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) 

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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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An Open Letter to Film Critics about The Promise

Dear film critics,

Since its release on April 21st, much has been written and commented about the major motion picture, The Promise. Articles describing the making of the film and its importance have been well documented and favorable, however my disappointment and reason for this open letter concerns several of your reviews on the film.

Lets start with Internet Movie Database (IMDB) even though these are non-film critic reviews. I believe they set the tone for the rest of my letter. Realizing this type of forum, IMDB has increasingly become an untrusted source for real reviews due to fraudulent ratings and reviews movies printed BEFORE an actual release date. The Promise proved to be a victim of the same tactics. Internet trolls and several Turkish message boards flooded IMDB with poor reviews and 1 start ratings weeks before the film was release. This widely known issue has been covered by CBS News,  The Sydney Morning Herald, and many others.

Moving on to more reputable news sources, let me address the Associated Press which said:

“…But despite the best of intentions, the film fails to properly explain and contextualize both what led to that disgraceful episode, which Turkey to this day denies, and why it escalated as it did”.

I take issue with this comment as I disagree that The Promise failed to portray the atrocities. As a matter of fact, it hits all of the points and still provides the cinematic flare of several major motion pictures depicting similar atrocities to humankind. This movie gives the viewer enough information to provide a picture of what occurred during the Genocide  – without the gore and violence we are accustomed at the movies. It doesn’t need to show every gory detail of the reality our grandparents faced over a hundred years ago.

If you are expecting a type of monologue at the beginning – rent a documentary about the Armenian Genocide, as there are many  well produced films available. I would recommend watching The Armenian Genocide (produced by Andrew Goldberg) or Orphans of the Genocide (produced by Bared Maronian). However, The Promise was created for specific reasons and big monetary returns was not one of them. It contains an important message and anyone that saw the film understood that.

Several of you have also indicated that you understand the importance of the Armenian Genocide and that it is a subject everyone should be made aware of while giving it a thumbs down of approval. This approach seems counterproductive.  Do you think providing negative feedback about such an important topic sheds light on the Armenian Genocide or are you just encouraging people to stay away?

This is the first time that a major motion picture depicting the Armenian Genocide received major funding ($100 million), A-List actors, wide distribution (2000+ screens in the USA) and a massive brand awareness. But yet, your answer is to say that it wasn’t “good enough” and therefore this is supposed to encourage viewers not to watch the film.

In my opinion, The Promise receives high marks in several areas which are expressed in the film:

  • It is well documented that there were Turks that helped Armenians escape the Genocide. This was artistically portrayed in the film.
  • Armenians fought, when they could during the massacres. Providing the retaliation at Musa Dagh was documented in a German novel called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933). This battle was attempted to be made into a motion picture, but due to the pressures of the Turkish government – it was never accomplished.
  • Talaat Pasha was portrayed as the monster that he was, the mastermind behind the plans to exterminate the Armenians.
  • The death marches, the mass killings, the slaughter of innocent women and children.
  • The main characters in the filmed suffered major losses, but as any Armenian has said before – we survived.
  • Even the ending credits recaps with actual historic photos and detailed information about the Genocide.
  • Director Terry George was purposeful when putting this film together by striking a balance between what our culture (audience) expects out of a movie and to provide historical depictions to give the viewer a chance to understand the atrocities the Armenians went through solely because of the hatred the The Ottoman Empire had for our people.

I suspect that as film critics, you were expecting Shlinder’s List or perhaps Judgement in Nuremberg. In some ways, that would be great, but the big difference is that the underlined stories did not have to educate an audience. The Jewish Holocaust is widely accepted by not only the United Stated but Germany. The Armenians have not been afforded such a designation to date.  How do you tell a complex story about the Armenian Genocide to the masses that sadly know little about the Armenian Genocide?

