105 years ago, our ancestors were driven from their homelands by the order of the Turkish government. A well documented massacre that can be easily researched for those unfamiliar with this important and dark piece of Armenian history. In order not to trivialize the destruction this had caused, the outcome for those Armenians (including my own relatives) was an extreme loss of life that that extended to a level of extinction that hit our culture. By destroying 1.5 million Armenians, we lost historical significance that we may never be able to quantify ever again.
I firmly believe that the 1915 Genocide dealt a near-fatal blow to Armenian culture. Luckily it did not eliminate it. Armenians who unknowingly were creating history for future generations, had it interrupted with an attempt to be eradicated. An example of this blow pertains to our traditional Armenian music. The creation of it – stopped in 1915.
Thankfully, the Turkish government was unsuccessful of completely erasing our history back in 1915, but unfortunately the attack on peaceful Armenians continues to this day and with it comes the fear of increased historical erasure.
The recent war and persecution of the Armenians continues in Artsakh. Over the last few decades Armenians have defended their lands from the Azeri Turks. Sadly, a treaty agreement (which was a surprise by Armenians worldwide) ended the military violence but gave land back to the Azeris and thus began the next phase of destruction – the elimination of Armenian historical elements.
For thousands of years, the Armenians have been persecuted, in one shape or another, by the Turkish government. The difference between 1915 and 2020 is technology which provides the ability to document acts of massacre as it happens. As we continue to worry about the lives of our brothers and sisters in Artsakh, we are witnessing the horrific destruction of our heritage.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently posted a statement in regards to the devastation in Artsakh by saying “The loss of cultural heritage sites is permanent, and is a grievous theft from future generations” said Daniel H. Weiss, President/CEO and Max Hollein, Director.
To watch the photos and videos of this destruction online is heartbreaking, to say the least. Azeri soldiers laughing and kicking over Armenian tombstones, statues being destroyed, churches dismantled, etc. Centuries of culture being destroyed right before our eyes since the treaty agreement was signed giving land back the the Azeri Turks. Depriving centuries forward of the opportunity to experience artwork, historical buildings and music.
In the six weeks of fighting, Armenians that live in the Artsakh regions now taken over by Azeri Turks have lost everything.
Personal Note: This was a difficult story to write for several reasons. Initially, I wanted to be able to express my thoughts about Artsakh and the the war against the Armenians in this region – struggling to find the right words that would properly convey my thoughts. Then, the unspeakable happened – a trilateral agreement was signed on November 10th, effectively ending the war, giving land to Azerbaijan and leaving Armenians throughout the world confused, angry, and sad. The following is my attempt to convey my emotion and pride for Artsakh.
A few years after the loss of my mother (in 1993), my father had decided it was time we take a trip to Armenia. It was something he casually talked to me about, but we hadn’t taken any action to make the trip. In 1997, we took my first (and still my only trip) to Armenia. My father and I went with my uncle (my dad’s brother-in-law) and a good friend of the family. As you would expect me to say, it was a trip I will never forget. To this day, I feel fortunate to have made the pilgrimage with my father and happy that my older brothers were able to go in subsequent trips with our father. This initial voyage, marked the first of several my father would take over the next twenty years.
For me, the trip was breathtaking and as a tourist going from the United States, I felt nothing but passion, love and excitement to be with Armenians and experience the historic and religious buildings and statues. The food, music, and culture was everywhere and we couldn’t get enough of it. I came home with eight rolls of film to develop and still treasure those photos to this day. As a matter of fact, the cover of an album I produced, Echo of the Mountains, has a backdrop photo of Mt. Ararat that I took on this trip.
However enjoyable the trip, my father was very interested in traveling into Nagorno-Karabagh while we stayed in Yerevan on this trip. I’ll be honest, I was not thrilled with that idea at that time as it had only been a few short years since the last conflict was under a cease fire and I was concerned for his safety. Nevertheless, he wanted to go for a day – and he did.
Armenian children on a field trip in 1998 to see the ‘We are Our Mountains’ that represent mother and father.
Nagorno-Karabakh, is land that has been inhabited by Armenians for centuries, even though it was legally given to the Azeri government by Stalin during the 1920s. Close to 150,000 Armenians have lived on these lands. Much can be found online about the history of these lands and I encourage you to research and learn more.
