May 19, 2010: April has always been the month to seriously write about the impact of the Armenian Genocide. I have tried to not make this a purely Armenian letter. I am somehow under the illusion that I am more than one dimensional. Allow me to continue the April letter into May.
My trip to Istanbul had a greater impact than I would have imagined. I suppose, in retrospect, that it is a big “duh.” I have been thinking about Armenians and Turks most of my life. I have explored the complexities of the relationship through my devotion to the music both in appreciation and performance. I have, since 2004, been writing more and more about it in these monthly letters.
As May began I kept writing about the impact of my trip. The Genocide commemorations were just a week after my return on April 24. There were two other cultural events, elaborated below, that kept it all going. In the first two days of the month, I had enough for a letter. I hesitated posting it because I was still believing that I would not write two Armenian themed letters in a row.
Later in the month, May 13th, Antranig Kzirian sent me a paper he had written. Antranig is a talented young man. He is a lawyer, an oud player with the popular Aravod Band, and currently working on a Masters degree in International Affairs at Columbia University. He just finished a course with Professor Melissa Bilal, a friend of mine from the University of Chicago who spent a year at Columbia. The course was The Case of the Armenians in Turkey. Antranig’s paper was “The Oud: Armenian Music as a Means of Identity Preservation, Construction and Formation in Armenian American Diaspora Communities of the Eastern United States.” I read the paper with great interest. Antranig did a great job and his efforts inspired me to keep writing.
I wrote another three days and as a result… the longest letter I have written in this series by far. I promise to select a different topic in June.
May 1, 2010: I have been listening to a lot of Turkish music in recent years. I have been listening to this music instead of similar music recorded by Armenians for primarily one reason. I believed that there are a lot more good players in Turkey, there are a lot more budget and facilities to record these better players, and the music is thicker and much better orchestrated. By thicker I mean there are more musicians per recording so one can have a pretty solid of base and rhythm with bass, guitar, cello, and a set of drums on top of which you can have a combination of traditional instruments including oud, saz, duduk, clarinet, violin, and kanun. The recordings are simply thicker, better, and tighter.
To me this has been an element of the white genocide, the djermak chart in Armenian, the after effects of the genocide. Armenians were dispersed into other countries where our culture was secondary, tertiary, or even lower. In the United States, we struggled to maintain our folk music evolving it into a distinctly American-Armenian version of such. It also seemed that we had a American-American slant to it. I used to always say that the music just sounds different, i.e. heavier and more authentic, by Turks and Gypsies recording it over there. They are breathing the air, drinking the water, and eating the food. It gives them a true sense and feel of the music. They have the real taste. Our approach is mixed with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sesame Street, and what we think our heritage is.
I really believed this. My listening gradually moved to listening to more music recorded over there by better and better conservatory trained and professional musicians playing at what I thought were the highest levels. I would say that by 1995 or so, I was listening to mostly music recorded in Turkey.
When I first got into this music, it was the other way around. I used to listen to American-Armenians of my parent’s generation. I listened to Artie Barsamian, Mike Sarkisian, the Gomidas Band, and the Vosbikians. I really liked George Mgrdichian, the Hachig Kazarian and Richard Hagopian Kef Time series of albums, and the first four albums of John Berberian. In fact, I still believe that Oud Artistry and Expressions East are the best recorded and highest quality music recorded by American-Armenians. I believe these two albums stand up to most similar recordings from Turkey.
Why did I gravitate away from these recordings? We were recording the same the same music in essentially the same style. Our musicianship and arrangements improved over time. While the Turks also recycled the same classics, the music evolved at a faster paced and they were creating and writing new music. More importantly I liked the direction that the evolution of the music was going in Turkey. It kept more of the spirit, soul, or what we call kef. The music here either flattened out or became to Americanized i.e. jazzed up.
I began to change my views recently, very recently, since I came back from Turkey. The notion solidified this week when I listened to and then had lunch with John Berberian. John was in Chicago to play a concert and give a master lesson at the famed Old Town School of Folk Music in the trendy Lincolnwood neighborhood of Chicago. I was unable to attend his main concert on Wednesday, 4/28, but instead ventured into the city on Thursday to hear John perform for school children in the morning. We then went out, had lunch, and caught up.
