Chaplin and his century of legacies

The Kid, released in 1921 is 100 years old this year.

Those of you that know me well are aware of the admiration I have for the art of silent movie icon, Charlie Chaplin. I have been watching his movies ever since I was a “kid”. A wonderful childhood memory I have was going to the local library with my father and checking out several Chaplin one-reelers to watch on 8mm at home. My father and his generation before him were fans of Chaplin’s work. I recall my father telling me how they used to show his movies at school during lunchtime. I had an uncle that used to clown around the house wearing a bowler hat similar to the Little Tramp costume. (His granddaughter gave me that hat and it is prominent in my home office).

In my opinion, Chaplin was an absolute genius on screen. He had the ability to produce, direct, write and act in many of his movies. Much has been written about his life, his body of work and philosophies. He was controversial in his personal life which may have led to his many of his film inspirations.

He truly is legendary and all of his films will live forever. Many of his full length features are still critically acclaimed invocate emotion and empathy even in current times. To watch his earlier work would put a smile on your face. The Little Tramp he created would get into trouble, get chased, and sometimes get the girl at the end of the movie. His later work such as Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux all contained deeper messages and thoughts that he wanted to convey to his audience.

Just as amazing as each of his movies, the musical score he composed for his full length features are equally genius. It is true what they say about the power of music in movies. A perfect example is City Lights – a truly magnificent score that compliments the film.

As each year passes, a new Chaplin milestone is created. A few years ago I wrote a short post about Chaplin’s film The Pawnshop turning 100 years old. I was fascinated to realize that his movies had started to pass the 100 year mark. What prompted this posting was that I recently saw his classic film The Kid (Premiered: January 21, 1921) celebrated 100 years this year. This was a pivotal motion picture for Chaplin as it was his first full-length as a director. It starred child actor, Jackie Coogan who would be more familiar to fans of the Addams Family television series as he portrayed Uncle Fester.

Interesting to note that the last surviving cast member of The Kid is Silas Hathaway, who played the baby at the beginning of the movie. He is 101 years old and one of a handful of last surviving silent film actors.

To end with a quote from Chaplin, something that we all could use more of in our lives, especially during these trying times …

“A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

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Did music save us during COVID?

Music has always been considered to have the ability to sooth ones nerves, a useful tool for practicing meditation and exercise. Whenever I am working in my office, I do enjoy having some light music playing in the background. It provides a relaxation and focus that is needed for me to push through my work load. (Even as I write this I am listening to soft classical music on piano!) Going for a walk – I love to listen to music as it relax me. I can’t think of a greater time where music wasn’t as important in all of our lives. If you are in a situation where you are quarantined with the inability to see many people, you might seek music as a salvation for your stress. Right?

The title of this post certainly could bring out a variety of comments or additional questions, but it is based on a recent article I read about how (or if) music has been  salvation for us during the pandemic. During a time when music is probably needed the most, how did we repay music back? An interesting and thought provoking question. This article implied that perhaps that our current society has let the musicians down during these times. Pretty bold statement, but I think many aspects of this are very true.

COVID certainly has had devastating outcomes on different industries, let alone musicians and the music community.  Closing of musical venues have crippled artists around the world, musicians are left without ways to make money for themselves, the pandemic has forced music to seek new roads of engagement. All for a small amount of money (as is the case with the majority of musical artists) that they already make when do have a playing gig.

An interesting thought surrounds the notion of our level of support with artists has only been amplified during the current crisis.  This is a pre-existing problem that has bubbled to the surface due to COVID.

Pre-pandemic times, we have supported musicians by attending their concerts and buying their musical products. However, for the most part, we have mainly supported mainstream artists and not the local musician or musical group. The pandemic has drawn even less attention to the local musician and their achievements. Many are composers and very talented in their own right. As I have said before, many have resorted to providing virtual content for the purpose of raising funds or just to stay relevant in our minds.

So horrific to think what will become of so many creative artists, there was a survey several months ago citing that 19% of the musicians polled would abandon their career and seek alternatives for providing income to themselves and their families. I can only wonder what that percentage is like now.