Not only was I concerned about safety of travel for my father into Artsakh (which is also referred to as Nagorno-Karabagh), but the actual travel into this area was not an easy trip to take due to lack of infrastructure, ravages of war, and the earthquake of 1988. The borders were heavily guarded and access needed Armenia’s permission.
My father wanted to learn more about the Armenians there and what he could do to be supportive once he returned home. He had no fear n traveling to Artsakh and was able to get the proper clearances to travel. I did not travel with him on this one day trip, something I regret to this day.
A day later, he returned. He was a different man. You could see the pride he had for the Armenians of Artsakh and it was clear to him what he wanted and needed to do for him. My father had always been philanthropic within the Armenian community. Whether it was supporting Armenian needs in Lebanon or the United States, he was a quiet man that did the work because he felt the responsibility of doing so, not for any amount of spotlight. He was a proud Armenian and it would take me much time to describe all of the efforts he had taken over the next several years to support the country.
My father showing Armenian children in Stepanakert some of the videos he was filming. (October, 2000)
Suffice it to say, he was welcomed each and every time he went to Artsakh. He never went for enjoyment – he went to work and see what were the needs of the people and upon returning home, his efforts would surround what he could do for the country. He raised funds, helped establish mangabardez (kindergarten) schools.
When he traveled to Artsakh, he made sure to take pictures and videos in order to share those with not only other benefactors, but he wanted to show the positive effect the schools. He was in love with all those children he met and evidence still exists on YouTube. Each time he came home, we would look at the photos and videos together.
Check out some of the videos my father took:
The kanun my father brought back from Artsakh.
I have a prized possession that my father gave me from one of his later trips to Artsakh. I had always wanted to have a kanun from Armenia. Something from the homeland that would remind me of our vast culture and history. I’ll never forget picking up my dad at the airport on this particular trip. He had his luggage and wrapped with plastic wrapping film was a kanun case. I wish I had a photo of this because when I saw how he brought it back, I laughed and said to him “Dad, there is no way this instrument survived the trip if that’s how you brought it back!” Remarkably – not even a scratch on it. In general, it is easy to find folk instruments in Armenia, but the quality can vary. My father didn’t just go to a street vendor to obtain, he worked through his connections and to my surprise, was able to find a great quality kanun in Artsakh, from an actual musician. Its beautiful and remind me of my father and homeland. Indeed, a prized instrument I will have and pass down to my children.
Armenians engaged in a 45 day war with the Azerbaijani Turks once again. This time with the assistance of the Republic of Turkey. Peaceful Armenians, their ancestral lands attacked – soldiers defending those lands – civilians killed – history attempting to be erased again by the hands of the Turkish government. So much more can be said.
My father passed away in 2017. It is so sad to think that his efforts to help create these mangabardez schools may have been destroyed in this recent aggression against the Armenians in Artsakh. All of the humanitarian work he did – was it for nothing? Senseless death. Armenians only want peace. Why does a world ignore us? When will Armenians be left alone?
So many questions. No answers. Just deep sadness with our hearts are full of emotion for our brothers and sisters in Artsakh.
I wish to continue to remember Artsakh as a strong country filled with Armenians that never give up and fight for freedom. We have spent lifetimes of anguish, massacre and devastation. We are all too familiar with this type of struggle. Perhaps one day our prayers will be answered.
It becomes an understatement and perhaps overused phrase to say that 2020 has been a tumultuous year. As a global pandemic entered our lives, we each experienced different strengths and weaknesses as we managed to adjust to even simple daily tasks. Whether this involved work challenges, children’s school, taking extra pre-cautions to stay healthy, the list is endless of hurdles we have all had to take these past several months. We fight to find upbeat and memorable events that take place in our lives as we wait for the light at the end of the tunnel that shows us that we will all be safe and can return to a sense of normalcy, whatever that looks like in our lives. For me, it happened on October 5th.
As a musician, this crisis has certainly affected performances, but I have managed to stay active whether it is by using online apps that allow musical collaborations to even re-releasing some older albums I worked on several years ago. This helps fill the void of the disappearance of playing for live audiences. At the risk of being perceived as self-promoting of myself, I do feel proud about a performance that I feel was a ‘once in a lifetime’ event for me, and I would like to share with you.
