Interview with Armenian Kanonist Jack Chalikian by Paul Maranian, Antranig Kzirian, Harry Kezelian

This is a in-depth personal interview with one of my Armenian musical mentors, Jack Chalikian. I wrote a short blog about Jack in 2014 but this interview gives a great insight to Jack’s background, his influences and music. 

Paul Maranian (Scottsdale, AZ), who conducted and created this blog is featured as a guest in Hye Times which includes his transcript of the interview. It has been put together by Paul with the assistance of Harry Kezelian (Michigan)  and Antranig Kzirian. (California) I commend these three gentlemen that took the time to sit and record Jack and you will also hear some rare recordings of Udi Hrant from Jack’s personal collection. Please enjoy and comment if you like this story. 

— Ara Topouzian

INTRODUCTION

Jack Chalikian (b. 1940, New York City) is easily the most prolific American-born Armenian master of the kanon, or Middle Eastern zither, both in terms of recordings and live performances.  Born to Hovhannes and Knar Chalikian, Armenian immigrants from Adapazar, Jack grew up steeped in the musical culture of his parents and grandparents as well as the Armenian community at large. His repertoire, like most of his colleagues, ranged from Near Eastern Classical music of the Ottoman Era to Armenian folk music from both Anatolia and the Caucasus. His kanon playing, in the company of other American-born Armenian musicians of his generation, formed an integral part of the Armenian-American musical tradition that came to be a staple of Armenian social gatherings in the United States in the 20th century, flourishing in such areas as New England, Philadelphia, New York/New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago and Wisconsin, Fresno, California, and Los Angeles.  Jack has performed at thousands of community events – dances, weddings, “kef times,” house parties and so on, from coast to coast for over 50+ years – including his notable participation in the “Armenian Day” performances at the 1964 and 1965 New York World’s Fairs. His kanon playing can be heard on numerous albums, most notably the Kef Time series also featuring oudist/vocalist Richard Hagopian and clarinetist Hachig Kazarian, as well oudist John Berberian’s first two albums, Expressions East (1964) and Oud Artistry (1965).

Jack’s first album, Live At The Seventh Veil (1964) features Jack’s kanon paired with the oud and vocals of Richard Hagopian and the percussionist Tsolak Sanasarian.  Jack was just 24 years of age when the album was recorded, four years after he first started learning the instrument, and the album has become a classic in the Armenian-American musical community.  However it is perhaps as a member of the Original Kef Time Band that Jack is best known. Following the groundbreaking success of their albums, Kef Time Las Vegas (1968) and Kef Time Fresno (1969), recorded at one Vegas session, the band playing on those recordings was in high demand in the community, leading to an annual event, Kef Time Hartford, which brought Jack along with Richard Hagopian, Hachig Kazarian, and Buddy Sarkissian (percussion) to the East Coast on a yearly basis starting in 1971. Kef Time Hartford was followed by Kef Time Cape Cod which took place annually on the Fourth of July weekend for over 30 years as well. These weekend-long events featured a different Armenian band each night, but the Original Kef Time Band was the draw. Generations of Armenian-Americans met, mingled, and danced, all while appreciating the highest level of musical artistry stemming from the musical traditions of the early 20th-century Armenian immigrants to the United States. The albums Kef Time Detroit (1971) and Kef Time Hartford (1975) finished up the Kef Time Series on a high note. These albums can be found in the record collections of countless Armenian-American families and inspired the next generation of young budding Armenian-American musicians to take up the oud, clarinet, kanon, and dumbeg.

Jack is a member of the Knights of Vartan – Sevan Lodge and St. Peter Armenian Church of Van Nuys, CA. He has been recognized for volunteering to teach high school students various aspects of jewelry-making as well as mentoring younger musicians in the Armenian-American musical tradition that he has been such an integral part of.

(Track from the record An Evening at the Seventh Veil, recorded in 1964 at the club of the same name, located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, CA.)

(Track from the record Oud Artistry of John Berberian, recorded in 1965.  Kanon solo at 3:05.)

(Track from the Kef Time… series of albums featuring Richard Hagopian, Hachig Kazarian, and Buddy Sarkissian)

FAMILY BACKGROUND

PM: Let’s start with where you were born…

JC: I was born in New York City, Columbia Medical Center. I think it’s 125th Street. My parents lived in Washington Heights at that time. Later we moved to Jackson Heights, Long Island, 1945… Actually, they lived in Astoria, where my sister was born. Then from Astoria to Jackson Heights, where I went to PS 152 until the age of 11, when the entire family moved to Los Angeles, California, the Wilshire area. I went to John Burroughs Junior High School, LA High. And for my father, in 1956, got together with a partner, we moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. 1956, 1957, 1958, almost three years we lived in Guadalajara. Then we came back and I started going to college at that time. And my grandparents came from Istanbul with the quota system right after World War II, my mother’s side. 1946, my mother’s parents.

PM: When did your parents come here?

JC: My father came first to the United States in 1938, and by 1939 he had moved his entire family from Paris. They migrated from Istanbul to Paris, the Chalikian family, in the early 1930s. And then, my father got the Chalikian family, his brother and sister and their family to the United States in 1938, 1939. And went back to Paris, and my grandmother brought my mother to Paris, and my father married my mother. And then brought her, to New York, and they lived in Washington Heights.

PM: So where were your grandparents from?

JC: Ok, on both sides, my mother’s side and my father’s side, were from Adapazar. All the families knew each other, of course. My grandfather in Adapazar was a jeweller. And my father of course became a jeweller, and his brother was also a jeweller. And my grandfather, also was a musician. He played flute and kanon. With a bunch of other Armenians..

PM: And this is in Adapazar…

JC: In Adapazar. So they would play every now and then for weddings and whatever, the way I understand. My grandfather, being a jeweller, always had money. The Chalikian side was very rich, they owned a lot of land, and horses, and stuff. And my grandfather would always go to Istanbul, take care of business, and then come back to Adapazar. Along with that he had a record player. And so he would always bring records. And somebody in Adapazar who used to enjoy listening to those records was Udi Hrant.

PM: So your grandfather knew Udi Hrant…

JC: My grandfather would take Udi Hrant to church every Sunday.

PM: And how old was Udi Hrant at that time

JC: I have no idea. A young kid.

PM: Now did Udi Hrant have parents?

JC: Yeah, yeah. The families knew each other. Udi Hrant, even in Istanbul, knew all of my grandmother’s sisters and brothers and whatever, so every time he would come to the US he would tell my mother, “your aunt is…told me this, and your whatchamacallit, and… their marriage and this and that, they had three kids”. They still knew each other family-wise even when he came to the United States.

PM: I read somewhere that Udi Hrant and his family were put on one of the deportations [in 1915] and they ended up in Konya from Adapazar. Do you know much about that? What happened to their family…

(bottom) Kemenceci Aleko Bacanos, Cumbus Kemal, Kemenceci Parasko, Okuyucu Afitap Karaca, Udi Hrant, Okuyucu Suzan Guven, Udi Kadri Sencalar, Kanuni Ismail Sencalar, Kemenceci Sotri (top) Udi Yorgo Bacons, Cumbus Sevket, Hanende Artaki, Ahnende Aksarayli Hafiz Yasar, Kemani Necati Tokyay, Salahattin Pinar, Udi Kirkor, Henende Nuri, Klarnet Hayko, Piyanist Agopos, Kemani Haci Maksut, Neyzen Nihat Ufler, Hanende Pol

JC: Yes, my family also…was put in boxcars from Adapazar, and the first stop was in Konya, on to the desert. My grandfather was a jeweler, and the first thing he grabbed when they shoved him into the thing, he grabbed gold coins. This is why the Jews have always been in jewelry, or whatever, just in case they have to run. And he bribed a couple of the cops, or the soldiers, in Konya and they let the family out. And every night they would go and open up other boxcars letting out Armenians. My father said that the whirling dervish, what do you call them mevlanis, are a separate sect from being Moslem, and they helped a lot of Armenians also, out of the boxcars. I don’t know too much more about Udi Hrant, but I know that they eventually they let a lot of Armenians out, and they all went back to Adapazar, grabbed their stuff, and ran to Istanbul, that was a safe haven. And then from there they went to Paris.

