Monday, August 31, 2009

August 2009: For Love of the Music

One of my favorite letters was the August 2004 letter entitled: Memories of August Festivals ( It was in two parts, the first was about the famous Woodstock Music and Arts festival which took place in August of 1969. The second part, which truly makes this letter memorable to me, was about the Blessing of the Grapes picnic of the St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn, MI which my church until 1990.

The reason I love that letter is because it was special for me to capture the atmosphere of those Grape Blessing picnics. Central to that experience was the music and musicians that had an incredible effect on me and lured me into this world of Armenian Kef style music.

Growing up, I thought I wanted to play the clarinet. It was an obvious choice. All I heard around my house were the tapes from my maternal grandmother’s brother Samuel. He was a clarinet player. He played the folk songs in the real old country style from where our family was from in Turkey. My Father was and is a huge fan of Hachig Kazarian, the great Detroit born clarinet player who now lives in Las Vegas. I really wanted to play the clarinet and I really wanted to play the music that Samuel and Hachig played.

It did not work out that way. In fifth grade, when it was time to take music lessons in the fifth grade, I signed up for clarinet. I was very excited and knew this was the first step to virtuosity, fame, and playing the music that I loved. The very first thing the instructor, Mr. Magnus I believe, did was give a tonality test. He played some notes on the piano and we had to hum them back. I was so excited; I completely messed up this simple test and was rejected. REJECTED which rhymes so well with dejected which is what I was.

After about two weeks of dejection, my friend Mike Steele was going to violin lessons. He knew I was unhappy about the clarinet experience so he invited me to come and try the violin. I wanted to play something, so I went along. Mr. Ara Zerounian, an Armenian, was the teacher. He gave me the same simple test. I easily passed and voila, I was playing the violin – not the clarinet.

I seriously considered and believed I would be a concert violinist and perhaps even a composer, heck; I was taking lessons from Ara Zerounian who trained the Kafafian sisters and Michael Ouzounian. In fact, I took lessons from Michael Ouzounian for $2 a half hour. Who is Michael Ouzounian? Well after surviving his failed attempt to improve my violin technique, he went on to Julliard and became the principal violist in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.

When my attention span and love of the violin waned, I drifted a few months or years musically before really and truly buying into the American male teenage musical dream. I thought I would take up the guitar. Ah yes, chords, rock and roll, Beatles songs, and ripping screaming guitar solos. I would woo the ladies with my renderings of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell songs. I would master the classical, folk, and rock styles. I had decided to eschew jazz, only because I realized I could truly master three styles. Four would have just been too much and truly unattainable. Oh yes, I forgot that I had decided to do all of this without taking one lesson on the guitar. Come on, this was the America of the 1960s a time when cock-eyed optimism was still very much alive in these United States and self initiative and desire was all that was needed to do any damned thing one wanted to do.

Predictably, that dream leveled out at the same lame level as my guitar playing skills. That’s OK. It was fun for the year or so that it lasted.

Then, in the storybook fashion of this tale, I was at an Armenian dance at St. Sarkis. I asked the oud player, I believe Ed Shargabian, how he tuned the oud. The next day, for pure kicks, I tuned my guitar like an oud. I tried playing a few Armenian tunes I knew. Wow. I liked it. I liked it a lot. In short order, I was playing a dozen songs. Nothing special, but I was hooked. Ed Shargabian lent me my first oud and became a friend and mentor until his untimely passing in a car accident.

That music had been all around me growing up. My father tells me a few stories of when I was a baby. First, my paternal grandfather showed my father my little hands and commented that I had long fingers and would be a concert pianist. Secondly, my grandfather would play Udi Hrant’s soulful lament, Agin, on the family record player. I would lift my head and look around. It was an even more significant sign of the role this music would play in my life. I truly believe I was more startled or intrigued with the unique raspy voice of the great master than anything else.

The music was an obsession of both sides of my family. My maternal Aunt Suzie who taught modern dance at the university level, taught folk dancing at Saturday Armenian School at St. Sarkis. She single handedly made sure that our generation knew all the village dances that the first generation of immigrants brought with them. This included the Laz Bar, the dance of the Laz peoples, for which my maternal Grandfather, Levon, was considered the master. We learned the dances of Van, Kghi, Erzeroum, and Sepastia. She formed a dance group and we performed at our church and ethnic festivals around Detroit. This helped solidify the roll of this music in my lfie. Truly, I never really had any illusions of being a great dancer. I liked it a lot, but knew my limitations.