Several months ago, I was asked to represent Michigan as an artist for the Kennedy Center as they presented a series entitled Arts Across America. A fantastic idea that takes audiences travelling (virtually) across the United States for twenty weeks featuring great talent for music or spoken word in different communities. This is truly an honor and I was so excited (and nervous!) to be part of this series.
I shared the “virtual” stage with my musical friend, Xiao Dong Wei, an accomplished musician that at the age of 5, began studying the erhu (the Chinese two-stringed violin) with her father. At age 11, she was accepted into the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Ten years later, she earned her degree becoming a ‘Master of the Erhu’. Xiao and I first met in 2012 when we both were honored to have received a Kresge Artist Fellowship .
The timing of such a concert was mixed for me as Artsakh is engaged in a war for freedom and survival against Azerbaijan. However, the concert was more important than ever as thousands watched and experienced traditional Armenian music and heard me comment that our music has survived a Genocide. It shed a little light on our people, our culture and continued struggles.
As we attempt to push forward through a global pandemic, the quest to find solace in our everyday lives is more important than ever before. The medicinal effect of making and/or listening to music is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety—something we are all feeling during an ever-changing and difficult period in the world. World-renowned composer and musician Ara Dinkjian’s recent musical release will certainly provide the needed comfort we all seek at this time.
The concert, originally titled ‘Ara Dinkjian: Both Sides Now’ after a song by musician Joni Mitchell, was recorded live to a sold-out concert crowd at Princeton University in 2017. Dinkjian is joined by several talented musician friends to bring an hour of magic to our ears. The first half of the concert features Dinkjian along with Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun) and Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet), a group known as The Secret Trio. The second half of the concert includes additional artists from The New York Gypsy All-Stars with Pablo Vergara (keyboards), Panagiotis Andreou (bass) and Engin Kaan Gunaydin (percussion).
The Secret Trio is probably one of the greatest Middle Eastern musical trios performing today. Their sound (oud, kanun and clarinet) and connectedness to each other is unparalleled. Pinarbasi and Lumanovski are equal masters on their instruments with Dinkjian, which is clearly demonstrated throughout this album. The songs The Invisible Lover as well as The Last Sultan spotlight their ability to weave in and out of notes along with Ara on oud. In the track Sinanay you can hear the complex fingering dexterity of all three musicians. “The highlight is the interaction of the musicians, seamlessly blending east and west, loud and soft, fast and slow, traditional and contemporary, monophonic and harmonic, microtonal and well-tempered, written and improvised, legato and staccato, electric and acoustic,” said Dinkjian.
There will be some familiar songs on this album as they have appeared on past Dinkjian releases, but there is always a different feel to each version depending on the artists accompanying him on the song. These songs include Ara’s signature composition Picture and Anna Tol’Ya/Homecoming, which allows the listener to become connected to the notes. This release features two newer compositions including American Gypsy (which Ara dedicated to his late friend, musician Haig Hagopian), and Pilaf—an upbeat song that has several bluegrass elements, a favorite musical style for Ara. We also hear Ismail improvise a solo bringing the soul of his clarinet playing to the forefront.
In addition to The Secret Trio, the New York Gypsy All Stars add a level of excitement to their performances on this release. With the addition of percussion and bass, this well-rounded ensemble captivates any live audience. Yet with this album, you are completely mesmerized by the conversation each musician is having with one another. It is intuitive and engaging. When asked how this group of musicians could masterfully improvise music together in a seamless fashion, Dinkjian said, “The brain is a great enemy of music. We must shut off our brain and allow our musical fate to take over.”
Dinkjian has great admiration for the musicians he works with, especially the artists on this recording. “They each have a seemingly endless technique, fearless creativity, gorgeous tone, impeccable intonation, fluid (not mechanical) sense of rhythm, sincere modesty and a generosity of spirit which enables them to serve the song rather than their egos,” he explained. All of their rehearsals are methodical and concentrated, which allows for free expression once they hit the stage. The result is a rare musical delight for audiences around the world.
In watching several of the concert video clips online, I am captivated by the connection each musician shares on stage. Anna Tol’Ya/Homecoming comes to mind again as you watch the ensemble members thoroughly enjoy each other’s music and improvisations on stage. Like a fine wine, this recording improves with each listen, as I hear a new nuance that I missed the last time.
