Amer-abic Percussionist Remembered: Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak

2018 marked the end of another legendary icon of Middle Eastern music in America, his name was Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak. He was 97 years old.

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Eddie Kochak’s orchestra at the Bossert Hotel, 1948

Another way to describe Kochak would be to refer to him as a personality. This by no means is meant to be derogatory, it is an extreme compliment. He performed for nearly 70 years and made over 100 recordings during his lifetime. Kochak, like many of his musical peers, elevated traditional Middle Eastern music and kept it alive for decades. He popularized the Arabic dabke Musicians like Mike Sarkissian, his brother Buddy, Fred Elias and many more helped popularize the music which kept it fresh, plentiful and enjoyable for listeners.

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Kochak with his musical partner Hakki Obadia, a well-known violinist and oudist that performed and recorded with Kochak for many years. 

To be a personality, you have to have a bit of charisma and ability to brand and market yourself, Kochak was such a person.

Kochak was born Eddie Soubhi Kochakji in Brooklyn, New York. One of six children, Eddie’s parents immigrated to America from Syria.

As a child, Eddie had a deep passion for music and gravitated toward percussion instruments. “Well, I was breaking too many pots and pans. My mother’s pots and pans were getting scarce! And they all saw that I had the feeling in me, that I was gifted with music and tempos. So my sister went out on my birthday and bought me a dumbek” said Kochak in a 2001 interview. I was about twelve years old.” , he studied with one of New York’s top percussionists at the time, Henry Adler.

Eventually Eddie entered the U.S. Army  where he toured with special services performing in the USO shows in Europe and the Middle East. The title “the Sheik” came from those military days as his Sergeant had difficulty saying Kochakji and coined the name “the Sheik”.

48381985_2206976726183528_3122759777621377024_nHe played the Green Grove Manor in Asbury Park, New Jersey for a decade as well as at Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, and Town Hall in New York City. Kochak has been credited for his comedic talent, fine support with the dirbakee (Arabic tom-tom), and resurrecting the debke, native dance of the Middle East. He had long associations with Dean Martin and Danny Thomas (Thomas and Kochak are both of Lebanese extraction). For decades, as a maker and producer of records, not to mention live performances, he ruled the Brooklyn and to a lesser extent the New England “Mecca East” scenes. In the 1980s he played the percussion for Anthony Quinn in the Broadway production of “Zorba.” In the twenty-first century the Sheik has conducted musicians and dancers on stage at an Atlantic Avenue festival in Brooklyn.

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Oudist Scott Wilson with Kochak in 2012. Photo by Sharon Stapf

Maurice Sedacca and I had the honor of performing with Eddie throughout the 80s and 90s, Maurice on guitar, me on oud, Eddie on dumbek and singing, for parties, birthdays , shows etc. Eddie, in his sense of humor, would always say to us at some point “You guys are great, when do you leave!” Eddie’s songs were often about pashas, harems, desert Oàsis, caravans, camels at a time when the mid-east was a mystical picturesque land, not what the present day unfortunate reality is. His original songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s used simple popular Lebanese melodies with his English lyrics. He would in intersperse little chants in Arabic with call and response from the audience. “Ya Habibi🎶”, audience would respond – “Ya Habibi🎶!” Eddie often would say in his routine, pretending he’s had enough “And the show goes on and on…and on and on…and on and on! Unlike some musicians who see themselves as “serious” concert artists who disdained playing for belly dancers as beneath them, Eddie loved performing with dancers, and did popular call and response drum solos with them”. – Scott Wilson, oudist.

Kochak was revered by belly dancers from around the globe and his music is still available and utilized for dancers to this day. His list of achievements including touring with Anthony Quinn in 1983 for the Broadway revival of Zorba, The Greek and performing for celebrities like Dean martin and Danny Thomas. His discography is one of the largest of Middle Eastern musicians in America. He truly left behind a legacy.

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His name was George Righellis

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Harry Minassian, Fred Elias, George, Gary Alexanian

My name is George and I never sing
about the bitter-sweet issue of love
I’m not used in rending daisies,
I don’t wait for anyone’s comeback

These are the lyrics to Me Lene Giorgo, a song that George Righellis made very popular amongst the Armenian and Greek communities from the New England area to Detroit to California. It is probably the one song that I identify and think of whenever I hear or speak of guitarist George Righellis.