Supporting local musicians is a fairly easy task with the convenience of social media. Most artists not only have a website, but they have an active social media environment. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube – all musicians are utilizing one or most of these marketing tools to expand their reach into the public. With the absence of live gigs, please look up your favorite artist and simply share something they have posted.

Posted in covid19, detroit, Gigs, music | 2 Comments

What would go in your 2020 time capsule?

Creating a time capsule that captures a period of time with items that would go into a container and buried in a location only to be discovered many years later is an age-old tradition. While I was researching the origin of a time capsule, I learned the concept is ancient, yet the name “time capsule” originated back in the 1930s.

Time capsules have a purpose and over the years there have been many reasons for its use. From celebratory to the remembrance of an ill-fated event, these historic caches have helped historians understand many things – both important and non-important.

When I was in middle school, I remember the principal buried a time capsule in the courtyard of our school. This was around 1982-83, so the items that may have gone in there (as I clearly don’t remember) might have been some school items or popular books at the time.  The disc camera was new and so was one of the first persona computers: Timex Sinclair. If I think more about what went in there, I may get depressed!

We all want 2020 to come to an end with hopefully better times in the new year. If you were able to create a time capsule to memorialize this year, what types of items would you put in there?

Some obvious items would be …

  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Face masks / gloves
  • Bleach or any cleaning supply
  • Empty bottles of liquor consumed during the pandemic. (Well, this could create an environmental problem for some people!)

Sure, those are the easy ones, but here are some serious ones that we shouldn’t forget.

  • A musical instrument – signifying the lack of music or entertainment that occurred during the pandemic.
  • A menu. So many restaurants, small businesses, went under due to quarantine.
  • Photos of family or loved ones lost during the pandemic.

Many of you would add to this capsule the actual Covid-19 virus, but given that a time capsules purpose is to one day be discovered…I’d prefer to bury this disease and never uncover it again.

Posted in covid19, Reflections | 2 Comments

Where do we go from here?

Undoubtedly this has been the most difficult year in all of our lives. It is historical, well documented and generations will talk about it. We will never forget 2020…no matter how hard we try.

Reflecting on a year can be very drab and filled with metaphors. We typically end such remarks with “cheers to a great year ahead!” or “wonderful memories and blessings this past year”. I think it might be safe to say that such phrases have been thrown out the window as far as 2020 is concerned.

Perhaps a crisis creates the best type of reflection in our lives. Does this allow us to appreciate more of what we have lost? I know it has for me.

It was a year of a disease that caused death, mental anguish, and an unstable economy. Crisis is not unfamiliar territory for many of us and our world has been through them before and sadly will happen again. We hope that the turmoil we experience won’t happen in our children’s future but we all know life is unpredictable. Who would have thought a virus could globally tie us up like it has?

Whereas we do see a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines coming out that will hopefully control COVID, it remains to be seen what the timeline looks like and how long until life returns to a new normal.

With positive comes the negative that we have felt this past year.

No matter how you feel about the disease, you most likely knew someone that caught the disease and survived and also someone that died. In many cases we are talking multiple people in either categories.

As someone that has spent a career working with people, especially the business community, I am sensitive to the struggles I have witnessed from the nonprofit organizations to the startup entrepreneurial community. Funding across the board has been a struggle and as I reflect on this, we are not out of the woods yet as it pertains to our economies.

Individuals that relied on their industry were boxed out by a disease that left many unemployed. Hospitality industries have been decimated. I heard a podcast where a well known food entrepreneur felt that 85% of the independent restaurants may not survive the pandemic. A staggering statistic if true.

2020 was a year of virtual music, this is a screenshot from our Kennedy Center event this past October.

The music industry had a stone wall put in front of it for the better part of the year. Artists unable to perform live or tour in order to create revenue. One of the hardest occupations hit now are those full time artists that make their living “showing” audiences their craft.

Even as a musician I had optimistic views that I could adjust and either work on projects or perform virtually. I did some of that, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.

