As I was growing up listening to Armenian music, there were different groups of instrumentalist musicians that I was aware of that played folk music. One of those groups of musicians were oud players. As far as I was concerned, there were only four Armenian oud players – George Mgrdichian, John Berberian, Harry Minassian and Richard Hagopian. Simply put, they were the only artists that I had recordings available in my house. Little did I know this was the tip of the iceberg of oud players that played and preserved Armenian and Middle Eastern music. The list, albeit too exhaustive to list here, included many of the “masters” that set the course for all the other oud players, including present day musicians. As I grew older and as I listened to more music I discovered more musicians that played the oud.
Probably a major reason I was unaware of these artists surrounded the fact that recordings were limited in their commercial availability. As I began to collect LP and 78rpm recordings, I discovered more musicians. All too often I would scout out other recording’s of that particular musician because I couldn’t get enough of their performances. Many of those “finds” ended up being field recordings that someone recorded off the stage. To me, these are truly some of the best ways to hear musicians – in their element, playing for an audience and not scripted like most professional recordings are done.
One of those Armenian musicians was Charles Ganimian, always referred to as Chick. He was a unique musician they’ve had a signature style of playing the oud but was also known for who singing talents. He did not have the smooth voice like Frank Sinatra, but he created a tone and style which was rarely duplicated. His voice has been described as “unpolished” or “husky”. Probably the only musician I know they came close to his style is present day oud player, Dick Barsamian. Dick would often sing a number of songs associated with Chick’s repertoire.
I don’t recall ever seeing Chick perform live although it’s very possible as a child as I traveled with my parents to different Armenian weekends out east and Chick may have been performing on stage. However, I grew interested in knowing more about this musician. Especially as I heard that he performed with other musicians I was keenly aware of and didn’t realize their connection to Chick.
Over the years, very little has been written about Chick’s life and the recordings of his playing oud are limited to some of the below recorded from around 1959-1975.
The Great Hudson River Revival Volume I (Guest performer)
The Exciting Music of The Nor-ikes (Nor-Ikes)
Daddy Lolo (Oriental Rock And Roll)/Halvah 45rpm
Heddy Lou 45rpm
Come with Me to the Casbah (Ganimian & His Orientals) LP & 45rpm
The Wailing Dervishes (Herbie Mann)
Impressions of the Middle East (Herbie Mann)
At a certain point I felt (as a record producer) that it would be great to pay homage to Chick by releasing some type of recording that featured his musicianship. As I mentioned earlier, he had few recordings ever released, but he was recorded live in different settings. Nightclub surroundings and festivals were Chick’s playground. In 1999, I released Chick Ganimian LIVE, which was a field recording of Chick that included Armenian musicians: Haig Hagopian (clarinet), Jack Chalikian (kanun), Roger Krikorian (dumbeg), Ken Kalajian (guitar), Chris Marashlian (bass) and Paul Mooradian (tambourine). This was recorded live on July 3, 1978 at the Sheraton Regal Hotel in Hyannis, Massachusetts by musician and recording engineer Leon Janikian. The July 4th “Kef” (party) weekends were very popular for over thirty years and organized by Charlie Krikorian. It was the first time in decades that a recording featuring Chick’s music was released to the public.
“Let me confess that I’m biased about this unknown genius and his virtuosity on the oud. I was playing clarinet with him for years and played on this job. He was the finest musician for belly-dancers. If you like Middle Eastern music, you’ll love this CD” said in 2015 by the late Haig Hagopian referring to the release of this CD. As the record producer of this compilation, I must admit that it doesn’t provide the full breadth of Chick’s work but it does provide a good example of his playing abilities in front of a live audience with some of his signature songs such as Efem, Canakalle Icinde, and Halvaci Halva.
Chick was born in 1926 in Troy, New York. Music was part of his life at a youthful age. He began on the violin but was convinced that this was not the instrument he would be drawn to in the future.
When he was ten years old a 4th of July fireworks accident injured his right eye. Surgery helped correct the problem, but for the rest of his life, it would occasional wander.
His musical inspiration came from his father as well as Oudi Hrant Kenkulian. “He’s so great that he’s just known as Udi Hrant” said Ganimian.
Perhaps one of the reasons Chick doesn’t appear on many LP recordings is that he detested the commercialization of the music he dearly loved. He refused recording offers as he felt the sound engineers could never record or present (or respect) his music properly to the public.