PM: Did your aunts and everything live near you guys in New York?

JC: Actually what happened was…we lived in Astoria, my uncle had a candy factory. My father’s sister’s husband. It was known as Melkon Candy Company. He would make lokhum, hard candy, helva. And he was an excellent chef as well. And as I said, he also came from Adapazar. Originally from a community outside of Adapazar, I forget the name of the place, it’s on the seaport…it’s only about fifteen miles away. So anyway eventually they bought themselves a duplex, upstairs downstairs. So we lived upstairs in Jackson Heights, and my aunt, uncle, and the family lived downstairs. So we grew up basically as one family.  Later my uncle had the Waverly Hotel up in the Catskills, and later on they opened up a restaurant in Greenwich Village known as The Dardanelles.

PM: So Udi Hrant and your grandfather…

JC: So you know, whenever there was a new recording or whatever, he would bring it to Adapazar and everybody would listen to it. That was the highlight. Not too many people had a phonograph at that time. My grandfather Chalikian died in Istanbul. My father came to Istanbul to take him finally to Paris with the rest of the family, but he died in Istanbul.

PM: Do you know what area in Istanbul they lived in?

JC: No….I know where my mother lived. Not too far from Taksim. And she went to Armenian school right in Taksim.

PM: Was it Essayan..

JC: Yeah.

PM: Essayan Varjaran.

PM: Do you know anything about the music in Adapazar?

JC: No. Not having my grandfather Chalikian to tell me any of this stuff, and I never asked Hrant, who would have known.

PM: But it sounds like Hrant learned music from all the records that your grandfather was bringing him.

JC: I mean, my grandfather had a little collection. Hrant actually ended up in Istanbul, later went to Greece. He speaks fluent Greek. He learned over there in Greece. Oud. Because Udi Hrant played violin. It wasn’t until he went to Greece, that he studied under I forget the person’s name. Richard [Hagopian] would know. In fact there’s a recording, 78 recording, of Hrant’s teacher, which is a phenomenal oudist.

PM: So you’re saying Hrant learned a lot of oud playing in Greece. Was the teacher Greek?

JC: I don’t know. I would think he’s either Turk or Armenian.

COMMUNITY LIFE

PM: What do you remember about community life in New York.

JC: It was very, very, close, because don’t forget the Armenians were still a handful. Most of them had just come out of…Everybody was very tightly knit, with the Armenian church and affairs that are going on. It’s not like Los Angeles where you have a half a million. I think the population there was much smaller. There was a group of people like my father, who were brought up with this music in the household, who always bought the records. And they would always show up for different organizations…Just about every group of Armenians, including the Adapazartsis, had a group.

PM: What were some of those?

JC: Well, you had the…oh…you name some of the larger towns…Gesaratsis [Armenians from Kayseri/Gesaria] and this and that. You had them having their own little banquets and everything else, aside from AGBU and some of the other things.

PM: I’m guessing church picnics…

JC: Yeah. There was a radio program in New York, at 5:30 on Saturdays. There was an international station over there, and every half hour it would change from Italian to Armenian to something else. And the person who was in charge of that was a woman by the name of Diana Sarkis, so you would always get all the information as to another church function, or another dance or whatever. She was sort of like the glue for the Armenian community over there.

PM: Ok, so obviously you were too young to go to a nightclub, but what can you tell us about that.

JC: The nightclubs per se, there was no such thing as an Armenian nightclub. But you had Armenian restaurants, about six or seven of them.

PM: What area?

JC: Downtown, Midtown, most of them Downtown. Along with that, if you wanted any music you would go down to what we call, what was known as Greektown. Greektown was basically where you had five, six different clubs, drinking bars whatever, which had music.

PM: These are [the 8th Avenue] clubs like Port Said, Britania, Egyptian Gardens…

JC: Right. And what would happen here would be, you would have parts of the band playing Turkish music, parts of the band playing Greek music. So if you were sitting down, you wanted to hear some Greek, throw a couple of bucks on the stage and the Greek musicians would play. And the Armenians would sit down and play along with them. And then turn around and then you would hear Turkish music. I mean no one sings Armenian, still today. But you had the same situation going on in Boston. And one of the top places over there was where you had Marko Melkon playing almost every night, with his group. And I will tell you the Boston people are closer to their music, because the Boston community was… still today, the Boston community is the type that would…they all run to any place that has music. If they find out Harry Minassian is playing somewhere, still today, the word gets out and they all show up. That’s not happening… New York, Greektown folded up, they tore down all those things and built condominiums in that area. But in Boston, there’s still quite a lively group of people that show up.

PM: So when you go to let’s say Port Said, or Egyptian Gardens, what’s the clientele there? Who’s going there, is it mostly Armenians? Or is it a mix?

JC: Mix. Greeks, some Armenians, whatever.

PM: So they’re all in the same restaurant together.

JC:  See now things have changed. The Turkish group of people have moved down to Brooklyn. And you got a lot of Turkish restaurants there, and Turkish music. Lotta Turks.

PM: So that’s interesting. You’re saying the clientele would have been Greek and Armenian, but, there would have been Turkish music. So the musicians and singers would sing in Turkish.

JC: Well, don’t forget the Armenians came from Turkey.

PM: So it wasn’t considered taboo or anything…

JC: No, no, no, no. But what happens though, for instance, you go into two record places to buy records. One is Prodromidis on 8th Avenue, and another one was H.M. Tashjian, to buy records. And you would not be able to find any “Armenian records” not until 1950, 1951, when the Soviet Union started stamping some records from Armenia. So you would always have local talent singing Armenian music. And the same with Turkish music. But there would be more recordings from Turkey there than Armenian, until 1950 when a revolution sort of started, and Armenian music started to infiltrate the U.S.

PM: Let’s talk about your father. He was one of the people responsible for bringing Hrant over?

JC: Well Hrant came the first time with somebody who wanted to bring him here to see if medical science could possibly help him with his eyesight. And it turned out that his situation was too far gone for any recovery. But then a lot Armenians started to gather around him, for the fact that this was right after World War II, and the Armenians had plenty of money in their pockets. And he was sort of like, a person who is going to now play the music that these people hadn’t heard for a long time. He was sort of like an icon, that the Turks respected him. Don’t forget there weren’t too many people recognized as an Armenian, that the Turks would recognize. So he became sort of like an icon, and at the same time he started playing music that a lot of the Armenians who had left Turkey… sort of like, he brought back to them… Just a handful, like my father and everybody else, who grew up with this music. They were looking forward to hearing this music. And it was safe for the fact that he was an Armenian, he wasn’t a Turk.

PM: Where did he go around performing, some of the clubs?

JC: Yeah, he played the clubs, and my uncle had him playing at [his] hotel. All according to…because his visa would have him stay for about six months or eight months. And then he would go back again, and then come back again two years later or whatever.

PM: You’re saying he was like an icon, almost like a celebrity, for the Armenians in New York. Did he like that status?

JC: Oh of course. Don’t forget when he went back to Istanbul, he was…nothing, for him over there. He was Udi Hrant and that was it. He couldn’t play on the recordings, for the fact that in the 30s and 40s and 50s they all played with notes. We’re talking about Şukru [Tunar], Kanuni Ahmet, and everything else. And Hrant could not read notes, so he would not be a regular as far as the orchestras go. He didn’t do any nightclubbing or anything else. These were all professional musicians sitting down playing note for note.  Oh and by the way, Udi Hrant’s favorite music was tango!  When he came to our house he would ask us to put on tango music and he would enjoy listening to it with a glass of scotch.

