Merry Armenian Christmas!

Armenians from around the world celebrate Christmas on two different dates. Most of us celebrate on December 25th, but many also recognize and celebrate Christmas again on January 6th.

A fairly popular cartoon depicting Santa and Armenian Christmas which has been on the web for several years.

Historically, all Christian churches once celebrated Christ’s birth on January 6th until the 4th century. The date was moved from January 6 to December 25 to coordinate better with pagan feats which were connected to the birth of the Sun which was celebrated on December 25th. However, Armenia, which had no pagan practices, were not affected by this date change so Armenians continue to celebrate on January 6th.

I tried to find traditional folks that Armenians may only hear around Christmas, but had some difficulty. Hearing Jingle Bells with Armenian lyrics wasn’t my idea of Armenian Christmas music! However, there are many beautiful liturgical hymns which can be heard within the Armenian church around Christmas.

To all my Armenian friends, Shnorhavor Surb Tsnund!

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Making Music Fun

I guess what they say is true, you can make music out of just about anything.

A video that my musician friend Mark Gavoor (and fellow blogger) posted a humorous video on social media (which we have all seen before, but nevertheless, still captivating) prompted me to think about musicians that perform music using non-musical methods or non-instruments. I even hesitate calling something “non” as I started to say – you can music many ways. I decided to look up a few musicians that are talented in their own rite but not from playing instruments out of random objects.

Probably the best I have heard is the musician Mark posted, the late Danish folk artist Peter Bastian. Not much could be found on Bastian other than he was a classical bassoon player and author. This clip of Bastian playing Bulgarian music through a plastic drinking straw while utilizing a circular breathing technique is mind blowing.

Another social media phenomena is Linsey Pollak who turns a carrot into a clarinet using an electric drill a carrot and a saxophone mouthpiece, and plays it all in a matter of 5 minutes. He has worked as a musical instrument maker for over 30 years and has designed a number of new wind instruments as well as specializing in woodwind instruments from Eastern Europe (having studied Macedonian bagpipes in Macedonia). His TEDx presentation has attracted over 7 million views.

It would be difficult for me to write this story without mentioning Michigan native musician, Frank Pahl. Not necessarily creating music using just inanimate objects, his group Little Bang Theory performed on some non-conforming traditionally instruments, many of which are toys. Very unique and entertaining to watch live! Plastic toy instruments can be often heard in his compositions. In recent years, his group has performed an original soundtrack for the silent film horror classic Nosferatu.

Of course, I need to include another musician friend, Scott Wilson who created a few videos several years ago playing both an oud and kanun made out of….a dresser drawer. Scott definitely was thinking “outside of the box” (Sorry Scott, couldn’t resist!) when he put this together.

Maybe the funniest video I found  was on Conan O’Brien. He interviewed Dr. Dale Stuckenbruck who started the Long Island Vegetable Orchestra.

Finally, back to using vegetables (and quite honestly, a great clip to end on!)…one can not go without talking about the Vegetable Orchestra from Vienna. They have been performing for over twenty years on fresh vegetables! Music styles from electronic, acid-jazz, and house-DJ type music.

I think this is the perfect end to a 2021 year, wishing all a Happy New Year for 2022! Lets hope its a better one….

Posted in art, Humor in Music, music, world music | 1 Comment

When Did That Happen?

So another year has flown by, almost behind us, and with comes another year of a pandemic. It is a bit surreal now to thing that we have been in a global pandemic for two years. It also seems that the most used phrase around has been …

“When did that happen? COVID has fogged my memory as to when certain events happened!”

Seems like I did my first virtual concert years ago, but it was only the middle of last year. For full-time musicians, this has taken a devastating toll on their livelihood. It seemed like 2021 was going to be the year that we pulled out of the clutches of a global disease, but alas, the ramifications and delay to performing live in front of audiences has varied from state to state and not at a level we are accustomed to from the past.

I was fortunate, no question about that. This past year I had the ability to perform several in-person performances which helped create some extra mental stability (try playing only online for months – it can drive you nutty!). However, we are far from getting back to normal audiences and there are still many venues which either are not doing live events or haven’t been able to recover from the shutdowns we faced earlier in the year.