Arno Karlen, an American poet and was Senior Editor of Holiday magazine in the 1960s had this to say about Chick’s playing after watching him perform for the first time a Cafe’ Feenjon that was a popular nightclub in Greenwich Village, New York City.
His face and voice are tense with the feeling of the song, but his left hand, as though belonging to someone else, works intricately on the short, unfretted fingerboard, drawing from the oud an accompaniment of runs and glissandi, a silver ribbon that twists, hesitates, turns shyly toward the quarter tone above or below, trembles, turns back again, glides on.
After doing a stint in the US Army in the mid-1940s, Chick formed his first ensemble called the Nor-Ikes. The band’s name means “New Sunrise” in Armenian, a suggestion by one of the musicians father. was suggested by Souren Baronian’s father and means “new dawn” in Armenian. The Nor-Ikes performed throughout the eastern region of the US and this exposed Chick to a greater audience.
He regularly appeared at many well-known clubs throughout the east coast including the Fennimore Hotel, Catskill’s Shady Hill Lodge, Providence’s Seventh Veil, Boston’s Club Zahra, Grecian Palace, Port Said, Cafe Feenjon, and the Roundtable. From 1960-1969, Chick was a fixture at the Roundtable. He not only headlined at this nightclub, but was in charge of the music and hiring of musicians to perform there. Known for his intensity on stage, he demanded and expected musicians and dancers to perform with perfection. I have been often told that you did not want to get on the wrong side of Chick when playing music. A hint of his working style as well as his frustrations for musicians dancers is evident in Karlen’s article. “Like many first-rate artists, Chick is like a light with a fixed pinpoint focus. Anything that is artistically foreign or offensive to him rouses him to instant, puritanical anger.”
From the early 1960s to mid-1970s, Chick was in his prime. Although he was trained to be a butcher, he made his living playing music.
In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to meet and interview the great jazz musician Herbie Mann. He was performing at a concert nearby and I reached out to him to see if he would be willing to meet me and discuss Chick and recording two Middle Eastern-Jazz albums. He was intrigued that I was aware of these albums and so he was willing to meet me. We had lunch and we discussed his musical career and the vast amount of sidemen he performed with during his career. When I asked him about his memories of Chick, he was clear in his recollection. “When I was interested in Middle Eastern music, I wanted to find someone with knowledge of that genre but had a taste for jazz music. I was told about his Armenian oud player in New York City and I saw him perform live at one of the clubs and knew he was the musician I was looking for. Chick’s playing filled that magical combination” said Mann.
Chick would make two albums with Herbie Mann during a time when Middle Eastern was a hot commodity for record buyers. The popularity of Zorba The Greek, Topkapi and others coupled with the vibrant nightclub action of New York had everyone interested in the exotic sounds of the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Bossa Nova sound was on the heals of Middle Eastern music and thus Herbie Mann as well as mainly mainstream jazz artists as well as record producers shifted into the new sound.
In the few records Chick did make, one of them was called Come with me to the Casbah for Atlantic Records in 1959 and produced by Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegün, brothers that owned the record label. “Chick Ganimian was a rare musician who was a master of both the authentic Middle Eastern music and of the Western Jazz mode. Chick, like many of his Armenian antecedents was a superior interpreter of Middle Eastern music” said Ahmet Ertegün.
Chick was the working man’s working musician. The title of this article refers to Chick as a blue collared musician and that isn’t meant to be derogatory. In every conversation I had with friends and fellow musicians that performed with Chick, he worked for everything he obtained and at times it wasn’t easy. Living as a musician is hard enough, living it as an Armenian oud player performing in clubs is a hard life to lead and difficult to be successful in. Your surroundings can be “interesting” at best and he performed until the early hours of the morning. Certainly alcohol could enter your life in this environment and whereas Chick avoided the drug elements, he couldn’t escape from the alcohol. While he continued to enjoy an active musical career throughout the 1970s, his health deteriorated in the 1980s. He passed away in December, 1988 leaving a rich legacy of music that will hopefully never be forgotten.
Footnote: Special thanks to friend Mal Barsamian for sharing the YouTube concert that included a youthful Chick Ganimian with Herbie Mann from 1967. It sparked the genesis of this story. I had always felt that there was not a lot written or preserved about Chick nor was his music widely available when I released the CD back over twenty years ago. The liner notes for this album were limited as due to budget at that time as well as difficulty in obtaining information as this was “pre-Google” where finding information was by phone or letter. I even recall getting a fax on one of the quotations that I used in the CD liner notes.