PM: So going back to what you said earlier, the Soviet Armenian stuff starting coming in, you said, in the early 1950s.  Would you say the music changed after that?

JC:  A lot of the music recorded by the young Armenian groups were folk songs that the parents had brought from Turkey.  I mean here you had another component. What we were used to hearing, the old Turkish records over and over again, there was nothing new. Here you had something new as far as Armenian music goes. And what happens is, you start to have some bands start up. This was now the kids of the parents, the ones who came to the United States. One would be known as the Vosbikians, from Philadelphia. In the early 50s, they started coming out with about ten records, five to ten records. And then it was the Vosbikians, then 1956, 1957, the Gomidas, you had Harry Minassian’s group, the Orientales up in New England. Slowly but surely, these groups, would start to play for the Armenian dances. And they didn’t perform Turkish music – they performed Armenian music, from their recordings. So there was a little transition there, from 8th Avenue, and nightclubbing, to now home-grown Armenians playing music.

PM: And how do you think were they learning this music?

JC: Well, from their parents. In the 30s and 40s their parents would get together, and sing the songs. There was always somebody with an oud, there was always somebody with a…

PM: But it sounds like, early 1950s you start getting what’s considered the “true Armenian music,” but how was a young person growing up in the US, learning that music

JC: Because the parents never spoke English, the parents always spoke Armenian. And basically they would always listen.. there were always local 78 records made by…Soode Soode, this and that. These were records played at the house, so these guys would all get together and the parents would say “This is a song that we used sing, this is a song we used to sing”, and that’s how some of that music started.  But remember I was out on the West Coast and there was a lot more going on on the East Coast that I was not exposed to.

LEARNING THE KANON

PM: So let’s move on to your playing a little bit, you learning how to play the kanon. How did you get started with that and who were the first musicians you played with.

JC: Actually, I had heard so much of this music, prior to me playing the kanon. And my father was always asking me, “Hrant is coming, he wants to know if you wanted anything”. And my father was sort of like always pushing me to get a kanon. Why, because my grandfather played kanon. And I used to dabble a little on the piano, by ear. So I said, alright, and 1960, Hrant came, and I got a hold of a kanon, the one I still play today. By that time, I was going to school, to college. And there was no one to teach me, so I tuned the instrument to piano A just like you would tune a piano. And there was one person that played kanon, once, I had seen, his name was Allan Jendian. He was playing with a local band for Armenian dances, the Barrites. And he was playing the kanon once. So I asked him, “how do you tune it”, and he says “oh, I tune it this way”. Then later he moved up to Fresno, so I never saw him again. He married Rosemary. But I mean we were all active in the ACYO. And it wasn’t until I started dabbling on the kanon…Of course I had all of this music that my father had accumulated. My father had a tape recorder, so we constantly had recordings of Udi Hrant, Turkish, Arabic….

PM: So he recorded Udi Hrant in the nightclubs…

JC: No, in the house. I still have them. Make a long story short, all this music constantly he would ask me, alright turn on the tape recorder, turn on the records this and that. I mean there were tons of records. And then my grandmother, when she came in 1947, 1948, from Istanbul, my father had given my grandmother money to bring back records, so she brought back around 200 Turkish records. And that was a goldmine for my father, you know.

PM: So you were listening along with him

JC: Well playing them for my father of course I would hear it. But I had no other channel to get it out. And it wasn’t until 1961, I met Richard [Hagopian]. And actually I had seen Allan, and I had a tape here from my father’s friends. My father’s friends would always send a tape to my father, over here, and they had some recordings from Istanbul. So I put them together, and I figured Richard would like to hear it.

PM: So what were those recordings…

JC: I gave them to you, it had Yorgo on there, Şukru, whatever

PM: So Yorgo Bacanos, Şukru Tunar…

JC: Yorgo Bacanos, Şukru Tunar, Kemani Nubar…some classical stuff. And I gave them to Richard. Then Richard was playing here with a couple people, and we got together at a house party at the Jebejians. He says “why don’t you bring your kanon”. And I said “well I’m just learning”. And he says “oh that’s okay, just bring it”. So after that, he says, whenever you’re in the Fresno area, come over. So whenever I’d go up there, we’d get together and start doing the same thing I was doing with you, let’s learn some of the classics. And as I’m learning the classics, I’m also learning the instrument.

PM: So why don’t you explain what you mean by “the classics”.

JC: Classics are the Turkish and Arabic preludes to a more formal musical program. They are known as [saz] semais, which are a different tempo, and peşrevs, which is a 4/4 prelude. These would be written by a number of people, including Armenians and Greeks, which are still held today as masterpieces within the musician community.

MUSICIANS PERFORMED AND RECORDED WITH

PM: So let’s go back to you and Richard. Richard is the first musician you actually played with

JC: Yeah. I learned a lot from Richard. I would stop off at his house. For a number of years we’d sit down and knock off about an hour or two. And his doors were always open.

PM: So this is I’m guessing the early 60s.

JC: Early 60s. ‘61, ‘62, ‘63.

PM: So what year was the Seventh Veil album made

JC: Yeah I think that was the first recording we ever made. About 1964.

PM: Did you have an ongoing gig at the Seventh Veil with Richard?

JC: No, the person who owned the Seventh Veil restaurant wanted to make a record. And Richard asked me to do it with him. And we recorded that record a block away, on Sunset Boulevard, where the Oldies but Goodies album with Art Laboe was. And Art Laboe was an Armenian. So it worked out very well. Had a chance to meet Art Laboe.

PM: But wasn’t 1964 also the World’s Fair….

JC: Yeah. We went to New York, our family went to New York, twice, during the summer. And that’s how I got into the World’s Fair.

PM: So who did you know over there…

JC: Well, you got a kanon, hey, come on…They were all musicians anyway. Why don’t you bring it over and we’ll go for some rehearsals and whatever.

PM: But you were in a group with George MgrdichianJohn Berberian, John Vartan…Bob Marashlian

JC:  John was in the second World’s Fair, which is when he met Onnik Dinkjian for the first time.

 PM: So how did you meet those guys then.

JC: I knew George [Mgrdichian] when he was 19 years old. 1955 I was a bellboy at my uncle’s hotel. George was 19 years old. He played oud with Udi Hrant in the hotel, he was there for the whole summer. We grew up together.

PM: So are you saying he performed with Hrant?

JC: With Hrant, yeah. I have tapes of that. And my mother was there also, for the summer, my sister, my mother and myself. My father was in LA of course, he was working.

top: Jack Chalikian, Kenny Boyajian, George Mgrdichian, Bob Marashlian bottom: Nubar Boyajian, John Valentine, unknown

PM: So were you going back there every summer?

JC: Sometimes.

PM: Were you flying back then, or was it driving.

JC: I’ve taken the bus there. We’ve taken the train there. We’ve taken the car there. Don’t forget we grew up together in the same house. My uncle who owns the hotel, was also the candy maker. And they also had a restaurant in New York, known as the Dardanelles.

PM: This is your uncle. What was his name?

JC: John Ohanessian, also known as Melkon Ohanessian. This is my father’s sister’s husband.

PM: It seems like a lot of musicians met at his hotel. Was that the only hotel where there was music?