Personally, I have learned to live with the virus in my everyday life. To expect that it will depart with a blink of an eye is not reality but we know that when surges are down, venues are looking to book groups again for live performances. They all want to have artists to perform again and the good news is that many have opened up again to allow us to share our talents.

The last gig I had this year was in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the Kerrytown Concert House. I have had the good fortune to have played there a few years ago and it was so nice to return for a concert of Armenian music. Ticket sales were low at first and I worried that COVID was still hampering peoples interests in going out – but I was wrong. We had a great crowd and protocols were followed and everyone stayed safe. As a matter of fact, it was quite emotional and I was nervous performing as this was the first time in a long time I performed a concert and storytelling presentation. Needless to say, it was a fantastic experience and I was so happy the concert took place! (See below for some video clips from that night)

2022…..bring it on! Already have some gigs in the works and look forward to sharing music again in person. Stay healthy and safe this holiday season!

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Why it’s important to tell your story

Last month I had an opportunity to share my passion of Armenian music to a new audience. I was invited to present at TEDx Detroit,.

Several years ago I presented at TEDx Oakland University, which was a fabulous experience and one that I thought was a once in a lifetime. However, I was given a second opportunity and was equally excited to do my TED talk.  

Some may thing this is a great way to self-promote for future music gigs, I really don’t look at it that way. This is such a wonderful moment to be able to share what I truly love doing – playing music and talking a bit about my culture. This experience allowed me to present my passion to a wider Detroit audience, most of which either knew little about Armenian history or my culture. 

What is unique about TEDx is the format. You are typically given twenty minutes, ten minutes or in my case four minutes to share your story. I was not only happy with getting four minutes, it challenged me to condense my thoughts into what I hoped would be powerful enough to get my message across to the audience. To me, this was ample amount of time to give folks a glimpse into my musical passion. 

What this is leading up to is – it is important to tell your story. Everyone has one, whether it is happy or sad, we each have a background that has some aspects which should be told to others. In my case, the story I wish to tell focuses on the connection between a Genocide and survival of music and its existence today. Part of this story wants others to realize what great lengths the music traveled in order to survive in a modern era and what needs to be done to preserve for the future. 

What’s your story? 

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TEDx Detroit on Nov. 11th

I have often commented that I have had the privilege to perform music at a wide array of different venues over the years. Each and every gig I have had (paid or not) that was in front of a new audience has provided not only immense gratification, but I have had the ability to walk away from the event knowing that I have shown them something they haven’t experienced in the past. I am not a scholar nor do I lecture about Armenian and Middle Eastern music, but it comes quite easy for me to be able to demonstrate my feelings and enjoyment for the music I play on stage.

Once again, I will have that opportunity to showcase to (an already sold out) audience – Armenian music. On November 11th, I will be on stage at The Icon Detroit, a beautiful venue in downtown Detroit located on close to 18 acres on the riverfront. I will have only 4 minutes to showcase what I do, why I do it and most of all – the passion I have for the music. I will be performing for TEDx Detroit.

Some may say 4 minutes is not enough time to do much – I disagree. Utilized properly, this is the perfect amount of time for any one performer or speaker to capture an audience – if done properly. Will I do it right? Let’s hope so! If you are in town, try and grab a ticket, they go fast.

The theatre is already sold out, but you can still purchase tickets online to watch with an alternate option. More info at: https://www.tedxdetroit.com/ 

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Creating Out of Nowhere

Of all times to come up with an idea for a blog post, it was while I was outside, after dinner, doing mindless yardwork. Calling it mindless is not an insult because it is not something I dread doing, I actually thoroughly enjoy all (well, most!) forms of yard work. It should be noted that this phenomenon only entered into my life when I moved back into my childhood home a few years ago and after completing a renovation project to it. Much work is needed in my yard but I embrace the work and love the exercise it provides me.

What’s my point? Hang in there, its coming!

My wife snapped this pic of me doing Fall lawn work. See the wood pile behind me? Found a great idea on YouTube on how to stack these easily and inexpensive. Love chopping wood too!