In listening to John Berberian play Azziza of Mohamed Abdul Wahab and Kurdili-Hicazkar Longa of Kemani Sebuh, I realized just what a great player John is and just how good many of the Armenian oud players in this country are. We have a different style than the Turks and within our style are just as or maybe even more expressive. John Berberian is a master. John Bilezikjian is a master. No one else in the world can emulate John Bilezikjian. Richard Hagopian and George Mgrdichian also developed their own styles and are virtuosos. Not enough people know about Chick Ganimian probably the godfather of all American Armenian oud players.
Part of what made me realize our wealth and heritage here were two other factors. First, in Turkey, I visited the shop of Cengiz Sarikuş Usta, an oud maker. He is the fellow that has classic vintage old ouds for sale in his shop. 80% of these ouds were made by Armenian makers in the late 1800s and 1900s. The remainders were of the great Greek maker Immaniolis or Manol and a few Turks. The Armenians were the oud makers. That is no longer the case. Turks dominate the trade in the current Republic of Turkey. Armenians are relegated to the antiques and memories preserved on websites like these:
I also realized how the fellow responsible for bringing John Berberian to Chicago for a recent concert, Scott Wilkinson, is not Armenian but an American who is into Armenian oud players, specifically John. He has interviewed John and has written articles about him and his recordings. I also have, in the past two weeks, heard from another fellow named Robert who is equally into Armenian oud playing, lives in Chicago, and wants to meet me and maybe take a “master” lesson.
I realized that I have been victim of the white genocide and have been looking to the Turks as the dominant keepers of the culture. I should certainly appreciate the Turkish artists for their talent and where they are taking the music and style but I cannot, should not, and will not turn my back on my own people and our talents here in the US. Maybe I was thinking we were done. We are not. The best of us to date may well be Ara Dinkjian, a few years my junior, and Mal Barsamian. Ara is an internationally renowned star. Behind Ara and Mal, we have Antranig Kizirian and I have even heard how spectacular Richard Hagopian’s grandson is on the instrument.
I have a lot to be proud of. I must value our talents, skills, and innovations. I am thankful the rich events of April for re-awakening me to what I used to be and will now be forever will be proud of.
May 2, 2010: It is funny how themes or leitmotifs run in one’s life. I was done with this piece. I was just trying to decide if I should post it and with which photo of John Berberian. Now, evidently, I am adding to it. Why? It seemed to have reached closure just a paragraph ago.
Today, I went to the AGBU Center in Chicago to see an advanced viewing of the film, Voyage to Amasia. If you go to the website, http://www.voyagetoamasia.com/, you will see this is a film by Randy Bell and Eric Hachikian. I have known Eric all his life. He is the son of good friends, neighbors, Ken and Gloria Hachikian. Ken is one of my cycling buddies.
As you will note on the Voyage to Amasia website, Eric wrote a piano trio for his grandmother, Helen Shushan, by the same name, Voyage to Amasia, on a commission from the Armenian Prelacy in New York. We were at the world premiere of this piece at Carnegie Hall as was Randy Bell another friend of the Hachikians. Randy happens to be a film maker specializing in documentaries. He immediately fell in love with Eric’s music and thought it would be great to make a documentary of Eric going to Amasya, Turkey, his grandmother Helen’s birthplace to see where the Armenians lived, see if there was any trace of them left, and to follow their forced march from Amasya to Malatya.
The movie was very well done, though it is not quite done. Eric and Randy feel they have another two months of editing to get it just right. I loved it. I love it as it is. But, I can see why they would want to keep working on it.
They did end up talking to an Armenian lady, perhaps my age or a bit older, in an outlying village: Gumushacikoy. This lady Zabel was incredible. She had no fear but to tell it like she saw it. Living in Turkey all her life she understood that there it happened and there was not much to be done about it now. She said the Armenians were the artists, artisans, and craftsmen. The Turks got rid of us and filled the gap. Over time they became good and now are better than we ever were. Zabel’s family makes embroidered draperies, shawls, and other items. Her work looked beautiful. But, as she said, what was done was done. It was done over ninety years ago and that’s that.
