Armenian Language Corner

What Does Rabiz Mean?

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, a certain kind of music style, called rabiz, surfaced in Armenia and started reaching out to the Diaspora. The Internet would turn it widespread and pervasive.

The word rabiz (ռաբիզ, also spelled ռաբիս/rabis ) does not have an Armenian origin, and does not appear in any Armenian dictionary, even those that include foreign loanwords. It is generally assumed to come from the abbreviation of two Russian words, either rab otniki is kusstva (“art workers”)—a Soviet organization founded in the 1920s aimed at integrating popular melodies into new compositions—or rabochee iskusstvo (“workers’ art”), which designated an art that belonged to the working masses. Some people supposed that rabiz may have Turkish or Arabic origin, probably because the music itself has clear Middle Eastern affinities. Another theory, much less probable, is that Armenians use the Arabic word aziz in colloquial language, meaning “darling,” and its combination with Arabic rab, meaning “creator” or “god,” would have originated rab(az)iz, meaning “the beloved god.” If you are curious about how the word rab would have entered Armenian (Armenians in Armenia do not know Arabic), how rab and aziz would have become rabiz and not rabaz, and how “the beloved god” is related to music, those answers will be extremely hard to find, if they exist at all. Café theories of language are as wild as conspiracy theories.

(Of course, if you thought about that for a second, forget any relation between the words rabiz and R & B, except that they sound somewhat similar.)

Rabiz music was quite ubiquitous in Soviet Armenia from the 1960s on, but in an underground form, as it was only accessible in certain restaurants and copied in domestic cassette recorders. The intelligentsia referred to that type of music as a low cultural phenomenon, related to Turkish, Arabic, or Azerbaijani music, which might be linked to the working class formed in the cities after the emigration of rural population.

There is also a certain subculture linked to that type of music, considered tasteless and vulgar by educated people. A definition of rabiz found on the Internet establishes it as “a slang word describing a social class of Armenians that exhibit socially questionable behaviors.” Some stereotypical characteristics listed for those “typically dubbed ‘rabiz’ by the Armenia community,” also called “hillbilly subculture,” are: materialistic flamboyancy; sunglasses regardless of weather conditions; “men in black” clothing consisting of imitation leather shoes, slacks, and collared silk shirts; blend of Russian and Armenian slang words; use of the homonymous music; strong body odors; over-confidence about picking up girls; overstressed masculinity

Interestingly, rabiz music does not have lyrics in slang, but in standard Armenian, even though characterized by their unimaginative and repetitive fashion. As a marginal note, its ubiquity has allowed the song «Մի՛ գնա» (Mi gna), performed by a singer called SuperSako, to become a phenomenon transcending borders. Versions by Lebanese, Jewish, and Turkish singers have come out.  While the first two perform the song in Armenian, the Turkish translation of the Armenian song allows one to appreciate how deeply non-Armenian the song and the entire rabiz style of music are.