Our Artsakh…

For me, the added stress and sadness of a country under attack with lives lost and land taken away. Artsakh. The timing of such an attack on our people isn’t lost in my eyes. A convenient time for evil to prey on innocent lives.

Children’s education and mental well-being. I’m blessed to have a wife that is an educator and well adjusted children that adapted well to virtual learning environment, but what about others? Especially the younger children that are in their formidable years. The lack of human contact where we learn social skills has had a major pause button pressed and this needs to return if children are to gain the street-smarts needed in maneuvering through life.

Will we be a kinder society? Probably not. Just read your social media feeds for that answer. Normally life changing events changes our perspectives and one of those could be how we hold ourselves in front of others. What I’ve seen throughout this pandemic are those that were kind prior to the crisis and kept their kindness with genuine efforts of care towards others. However I’ve seen the uglier side of human interactions stemming from growing anxieties to political debates.

It is a new normal right? As much as we want to go back to our same lifestyle and routines, many things have altered our lives forever. Sounds stark, but I don’t know that these changes are detrimental to moving forward. Perhaps we will create quality over quantity, more conscience of our health and ‘slow our roll’ (as it were) with how we handle our work schedules.

As the smoke slowly clears, I do see some positives that have manifested itself due to this crisis. It will be interesting to see how quickly different areas will bounce back due since their initial shut downs.

Sure, I am looking forward to being able to freely go out and either support a restaurant or a live event. All musical gigs stopped back in March and I am hoping this will bounce back, but fearful that this will still take some time. Most of all, I am looking forward to seeing more people. This has taught me to value what I have and also not to waste time doing things I don’t want to do. In many cases, this gives us the ability to smell the roses.

I would like to wish all of you that read my posting a happy holiday and one that is filled with good health and love for those close to you. Good riddance 2020, hello 2021!

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Artsakh-Armenia Relief Concert on Dec. 12th

Over the past several months we have experienced many groups throughout the diaspora helping both raise awareness and funds due to the war in Artsakh. These groups have been innovative in putting together products or offering their talents to help support raise funding that will go towards humanitarian needs for all Armenians affected by the war.

We have seen many different industry sectors pull efforts together on these fronts. For example, the medical industry bonded together to pull medical supplies to send to Armenians in need. The arts and cultural world has also played a pivotal role from mainstream artists like Serj Tankian (who raised over $600k for Artsakh)  to actresses/performers like Cher and Kim Kardashian.

Now its the traditional/folk musicians turn to offer their talents to raise awareness and funds to aid Artsakh.

Charles Kalajian, a musician and educator, spearheaded the idea of creating a virtual concert featuring an impressive list of musicians from the East coast to West coast. This 90-minute concert will be on December 12, 2020 and can be viewed on Facebook and YouTube.

“My dad’s extensive career in music has inspired me to continue his teaching of the heritage and bond of music. Even though many who are performing in the concert are professionally trained musicians, we all learned Armenian music “knee to knee”, that is listening to each other, letting the music fill our souls which is how we created the concert. This concert was done with no rehearsal. There were COVID restrictions so to perform with those who had a chemistry was important for us to capture the spirit and emotion” said Charles Kalajian.

Certainly influenced by his father, Charles is immersed into the musical community. As an educator he is currently part of the music faculty of Rhode Island College, Community College of Rhode Island, Percussion faculty at the Rhode Island Philharmonic Music School. He has also launched Maestro Music Professionals (online music school) with his brother John Kalajian which is an online music school. “… bringing the joy of music to students goes beyond a job description. The way I carry myself is with passion and compassion and that carries that into my teaching. My students see how enthusiastic I am about what I do for a career, and it fuels their eagerness to learn” said Kalajian.

Under the auspices of the Knights of Vartan, Arax Lodge in Rhode Island, Charles approached the organization who fully embraced the idea. The Knights of Vartan is a non-sectarian, non-political and non-denominational fraternal organization.