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Manos Koutsangelidis and George when they met in November, 2018

Toward the end of 2018, the musical world said goodbye to George who passed away after a lengthy and heroic battle against cancer. Even knowing his ultimate fate, he was still sharing his love of music with the world and connecting with the online community posting vintage photos and live music tracks from his musical heyday. He outlived the medical expectations by several months allowing George to not only share his music but to be appreciated for the years he dedicated to playing Armenian, Greek and Middle Eastern music. Less than a month prior to his death, George even met an admirer from Greece, the talented Greek kanunist and vocalist Manos Koutsangelidis. George was so touched by his playing that one of the last posts he made on Facebook was to Manos. “Manos I miss you already. You are one of the best musicians I have ever played with and hope to be with you again on stage…”

GR5“George Righellis was full of life, and full of music. He always light up the room whenever he performed. He loved both Greek and Armenian music, but told me once in an interview that he always gravitated more toward Armenian music. He was such an inspiration to so many of us, and he will be very much missed.” said Meleti Pouliopoulos, Historian for Greek Cultural Resources.

By right, George should be credited for being one of the first guitarists to introduce the instrument to Middle Eastern music. The guitar along with the dumbeg or drums provided a “wall of sound” of rhythm for the other musicians and gave it the “kef” (party) sounds we have all grown to love.

I talked to a few musicians that knew George very well and had performed with him and they had this to say about him:

“I have had many occasions to play music with George. All of them fun filled and musically rewarding. But although from Massachusetts, George represented a special place in the music of the New York City area as well, unbeknownst to him personally. George was the first musician that I heard using the guitar in our Armenian music back in the early 60s. I loved the sound that was created by the threesome Harry, Gary and George. (Harry Minassian, Gary Alexanian and George Righellis) in New England kef music. In 1962, and for the first time in New York, I started using the guitar in my group and in Armenian music. So the sound that George influenced in New England acted as a catalyst for me and for Armenian music in New York”. John Berberian, Armenian oudist

“I first met George around 1970 — Eddie Mekjian produced two albums: Road to Harpoot and Greece after Sunset featuring George. I heard those albums and I was fascinated with the fullness of his guitar. Why was it so full from an acoustic guitar? The recording on that album stood out tremendously with the sound of George. I think he was the best guitarist for Armenian music and he blended perfectly with the bands. George was the first to introduce the guitar to Armenian music. The Armenian bands starting using guitar back in the 1950s by hiring Greek musicians. That’s why a lot of Armenian musicians have a extensive Greek repertoire in there material. The legacy George left is that he inspired a lot of the younger Armenian guitar players such as myself.  I would copy every run and chord changes that he would do in a particular piece. I started playing with George at the Athenian Corner Restaurant in

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George with his uncle Kosta Kamanis at the Averof Restaurant in Massachusetts.

Lowell , MA. He had his D28 Martin Guitar plugged into a B12X Ampeg Portoflex amplifier, and he sounded like he did on the records. A lot of his material he learned from his uncle Kostas Kamanis a great oud player and entertainer. He idolized him tremendously. They played every Sunday afternoon at the Averof Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts”.Mal Barsamian, Armenian musical (clarinet, oud, sax, guitar) virtuoso

Discography of George Righellis

Music of the Bedouin Bandits – Fuad Hassan Ensemble (RCA Victor LSP-1991) (1959)
Near East Enchantments – Harry Minassian (Mark Records)
Interlude with The Orientals (Soundcraft Associates SA-242)
Next Stop… Near East – George Chakoian’s New England Ararat Orchestra
(ARA S1005)
Kef Time Hartford (Saha Records)
Crossroads with the Vanites Band (Worcester/Whitinsville Armenian Band)
Harpoot to Istanbul – Eddie Mekjian and Ensemble
(NILE NLPS-1003)
Greece After Sunset – George Righellis (NILE NLPS-1004)(1971)
The Seventh Veil -Eddie Mekjian and Ensemble (Fiesta FLPS-1599)
HOSSEH! – Richie Berberian Ensemble (IAN Records)

Special thanks to Meleti, Mal and John for their contributions to this tribute story. 

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Hello, 2019

FatherTime.jpgIt was inevitable
You and I knew it wouldn’t last
No matter how much we try to defy the odds, there is always still much more to grasp

I think we gave it a really good run
Much to be thankful for
Our adventures moved steadily around the sun

Along the way we experienced sadness and joy
Focusing on the positive and what we have
Makes more sense than carrying the negative burden like a heavy hoy

I am not much of a poet as you have surmised, it does however help in reflecting on the past year. We all think the same way when it comes down to the wire – the end of a year and we say the same thing “it goes too fast”.