Releasing a recording can be an arduous task, no different than the task of a writer who painstakingly creates a story to perfection. With the popularity of vinyl recordings returning and CDs fading, Dinkjian intended this release to be on an LP, but that would limit the amount of songs due to space restrictions. A pandemic may seem like an unlikely time to produce music, but it was the best time for Dinkjian. Prior to COVID-19, he was touring and didn’t have the time to devote to this recording, something he knew he wanted to release when he heard its superior sound quality. We can only hope that this pandemic allows for more time for Dinkjian to realize other projects for our enjoyment.
Ara Dinkjian: Live at Princeton University is available online through Apple Music and Spotify. If you wish to purchase an actual CD ($15 USA, $20 International), you can do so via Ara’s website.
The Armenian music community has lost another gentle giant, Harry Minassian.
Harry Minassian performing at Kef Time Hartford in November, 2000. (Photo Credit: Ara Topouzian)
Known throughout the east coast as a prominent oud player (Middle Eastern lute, 11 strings) as well as a singer, Harry’s playing and vocal skills made him a versatile musician who joined the ranks of oud players, such as Charles “Chick” Ganimian and Richard A. Hagopian.
“Harry had a haunting soulful cry in his voice that cut straight to the heart and his Oud playing was reminiscent of the great Udi Hrant,” said Armenian musician Steve Vosbikian, who recorded with Harry over 40 years ago.
A poster from one of the many events Harry performed along with his musical colleagues. (Photo Credit: George Righellis)
Throughout his career as a musician, Harry performed countless Armenian weddings and dances, but it was probably his cabaret and kef (party) performances that have left an indelible mark with his audiences and fans over the many decades, including myself.
As most fans of Armenian and Middle Eastern music can attest, it’s the artists’ actual recordings that we experience before we actually see them performing live on stage. That held true for me when it came to Harry. It wasn’t until I started going to Kef Time Hartford or July 4th Kef weekends where I really understood the musicianship of Harry Minassian. Usually only performing on the last afternoon of a kef, Harry was the perfect headliner musician to close out what was always a fantastic weekend of musical events.
Harry was in his element at these events, performing at a dance as if it were a nightclub venue. No other Armenian performer could capture this in my opinion. Most of the songs he performed were almost standard repertoire for the audiences. When Harry played, you knew what to expect. In the middle of a given event he might transition into some songs for just listening pleasure giving his fans a better glimpse into his vocal talents, such as a rendition of Charlie Aznavour’s La Mamma (which Harry recorded on Excited Moods of the Middle East) and Hastayım Yaşıyorum written by Udi Hrant.
(L to R: George Righellis, Harry, and Leo Arzoomanian (Photo Credit: George Righellis)
Upon learning of Harry’s loss, Steve Vosbikian, Armenian clarinetist of the Fabulous Vosbikian Band recalled the album they recorded together back in 1974. “I also attribute Harry’s recording for teaching me how to make a studio album that later led me to make my own recordings for the Vosbikian Band. Harry was always enthusiastic, upbeat and intensely focused on his musical work product and was meticulous with his repertoire and musical arrangements. I remember Harry’s comedic sense of humor always sprinkled with his characteristic and distinctive New England accent. Harry always made us feel like family and gave us the motivation to perform at our very best.”
While music was his first love, professionally, Harry spent his career as an owner and administrator of several nursing facilities (with his loving wife Gail) including Bay Tower Nursing Center in Providence, RI, Oceanside in Quincy, MA, and currently Crestwood Nursing in Warren, RI. By night, music filled his life and soul.
“He was consistently there for all of us, a gifted man of a few words with sound advice,” said Charlie Krikorian, longtime friend and organizer of the July 4th Kef Weekends that featured Harry as a headliner musician. “Harry was genuine in every sense of the word. Harry was a class act – respectful of all, never petty and complimentary to other musicians and in all aspects where credit was due,” he continued.
A post promoting the El Jezayre Orchestra (Photo Credit: George Righellis)
Harry was a first-generation American Armenian born in 1937 to survivors of the Armenian Genocide. He grew up in a loving family that spoke both Armenian and Turkish and nurtured his love of Armenian and Middle Eastern music.