Ironically, growing up, I avoided this kind of work to save my life. I absolutely hated shoveling the snow (still not a major fan of this) or cutting the lawn but those were the tasks assigned to me as a teenager. My father, was outside every weekend – doing something, creating something. I find myself trying to follow in those same footsteps, even if the bug didn’t bite my several decades later! He was very talented and even today, some 50 years after he built the house and the many items that are part of the property – they are still solid structures.

Believe it or not, it is not hard to find me outside for 8 to 12 hours on a given weekend (even if its hot and humid) doing yardwork. I might even end the day of tasks with an additional 2 -5 mile walk on top of it. Got to love those FitBit steps I rack up. Oh, I pay for it at the end of the day or even the next week with aches and pains, but I recover (mostly) and I am back at it again the next weekend.

Seriously, what is this blog post about?? I’m getting to it…

The manual labor work that I do releases some type of endorphin or other chemical in my brain that allows me to think more clearly and even – creatively. One of my brothers, also who successfully has followed in my fathers footsteps when it comes to building things and working outdoors once told me “Take your time doing the work and if you make a mistake, you can always redo it”. So simplistic, but so true.  I keep this mantra in the back of my mind and it allows me to not work hastily or sloppy.

Ok, I am getting to the point, I promise!

A recent cleanup and landscaping project. Not only did I weed the ground, added a weed preventing fabric, but was able to find a nice way to present the tree that is around one of the sides of my deck.

The point is that creativity can come in all forms and can apply to many things. Often we think that creativity comes in how we do our day job. Sometimes the success of our career is based on how creative or talented we are. Creativity can also come when doing mundane tasks like (wait for it) – yard work. Whether it is thinking of a way to add some ambiance to your yard like a privacy screen or a rock landscape, perhaps its in the flower/plant selection you make that provides a certain look to your home, even the color paint you use all uses the left side of the brain which produces – creation.

A positive side of the pandemic was that it provided additional time at home which in turn would create projects for all of us. I embraced that and have much to show for during that time.

I hope to have many more years where I can abuse my body doing this type of work. It provides such clarity to my mind, empties the negativity, creates more room for positive thoughts…and in this case, it gave me a blog idea!

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Revisiting Kegham Tazian

“Personally, I feel that the most exciting aspect of my work – the great pleasure, in fact, that I receive – is the excitement and anticipation of beginning and doing. The end is defeat, the beginning is victory”.

These are the words once told to me by Kegham Tazian, an Armenian artist that has spent a lifetime painting and sculpting a vast world of modernistic and expressionistic art work.

As a child, I knew him as a family friend first before recognizing him as an artist.  We lived in the same neighborhood for many years and frequently our families saw each other. When I was younger, I didn’t have a basis of understanding – Kegham: the artist. It’s because whenever I saw him, he was making jokes or doing impressions. To me, that was more of a fun loving man that I thought could entertain people. He didn’t seem to fit the stereotype I was familiar with of an artist. The suffering or starving artist image of Van Gogh or Jackson Pollack was not Kegham in my eyes. He was simply a happy and jovial man that is skilled artist and teacher.

It wasn’t until becoming older that I appreciated his artwork.  His work was unmistakable when you entered a corporate building or a  municipal campus. He constructed the bronze doors entering into St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn as well as some of the religious paintings inside the church. His work seemed to be everywhere. As a college student, I once had the opportunity to take one of his art classes (I am not sure I was his crowning achievement as I still can’t draw my way out of a crayon box!) and to this day, I am amazed at his teaching efforts. He made art fun and inspirational. Having spent over forty five years teaching art at Oakland Community College (OCC) as department chair and curator of the Smith Gallery on the Farmington Hills campus, he continued to create his own work and exhibit in art galleries around the globe. Eleven years ago, Kegham and his family established an endowment fund in his name to OCC students that “who have demonstrated a dedication to the arts and academic excellence”.

Kegham pictured with his children (Vatche, Taline, Vahe) at the ribbon cutting event.

In 1991, I wrote an article about Kegham for the Armenian Weekly. I recall spending the afternoon with him and asking questions about his process in creating artwork and he took the time to show me different pieces and what they meant to him. I reacquainted myself with that article and those fond memories came back to me as he showed me around his house which in itself was a studio of some of his finest works. I remember that at the time he was working with a new medium for creating artwork – digital. Experimental at the time, he wasn’t afraid to find new ways to express himself.  Always inventing, always creating.