The Washington Post can not even refer to the massacres as Genocide, instead says “what the film presents as the murder of 1.5 million Armenians…” I guess being that close to the nations capital has rubbed off on continuing to deny that the massacres were a Genocide.

Luckily, not all of your colleagues shared your negativity, such as:

  • Cinemascore, an industry leader gave the film an A- compared to Beauty and the Beat which has been out in theaters for several weeks got an A.
  • The New York Times seems to have gotten it right as well as Empire.
  • PluggedIn understands the historical significance of such a film.
  • said it was a great film and compared it to Dr. Zhivago.

Despite your attempts to give this film a bad review, I hope the world sees past them and goes to the movie anyway. As one friend recently told me: “Whenever I read a bad review, I go out of my way more so to see the film because I know they got it wrong”.


Ara Topouzian

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The Promise – Detroit Premiere

In many ways, this is a difficult blog for me to put together. So many thoughts and directions I want to take and talk about surrounding the major motion picture, The Promise especially as today marks the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

Mark and I outside of the theater prior to our first performance.

For me, the voyage of participating in the Detroit premiere began when I spoke to my friend Cory Jacobson, the owner of Phoenix Theatres Laurel Park Place. I asked if he would be interested in showing The Promise at one of his several theaters in Michigan. He was immediately interested (he knew of the movie) and within a few days he was able to confirm the screening of the movie. His theater was one of the first movie theaters to actually announce and provide showtimes in metro Detroit.

Cory wanted to make this “a community event” for several reasons. He is a great entrepreneur that understands providing value to his customers. He also has a personal connection to the Armenian community where he grew up in Wisconsin. Therefore he asked if I would play some music before one of the showtimes. I was honored and happily accepted. Asking my good friend Mark Gavoor, from Chicago, to come to play along side me on oud – we were both excited to provide some ambiance for the audience before the film began.

Upon announcing that there would be music before the 8pm screening of The Promise to the public – the showtime sold out within three days. We added another showtime for us to play music and that quickly sold out as well. It seems we could have played several of these showtimes to help fill the seats. The response from the Armenian community was amazing. As a matter of fact, the theater did a brisk business all weekend long for this movie. I even donated my CDs to patrons that bought tickets for the Sunday showtimes.

Phoenix Theatre owner Cory Jacobson welcoming the crowd before The Promise.

Also through Cory’s efforts, some great publicity was achieved including two articles in local newspapers: The Observer Eccentric and Detroit Free Press. This certainly helped spark the sold out showtimes.

Sold out showtime at Phoenix Theatres Laurel Park Place on April 21st.

Too be honest, playing music for such an event was more of an honor than I expected. I have played many different types of events over the years, but this one was different.  Having the the opportunity to see the film the night before solidified how I would feel the next day playing music. The film – completely mesmerized me. Immediately I felt the obligation to perform music to help promote this film so that its reach would be far and wide. Even the type of music we would perform changed overnight. As I mentioned in my welcoming remarks (see the video below), the music that I mainly perform can be classified as mainly upbeat. Not all of it certainly, but good portion of it. I didn’t feel that what we should play should draw away from what the audience was about to witness and felt that that we should honor the film by performing classical and folk Armenian songs which was more of a somber mood.

Cory with some of the guests waiting in line to see The Promise.

It was my understanding that at the end of each showtime, the audiences could wiping away tears and some applauding for the exceptional work that was accomplished in this production. A production that I learned was close to 40 years in the making as Clark Gable was originally slated for this story. It took one man – Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian philanthropist, to give his own money ($100 million) to see his dream come to reality. Sadly, he passed before the film was released, but he has secured his place in history for brining such a film to the general masses.

The Phoenix Theatre was the 29th top grossing movie theaters in the country (out of 2,200+) due to the ticket sales of The Promise on premiere night of April 21st. In Michigan — they were the #1 theater. Please see the film before it leaves the theaters. If you are interested in watching this at the Phoenix Theatre, check out this dedicated web page they created at:

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