Recently on Facebook, someone posted the asked the question to readers to mention the name of a Middle Eastern musician ‘gone but not forgotten’. As Facebook inquiries go, this was actually interesting to see all the names generated in this long list. Names such as Udi Hrant Kenkulian, Chick Ganimian, George Mgrdichigan and others seem to dominate the list. Great musicians indeed and will always be remembered for their talents and contributions to music. This laundry list of names led me to think about two other musicians that didn’t seem to dominate the minds of the readers, making me wonder why they are sometimes overlooked. You dont read much about their past anymore, but their discography is alive and readily available online.
Mike and Buddy Sarkisian were icons in the Armenian and Middle Eastern music world from the early 1950s through the mid-1990s. They extensively recorded albums and performed throughout the country and abroad.
Mike, the older of the two brothers, was an entertainer and singer that managed different nightclubs in the New England (northeast corner of the USA) area featuring some of the most iconic musicians of Middle Eastern music of that era that included Udi Hrant and Marko Melkon. He loved an audience. As Armenian musician and professor Leon Janikian once wrote about Mike “…his on stage persona reveals very little of the man”. He was a very talented man and great visual artist as well. Many years ago, Mike sent me some music and on the outside of the envelope he hand drew a beautiful picture (in multiple colors) of the sun setting behind Mt. Ararat. I still have that envelope to this day.
Mike was born in 1921 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was described by the Boston Globe in his obituary as “A slim man with slicked-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache”. He first learned the traditional Armenian folks from his mother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. As a matter of fact, Mike was known for his rendition of “Gamavor Zinvor“, which is a folk song honoring Armenian volunteers who fought under the French against Turkish forces during World War I.
From the 1930-1940s, Mike was a hair stylist until enlisted into the Army during World War II. He was an aerial photographer until he was transferred to the Air Force Band and became a drummer. He even auditioned to be part of Gene Krupa’s band. He passed the audition and went on to perform backup for Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna, and other entertainers on USO tours.
Buddy’s on stage persona was a bit different from his older brother. He didn’t sing but as a percussionist – you knew he was on stage. He loved playing music and it showed all the time. He was responsible for assembling together the iconic Kef Time Band that performed in Las Vegas for several years which would go on to become one of the most popular kef (party) bands to perform at Armenian functions throughout the country. The personnel of the band changed from time to time, but the well known combination was Richard Hagopian, Hachig Kazarian, Jack Chalikian and Manny Petro. “Thru a mutual friend, Buddy called and asked if he could come and possibly talk about hiring me in his Las Vegas show. I said yes. He came and after a short visit, I decided to take the job. It was only for 8 weeks, so I figured it was no big deal, and I could return home. After the first 8 weeks, our contract was extended for 8 more weeks. The original Cleopatra Revue broke a record on the strip for going 13 straight months without a break. No other show on the Vegas strip had done that” said oudist Richard Hagopian.
Buddy’s set up was usually alway the same when performing later in life – dumbeg between his legs, a small bongo set in front of him and a conga style drum to his side. His drum set up eventually became his trademark on stage.
Buddy was born in 1925 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His musical career started in 1941 when he was playing a drum set with his brother Mike in the Airforce at the beginning of World War II. A few years later his started playing dumbek with a variety of Armenian musicians. In 1950, started to play the nightclub circuit in the New England area including Flamingo, Morocco, and Middle Eastern Bombshell.
In 1953, Buddy recorded his first album with the famous Arabic oud player, Mohammed El Bakkar along with several 78rpm recordings. A year later Buddy and Mike would open their own nightclub called the Tamba Club. One of the most popular Middle Eastern/belly dance nightclubs in Massachusetts, packed every weekend.
Mike and Buddy headlined in several hotels and casinos in the 1960s, for many years they were featured at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. They recorded several LP albums and performed with a wide array of musicians throughout their long career. Both brothers retired from playing music full time and had various jobs, always keeping music in the forefront as it was always in their blood.
They loved the music, they loved the fun.
As mentioned earlier, it seems we don’t hear about them as much as other performers that are no longer with us. This should not diminish their value and contribution they made to the music world. To me, both brothers were the definition of “kef” and embodied what we feel when we hear and play this music. I felt that they were inclusive musicians, wanting as many people to be part of the fun they were having – whether or not you were a musician. Sure, if you were a musician, they treated you like a brother. They embraced musicians and encouraged the younger generations. I know this first hands, as I was one of them.
Mike and Buddy embraced me as a musician when I was first starting to play and as frequent the Kef Time Hartford music weekend in Connecticut during the early 1990s. They would let me come on stage with them and encouraged me to enjoy the music and play with them, whether it was drum or tambourine. When I started to play kanun professionally, I had the opportunity to perform at Kef Time. Both brothers continued their encouragements. When the gig was over, both would say “come up to our suite, we will continue to have some kef!” These parties were always interesting as to who would drop by and would make for fun stories for years to follow. Sometimes I felt like the little kid getting to hang out with my parents friends at a house party.
Mike and Buddy, their memory and music lives on.
Special thanks to Mal Barsamian, Richard Hagopian, Leon Janikian, Joe Kouyoumjian, and Meletios Pouluopolos for contributing to this story.