I have also written about my maternal Grandmother’s brother Samuel. He had a band in Aleppo, Syria where he settled after the Genocide. He would send us reel to reel tapes of his very Kharpert style of clarinet playing. This and the constant Armenian, Turkish, and Greek music my father played in the house as I grew up. I was definitely conditioned and pre-disposed to this music. I also believe there is a genetic component. I believe it is in the core of my DNA. Yes, I know, I was probably conditioned but it is most definitely core.

This passion for the music is a something we call kef. It is a word in Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic. We refer to someone smitten with kef as a kefji. The word varies from something spiritual and soulful to an exuberance for partying.

I am not alone. My good friend and talented drummer Mike Mossoian once summed it up, as only he could say, “If I wake up one day and was no longer a kefji, just shoot me.” He was speaking not to any ethnic or even cultural arrogance though Lord knows we Armenians are entirely capable of this. He was speaking of his love of the music. If he woke up and no longer liked the music, his life would be empty. Indeed it would be, for him, for me, and for many others I know.

Ed Arvanigian: On August 7th, Judy and I drove to Detroit to attend the birthday party for a great friend, a pure kefji, and musical mentor: Ed Arvanigian. This birthday party was mostly a gathering of family and friends at his daughter Kari’s house in Dearborn. It was a beautiful summer evening, very comfortable, you could say perfect for an outdoor party.

Ed is such a kefji and such a fixture in the music scene in Detroit, there had to be a band. The band were all my friends and from my generation: Tom Gerjekian, John Harotian, Mike Mossoian, Kraig Kuchukian, Greg Nigosian, and myself. At one time, with Tommy, Greg, and I playing there were three oud players. There were only two musicians of Ed’s generation: Kelly Kuchukian the long time oud player in the Hye Tones band and Simon Javizian a wonderful clarinet player and leader of the Ardziv Band. Yes, Kelly is the father of Kraig who played keyboard that night.

Ed loves the music, especially the Turkish music, of his parents’ generation. Basically, that is all we played. That is all we wanted to play. Sadly, the call for this music is less and less with each passing year. At most Armenian venues, the performance of Turkish music is banned and will cause a pretty strong reaction if played. Oddly, because of this most Armenians can no longer even recognize Turkish songs if they are not sung… so, we sneak them in. Also, a lot of Armenian popular music coming from California and Armenia is simply Turkish songs overlaid with Armenian words. It simply is what it is… as they say.

That night, for Ed, we played and sang the old songs. Mostly Ed and Kelly sang them. It was a total blast and very touching. We began playing Ipek Siyah Mantolu, coincidently my father’s favorite song. There is still a huge smile on my face when I write this. Ed and Kelly recognized the song from the open chords and like little children, eighty year old little children mind you, ran, at a surprisingly fast waddle, up to the microphone to belt out this song together. The music provided the same level of inspiration, excitement, devotion, feeling, elation, and kef no matter how old. If this music gets under your skin or in your soul, you are a devotee for life. It becomes part of your life bordering on your way of life. I truly hope that when I am 80 or more, I have the same kef spirit as Eddie and Kelly. (In the photo, Eddie has the orange glasses with his arm around Kelly.)

The musicians that evening all commented on how such parties once the norm are few and far between these days. Sure, we all have ALL the recordings in our iPods. But, a solo party between ones ears and a live band, open bar, mezza table, social event are two very different things. I can see why Sufis and some Alevis view music as a central part of their spirituality.

John Bilezikjian: I had actually planned to dedicate this entire letter to my friend and oud virtuoso John Bilezikjian. While he is not the only person I know that makes a living playing the oud, he is the only person I know making a good living playing the oud. (In the above photo, John is pictured with his 1900 Manolis Venios oud. Manol is considered the Stradivarius of oud makers.)

Yet, this is how my letter writing goes. Even when I am lucky enough to have a topic, or think I have a topic, at the beginning of the month, things change as the month unfolds. I did not think I would be in Detroit for Ed Arvanigian’s party and how it would influence me as I began to think about what I wanted to say about John and this music we love.

I will not burden you with a biography of John. His website is rich with his biography and significant number of recordings, film and TV work, and collaborations with such luminaries such as Placido Domingo and Leonard Cohen. Take a look and be impressed: There is also a wonderful article on John in the Gilded Serpent, an e-zine dedicated to Middle Eastern Music, Dance, Belly Dancing:

First and foremost, John is a very nice man. He is sincere and easy going. Talking and being with John is so casual that I often forget just how accomplished and what an awesome talent John is.