This is the Cermak Çart (I have Turkified the term here) that I am talking about: The White Genocide. Sure, we lost our homes and homeland, the Armenian Highlands, what is now called Anadolu or Anatolia. But, we lost something more. We lost livelihoods and the right and ability to master trades and crafts. We lost the right to then expand and grow these same trades, crafts, and arts with the changing times. It requires living in the dominant culture to do some of these things. Our grandparents were all children when they were uprooted. They had not yet learned their trades, crafts, and arts. In the US, they just had to find jobs and support their families. Of course, none of this mattered then. They were just trying to recover from the shock and make families to know a more loving and normal life given their traumatic starts.
It is now that the White Genocide is felt.
I visited the shop of Cengiz Sarikuş Usta in Istanbul. He has vintage, antique, ouds for sale by mostly Armenian oud makers. He has photos of Onnik Üner Karibian and Agop Ohanyan, both Armenians and his teachers, displayed in the room with the antique ouds. It is amazing and wonderful. Cengiz is a nice fellow. I like the oud I bought from him.
There are no Armenian oud makers in the Republic of Turkey. There are still good makers but they are all Turks. Zabel’s words rang true before I heard her utter them on film today. There is a Greek oud maker in Boston, Peter Kyvelos. He carries on the legacy of the great Immaniolis. I have one of his ouds. It is a fabulous instrument.
There was a maker in Philadelphia named John Merjanian. He gained a reputation in the late 1970s and 1980s for making very nice ouds. Jonathon Varjabedian reports on his website that Merjanian even spent time with the great Turkish oud maker Hadi Usta. John passed away in May 2005. He had not been making ouds for the last ten to twenty years of his life. But, his ouds are valued. I played them and liked them but, unfortunately, do not own one.
There is an Armenian maker in Los Angeles, Viken Najarian. Viken learned to play the oud from his grandfather Dikran who was also an oud maker. Viken followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and makes both acoustic, classical, ouds and has innovated a wonderful electric oud that sell as fast as he can make them. Viken may be the only Armenian oud maker today outside of Armenia… hopefully not the last.
Yes, there are makers in Armenia. I have not been impressed with the quality or tone of the instruments I have played from there. Perhaps as the country improves, if the country improves, a community of oud players and makers may immigrate and emerge. The likelihood of that is certainly open to debate but one never ever knows how things change, especially in the long term.
Armenians have survived for over two thousand years vacillating between golden periods and being on the brink of assimilation and devastation. It is our history. It is our burden. It is as the kids say “how we roll…” not necessarily by choice.
In closing, the same thoughts occurred to my walking around Istanbul and in reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Things change with the times. What will Istanbul look like in five hundred years? What flag will be flying over it? What language will they be speaking? Will the mix of churches and mosques shift or will something new have taken over? Will there be Armenians in Istanbul? In Armenia? In Karabagh? I am guessing so, but who knows. As Armenians, some Armenians, we work on that transfer of spirit and heritage between generations… it is all we can do.
5-13-10: The Waning Oud
The Gomidas Factor: Gomidas Vartabed is a key figure in modern Armenian history. Gomidas was born as Soghomon Soghomonian in 1869 in Kutahya. He was orphaned at an early age and found himself at Etchmiadzin, the mother cathedral of the Armenian Church, at the age of eleven. He was brought there with a local prelate who went to the Holy See to be promoted to bishop. The head of the church, the Catholicos Gevorg IV, asked the bishop elect to bring one orphan to be educated at the seminary. The bishop chose young Soghomon because he was both in need but also because he was such a wonderful singer even at the age of eleven. A twist to this story is that young Soghomon only spoke Turkish and only sung in Turkish. He learned Armenian at Ethchmiadzin.
When he was ordained as a celibate priest was given a new name according to tradition. Soghomon was named Gomidas and became a Vartabed - a church scholar. He studied with the famous Armenian composer Kara-Mourza and then in 1896 he went to Germany to study at the Kaiser Frederich Wilhelm University under Professor Richard Schmidt. Gomidas got a doctorate in musicology. He returned to Armenia to do his life's work which he accomplished in half a lifetime.
Gomidas Vartabed made a priceless contribution to the Armenian people. Just before our entire way of life in the Armenian Highlands, what is currently Anatolia, was wiped out by the Genocide of 1915, Gomidas and his students roamed the countryside and wrote down the folk songs of our people. They helped preserve our heritage. With the sad demise of Gomidas and our gradual recovery from the Genocide, Gomidas has been revered more and more. The reverence for the man and his impact is so great, there is even talk of him being elevated to sainthood. There is little reference to Armenian music before him. It is as if Armenian music was born with him. We talk of his badarak as something special though almost every church I visit sings the Ekmalian Badarak that pre-dates Gomidas.
