Angeles/Kiev based rap outfit, Samuum.

This legitimately unique musical duo is the collaboration between The Voice of Ukraine star Lusine Kocharian and music producer/film director Andranik Berberian, a Ukrainian pair with very strong Armenian heritage. And while taking pride in that, they certainly don’t shy away from taking a huge, satirical swipe at women’s rights in the Middle East. I chat with Berberian to find out more.

“Lusine is the heart of the project,” Berberian says. “She brought the idea, she brought her pain, and all of the cultural misunderstandings that we’re singing about. She returned from Armenia in 2015, and she was telling me about the pressures she had felt as a woman there, having her freedom and choices limited.

"She had come back with some anger, and a very big energy inside her. And I could feel it because I knew her before. So I asked her, ‘what if we make the project about this? Being a woman in the Middle Eastern culture?’ She was really inspired by the idea, and we made the songs really fast.”

When I ask Berberian if it’s common for people to move from Armenia to Ukraine, he tells me that “it’s common for people from Armenia to leave Armenia! It’s a glorious, magnificent place. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in the nineties, we had the conflict with Azerbaijan, so a lot of people fled the war — places like the US, France, and of course the nearby countries like Russia and Ukraine. My parents came to Kiev. Lusine had a similar story, she was moved from Armenia to Ukraine when she was five years old.”

Maria sees Samuum astutely combine ethnic instrumentation and sounds with elements of hip hop and modern dance, not to mention a killer bassline from Berberian. I enquire with Berberian how Samuum’s sound took shape.

“It’s always had this punk energy inside,” he says. Especially just for a Middle Eastern girl to even speak her mind like this, stepping out of the tradition. It feels like punk in a hip hop shape.”

Believe it or not, the story seen in the video is real: my co-director has a brother who stole his wife just like that!

The single comes with a truly brilliant music video, co-directed by Berberian himself. Filmed in Armenia, it’s a simultaneously hard-hitting and hilarious piece of satire.

We see Lusine literally being rolled up into a carpet and kidnapped by four men, who drive away with her strapped to the top of their car, occasionally stopping to carry out their dance routine.

“In the video, you can see the highest level of respect that a Middle Eastern girl must give to her society,” Berberian says. “She has to lie silently, calmly and respectfully in her carpet! Not even trying to escape. [laughs]

“And believe it or not, the story seen in the video is real! My co-director, Luvon Bakunc, has a brother who stole his wife just like that. These kind of things are still happening! Even among Armenians who move to places like L.A, they still think they can carry out these kinds of traditions. [laughs]”

In terms of recording the song, Berberian “used the Shure SM58. We tried using a Neumann, and it just didn’t sound good! So we returned to the demos where used Shure. It sounded like Lusine was crying in the desert or in the mountains — it was exactly what we wanted. So we used the SM58 in almost all of the sessions for this project. When you hear the album, you’ll hear it in every song.”

I’d be frankly amazed if you need anymore encouragement to go and check out Maria on YouTube followed by several listens on Spotify etc — it really does demand your time. With an album on the way, Samuum surely must be one of the most exciting (and vital) music projects currently going. So get watching and enjoy the beautiful (but complicated) scenery and life in Armenia.