In preparing this segment of this letter, I was amazed at everything John has done when I read both of the above weblinks. He did three international tours with Leonard Cohen. He has performed and written music in films like The French Connection, Schindler’s List, and others. If you hear an oud on a television show or commercial, it is probably John playing. He has performed with both the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Pops. He mostly performs on the oud but is a master of the bouzouki, saz, mandolin, balalaika, and the violin. He was even the first to have conceived and craft a flat backed oud. He has even written an Oud Method book that is published in the Hal Leonard series of Method Books.

John is incredible. He has countless recordings from belly dance to Sephardic albums. My favorite is Music of the Armenian Diaspora. John plays two ouds and performs songs that define the Armenian-American experience for me. It is beautiful. If you are only going to listen to one thing, listen to this youtube link. This is a posting from John’s album The Magic of John Bilezikjian.

It is Bekledim de Gelmedim, a classic Turkish waltz by written by Yesari Akim Arsoy. Listen to John’s velvet voice and beautiful oud. Too bad you cannot hear him dedicate it to his grandmother as he does on the album. It was her favorite song.

As you can hear in the youtube, John has developed a unique style of playing the oud based on his chord system for the oud. Because of this, John can play almost any gig by himself and fill the place with just his oud and voice. He has a style of alternating between chording and melody that I swear sounds like he is doing both at the same time. Classical guitar players actually do both at the same time using every finger on their right hand to pluck the strings. John does it with a pick.

Other oud players do things that are pretty impressive. I hear a run here or trill there and can imagine doing it even if I cannot actually execute the maneuver. I have heard John do things that I cannot even imagine doing. Very cool and very impressive.

John knows the music. At the aforementioned Ed Arvanigian birthday party, Kelly sang a song a Turkish classic, Indim Yarin Bahçesine. I love that song and tried to look for the words on-line. There are many songs with that title but different words. So I cut and pasted the words I thought were right into an e-mail and sent them to John. A few minutes later we were on the phone. I told John that I was looking for the 9/8 song that Udi Hrant used to sing. John said, “oh yes, the Ismail Dede Efendi song” referring to the great Turkish composer.

Who among my peers would know this? Others might have pockets of knowledge but John for sure would know. He is a tremendous student of the music and an untapped wealth of knowledge.

John Bilezikjian is both a major talent and a friend. The friendship part differentiates him from almost every other major talent in our niche of the music world. There are people who might help others when asked but you know not to ask for too much or too often. There are others that you know way better than to ask for anything because it would just give them a great opportunity to say “NO!” accompanied by some belittling editorializing.

Not everyone appreciates John, however. In the countless and pointless arguments I have heard by the dwindling fan base of Armenian-American kefjis, many believe John has changed the style and purity of the core music. I used to think that to a degree. I was an idiot and gladly admit that now.

I have never heard John speak negatively about anyone.

There is a great memory of when John was in Detroit in the 1980s. He was at a picnic we were playing at. I invited him to play as he does any time I visit a club he is playing at. He dazzled the crowd. My beloved maternal Grannie called me over and said, “Vy you don’ play like dat?” I answered simply, “I ask myself the same question every day.”


  1. From my friend Ken Hachikian, providing as good a definition of a kefji as I have seen:

    Listened to the John Bilezikjian Youtube reference you suggested. Very nice; I love the music. As I listen, I have the need either to dance or cry. I probably qualify as a "kefji".

  2. To say that the music speaks to me is an understatement. It always has, even from an early age. I can stand for hours in front of the band/bandstand and enjoy each and every moment of it! I am indeed a kefji!!! Your cuz, David Aram Gavoor

  3. The music was moving. You are blessed to have had such rich and fulfilling experiences in life.

    Keep practicing so you can "play like dat”
    :-) Caroline

  4. I pass this beautiful piece on to people who need to learn about kef music close up from the inside. Dancing & crying indeed. Many thanks.

  5. With sadness, I was informed of the passing of Ed Arvanigian today on May 24, 2011. We have lost one of the great kefjis.


  6. Mark: I can identify with a lot of this--failing at clarinet, not doing well at piano, taking up the guitar at age 16 or 17. I love music, just not that good at making it. The part I can't live with it is the indiscriminate use of the Turkish words "kef" and "kefji" to describe the music Armenian villagers made and played and enjoyed. You need to come up with another term which better reflects OUR heritage.--Levon

  7. Sadly, John Bilezikjian passed away in January 2015.
    I miss both Eddie and John.

  8. Lastly and sadly, Kelly Kagham Kuchukian passed away October 5, 2017, in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, Illinois.