Charles’ father, veteran guitarist Ken Kalajian contacted fellow musicians, all of whom donated their time and talent to the creation of this livestream.

All funds raised will be donated to aid our brethren in Armenia and Artsakh affected by the war. I also want this concert to create awareness throughout the country so that people are not blinded or look away to what is happening. The point of history is to learn from our mistakes and make sure bad events do not happen again. If we just look away then we are again repeating our cultural history” said Kalajian.

The musicians include (east coast): Leon Janikian (clarinet), Mal Barsamian (oud & clarinet), Harry Bedrossian (keyboard), Mher Mnatsakanyan (duduk), Ken Kalajian (guitar), Gary Kashmanian (doumbeg) and Charles Kalajian (percussion & doumbeg) and the west coast, Richard Hagopian (oud), Andrew Hagopian (kanun) Armen Hagopian (clarinet), and Philip Hagopian (doumbeg).

“This concert is particularly more important because through our music we will be collecting money to help our sacred land Artsakh to blossom again” said Mher Mnatsakanyan. “Through the music of my duduk, I disconnect myself from this world and picture myself somewhere invisible while performing”.

Along with the musical program, the livestream highlights words of inspiration from the faithful clergy in Rhode Island as well as leaders from the Knights of Vartan. Sonya Taraian, host of the Armenian Radio Hour of Rhode Island will serve as host for the event as we create a cultural solidarity of identity and purpose.

To Donate:
Online: Paypal: Kovarax or Venmo: Kov-Arax
By Mail: Send a check payable to: Knights of Vartan Charitable Fund (P.O Box 3673 Cranston, RI 02910)

Posted in Armenian, art, Artsakh, covid19, Genocide, music, oud, world music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cultural Identity, Repeated History

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.

Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi. Photo by Aram Kirakosyan (https://bit.ly/2I5ZW1U)

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.

 

Related news stories:
Cultural erasure may spark next Nagorno-Karabakh war
Why Scholars, Cultural Institutions Are Calling to Protect Armenian Heritage
A Quick End to a Dangerous War (OpEd)
Major Armenian Cultural Heritage Sites Under Threat of Erasure in Aftermath of Second Artsakh War

Posted in art, Artsakh, culture, Genocide, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How I Wish To Remember Artsakh

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.

Fast forward….

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.

News articles and OpEds to learn more about Artsakh:
(these articles are only a few that have been published since the war begin. I tried to include factual articles as much that is reported does not tell the full story or convey the same emotion Armenians feel worldwide)
Pashinian Says Truce With Azerbaijan Still Not A Solution To Karabakh Problem
Nagorno-Karabagh Briefing
For Arthur
The Beating Heart of Artsakh: A Photo Essay
Nagorno-Karabakh: Ethnic Armenians prepare to give up homes
Armenians bid ‘painful’ farewell to monastery ceded in peace deal

Music from/about Armenia & Artsakh:
(These are recordings that I produced in the early 2000s of some of the best musicians preserving Armenian music.)
Ancient Lands
Echo of the Mountains
Illumination

Posted in Armenian, Artsakh, music, Reflections | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Performance of a lifetime during a pandemic

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.

Tom Zakarian, Ara Topouzian and Jerry Gerjekian

World Music in Michigan: China & Armenia included my Detroit trio of Jerry Gerjekian (dumbegs) and Tom Zakarian (guitar). Two musical veterans in Armenian and Middle Eastern music.

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.

I want to thank the Kennedy Center, Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs the all of the comments of encouragement for the performance. Thank you Jerry, Tom and Xiao for making this a complete experience for me!

If you missed it, that’s ok, below you can watch the entire October 5th concert.

Posted in Armenian, detroit, music, world music | 2 Comments

Ara Dinkjian with The Secret Trio and New York Gypsy All-Stars Live at Princeton University

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.

Posted in Album Review, Armenian, Middle Eastern music, oud | Leave a comment

Armenian Musician Harry Minassian, Student of Udi Hrant Passes

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.

Posted in Middle Eastern music, music, oud, Uncategorized | 2 Comments