He first performed with The Orientales in the mid-1950s. The Orientales Orchestra consisted of Carl Zeytoonian (oud), Nick Zeytoonian (dumbeg, tambourine), Berge Krikorian (dumbeg/singer), Ara DerMarderosian (clarinet) and Aaron DerMarderosian (dumbeg). They would record three 78RPM records together.
As did many Armenian musicians from that era, Harry played the robust nightclub circuit throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The clubs were plentiful, and you could hear live music seven nights a week. Harry performed quite often with a dumbeg (hourglass shaped hand drum) performer, Gary Alexanian, along with Arabic violinist Fred Elias and Greek guitarist/singer, George Righellis. A well-known and powerful ensemble, this group played most of the popular clubs throughout the New England area, including the famous Club Zara.
Harry would eventually perform with the El Jezayre Orchestra that included George Righellis, Zaven Takvorian, Charlie Bagdigian and Charlie Jerahian. Later in the mid-1970s, Harry performed every week at The Seventh Veil (Rhode Island) with different musicians for several years.
“Harry was unique as a performer. There was something different about him that was engaging,” said oudist John Berberian. “He was one of those rare musicians that somehow was able to combine his talent with his personality when he performed. You loved the music and you loved the person simultaneously. There will never be another Harry.”
Perhaps one of the highlights in Harry’s musical career was meeting and studying with the famous blind Armenian oudist, Udi Hrant Kenkulian.
In the late 1950s, Udi Hrant, who was well known throughout Turkey for his oud compositions and singing, made frequent trips to the United States in hopes of finding a cure for his blindness. In order for Hrant to make these trips to the US, there were a group of patrons that helped fund hiss travel. These patrons also helped Hrant find gigs while he was in the country, which also ultimately allowed several young Armenian musicians to meet the Oud master.
The certificate given to Harry from Udi Hrant in 1969
During one of these trips to the east coast, Hrant, aided by musician and patron Charlie Jerahian, met Harry and heard the youthful musician playing the oud. Hrant was intrigued. And, the rest, as they say, is music history. At one point, Hrant even wanted Harry to perform alongside him in the Catskills for an entire summer with Harry on oud and Hrant on violin, an opportunity Harry passed on but regretted later in life. Nevertheless, Harry was given invaluable lessons by Hrant and quickly became a popular musician in the Boston area. One of Harry’s prized possessions was a rare certificate from Udi Hrant signifying his tutelage and achievements as an oudist. The certificate includes Hrant’s thumbprint on the document. It was Udi Hrant who gave Harry the title of Udi (the highest honor given to another musician on the oud) over 50 years ago.
As a musician, Harry “paid it forward” by teaching other students what he learned from Udi Hrant. In particular, one of Harry’s oud students was Joe Kouyoumjian.
“Without Harry’s guidance and close friendship, l never would have been introduced into the night club circuit , nor would l have met so many great Armenian, Greek, Arabic and Turkish musicians, and most of all l would have missed out on touring from the East Coast—Boston to Miami to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles as well as San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s all because Harry Minassian took me under his wing and was a major part of my musical life,” said Kouyoumjian. “He was a super guy, a dad, friend and killer singer and oud player.”
Leon Janikian, an associate professor of Music, emeritus of Northeastern University Armenian and a clarinetist who performed extensively with Harry for several years, agrees. “He was a unique talent, and played exactly as he wished with no compromise. But, he was also a very kind and open musician, always ready to support and have a few laughs while doing what we all love to do so much, play music.”
Harry’s legacy is vast and wide even amongst famous musicians, such as oudist and composer Ara Dinkjian. “In 1980, I was a senior at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. I received a call from our dear friend Greg Janian (who passed away in 2010), asking if I would like to play a weekly gig at The Mountain View Restaurant in Boylston, MA. “Sure,” I said. “Who else is playing?” “Carnig Mikitarian and Harry Minassian.” HARRY MINASSIAN! I had never played with Harry, but of course knew that he was one of the giants of our music, both as an oud player and as a singer. What I didn’t know, but soon came to realize, was what a kind, generous, and modest man he was. Add to that his great sense of humor and genuine love of music, and you have a rare treasure in the Armenian American community. My fellow music undergrads would be jealous as I would pack my car on Wednesdays and drive to my gig. With his gentle and patient disposition, Harry taught me repertoire, intonation, pacing, tempo and professionalism,” said Dinkjian.
