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Armenian Choir Director Adjusts To America - 2002-12-18

St. Mary’s Armenian children’s bell choir in Washington is the only Armenian bell choir in the world. Today on New American Voices, we talk with Leon Khoja-Eynatyan, who established this choir three years ago, shortly after immigrating to the United States.

Bell choirs are not at all part of the Armenian cultural tradition. But when he arrived in Washington and learned that there were 50 bell choirs in the area, Leon Khoja-Eynatyan talked the pastor of St. Mary’s Armenian Church into starting one. Much of the music that St. Mary’s children’s bell choir plays, however, is Armenian.

Sound of bell choir music

“We play Armenian spiritual music, we participate in Divine Liturgy once a month, we play along with the choir, so at that point the organ stops and we accompany the choir. And, the very first pieces we started to play were Armenian spiritual hymns.”

For this Christmas season, the choir has also developed a more international repertoire, including familiar American carols.

Leon Khoja-Eynatyan is a percussionist by profession. He received his musical education in Armenia and Russia. Here, as he says, he “lives like a musician” – playing with small bands, teaching percussion, directing the church choir. While his involvement with music is much like it was back home in Armenia, he finds life itself quite different.

“Of course, there are a lot of, like, polar differences in the culture, in the mentality. But I think I knew pretty much about the United States, and I knew where I was going.”

Mr. Khoja-Eynatyan says that while there were no big surprises for him on immigrating to America, it was hard to adjust to the way people relate to one another in this country.

“Relationships between the people. It’s absolutely different from what I learned in my childhood. In what way? In the other way. (Laughs.) It’s just different. Sometimes I’m surprised --‘til today I can’t accept sometimes the relationship between parents and kids. They are very strange for me. I think there is not too tight a connection between parents and kids. I think kids here feel more free, of course, but they need more care, attention from the parents.”

Although in his work as a musician he is closely involved with Washington’s Armenian community (which now numbers some 500 families), Mr. Khoja-Eynatyan says he is becoming assimilated into American life.

“Sometimes you don’t have the choice. You have to accept the American style, because you can’t live without that. Yeah. But I try to be Armenian. I try to work with our kids, with our next generation, and learn [teach] them our traditions.”

At home, too, the Khoja-Eynatyan family balances out their Armenian heritage with an American lifestyle.

“We speak only Armenian at home. Of course we don’t always eat Armenian food, because that’s the international American style of life, because you need a lot of time to prepare Armenian food. Frozen food, fast food, [laughs] that’s the style you need to accept.”

Leon Khodja-Eynatyan’s daughter, Tatevik, is fourteen years old. When she came to America she knew no English, but now speaks the language without any trace of an accent. Her friends are both Armenian and American teenagers. Her father says he hopes she will grow up with a strong grounding in both cultures.

“She was born in Armenia, she grew up there, and I’m ready to do everything to help her grow into a good Armenian. I think she will keep it. She will be Armenian. She will be a good Armenian for the U.S.”

This coming Sunday, which is Armenian Christmas Eve, Mr. Khoja-Eynatyan’s bell choir will be performing both Armenian and American Christmas carols for the Armenian-American parishioners of St. Mary’s Armenian Church in Washington.

English Feature #7-37067 Broadcast December 30, 2002