Jack Chalikian, Musician, Mentor

If you grew up listening to Armenian ‘kef’ music like I did, you have undoubtedly heard of Hagop (Jack) Chalikian. An Armenian kanunist.

Jack Chalikian playing kanun at Kef Tim Hartford in 2003.

Jack Chalikian playing kanun at Kef Tim Hartford in 2003.

You don’t read much about Jack online unless it refers to him in the liner notes of a re-released album from the 1960s. Jack often jokes about being the second fiddle to the clarinet and oud players when he would play in different ensembles. The truth was he was far from a second fiddle, in my eyes – a big part of the overall sound of an Armenian ensemble.

It was Jack that I first saw anyone play the kanun live on stage. He was and still is “old school” to me — playing kanun on a TV dinner tray, an old DeArmond pickup rubber banded to the side of his kanun and preamp to give himself a small boost of volume on stage. I certainly knew of him as a kid growing up listening to albums such as the Kef Time series and with Armenian oudist John Berberian. Watching an Armenian kanun player on stage playing the music that I loved – was rare.

The title suggests that Jack was just an inspiration to me and my playing music. He was more than just a musician that played kanun. He cared about passing the music on to the next generation. No ego, no secrecy, he wanted to make sure that those of us that enjoyed the music – continue to enjoy the music. A true artist.

I used to travel to Connecticut every November for several years to attend Kef Time Hartford, a weekend musical convention of sorts that featured some of the finest Armenian musicians of its time. This is an old event that continued for decades and I was fortunate to catch it while it was still in its hey-day. The video clip that I include in this post is not only a perfect example of the weekend that no longer exists, but a nice glimpse into the musicianship of Jack Chalikian. To me, it was pure enjoyment.  

I have told this story in person many times, but want to tell it in this blog to show you what kind of mentor he was to me. I was in my early twenties when I went to the Kef Time weekends and to be honest, all I wanted to do was party. Hence the word Kef which means party. I wasn’t looking to really learn music as much as I wanted to watch, dance, laugh and enjoy the vacation.

Jack has lived in the west coast for many years and therefore would typically arrive in Connecticut (for the Kef Time weekends) a day earlier of the night he was to perform on stage. It would be a matter of minutes when I would see him arrive in the hotel lobby with his kanuns (yes…kanunS..sometimes he traveled with two which were both tuned differently) and luggage and with a stone face expression he would tell me: “Meet me in my room in a half hour for your lesson”. He would do this every year I saw him and I never had to ask for a lesson. I remember once telling him that we can catch up later as I was going to the bar. He shot another look at me and would say “no…now”. So I went for my lessons, a few hours each year for a few years. I wish I filmed those lessons, they were valuable and I still retain much of what he taught me.

In retrospect, you could call those Kef Time weekends more of a workshop for me. In the middle of partying, I would take lessons from a master kanun player and then in the middle of the ballroom (which used to be packed in the day), he would find me somewhere in the crowd of people and motion me to come towards the stage. He would tell me (while he was playing) to stand near him and watch what he was doing. Jack would demonstrate some of the techniques he would show me during the lesson. You can not get any better than that. On the job training! 🙂

Jack and I still stay in touch, albeit not by phone as much as my a simple Christmas card we both got in the habit of sending each other many years ago. It has been a long time since I have seen him or watched him perform live on stage.  Nevertheless, a fine musician, a great teacher and a good friend.

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2 Responses to Jack Chalikian, Musician, Mentor

  1. Paul M says:

    ..and with a stone face expression he would tell me: “Meet me in my room in a half hour for your lesson”. He would do this every year I saw him and I never had to ask for a lesson. I remember once telling him that we can catch up later as I was going to the bar. He shot another look at me and would say “no…now”.

    lol that is a perfect description of Jack Chalikian. No nonsense, no frills, just a pure advocate of his art form with an encyclopedic knowledge of the music. I have spent a lot of time with Jack over the years and pretty much learned everything I know from him. Has never asked for – nor accepted – anything in return.

    I hope people realize that when you listen to the kanun in Jack’s hands, you are going straight to the source. Jack grew up in New York at a time when you could still hear Armenian, Greek, and Turkish musicians playing together the music of the COMMON CULTURE that existed between them in Asia Minor for centuries. Greeks would come out in droves to hear Udi Hrant, and people like Esber Koprucu played on the records of Artie Barsamian. There were five or six Armenian-owned hotels in the Catskills that provided a steady stream of this type of entertainment, one of which was owned by an uncle of Jack’s.

    When Udi Hrant came to the United States in the 1950s to give concerts (while also hoping to get treatment for his blindness), he stayed at Jack’s house. Why? Because believe it or not, Jack grandparents knew Udi Hrant as a boy in Adapazar. Prior to his departure, he asked Jack’s father what he could bring the young Jack. “Bring me a kanun”, Jack told his father. That’s what he did, and that’s how Jack got started with the kanun. Hrant gave him lessons in the makams as well as the standard repertoire of Kemani Tatyos, Tanburi Cemil, and the other great musicians of early 20th century Constantinople, such as Kemani Nubar, Artaki Candan, Yorgo Bacanos, and Sukru Tunar, to name a few. After moving out to California with his family, he met Richard Hagopian through the ACYO – whom he recorded the great Seventh Veil album with live at the club of the same name on Hollywood Boulevard in the early 1960s. Not long after Richard also teamed up with Hachig, and for the next 50 years the three of them have played at too many weddings, picnics, and dances to count.

    That’s just the thing about young people back then compared to now. They wanted to learn the music they heard at the picnics, dances, hotels, restaurants, and coming out of their parents’ record players, exactly the way they heard it. They had a great respect for the musicians of their parents’ and earlier generations, and there was no trying to re-package it into something marketable or trying to project some kind of hipster image while passing themselves off as heroes trying to preserve something. They were all born in the United States, and there was other music going on around them as they were growing up, just like now there is now. There was also no Youtube or iTunes, where you could instantly download or watch a video of the top-notch players or ensembles featuring your instrument. They would go down to the local record shop in Astoria or wherever once a month and hope that they had gotten some new titles in. Then they would wear the discs out playing them over and over again as they played along trying to learn.

    By the way, listen to that kanun solo in the clip featuring Harry Minassian. Nowadays there are a lot of kanun players making a name for themselves being very technical. But very few of them can play a solo even half as good as that. Everything about it is perfect. In short, it is just simply the way the kanun should sound in this music.

    Thank you Ara Topouzian for your efforts to bring wider recognition to this great figure of Armenian music in America.

  2. Pingback: The Kanun | HYE Times

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