If we only consider lay music, there is an interesting phenomenon that perhaps only I notice. First, only the folk music recorded by Gomidas is actually considered the real and true folk music of Armenia. Folk dance music from tomzara to pompurig to the various regional dances take a lesser place. The composed music from Istanbul, the Ottoman court music composed by Armenians, is rarely given any consideration by "keepers" of our culture. They are overshadowed by the work of Gomidas.
I believe there is even a confusion of what Gomidas actually copied down and what he wrote on his own. Are songs like Groong, Kele Kele, and Habervan composed by Gomidas or collected by him? Most sheet music simply states Gomidas. Furthermore, and I could easily be wrong here, I believe that Gomidas wrote down all of folk music in pure western notation and keys. There is no sense of intermediate tones or maqam in any of this music. As a result, the music is often played in this so called "pure" Armenian style as Gomidas is the purest of Armenians. The only folk instruments that can play Gomidas are the duduk, kamancha, and kanon (not the kanun but the Armenian kanon with less mandals than it's Turkish cousin).
Moreso, the songs of Gomidas have taken on a Dvorak classical quality. The songs of Gomidas, once sung by farmers toiling in the fields or sung at village weddings, are now sung like German Lieder by opera caliber singers accompanied by viruoso pianists. There are recordings of Gomidas with string quartets and solo pianos. There is even a Gomidas String Quartet.
There is no room for the oud in this purified classical world. There is almost no room for the word folk. These songs are simply: Gomidas. They are Armenian art at the highest classical, western classical, level to be played in concert halls to stone silent stoic audiences. Sure, we allow the occasional George Mgrdichian to perform Kele Kele or Groong but even his crystalline delivery is just too pedestrian and folksy for our Tekeyan and Hamaskayin bretherin.
To me, an extreme example is one I personally experienced. At our church in Connecticut, a Gomidas concert had been arranged with a small group of classically trained singers and a pianist. The concert was to held in the church sanctuary. Our Der Hayr asked if I would bring my sound system to re-enforce the performers. I gladly complied. I figured, as people were coming into the church before the concert began, I would play the CD that has the actual voice of Gomidas recorded originally on wax cylinders. I thought it would be a nice touch. Most people were unaware that such recordings actually exist and are available on CD thanks to Harold Hagopian. The quality of the recordings is what you might expect. You have to listen around the white noise to hear the clean crisp voice of Gomidas Vartabed. This is something that us oud players are used to as we listened to 78 rpm recordings of the old masters.
As soon as the CD began, the director of the group, a matronly lady, came over and told me to turn it off. I said it was the actual voice of Gomidas. I will never forget what she said, "I do not prefer to remember him that way." I guess she preferred not to remember him as a real person with a real voice but rather the pure cultural ideal she held in her mind. I did not say another word, at least not out loud, and turned off the CD.
The Paris of the Middle East Factor: Why did the oud continue to be relevant in the United States but not in the Armenian communities of the Middle East. By Paris of the Middle East, I am, of course, referring to Beirut. From the end of World War II until the Lebanese Civil War, Beirut was the center of Western Armenian culture. It began when Catholicos Sahak II Khabayan of the Great House of Cilicia handed the keys of the Cathedral and Veharan complex in Sis to the Turks during the Genocide. Catholicos Sahak moved with his people to Syria and then Lebanon settling in Antelias, Lebanon in 1930 where he established the Catholicosate. With the Great House of Cilicia in Lebanon, Armenians who lived through the deportations migrated to Beirut. An Armenian community was established and began to thrive. Schools were established as were colleges, publishing houses, newspapers, and organizations of every kind. Beirut until the Lebanese Civil War was a great place for Armenians to recover, prosper, and move the culture forward.
As Armenians began to prosper, they took the label of Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East seriously. They faced westward and valued the French and European culture. This was especially true in regards to music. There was a definite Continental influence on music and dance which replaced the folk and traditional dance and music. As this happened, there was no room in classical ensembles for the oud. Neither was there any desire to include the oud in popular combos with drum sets, pianos, saxophones, and accordions. The oud was too Middle Eastern and not considered at all classy.