JC: Well on Saturday nights, you had about 5 major [Armenian-owned] hotels, that had customers of about a hundred or two. So they would try to provide some sort of entertainment especially over the weekends. But we had a large hall, called the dancing room. Later they converted that into a bar. But our hotel always had some sort of entertainment. At the beginning though, right after the war, all these guys were looking for work, so there was always work for being a waiter, bellboy. Chick Ganimian’s father was a butcher, in fact his first cousins in Fresno, the Ganimians over there, they had a lahmajun factory. And Chick was a pretty good butcher, and he worked for my uncle, out of the army, and these guys tried to form a band, which was known as the Nor Ikes. But at the time, they were straight out of the military. One night they started playing, and my father said, [chuckles], “they call this music!”. So they gave ‘em a couple bucks, 20 bucks, and said “leave us alone”. So apparently they worked at it, and Chick worked on the oud. But George [Mgrdichian] was sort of like an apprentice, he was 19 years old. He came over, in 1955, he played oud, and Udi Hrant played violin. There was Steve, from the Nor Ikes, he played clarinet on Saturday nights…

PM: …Who was that, Steve Bogosian?

JC: …Bogosian. I have recordings of them in the Catskills in 1955. I gotta put ‘em on tape or CD before they get lost… The Hoplamazians from Philadelphia, they came up one season in the 60s. So there was always entertainment, and musicians…

PM: So tell us a little more about the World’s Fair. What music did you play?

JC: OK, we played Armenian music…

PM: Were you playing the nightclub music?

JC: No, no, no, no, no, this is the choral singing and dancing.

PM: So the music of Hayastan…

JC: Hayastantsi, right. And the second time, John came. I had met John [Berberian] at my uncle’s hotel. I had a job over here in LA, I was working here, but I went over there for the Labor Day weekend. And my sister and mother had been in the hotel. And John had been playing over there for the entire summer. So I met John there Labor Day weekend. And the following year we played again for the World’s Fair, we played two years. And at that time I introduced John to Onnik [Dinkjian]. Because Onnik was saying to me, “oh what am I gonna do now that you and John Valentine are…” because John and I used to play Armenian music, and Onnik liked to sing along with us. So I introduced [Onnik] to John saying here’s the guy who’s gonna… get together with, Onnik. And they got together, and you see what’s been happening.

PM: So how did you meet Onnik for the first time.

JC: I had a chance to meet Onnik through the World’s Fair. We had to practice. We go to the church, and the dancers would dance, and we’d play and whatever. Maybe twice a week for three weeks, four weeks. We would do all the rehearsals and everything. And then on the side John Valentine and I would play some Armenian music and Onnik would sing.  We also, while I was down there, John was about to make a record. John [Valentine] studied oud under John Berberian, he was his student. The two Johns knew each other for a number of years. And one day we got a phone call while I was there and it was Hachig [Kazarian] who had just married, was driving down the thruway, saying come and meet us in Fort Lee, and help me empty out my car with all the gifts and stuff from the wedding. So an hour later we met him at his apartment, and that was when I first met Hachig, unloading his car. And we were at the same time just finishing up the album, Expressions East. Actually we cut two albums at the same time. [The second album was “Oud Artistry of John Berberian.” Both albums were re-released together as a double album in the 70s entitled “Ode To An Oud.”]

PM: So what about the Kef Time albums. How did those get started..

JC: The person, his name was Harrison, of the Riviera Hotel [in Las Vegas]. One of four partners of the Riviera Hotel, and he was Armenian. He told Richard he would front Richard the money for an album if he played Soode Soode. [laughs] So that was our…the first album we made, Kef Time Las Vegas, first cut was Soode Soode, for Harrison.

PM: Where’d you record those.

JC: In Las Vegas. What happened was, Harrison gave us a big banquet hall room, with a waiter, and he says “you take care of these guys”. In other words, anything we wanted, the waiter would go back and forth and give us. And we rehearsed over there. So we did that, and then a year later we did Kef Time Fresno. Then we recorded Kef Time Hartford, in the Boston area, along with Kef Time Detroit. We recorded two albums I think at the same time. But we were now going back and forth playing all the time. When we played in Hartford, that was a big…The Kef Time Band was identified with Hartford. And it was a big to-do. You should have seen the crowd, thousands. The first time we played there was over a thousand people.

PM: So the Cape Cod and Hartford kefs, how did those start and when did they start.

JC: Well they were friends of Buddy. They approached Buddy, and Buddy approached Richard.

PM: So how often were you travelling back east back then.

JC: About three, four times a year.

PM: There’s a recording of Richard [Hagopian] playing with Chick [Ganimian], were you on there?

JC: Yup, that was my tape, I made that.

PM: When and where was that…

JC: Oh this was at Andy Nalbandian’s house, out in La Crescenta. There was Baron Avakian, he got all of the old-timers including my father and whatever, and he wanted everybody to have a nice kef party at his house.

PM: What year was that…

JC: Must be in the seventies. He says, “I’m having a party. Get your father, let’s get Avakian, this and that. So Ted Tashjian was there, Richard and Chick. Actually I picked up Chick and my father, and we drove over there. There were about 15 of us, 15 or 20…

AK: It’s a great recording.

PM: So that leads in to another question: was there an Armenian kef scene in Los Angeles in the ‘50s and ‘60s like there was in Boston or…

JC: The only thing that was happening here in LA was the Hyes organization. They would throw dances, it was to get the Armenian community together again, or, for the first time. And their dances were the big dances, and you had a couple of Armenian bands. Not great, but anybody who had an instrument was a member. One of them was The Barrites, with Jimmy Haboian, who is Richard’s brother-in-law, and Ted Tashjian. For a short while, Allan Jendian was in that group, until he moved to Fresno. That was the only music…

PM: So there weren’t any clubs…

JC: No, the clubs were a couple Arab clubs, like the Fez…

PM: What about the Seventh Veil…

JC: Seventh Veil, whoever she could get. Richard played there for about a year or two…

AK: It’s an adult bar now… [laughs]

JC: There wasn’t much and there wasn’t a big crowd scene to go to.

PM: Let’s talk about repertoire a little bit. In the so-called picnic music, you guys will typically play what are called 10/8s, [a a time signature and rhythm also known as curcuna], a whole string of 10/8s. These 10/8s, what can you tell us about the origin of them…

(Examples of 10/8 medleys)

JC: I learned the 10/8s more from the records….

PM: What records…

JC: At the hotel, my first cousin Melik, would get all the Vosbikian records and the Nor Ike records, and I would play them to play music for entertainment. So I learned off those records when I was 15, 16 years old. Then of course Richard and Hachig, Richard especially, the old-timers in Fresno, would play this music. This was their music…

PM: So this is not really music from [the cities], Istanbul…

JC: No this is more the villages…

AK: Malatyatzis…

JC: Right, Istanbul is more the şarkıs. Armenians were singing these songs a long time ago, hundreds of years ago.  Richard learned them from the musicians in Fresno, and he wanted to put some of these on the Kef Time albums.

IMPORTANT FIGURES IN MUSIC

PM: Let’s talk about some of the important figures in music. Kemani Tatyos

JC: I have never heard Kemani Tatyos, he died long before…Maybe there’s a record or two in the 20s that have him. Maybe Richard might know where, or the archives in Turkey…

Tatyos was considered the top, one of the top violinists for one of the sultans, who was a great devotee of Turkish music. And Tatyos almost spat on him for the fact of what he was doing to the Armenians. And some of the stuff he told the sultan would have had other people’s heads chopped off but….[chuckles]. Tatyos was the type of person that would play, and then he was a devout Christian. So he would put his shabig on and run to church.

PM: But to sing presumably, he wouldn’t be playing the violin.

JC: No, no. Maybe as a sargavak.

PM: What about Artaki Candan [Artaki Terziyan].

JC: Kanuni Artaki was considered the greatest, one of the greatest kanonists. He was an M.D., also, and was in charge of His Master’s Voice Records, in Turkey. He would hire the singers and whatever, put them under contract

PM: That was a record label.

JC: His Master’s Voice, right. RCA. His knowledge of the music was profound. If you ever have a chance to listen to his kanon things, he’s got different techniques that he does on the kanon.

PM: Was he a model for your playing.