We make resolutions about weight, work, family and finances. In the end, it makes more sense on how we live our lives and enjoy all of what we have. Yes, count your blessing, another coined phrase but one that should ring true for all of us.

I want to thank all of you that continue to support my musical efforts both near and far and I am looking forward to another good year of health, happiness for 2019.

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Taqs.im creates community for musicians

43390572_344771759417053_4550508444133621760_nSeveral years before social media became a household word, if you wanted to communicate in a collective group across the globe and share ideas, thoughts or questions you either created email groups or listserv forums. About twenty years or so ago, I attempted to have such a group for Armenian and Middle Eastern musicians to come together in a camaraderie-type atmosphere and stay connected. The idea was a good one (in my humble opinion), but the because none of the internet was mainly used for emails and “surfing” the web, the group never caught on. Several years later and with greater technology at our fingertips, two young Armenian musicians and good friends developed a website with the goal to not only connect with other musicians but share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Their website is called taqs.im

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Antranig Kzirian

Antranig Kzirian and Aram Hovagimian are the musicians behind this new online “community” and I had a chance to interview them and have them share with our readers their inspirations and desires behind putting this community together.

Why did you develop taqs.im? What do you hope to accomplish with the creation of this website?
It started with a discussion at the Philadelphia Armenian Youth Federation Olympic Weekend (September, 2018) where I was talking about producing oud instructional videos to potentially take the place of in-person lessons, while simultaneously Aram was looking for a medium through which he could provide synthetic keyboard sound samples online. Given all our experience and history performing, recording and playing middle eastern music, we decided to put our heads together and developed the concept for TAQS.IM – but we wanted to take things even further than just lessons or sounds because we wanted to provide a dynamic, diverse and versatile forum for exploring middle eastern music through modern means of an online presence, compatibility with mobile devices, video-based content and a robust social media presence. With that said, our objective is for TAQS.IM to be a comprehensive, and fluid, collection of clean, well produced and properly organized resources and information – just to list a few of our offerings, we offer a unique mobile device app, a free radio station featuring some of the most prominent and influential middle eastern artists, professionally produced instructional instrument-specific videos, thoughtful and informative podcasts, compelling artist guest features, cutting edge original synthetic keyboard sound samples, and generally speaking, a broad presence across various platforms and formats – some of the above is already available, and the rest is in the works and will be launched very soon (in a matter of weeks, if not sooner). Overall, I’d say we especially wish to provide musicians and aficionados the guidance and resources to learn and discover for themselves without feeling lost, intimidated or overwhelmed. The hope is for TAQS.IM to be the go to source and one stop shop for people all over the world who want to learn about middle eastern music, who didn’t necessarily grow up surrounded by a middle eastern music scene or network in their respective communities.

How did you come up with the name?
TAQS.IM is based off the well known middle eastern term “taksim” or “taqsim” (excuse the transliteration :)) which in musical terms refers to the practice of improvisation within the framework of melodic progression found in the makam-based music system of the middle east (which of course varies by country and region). This word, and concept, was and is so pervasive in the music we have played all these years that we felt it was a fitting representation of what we were hoping to achieve – as this is an improvisation of sorts in its own way!

 

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Aram Hovagimian

How important is our music to each of you? Why?
Our music is supremely important to us – which is a big part of why we are working on this project. Just as critical is the obligation to not only preserve this music and tradition, but also to breathe new life, innovation and creativity into it to keep it alive and thriving in the modern era – and to position it for continued advancement well into the future. This is our way of bringing this vision to life.

 

Who is your audience for this website – musicians, enthusiasts – both?
The audience is anyone who is interested in the vast expanse of middle eastern music. Musicians, enthusiasts, dancers, or just someone who saw an oud somewhere and is curious about what it is exactly and wants to learn a bit more at his or her own speed and comfort.

While I am putting this story together, I am listing to their radio station which they also created. You can access this by clicking this link.

By the way, this isn’t your ordinary website, it is very professionally put together with high quality graphics, audio and video clips. I am very happy Antranig and Aram have come together to put this community. I encourage you to follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and to share their invention with others.