Armenian born in 1938, Kegham came from a family of five children. His father died when he was quite young and his credits his mother for raising his siblings. Eventually coming to the United States in 1960, he settled in Michigan a few years later and has never left.

His accolades are numerous including both national and international awards. In recent years he was honored as an artist in Residence by the City of Farmington Hills.

Ribbon cutting ceremony unveiling the sculpture in Linden Park (Birmingham, MI)

On September 10th, 83 year old Kegham was once again honored for his work. A 400-pound bronze sculpture was gifted to the City of Birmingham (his first residence upon entering Michigan) with support from the Cultural Council of Birmingham Bloomfield and the Hagopian family which is now on display in Linden Park.

The sculpture is called “Pyramid Earth” and was originally commissioned (in 1994) by TRW Automotive, in Sterling Heights, before Kegham was able to get it back due to the closure of the facility.  In 2013, the sculpture was installed at OCC’s Farmington Hills campus. Now it rests in a beautiful park for all to enjoy as it symbolizes the strength and fortitude of Mother Earth.

I’m proud to call this man my friend and wish him great health and happiness as he continues to receive the recognition he deserves for all of his achievements.

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Lou was always on first

In the past, I have touched on my fascination of old movies, especially old comedies. In many of my stories I have filtered in comments relating to some of the classic comedians of the last century including Charlies Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and of course, Abbott & Costello.

As a young boy, I watched several classic movies that aired on television and before the advent of DVR/VCRs, you could only watch the movie when it was being shown. Sometimes, a particular movie you wanted to see might only air once a year…and usually at a time which was never convenient such as in the middle of the night! In my case, that meant my local television stations would air The Three Stooges at 4:30pm and 11:00pm during the week and Abbott & Costello were always on each Sunday starting at 8:30am.

An original promo poster with Bud & Lou’s Who’s on First script. This poster was promoting the Go Ahead candy bar by Nestle in 1980.

During my earlier years, I was especially fascinated by watching Abbott & Costello. I couldn’t get enough of watching their movies. I knew all the dialogue and as most diehard fans would attest, I would wait for my local station to schedule Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The TV Guide would only show a week in advance and I used to (this is true) call the television station and ask them what the Abbott & Costello movie line up was for the month. Can you imagine calling a television station today with that type of request? Since there was no ability to record the movie for future playback, I would put my audio cassette recorder up to the speaker and record the audio of each of their films and play it back, imaging the scene as if I was listening to a radio show. The more I watched their movies, the more I became memorized by their antics and comedy. Ah, my youth!

Eventually, this passion of watching their films turned into my first real hobby – collecting Abbott & Costello movie memorabilia. In the days prior to the Internet, you could only find rare and original movie memorabilia in unique movie memorabilia stores like Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store and Movie Star News or potentially at a memorabilia/comic book show.

This is a 6 sheet (47×70) original movie poster from Abbott & Costello’s 1942 film Rio Rita.

My first taste of collecting memorabilia started with 8×10 glossy movie photographs (stills) at around ten years old…. by accident! Through a series of connections between contacting my local television station and my correspondence getting funneled up the chain, I was able to meet Lou Costello’s middle daughter, Carole. You could probably imagine my excitement as a fan of her fathers that she not only received my letter, but responded to me! She not only replied and sent me a couple of photos she had in her personal possession, but she connected me to her younger sister, Chris, who at the time owned her own public relations firms and recently finished writing a biography on her father. (Side bar: if you haven’t read the book, its excellent and you can buy a copy by clicking here). This began a pen pal relationship which lasted a number of years – the lost art of writing letters. I would send her questions and she was so kind to reply back to me.  I kept all her letters after all these years. The anticipation of going to the mailbox and waiting for a light blue envelope and her personalized stationary was the highlight of that day.  40 years later, I still stay in touch with Chris and she has done a fantastic job keeping the memory of her father and Bud Abbott alive.

A small sample of the original photos I collected over the years.

After receiving those pictures, I wanted to collect more and eventually I discovered the world of collecting original movie poster material. These are the posters that were used to promote the movie in the theaters. They came in different sizes and were very artistic and colorful.