JC: Not necessarily. My model for playing was that of Kanuni Ahmet [Yatman]. If Ahmet was on stage, he would get up and hand the kanon to Artaki and kiss his hand.

PM: Was he a student of Artaki.

JC: Maybe, maybe not. But in respect. That’s how it’s done over there.

PM: Kemani Nubar. [Nubar Comlekciyan]

JC: Kemani Nubar was a violinist. Profound. Number one. You don’t get the word kemani, or udi, or kanuni, unless it’s established by the musical college over there. You are outstanding. He was not very much liked by the Armenians. In other words he wasn’t very close with the Armenian community. But until he died he was considered one of the top violinists. Especially with the…when you get the word kemani or whatever it’s because of your understanding of the taksim. Still with the jazz greats today, you develop a name because of the way you play your solos. You’re judged by your solos. It was the same thing with Nubar.

PM: Did he ever come to the US.

JC: No, no. Neither has Şukru [Tunar]. Somebody asked Egyptian Gardens, you know, why don’t you get Şukru to come. He says, “for what? So the guy is gonna play a taksim and these people are going to sit down and talk and drink?” He says, “I wouldn’t ever consider that”. In other words he’s too far above…

PM: Udi Boghos…

JC: …is bacanak [brother-in-law] to Udi Hrant. That’s all I know about him. He never did anything, except he was able to make a couple of records for Balkan Records. And one of them was Parov Yegar Sirun Yar.

PM: That was his song, he wrote that. So he didn’t perform with Hrant.

JC: Not that I know of. He was also blind. Could see very…a little. But don’t forget even Hrant couldn’t get a living, and he had a name. These guys were able to play in the coffeehouse or something, and that was it.

PM: We didn’t ask you about Kanuni Garbis…

JC: I didn’t have any [contact]. Richard had a lot of contact with Kanuni Garbis, they were semi-related family-wise. But Kanuni Garbis taught Richard a lot about music and the makams, and whatever. He was mostly retired, Kanuni Garbis – when I picked up the kanon, I had no knowledge of Kanuni Garbis, he was in his 80s already. And there was another kanonist, Ara Sevanian, who played Armenian kanon, very fluttery, with no Turkish or anything. It was a different…. I helped him fix his kanon a couple of times, but there wasn’t much that I felt he could offer me.

OUD PLAYERS

AK: Ok, this one relates to the oud. Could you give me a little bit of your insight on the different oud players, their styles, their influences, what their careers were like, what their influence was on the next generation? Just kind of about them.

JC: Of what I’ve seen? Ok…

AK: The guys you played with, the guys you saw… what made them different…

JC: The ones that I know, needless to say. I know George Mgrdichian, Chick Ganimian, John Berberian, Richard Hagopian, Harry Minassian… Those are the more familiar ones. There’s also Joe Kouyoumjian. Joe I think is the most underrated of all the oudists.  But these are just the few that I’ve met, there are many other oud players that I have not met.

AK: Kouyoumjian.

JC: Phenomenal.

AK: I agree.

JC: Huge drive. I mean… George had his own concept of oud. If you were to ask me, who technically is good on the oud. There are several. George, Richard, Harry Minassian. Kouyoumjian I’d throw in there. Of course Berberian. Those are the 5, or maybe one more which later might come to mind. Those are the ones that, have somewhat mastered the instrument as far as I’m concerned… of what I’ve heard. George had his own concept… and he held onto it.

AK: He was from Philadelphia?

JC: He’s from Philadelphia. And, he made a record “The Oud”… … Aram Arakelian. That’s his grandfather’s name. He played with… he had a band also…

AK: Gomidas.

JC: With his brother… the Gomidas band.

AK: With Roger. And Roger’s son, Roger Jr. also plays. I grew up learning from him…

JC: But as far as with George, he held onto exactly what he did with the… I have live recordings over here he had a concert in LA. So his was very European. Chording… whatever. As Hachig [Kazarian] says, a lot of people didn’t know that the oud could be played with chords. And George did the chording.

AK: And he went to Julliard for clarinet right?

JC: Yes.

AK: So he was a very accomplished musician.

JC: He was an accomplished musician. Of course Hachig [Kazarian] had his masters from Julliard. But we’re talking about oud now. Chick had his own concept of oud… music in general. And he tried to introduce rhythms and jazz… …and he heard music a little differently… outside the box. And that went great for a while. Unfortunately alcoholism killed him.

AK: From what I’ve read and seen, he had a pretty good run on the 8th Avenue scene and he was involved with the clubs in a manager role too…

JC: It wasn’t the 8th Avenue… he was able to for a number of years, I forget the name of this club… …high rent district.

AK: It was in that article we read. They go into it…

JC: That’s where Jackie Onassis showed up and everything else…

AK: High profile…

JC: Chick had a revue… …a belly dancing revue over there. He hired Hachig and everything for years. So it brought him very big money… and it was run by the mob…

AK: Really? And it was also a trend in that time? The Middle Eastern music scene was peaking… people liked it.

JC: That place over there was it

AK: That was the hot spot.

JC: …If you wanted to see something. You don’t go down 8th Avenue, which is…

AK: Yeah. And that was all belly dance shows…

JC: Yeah, right. Morocco, this and that and they were all…

AK: Very exotic.

JC: So, that was that. Chick came out with an album on the Atco label. “Come With Me” or something. I have it here. He had Onnik sing on there. In fact one of the songs that Onnik sang on that album hit #10 on the charts in New York.

AK: What song? Do you remember what song it was?

JC: “Helvah”.

AK: (Laughter) That is incredible.

JC: And he sang it in English.

AK: Yes I’ve heard that.

JC: Like “Come On A My House”.

AK: Yeah, Like Rosemary Clooney style. Ok…

JC: So, anyway. But Chick was fast on the oud. Very… …he caught your attention.

AK: From what I’ve heard. He was very… he had an aggressive style. It would kind of be aggressive one second. And then kind of frantically calm, and then back to pushing it.

JC: He drove drummers insane.

AK: Because he was all over the place. But it was a very vibrant… like you said…

JC: It was a little outside the box.

AK: It was very eccentric which I like…

JC: If it was 9/8, it was an up up 9/8, it was not the regular 9/8 that you were accustomed to…

AK: He was more like an entertainer oud player, a lot of flair…

JC:  Knowing Richard for all these years I believe he has a vast knowledge of our music, both from the villages as well as the classical side. Richard – standard. The standard with the Armenian… His knowledge of a lot of this music is far superior than most other musicians that I’ve known.

AK: He’s very knowledgeable.

JC: Because not only did he play it but he knew what he was from playing. And, he had the opportunity of learning a lot about some of these old singers and recordings and whatever that nobody else really understood. In fact, I had told Paul… a lot of the information that this gentleman wants… …he has to go to Richard to find out…

AK: Richard yeah…

JC: A lot…

AK: I did a research project on a lot of this kind of stuff. And the material that I was able to uncover when I was interviewing oud players was limited because of my time schedule in grad school, so I was able to interview John, Ara, Mal and some of the younger guys that I grew up with so I got some generational perspective but it was not comprehensive. For example, I hadn’t really spoken to you yet. I was in New York so it wasn’t practical to see Richard. But that’s a very good point and I agree with you.

JC: Richard has pictures.

AK: A lot of knowledge.

JC: A lot of the old timers, the Şeker Marys, information, Marko Melkon. That he got through Kanuni Garbis… who left Turkey with a name as a musician. As a kanonist. So… ok now Harry…

AK: So Richard’s style – how would you describe it? Kind of like the folk traditional?

JC: He is the traditional… Note for note, inside the box.

AK: Got it.

JC: Structured.

AK: And his taksim is very strong…

JC: It’s structured. You know exactly what to expect and you know what to hear. And very few people have that ability. And he’s very strong on all of it. Both the Armenian and the Turkish. We can play all night strictly Armenian, which we do all the time. And, lot of people say “oh he plays Turkish”… no we play it all. Ok…

AK: You were saying Harry.