Harry J. Minassian of Norton passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family on June 26, 2020 after a brief illness. He was 83 years old. He is survived by his beloved wife, Gail (Finn) Minassian. He was the devoted father of Mark Minassian and his wife Lisa of Cranston, RI; Gary Minassian and his wife Karen of Rehoboth, MA; and Gregory Minassian of Quincy, MA. He was the loving grandfather of five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was the dear brother of the late Nazareth “Naz” Minassian and Louis Minassian. He is also survived by many loving nieces and nephews, relatives and friends.
[The above article was first published in the Armenian Weekly. I am including this in my blog to allow for additional photos, audio and video clips. ]
HARRY MINASSIAN’S DISCOGRAPHY
The Orientales Orchestra (78rpm) Aga Records
500 Song of the Caravan
501 Inch Ganem
502 Bacheeg Ma Door
503 Chungushtze Huleh
504 Sepastia Bar
505* Cifte Telli *According to Ara Dinkjian, it is interesting to note that Harry only performs the oud solo on this track and Harry is playing, as close as possible, Udi Hrant’s (his teacher) to the version of His Master’s Voice recording of Cifte Telli. Check out the below audio clip:
Hi-Fi Adventure In Asia Minor, Marko Melkon (The Cifte Telli track – Harry is heard hand clapping on this track) Bedouin Bandits (Fuad Hassan Ensemble) Harry Minassian’s Near East Enchantments (Mark Records) Exciting Moods of the Middle East (CK 846U) Harry Minassian (CK-125)
VIDEO CLIPS OF HARRY MINASSIAN
Special thanks to the following individuals who contributed to this story:Gary Minassian, Leon Janikian, Ara Dinkjian, Mal Barsamian, Joe Kouyoumjian, Charlie Krikorian, Ian Nagoski, Steve Vosbikian, Hayk Rakidjian, Joe Zeytoonian and the late George Righellis.
When I heard the news, the first thoughts that came to mind were – long overdue. I was elated to hear one of our Armenian musical icons has won one of the highest awards in the country you could receive as an artist.
Armenian singer, Onnik Dinkjian
Onnik Dinkjian has been an icon of traditional Armenian music for decades and continues to amaze and dazzle audiences with his smooth vocal chords at dances and weddings nationwide.
In a press release announced on June 23, 2020, the National Endowment for the Arts’ work to support and celebrate our nation’s rich traditional arts heritage, the agency is announcing the 2020 recipients of its National Heritage Fellowships. These lifetime honor awards of $25,000 are given in recognition of both artistic excellence and efforts to sustain cultural traditions for future generations.
Receiving this award is a rare and distinguished honor only given to some of the finest artists that have greatly attributed to the world of art and culture.
“Each year the Heritage Fellowships highlight the distinct living traditions of communities around our nation, as well as how our fellows instill a sense of pride, beauty, and cultural continuity through their art,” said Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “The National Endowment for the Arts is pleased to recognize these outstanding artists with a National Heritage Fellowship.”
Sharing a funny story in Chicago, IL in 2018.
I first met Onnik via one of his LP records that was in my house growing up. When I started to become fascinated by Armenian and Middle Eastern music, his recordings were considered a stable in the music and it was there that I began to realize who this signer was along with countless other musicians.
Fast forward, I met Onnik in person in the 1980s. I loved watching him on stage as a singer. He had such a unique persona – stylish outfit, tambourine in hand and always smiling and enjoying performing on stage. Over the thirty years I have known him, this has never changed. Even today, in his early nineties, he has a vibrant voice and loves to perform in front of audiences. He is truly a living legend.
The other day I called to congratulate Onnik on his accomplishment and he was humble to add that “this is as much for me as it is for the Armenian people”.
I have written a few stories about how artists have been forced into pivoting how they share their art with the world as they experience the lack of a live audience. Many have been creative and embraced using technology.
A Michigan high school embraced technology early on to create a beautiful video as most of us entered into self-isolation.
Detroit Country Day School Choir Director Ron Weiler released this video on YouTube which has over 11,000 views and growing.
‘O, Love‘ is a song composed by Elaine Hagenberg. Prior to COVID-19, the choir was supposed to rehearse and perform this piece in public.