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Music and Dementia

I believe most of us can attribute a loss within our lifetime to a loved one or friend that has had a form of dementia. I have experienced it first hand with my father and grandmother. I have often said this is an unforgiving disease and in many cases I think it’s worse than cancer or other diseases. They say that experiencing dementia is worse on the loved one rather than the person with the disease. I don’t prescribe to this theory and think that in many cases the person suffering dementia may be fighting against it for a long time.

download.jpegWith that said, I am seeing more and more articles pop up in my social media feeds suggesting that music has an impact on those with dementia. Very interesting studies out there promoting this and I do believe it’s true.

Familiar music can trigger something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which is not lost when someone has Alzheimer’s. ASMR is compared to a brain stimulation and you recall the piece of music and react accordingly which can calm you and put you in a relaxed mood.

My father enjoyed traditional Armenian music and there were times when I would play music for him on the kanun or with recordings, he would become fixated on the music and it clearly relaxed him for a bit.

Music can evoke an emotion that someone with dementia may recall because it brings back that memory. Some studies even suggest that when all other ways to communicate with a person with dementia, music still can get through.

I have found that watching old movies with my father at times was helpful and had a similar reaction. Especially the old westerns and Charlie Chaplin movies.

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Topouzian included in 2018-2021 Arts & Humanities Touring Directory

downloadThe Arts and Humanities Touring Directory features some of the state’s most-talented performing and visual artists, and humanities presenters. The directory offers artists and humanities professionals the opportunity to present their work throughout the state through work with nonprofit recipients of the Touring grants program. Partnered with the Arts and Humanities Touring Grant Program, it is a one-stop resource for many organizations looking to hold public arts and culture events. The artists and humanities professionals included in the Directory go through a formal peer-review adjudication process.

For several years, I have been included in the Arts and Humanities Touring Directory created by the Michigan Humanities Council.

The Arts & Humanities Touring Program awards grants to help support the fees and expenses of touring performers, artists, exhibitors, and humanities presenters listed in Michigan’s Arts and Humanities Touring Directory.

touring_grants_logo_horizontal.pngThe Arts and Humanities Touring Grants are available to Michigan nonprofit organizations who may request up to 40 percent of presenters’/exhibitors’ fees and travel expenses. Request for a grant may not exceed $3,000 per application, and an organization may not submit more than four (4) grant applications or request more than $4,000 during the program period.

Applications will be accepted during three funding windows based on when the performance/exhibit will take place based on the table below:

Performance Date
December 1, 2018 to February 28, 2019
March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019
November 15, 2018 until January 15, 2019

Application Window
February 1, 2019 until April 1, 2019
June 1, 2019 to August 15, 2019
May 1, 2019 until July 1, 2019

Learn more about these grants by clicking here.

To schedule me through the touring directory, click here.

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Charlie Chaplin’s Relief Fund for Armenian Children-Survivors of the Genocide

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Charie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid”.

For those that know me, know that I enjoy old movies, especially the classic comedians. Charlie Chaplin has always been one of my favorites and I have watched ever silent film to talkie he ever made.

Recently a friend forwarded a short article to me about Chaplin’s humanitarian efforts. It was widely known that Chaplin was a humanist often engaging in efforts to assist mankind. This unfortunately caused him some trouble in the later years being accused of not being an American.

Vigen Avetisyan wrote:

Primarily remembered for his role of “the Tramp” – which became an icon of the silent film era – he played numerous other roles thanks to his talent. His ability was testified by not only by his roles but also the fact that he did most of the job in the creation of his films.

However, Charlie Chaplin’s film career isn’t the only thing he is remembered for.
Few people actually remember that in the years of the Armenian Genocide, Charlie Chaplin established a fund to help Armenian children. He donated virtually all his earnings to this foundation.

In the 1920s, Charlie Chaplin made a tour in European countries, in which he raised $1 million (approximately $12 million as of 2018 when adjusted for inflation). He transferred the entire amount to his relief foundation to aid Armenian and Greek orphans who had fled from the Ottoman Empire. He personally visited these children and helped build shelters for Armenian and Greek orphans.

New-Near-East-September-1924.jpgAlso, Chaplin’s co-star from ‘The Kid’, the child actor, Jackie Coogan was also very instrumental in the Near East Relief Fund (NER) efforts in the early 1920s. NER’s mission was to provide humanitarian efforts to Armenian Genocide survivors/refugees.  Read more about this by clicking on this link.

 

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