JC: Harry Minassian also within the box. He’s got the New England sound with the guitar and the oud. He presented that the first time… …Berberian liked that style.

AK: He liked that. Basically adding chords, it added color. Playing a rhythm chord.

JC: John sent me a tape with the two of them, guitar and oud, just the two of them together. I have that if you’d like it.

AK: Definitely.

JC: For an hour… they…

AK: So John Vartan and John Berberian.

JC: The New England sound you called it.

AK: So Harry was the originator of that. Was that with Jack Zarzatian or Ken Kalajian – those guys?

JC: All those… Kenny Kalajian… That whole box right there is represented with Harry Minassian. And – you wanted the Turko? He played the Turko. He was… he was there to entertain the people. And the New England people are different than anything else. They go crazy for their music… …still today. If the word gets out that Harry is playing somewhere.

AK: They’ll all go…

JC: Found out last year… somebody said Harry is playing somewhere. Within a couple of hours that place was full.

AK: Because they like what he plays.

JC: They found out Harry was playing we have to go see Harry. And that doesn’t happen in New York…

AK: To be honest, not that I have bias… but when I was growing up in Philly. It was similar to that. Between the Mgrdichians and the Vosbikians and the Hoplamazians, there’s a lot of musical tradition there. So it was similar… if there was a kef or a party or cape, or this that, Philly would… everybody would go.

JC: Somehow I was not exposed to Philadelphia…

AK: You weren’t exposed to that…

JC: Although I know the Hoplamazians very well because they played up at the Catskills.

AK: Yeah, there’s a lot of musical families.

JC: I know Jack. I know Jack’s son.

AK: David.

JC: I held David when he was about 6 months old.

AK: He’s a very good friend of mine. We just performed together a few months ago. I’m going to call him and tell him this.

JC: I was at Jack’s house, he says here’s my son.

AK: David is a very talented violin player, and he plays the oud too very well.

JC: Unfortunately I’ve not been able to get to Philadelphia.

AK: I think Jack makes oud, he actually builds them. And he’s a good oud player.

JC: He’s in construction too.

AK: You mentioned Harry… you mentioned Joe Kouyoumjian…

JC: George… Richard… Here on the west coast aside from Richard there’s nothing. Oh… John Bilezikjian.

AK: He passed away earlier this year.

JC: John… …very fast fingers. Played the oud fast, that’s all I can say about him.

AK: To me I heard… I had a chance to study with him when I moved to southern California. To me, he was in some ways a little bit like George Mgrdichian. He was progressive.

JC: Chording.

AK: Chording… It was just his style, he was phenomenal at what he did. Any thoughts on John Berberian?

JC: John… Like a clock could swing from very traditional to very outside the box.

AK: Fusion, progressive. His oud rock album is one of my favorites… He has this funky… rhythmic… accentuated… staccato… syncopated stuff that he does. And that has influenced… he is one of my favorite players so I totally know what you’re talking about… it’s this grease flavor that he adds…

AK: It’s inherent. Once you told me that John’s father was a musician and a maker, a luthier… …or he repaired them?

JC: Oh yes, yes, definitely. Edward. At the back of his tailor shop he would repair ouds. Kerestejian is John’s favorite oud… that he did on the album. And then fell apart. And his father tried to put it together again and it didn’t have the sound. John’s two albums are recorded on his Kerestejian oud…

AK: Kerestejian is a maker from…?

JC: The maker of the oud.

AK: From where though? I’m not familiar…

JC: I guess… I have no idea.

AK: But it’s not from the states… Because I know John Merdjanian, Viken Najarian, and Kyvelos… they’re based in the states.

JC: I don’t know if it’s Armenian or Turkish or whatever… But that was John’s oud. The Kerestejian.

AK: Because he did have a very unique sound in the recordings. I chalk it up to, like you said, he was able to record as specifically as he wanted.

JC: Also he was a violinist first. Richard was also a violinist first. And aside from… And John’s father would always give him an oud to play with for a week to break it in before they give it back to the owner to see if it works. This is where John gets to play all of these ouds and is very familiar with all of them no matter what.

AK: He’s a phenomenal player.

JC: Right because of his father handing him these ouds… work it out.

AK: Yeah of course.

AK: He’s very fluid, very knowledgeable.

JC: In the back room… Mr. Berberian’s little… all the faces and everything…

AK: So he was a tailor, but he would do this…

JC: He had a little bead thing open up…

AK: And then the oud stuff was there…

JC: and you go in the back…

AK: Interesting… Ok… thank you Jack.

PM:  Thank you Jack.  Is there anything you would like to say before we wrap up…

JC:  Armenian music changed a lot in the 1950s and 1960s with the influence of Soviet Armenia and Armenia today.  I was very lucky to have the opportunity to know Richard, Hachig, and John for the short period that I was on the East Coast with the Kef Time band.  Richard and Gerry Hagopian were extremely gracious to me always with the door open.  Richard helped me out a lot with the music, and still today I consider him a very close and dear friend, along with another person I met through John Berberian, and that is Hachig Kazarian.  I have also had some dear friends like Peter Kyvelos and John Valentine.  There is a lot of talent today coming out which is continuing to carry forward our tradition of music.  I hope this might have been a little help to share what I know.

Posted in Armenian, music, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

TheOudPlayer Releases Album – nOUD

Antranig Kzirian has always loved music and so it was no surprise that he gravitated to the oud (Middle Eastern lute) as a young Armenian musician from Philadelphia.

“The oud cast a spell over me from a young age. The rich, unique tone, and the treat of hearing so many tremendous players through recordings and functions all over the east coast growing up really sealed the deal”

Photo Credit: Raffi Hadidian, Raffix

Along with his brother and two other friends, Antranig formed Aravod, a band that performed traditional Armenian dance music. Aravod was a popular group that would perform throughout the east and Midwest at dances, wedding and other social events.

As Antranig moved out to the west coast, he pursued a degree in law and even had a stint with the Armenian National Committee Western Region, but the one thing he never failed to put aside was playing the oud. As a musician, he grew deeper in love with the instrument and sought out teachers, masters in Armenian music that would help guide his studying. Ara Dinkjian and the late John Bilezkjian were a few of his teachers along with kanunist Jack Chalikian.

While in California, he joined a rock-fusion band called Viza and has toured with System of a Down’s lead singer, Serj Tankian.

Art by Simon Majarian

nOUD marks Antranig’s newest release and his first solo album.

“I wanted to both acknowledge and pay respect to the generations of Armenian oud players that paved the way for the rest of us, and at the same time to breathe new life and re-imagine the instrument in the modern sense based on my understanding and my own particular artistry. I felt like this would be simply and directly symbolized by nOUD, representing a dynamic of newness and contemporary relevance for an already deep, soulful and impactful instrument that has been such a big part of my identity” said Kzirian.

His passion speaks volumes for not only his dedication in preserving Armenian folk music, but the respect he has for the instrument and those before him that perfected the art of playing the oud. “The oud and those who interpret the instrument signify the immutable and central function of the instrument in Armenian identity – from the role played by Armenians in the arts during the Ottoman period, all the way through the American Armenian experience of oud playing that thrived and expanded so greatly in the post-genocide era”.

nOUD is an important recording for Antranig for many reasons. “My goal was to provide a blend of modern versions of classics, while simultaneously featuring some of my original compositions. In fact, I’m looking forward to more future recordings which will feature more and more original music, as I have over 100 original compositions in finished or near completed status. This record is only the beginning”.

Through the samples, the tonality and compositions on nOUD are complimentary to the style of two late great oud players, George Mgrdichigan and John Bilezikjian. This is a great solo recording by Antranig and we look forward to more of his compositions to be released.