“I originally chose this song for my Concert Choir a couple of years ago (it was my first exposure to the incredible work of Elaine Hagenberg). At the time I was dealing with some personal challenges and the piece spoke to me on that personal level, but the students also immediately connected to the text” said Weiler.
Weiler has been the Director of Middle and Upper School Choirs at Detroit Country Day School since 1998. During that time, his choirs have received numerous First Division, Excellent and Superior Ratings at MSVMA District and State Choral Festivals. A Traverse City, MI native, he was mentored by both Russell and Melvin Larimer from 1988 – 1996. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education and Keyboard Performance with Honors from Albion College in 1995.
“When things rapidly began to change and schools were closed, and the reality of what was happening began to sink in, I knew immediately that this piece and it’s text was a perfect message of hope. Portions of the text that really spoke to me during this dark time of COVID-19: “O Joy, that seeks me through the pain” That the joy of our music could be a source of strength to see us through the pain and fear of what we were facing. But here’s the one that really got me: “I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be”. In the midst of the rain, we can see the promise (the rainbow) of love and joy and know that there will be a tearless morning. Such hope communicated so brilliantly by music and text”.
The song is indeed beautiful and appropriate for the current times we are living in, the video produced is equally magnificent.
To produce this video took commitment and a lot of “know how” on the technical side. Over 50 hours to put together, the bulk of which was right before COVID-19 hit Michigan.
“I am a career music director, but I am also a big tech nerd. I do professional video editing both for my school and as a personal side business, and I knew this was a perfect way to combine the two passions of mine. This year, I knew that I wanted to do something like this, so we began laying the groundwork for this virtual project in the first semester. The recordings that the students made were their mid-term exam in choir in January. Just before school was closed I had been able to show them glimpses of what it might look like and play the final audio for them just before we parted. I could tell that the students thought it was cool. The reactions as it played on the news channels and gained so many views on YouTube” said Weiler.
“Well done!” This was Elaine Hagenberg’s reaction after seeing this video.
“We are in the process now of going through the same steps to produce another video that will be a “virtual world premiere” of the piece that we commissioned from her in 2019 called “Welcome the Dawn” which also has stunningly appropriate text for the situation we find ourselves in. I’m hoping that the dawn will soon be here and we can release that video to welcome it!” said Weiler.
I rounded out my interview with Mr. Weiler to ask about his students and how they are currently coping with the pandemic. “I think that this seems to have been a particular source of pride for our seniors. Many of my seniors I have had in choir since they were in 6th grade, and for years they have had such goals and aspirations for that final semester, senior year, in the choral program. That final State Festival performance. That final POPS concert where the seniors are recognized for their years of contribution and dedication. So many things that were in a heartbeat taken away from them through absolutely no fault of their own. In some small way, this video, and the overwhelmingly positive reception from the world, has been a small victory for them. A way to have another performance. I am extremely proud of my students and how they’ve handled it. We have many more projects in the works to be released as the year ends, now that we know that we will not be physically together before the school year ends, though we remain together in the virtual classroom”.
I find it difficult to write about the Armenian Genocide each year, but I feel that doing so is a personal obligation that I have in order to acknowledge the atrocities of April 24, 1915.
The reality is that as a musician, I outwardly commemorate the Genocide in most of my performances. When given the opportunity to perform in a concert, there is a storytelling component that I have incorporated into those performances. No, I am not a historical expert by any means, but I can related personal experiences woven with some historical elements while playing Armenian folk music. As a matter of fact, I feel that I am performing at my best ability when given the opportunity to talk and interact with my audience while providing insight into the Armenian culture.
Storytelling, an important tool can be one of our most powerful means for conveying important topics. My storytelling focuses on the struggles and triumphs of the Armenian people. After these types of performances, I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement. This is not meant to sound arrogant, but when given the opportunity to share ones culture with a group of people that may be hearing about it for the first time – there is a sense of pride you feel for providing this enlightenment. I have never experienced an audience that was unappreciative of this concept of performance. So many, for the first time, get a glimpse of what is an Armenian. I think this is all of our (as Armenians) obligations to teach others and share stories to a non-Armenian world.
Ironically on April 24th, I had an opportunity to be interviewed by the niece of a friend of mine (non-Armenian) who was working on a college research project focusing on different ethnicities. We had a wonderful conversation and I was able to share with her some historical information but also provided her with my personal thoughts and impressions of our rich culture and background. This had more to do with educating her about the Armenian people as supposed to me as an Armenian. This, proves my point of the gratification I feel in sharing those experiences.