Today, I have a great collection of these original posters, many of which are framed and on my walls, others are stored for safe keeping. My photo stills are in books, categorized and in safe keeping. I might expand on this hobby in a future post.

Never did I collect for the purpose of re-selling or making it a business venture, it was just a fun hobby, a hobby that I owe gratitude to the Costello family for that first 8×10 still.

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Kresge Arts in Detroit announces 2021 Fellows

I have often said that receiving the Kresge Artist Fellowship over nine years ago was a musical game changer for me. The doors it opened for me as a musician allowed me to create and afforded me unique opportunities to collaborate with other artists and projects. For this reason, I owe much to Kresge for the recognition they gave me and each year I am excited to see who the new artists are that receive this honor.

Since 2012, I have stayed connected with Kresge Arts in Detroit through different ways, whether it was as a panelist to review the fellowships, to helping provide plugs to get Detroit artists to apply or, as is the case this past time, provided some music for their opening and closing credits.

Since 2008, Kresge Arts in Detroit has awarded more than $6.7 million through 13 Kresge Eminent Artist Awards ($50,000 each), 238 Kresge Artist fellowships ($25,000 each), and 32 Gilda Awards ($5,000 each).

This year, 30 Detroit-area literary and visual artists will receive a total of $550,000 in Kresge Artist Fellowships and Gilda Awards.

The 2021 cohort can be viewed by reading here.

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The Great Duduk Master Has Passed

The entire world music community has lost a true living legend, Armenian duduk master Djivan Gasparyan has died at the age of 92.

The duduk is exclusively and internationally known as the instrument of Armenia. Made out of apricot wood with a handmade double reed (similar to the oboe) this instrument is played by thousands of musicians throughout the world, but none as famous as Gasparyan who brought global recognition to the instrument.

Djivan Gasparyan, born in 1928 in the Solak village, which is in a province located in the central part of Armenia, has a list of accomplishments unparalleled in the Armenian musical community. A four time medal winner of the prestigious UNESCO award, a WOMEX award, he began playing the duduk at six years old.

At 21, he joined the popular National Armenian Song and Dance Ensemble of Tatul Altunian. It was during this time that Gasparyan made a name for himself throughout Armenia. Receiving several honorary recognitions from the 1960-1970s in Armenia, Djivan would eventually teach close to a hundred duduk students at the Yerevan Conservatory.

Gasparyan was a Grammy nominated musician that took the duduk from its humble mountainous beginnings, birthed several centuries ago, to the front steps of every major musical stage throughout the world. He performed and collaborated with some of the most famous artists, most notably, Peter Gabriel, jazz legend Branford Marsalis, and Queen’s guitarist Brian May. Countless symphonies have featured Djivan’s duduk playing and he played for thousands of different audiences throughout his career. He even had a vodka named after him.

Gasparyan would take the duduk to new heights making it one of the most well-known world music instruments performed today. You can hear the duduk in motion pictures and television shows on a regular basis – all because of Gasparyan. His film credits include The Crow, The Siege, Gladiator and Blood Diamonds. He is on over thirty different recordings

Hans Zimmer, famed Hollywood composer, when describing a certain music sequence he was writing for the Oscar winning motion picture Gladiator, said “I always wanted to use this one instrument in the Moroccan sequences called the duduk….there was one player that is amazing a 72-year old man called Djivan Gasparyan. I want to write this for him, I want this to be about him”.

(left to right) Djivan, Manvel Khosrov Mnatsakanyan, Mher Mnatsakanyan, and grandson Djivan Gasparyan. (Photo courtesy of Mher Mnatsakanyan)

He has inspired thousands of Armenian and non-Armenian musicians to perform the instrument and today. “I was fortunate and lucky enough to have had a chance to work and tour with Maestro Djivan for three years. We lost a giant today” said Armenian duduk master musician, Mher Mnatsakanyan.

As the great Armenian-American novelist William Saroyan once said, “Dear Djivan, this is not music, but a prayer.”

UPDATE: Please check out my good friends (Mark Gavoor) blog about his personal reflections on Djivan Gasparyan. CLICK HERE.

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