Pre-orders for nOUD will be available beginning November 1, 2017 on www.theoudplayer.com. Those who pre-order the record will also receive a special link to free bonus download material that will be available exclusively in digital format shortly after the official album release.

A full release of nOUD will be on November 12, 2017 in digital format and also as a hard copy CD featuring detailed liner notes incorporating archival artist research provided by Ara Dinkjian, alongside Antranig’s own contextual descriptive narratives of each track. Both digital and hard copy releases shall be accompanied by unique, track specific artwork created by graphic designer Simon Majarian depicting a visual interpretation of his oud playing.

To hear samples from the upcoming nOUD album, please click here.

To learn more about this project and Antranig as a musician, click here.

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Giving back, providing a difference to Detroit children

The other day I was given a unique opportunity to “pay it forward” within the Detroit community by providing music and education to area children. The Detroit Institute for Children provides a passionate, integrated approach to services for Michigan’s children with special needs and their families.

Through LinkedIn I met Emily Karlichek, Manager of Development and Partnerships for the organization. She asked if I would be interested to perform Armenian music for the children as part of their summer learning program. As I throughly enjoy playing music for kids, I was happy to accept the offer, not fully understanding exactly what I would be faced with and how I would pattern my “presentation” for these children.

I arrived at Dove Academy, located in Detroit and brought into the church where I would be playing music. The maintenance man that let me in told me the church was built in the early 1950s. What a remarkable building. I felt it quite symbolic that I would be allowed to perform music inside a church for children with special needs. (As a side musical note, playing the kanun in any type of church is spiritual because of the natural warm sound one gets from playing this acoustic instrument in an acoustically pleasing building).

Once set up, I just needed to wait for the kids to come in. I thought it would be nice for the kids to hear my music (in the hallway) before they entered the church with a curiosity that could be an attention grabber.  As I began to play, the children filed in, about twenty of them. You could see both the amazement and bewilderment in their faces as they wondered what in the world was this instrument and what was I playing for them. As they got situated in the pews, I immediately jumped into the presentation knowing that attention spans will vary and I needed to engage with them without haste otherwise I might lose them for the rest of the time I was there.

“Who knows what the name of this instrument is?!” I asked. An obviously funny question as none of these children had ever seen or heard of a kanun. The answers were surprising and better than I imagined. “A piano!” one yelled out. “A triangle!” said another. After explaining what the name of my instrument was I continued my query by asking them to guess how many strings were on this instrument. I led them down different rabbit holes to have some fun with them and they still stayed engaged. I began to play some music for them and even had them clap a simple rhythm in order to have them follow the music and identify a sense of pace within the songs I performed.

I was only there for 30 minutes, but it was such a gratifying experience for me, I haven’t felt that way in a long time. The best part was at the end. I asked if they wanted to touch the instrument. They all jumped at the chance. So as each one filed out of the church, they had the opportunity to touch and feel the kanun. Music should never be scary or off-limits for children and especially when they have experienced such a unique instrument like the kanun, they should be allowed to touch it. Oh sure, its an expensive instrument and I always have a bit of a sweat going that some kid may punch or grab a string too hard – but these children were gentle and very respectful of the kanun.  As a matter of fact, I had to encourage a few of the children to run their hand up and down the strings so they could hear its harp-like sounds and feel the tone it made. It was worth every mind standing there for them.

Then they were gone. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would remember this moment later that day or as they grew up. Realizing the challenges they face, what impact did I have on them this day? Whether or not they will retain my visit, I will retain the visit I had with them. I thank each of them for the opportunity to play music for them in order to give them something different in their lives.

Please check out Detroit Institute for Children and if you are a Detroit artist reading this, consider giving back to the community and reaching out to this organization to volunteer some of your time. Currently, they serve over 5,000 children with special needs in schools, Head Start, and Early Intervention programs throughout Detroit and Southeast Michigan. Their services provide speech language pathology, occupational and physical therapies, social work, psychological services and special education consulting.

If you are not an artist, please consider donating some money to their organization. Every penny helps. Click here to donate online.

(Photos provided by: Detroit Institute for Children) 

Posted in detroit, music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mimi’s kanun gets a new life

Muzaffer Okumus

Over twenty years ago, I purchased a kanun from an artist named Mimi Spencer. She was a fantastic person, very giving of her talent and time to musicians. I dont remember when or how I met her, but it was before the Internet and I am sure I was referred to her by another Middle Eastern folk musicians. We corresponded and talked on the phone for many years. She owned several kanuns during her career, but she had to part with a few of them. One in particular was a kanun made by Muzaffer Okumuş in 1993. Up until this point, the kanuns I had purchased and played on were inferior instruments and as this was before the Internet – finding a kanun was not only difficult, it was Russian Roulette if you bought it site-unseen. I know of musicians that would travel thousands of miles just to look and play a few notes on potential kanun purchases. I didn’t have the funds to take such luxurious trips so I had to trust musicians when it came to finding great instruments. There are only a handful of these musicians I trust today, and Mimi was one of them.  Not only was she trust worthy, she went the extra mile and would provide photo prints (via snail mail!) and would play over the phone to give you an idea of the instrument. Still not an ideal way to purchase any kanun, she would ship the instrument and if I wasn’t happy with it, I just need to send it back to her.

A little about Mimi…she started to play kanun in the late 1970s and was very well known in the West coast area and was a great musician – very dedicated to the art of the kanun and performing Middle Eastern music. She performed in an ensemble called Jazayer with other notable musicians. Well known in the Balkan and Middle Eastern camp “scenes”, she was a good promoter of music and it was through her that I first became familiar with the late Turkish kanun player, Halil Karaduman. Sadly, she passed away in 2004 at a young age of 57.

For many years I played on the Okumuş with great delight but just as children and whenever they get a new toy, the old one goes on a shelf – so was the case with me and other kanuns. Until now. The older I have become, the more respectful I am of my instruments. Facebook helps too. I have had the great pleasure of meeting some of the most famous kanun players from around the world. Armenian, Turkish, Greek, Syrian musicians that have been equally giving of their time and talents.

The kanun maker wrote his name under the bridge, didn’t know it was there until I removed all the strings. Pretty neat!

Recently, I located a new pick up (microphone for amplification of the instrument) specifically made for the kanun. I had been searching for this particular model for several years and finally was able to locate one and purchased it. It is a very popular pickup and I have heard the quality and wanted to try it myself. Now that I have the pick up the big question was – which kanun should I put this on. The answer was simple.

You should know that I have several kanuns, all have a very special meaning to me (hey, that would make for a blog itself – right, Mark Gavoor?!) and the Okumuş was the perfect instrument to try out this pickup. Previously I used only pick-ups which were inferior and stuck to the face of the kanun. It was a makeshift pick-up at best and when I showed the kanun at performances, it didn’t give the best appearance.

As I loosen each string and hear a click or other noise I cringe for the unexpected

In order to install this pickup, I need to carefully undo all seventy-six (yes, thats what I said) strings in order to remove the bridge where the strings rest on. The pickup goes underneath two of the feet on the bridge. I had not touched the strings of this instrument since I purchased it from Mimi. (As a matter of fact, these were the last strings she placed on this kanun – she even had steel wound bass strings which I have never seen on other kanuns but had a great sound.)

Now you have to understand, unlike other string instruments that need to have their strings replaced due to use, the kanun doesn’t always need to have its strings replaced as often. This kanun, believe it or not, was not far off its tuning for not being played for several years. A sign of a well made instrument.

Labeling and keeping the old strings so I will be able to properly measure the new strings as they come in spools, not pre-cut!

You can not just unwind the string from the pegs in any order – there is a methodical way to do so in order not to shock the instrument and create an uneven amount of pressure on the instrument. Trust me…the little noises I heard along the way made this task a bit of a nail biter. Once the strings were removed and a towel to wipe my brow, I proceeded to clean the instrument and bring it back to the luster it once was.