105 years later, we are a strong people. Our memory has not wavered these many years and I pray we will never forget.
On this day, I especially think of family. My parents, grandparents, and their ancestors that gave their life for us to continue our own. On this day, please share your story.
Over the past several weeks, we have seen many relief funding mechanisms come together for the small business community throughout the United States. These have ranged from mini-grants to larger scaled loan programs. It seems that many of these funds started to grow once the Federal stimulus package was created.
Doing my small part to bring awareness to the Michigan Relief Fund to help full time artists in dire financial distress.
Artists are businesses too. They have the same needs as other small businesses, but sometimes are not taken as seriously because of the nature of their business. These artists solely make their income from displaying or sharing their art in person. Whether it is a music playing a festival or event or a painter showing their work at a gallery, these artists are dependent on the personal connection and since COVID-19 has halted any gatherings, the livelihood of this industry has also been silenced.
Temporarily or not, any disruption an artist experiences can be a severe one as many artists are normally underpaid and therefore some have to live from gig to gig. It is the reality of being a full time artist.
Fortunately, the artist community is responding in many different ways.
Artists are forcing to reinvent themselves by moving to a virtual platform and offering concerts, both solo or with video conferencing with other isolated artists. We are seeing musical concerts from local musicians to world-renown musical acts. Many musicians are playing for free and some are asking for donations so that they can continue their efforts.
Artist organizations around the country are trying to do their part and help those same artists that may be experiencing dire financial issues. Check out some of these resources as well as what some of the bigger foundations are doing in response to COVID-19:
The American for the Arts has created a survey for gathering critical information of each artist so that they can share their story so that they can be supported through this crisis. Click here to access the survey.
In the past several days, we have all been experiencing surreal moments in our lives pertaining to the corona virus pandemic. This hits hard for each of us in different ways and how we react and respond will indicate the length of a stranglehold this virus will have on humanity.
Each of us are probably already on overload when it comes to listening to the news detailing the consistent updates and the severity of COVID-19. Each day when I wake, I cant help but think “I wonder how bad it will get today”. In a matter of one week, many of our lives in the US have turned upside down with working from home (for those of us that have that option) and watching business after business closing down to help #flattenthecurve. I am only venturing out to obtain the essentials and I have going into several grocery stores just to find the basics and I am met with empty shelves, social distancing markers on the ground and even individuals in full HazMat outfits. Each day brings me to a point of limiting those trips. It’s real and scary.
As a musician and as it relates to COVID-19, I recently had an experience that promoted this writing piece.
This past week, our local Public Broadcasting Station (DPTV) had organized their annual Armenian Heritage Night where they have aired different Armenian documentaries over the past twenty years. Each time, I have been involved with these events. Initially it started with short performances between pledge breaks and then in 2015 (during the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide) it included the airing of my film documentary Guardians of Music. On Friday, March 20th, amid the pandemic, Armenian Heritage Night was scheduled with live interviews and performances. The plan drastically changed the day before for the safety of all involved. The live interviews were replaced with taped segments and the live performances were also excluded from the evening. However, within hours of the airing of Armenian Heritage Night, a few of us improvised and in partnership with DPTV, I added a Facebook Live performance and promo prior to the airing of the documentaries. This was cross promoted by the station.
It was a mad panic on my end to get everything set up and to have a makeshift studio in my house ready to go live at 7pm. Running around and trying to get the lighting right, sending out an email blast to my subscribers, a slide presentation and dressing up (for the camera!) in my own house to play music and talk to a camera was a unique moment in my musical career. All the while I was running around I kept thinking “I cant believe I am doing this”. Of course, the expected technical issues right before we were supposed to go live didn’t help and my wife ended up holding up my iPhone and filming it instead from my laptop setup.
I played music, promoted the event and briefly talked about my experiences with Armenian music. In my head I was still amazed this was happening and couldn’t help but think how this is our new norm for awhile. In the end, the event went well and so did Armenian Heritage Night at the station.
Our new norm will rapidly change and for those that make their livelihood as full time artists, I applaud your resiliency and can only hope that this will soon pass and you will be able to get back to promoting your art in front of people.