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