The next step is to clean the instrument without the strings. The wood..that is pretty easy. It was in great shape and only needed a light polishing. The mandals (the levers used to change notes) were dirty and each mandal deserved its own cleaning. Time intensive goes without saying but as I watched kanun friend Jerry Bezdikian document the repairs on his instrument, I figured I have no reason to feel rushed for just cleaning my instrument!

Almost done…

Instrument cleaned. Now the fun part. The strings. There are a few types of kanun strings used today. Years and even centuries ago, they used gut strings. Now, obviously the most common is nylon. However, many of the Turkish kanun players use PVF (a thinner, carbon string) which is known for a brighter and crisper, louder tone. Not cheap..these strings can warp a kanun if not built properly. (Thanks again Jerry – great advice!) So, not knowing if my kanun would handle these higher tension strings (I think it would have) I went with the normal nylon strings. They are ordered. Part two coming soon!

 

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Kresge Artists in Detroit – 2017 Class

Always an exciting time of the year for me when the Kresge Artist Fellows are announced and I can look to see if a friend of mine has won. It is equally enjoyable for me to meet new Fellows and hear more about their art.

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 Photo by Noah Stephens/Kresge Arts in Detroit

Eighteen fellows were selected that are from both literary and visual arts.  Each artist will receive $25,000 that they will be allowed to freely utilize to grow their art or whatever their hearts desire.

Congratulations to all of the winners and welcome to the family! I have said it before and will repeat – this will be a game changer for you. Utilize and embrace all of it — especially the professional practice work offered by Creative Many Michigan.

CLICK HERE for the official press release from Kresge Arts in Detroit. Additional information can be found in Crain’s Detroit Business can be found by CLICKING HERE.

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An Armenian Trilogy – World Premiere this October, 2017

As a proud Armenian, I have always been conscience of the Armenian Genocide and as a rule, made sure to try and educate non-Armenians about the Genocide. When the 100th anniversary of the Genocide was upon us, this sense of need to educate others about the Genocide was heightened and has never left my soul. What created this change in me? I think it was due to the outpouring of articles, artwork, storytelling, and musical compositions pertaining to the Genocide. Never in my lifetime had I experienced so “much” about the Genocide. It was overwhelming.  New books, film documentaries and music flooded our lives.  One might say it is sad that it took such a monumental anniversary date to bring out the creativities within the Armenian people. However, I say “thank God” for all of the creativity we have seen and continue to see within the Armenian creative community. The 100th anniversary has touched many of our lives.

One such person is Dan Yessian. In my opinion, a creative genius. A proud Armenian that is passionate about his ancestral history, his family and having the desire to express his love, compassion and respect for the 1.5 million Armenians that lost their lives by the hands of the Turkish government.

Dan is an award winning composer that has created a world-renowned recording studio for the motion picture, advertising and television industries. This time around, he composed from his heart and soul and has created a composition that will be his lasting tribute as well his legacy towards preserving Armenian history.

An Armenian Trilogy is a musical reflection on the Armenian Genocide composed by Dan Yessian. Written in three movements (The Freedom, The Fear, The Faith), the music is captivating and could fit into any motion picture about the Armenian people. I told him the music was have fit nicely in the recent release of The Promise.

Dan will realize a dream of having this performed by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in Yerevan, Armenia this October. Congratulations to him for such an achievement!

“‘An Armenian Trilogy'” is my humble way of helping to restore the memory of these lost souls. It’s my hope that this composition promotes tolerance by conveying the emotions felt by the victims of these human tragedies and that you, as a listener, find yourself empathizing with all people despite our petty differences”. said Yessian.

Please share this blog with your friends so we can share the great work Dan Yessian has brought to us.  Check out these links to listen to An Armenian Trilogy:

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Armenian musician, Set Proodian passes at 97

On May 25, 2017, the Armenian music world lost another one of its members; Set Proodian passed away at the age of 97.

Set Proodian

I did not personally know Set, but I was certainly familiar with who he was as a musician along with his father and their contributions to Armenian and Middle Eastern folk music.

Set’s father, Karekin Proodian (1884-1977) was a well-known composer, musician, singer, and recording artist. Karekin recorded for major record labels such as Victor and Columbia as well as the independent Armenian label M.G. Parsekian. He wrote/sang songs like: Chinary Yares Aghchg (A girl from Chinari) and Gamavor Zinvor (Volunteer Soldier) – both well-known folk songs, still performed today.

Set was not the recording artist his father was, but nevertheless this does not diminish his contributions to our music. Performing extensively in the east coast and eventually in Florida, Set’s music can be found on a couple of LP recordings: Serena, Concert at Woodstock and Kef Over Miami.

It comes as no surprise that Set would be interested in Armenian music and carry on the tradition of his father. He played both the saxophone and clarinet. Armenian clarinetist, Hachig Kazarian performed with Set in New York City and fondly recalls an anecdote from those years. “Set would always say his dad never approved of his playing. As a young man he said ‘I would be practicing my saxophone and my dad would be sitting in the living room just shaking his head back and forth saying ‘aman, aman’.”

Eventually, Set made his way from New York to Florida and whereas the stereotype is that people move to Florida to retire, Set continued to perform music, and quite a bit of it. After all, this was his passion and he played well into his nineties. In Florida he recorded Kef Over Miami as well as performed with some of the more popular Greek ensembles in the area. Armenian musician Joe Zeytoonian commented, “He really found his spot with the Hellenics Band and played with them for years. He introduced me into the band and I have also been working with them happily. He was the kind, gentle and a wonderful husband and father. I will miss him.”

Set also performed with musician Ara Dinkjian’s father, Onnik, back in the mid-1960s-1970s. Ara remembers Set and often reminisces about Set’s father.  “He was a passionate lover of middle eastern music and practiced almost every day of his life. He was a real kind gentleman,” said Dinkjian.

Below is Set’s biography as it appeared in his death notice:

Set Proodian was born in Union City, N.J. on March 3, 1920. His Father, Karekin and Mother, Haiganoosh were born in Dikranagerd. Set is predeceased by his two older siblings, Vahan and Sara, which he adored. He grew up in a musical household, with lots of parties, because his Father was a composer, vocalist and kanoon player. At age 9, Set began studying the saxophone and walked many miles to the next town to take lessons, later adding the clarinet to his studies. Set found out at an early age that he loved bringing his soulful sounds to the thousands of people and bringing joy and music to
their hearts.

Karekin Proodian

Set’s father: Karekin Proodian

After the loss of his Mother, in 1941, his Father purchased a train ticket to California for him to ease the pain of his great loss and at the same time, have the opportunity to meet his Armenian cousins. Here he found a job breaking wild horses for some pocket change while he enjoyed his new found family.

In 1942, he was drafted into the Army as a combat engineer, along with his brother. In WWII, he served in Africa, France, Central Europe and the Battle of the Bulge. He not only was employed creating the maps for the various invasions, but he played in the Army band for the officers. In 2015, he received the French Legion of Honor, the highest honor France awards. After WW2, he returned to New Jersey where he apprenticed as a lithographic artist in a photoengraving firm and also continued playing weekend gigs in NYC and NJ. One night while playing the saxophone at the Hotel Plaza in Jersey City, he met the love of his life, Florence Mazujian, aged 18. It was love at first sight for both of them and one year later they were married, and later had two children, Gary, now deceased and Karen presently residing in Florida.

Set had developed a reputation as one of the most famous Middle Eastern clarinetists and recording artists of his time. As the years progressed, he eventually retired from the photoengraving business, and moved to Florida where he basically enjoyed life playing golf, music with the Greek Band, the “Hellenics” and wrote an autobiography.

Special thanks to Ara Dinkjian for supplying the photos of Set Proodian for this story. 
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