"A year with no music"

Journalist: Amalia Margarian

Photographer: Artem Mikryukov

20.04.21
Edition: Journey of aging
Topic: Elderly

For a year, Aida Mnatsakanyan, 82, did not feel like dancing. A long-time member of the Rainbow Choir at the Orran Charitable Foundation, Aida spent most of the past year in silence and frustration. Like the other members of the choir, the pandemic forced her to stay at home, isolated and cut off from her friends and the Orran Foundation in the Armenian capital Yerevan.

"From the day it was established [in 2012] until Covid, we made music inside these walls, adults and children visiting the center sang together, participated in concerts and celebrated holidays. We broke the stereotype that if you are an adult you can not sing, dance or have fun,” says the center's founder, Armine Hovhannesyan. 

The pandemic did more than just rob the ten choir members of their community and music-- two unfortunately died from Covid-19.

When it is not a pandemic, the Rainbow Choir provides senior citizens with a respite from their normal lives. They all live alone, and many have health problems. At the center, they were able to put their trouble aside, get a warm meal and enjoy the company of friends for a few hours. Over the past eight years, the choir has developed a repertoire of over 60 songs, singing in Armenian, Russian, English and Italian. 

On a special visit to the center in March, Aida is eager to play the piano again. 

"It has been so long since I played, I forgot," she says, enthusiastically sitting down at the keyboard. 

Soon old Soviet-era favorites, like  KatyashaСиний платочек (Blue Scarf) can be heard as Aida and Sargis Memerjyan, 77, sing and dance to the music.

As the last chord fades, members of the choir turn to their audience and smile. After ten months of silence, the music is sweet, indeed. 

Aida Mnatsakanyan, 82, takes a red lipstick out of her bag, asks the photographer to wait a minute so she can make herself beautiful for the photo and then slowly rubs the color on her cracked lips. "I never go on stage without lipstick, it is always with me. I even tell people that when I die, bury it with me," Aida jokes. 

Aida, a singer and an actress, and has been living on her own for the past ten years, since her husband died and her son moved to Germany. She always loved to play the piano and was accepted to study at the Yerevan State Conservatory as a young woman. But her mother-in-law would not allow her to go.

It was not until her golden years that Aida was finally able to follow her dreams. Until the pandemic started, she sang in the Rainbow Choir and acted in performances at the center. The past year has been tough, however. She was afraid to leave her house and only ventured out for food one a month or so, either from the charity canteen or at nearby shops.

 "When we stayed at home, I didn’t have the heart for singing. I always wanted to go out, I wanted to move," she says. "When we come here, we not only sing, but also talk, tell about our life, for many people this is the only place where they rest." 

Sargis Memerjyan, 77, is also a member of the choir. A life-long music lover, he decided to join Rainbow choir when he learned about. Sargis was active his whole life, as a runner and a cyclist, until he broke his leg. Now singing is his only hobby—and the choir is the only place where he can meet and visit with people. Sargis, who lives alone, says his radio is his best friend.  

"I turn on the radio and listen for hours. Whenever I hear a song I know on the radio, I start singing with it. My favorite song Я люблю тебя до слез (I love you to tears)," he says. 

Due to the coronavirus, Sargis and the other members of the choir have been cut off from friends for ten months. "We haven't sang together in so long that we have already forgotten the words. We don't even remember what songs we sang," he says.  

Covid-19 deprived 74-year-old Valia Margaryan of her only chance to leave the house. Valia has a disability, and she has trouble walking and using a wheelchair. A former philologist, she enthusiastically attended and led a literary group twice a week before the quarantine and the state of emergency.

Twenty people attended her group, all beneficiaries of the "Mission Armenia" NGO in Yerevan. "The members of the group are mostly over 70, we even have a 93-year-old member. He is interested in literature and participates in discussions," says Valia. The group has met for a decade, discussing literature as well as reading and even writing their own books. But the pandemic brought it all to a sudden halt. “I was isolated from the world and my friends. They say if you want to kill a person, condemn him to loneliness. I did not leave the house, no one entered the house, everything was cut off," Valia says. To survive the lonely months, she started to work on a new book—her seventh.

"If you separate the members of the ensemble, what will be left?" asks Manushak Antonyan, 64, the leader of the Two Generations adult orchestra. She noted that they practiced remotely during the lockdowns, but it was difficult. She found some consolation by playing the accordion for herself.  

"If not for that instrument, I really could not stand it,” she says. “Playing is my salvation.”

Before the coronavirus, the orchestra, which was established in 2019, had free concerts in different canteens and halls, visited the elderly and children. But after the lockdowns started, “our joy and mode of communication was lost,” noted Norik Amirshadyan, 68. 

" We locked ourselves in the houses, playing for ourselves.”

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