By contrast in the United States, the lesser keeper of Western Armenian culture, traditional music and ensembles that almost always had an oud continued to prosper and be valued. My theory for this was that we lived in the dominant American culture. When we wanted American and Western style music we had the best available to us whenever we wanted. There was no reason to create Armenian style American or Western Music. It was more desirable to keep the "old country" traditions alive here. We faced Eastward. Our cousins in Beirut faced Westward. I guess we were facing each other.
Language is certainly another factor. Everyone in Beirut spoke Armenian. They were rooted in their culture through the language and were thus free to "expand" the other dimensions of culture including music. Language skills in the US were not the same. Speaking for myself, the music became a stronger link and that meant the more authentic the better. The oud lends itself perfectly to this. On the oud, one can play folk, classical, and even Gomidas. (Note: we used to play the Der Voghormia chifte-telli before the System of a Down boys were even born.) On the oud, one can capture the essence of the Armenian soul.
The Turkish Factor: On the oud, at least the way most of us play it or want to play, one can also capture the essence of the Turkish soul. Here in lies another rub. The oud is brilliant in Turkish music be in classical (sanat) or folk. Because of the Genocide, go figure, there are large numbers of Armenians that want to purge our culture of anything remotely Turkish. We have purged Turkish words from Western Armenian. This includes words that exist in both languages like khurban (sweetie or dear). We have taken the richness of the maqam-esque tones and trills from our badarak to the extent possible (it is harder to purge the hicaz scale). We simply do not allow Turkish music at Armenian gatherings to the point of threatening violence for playing the music of the enemy.
I learned this as a child. I was under ten years old. We were at one of those great Sunday after church Khunjooks at our church. Basically, these were indoor picnics with food and, of course, a band. The band was the Hye-Tones of Detroit featuring the great Hachig Kazarian with Cory Tosoian on the saxaphone, Adam Manoogian on the dumbeg, and Kelly Kuchukian on oud. They had just released an album. I went up in total naiveté and asked "Could you play that song from your record?" Hachig looked at me and, quite naturally, asked "Which song?" I responded in even more youthful naiveté, "You know, the good one?" Smiling, Hachig asked "Could you sing some of it?" I did. Then Kelly said, "We can't play that." I was thinking he was saying that they did not know how to play it and said, "You don't know how to play it? How did you play it on the record then?" I had them laughing. Kelly explained that it is a Turkish song and they were not allowed to play Turkish songs in that Armenian Church hall. I was perplexed. It was a very good song, Zeytin Yagli, and it sounded pretty much like all the music l liked.
As I grew older, I learned that most of the music I liked was on the cusp of Greek and Turkish or Armenian and Turkish. Zeytin Yagli was one of those songs being on the cusp of Greek and Turkish.
It is funny. Upon occasion our band, which we could label as kef or traditional, would play Loberde a classic Kurdish folk song and has both Kurdish or Turkish lyrics. We would get severe protests and be threatened with physical violence. (Worry not, we are peaceful musicians and truly avoid such conflicts.) Yet, if Harout Pamboukjian sings the same song with Armenian words, Hye Katcher or Armenian Braves, the same people who would threaten us would be whooping it up, literally waving the flag, and throwing money motivated by the patriotic lyrics. Oh, the dichotomy.
I recall once playing an old Armenian Vanetsi folk song, Aghchigan Yerdasart. Vigen Babayan pulled me aside later and told me it was a Turkish song. He did not tell me never to play it but said it was a Turkish song. Years later played the same song, Krikor Pidedjian, an equally ardent Armenian, came up to me asking where I learned that song. I thought, "oh here we go again." But, Krikor went on to say that his mother used to sing that song to him when he was a child. He had not heard it in years and thanked me for bring back such a great memory. Herein lies the dichotomy, the dilemma, the noise, the khurra-bullukh. Pardon my French er turkish er... Armenian, Arabic or whatever it is. See my confusion.
The confusion continues when it comes to the Armenian composers of classical Turkish music. Bimen Sen Der Ghazaryan and Kemani Tatyos Efendi, to mention just two, are embraced by the Turks and largely ignored by Armenians. Is it because they wrote in the enemy's style? In maqam? Are they are horrible reminder of the past? Too "oriental"? I actually believe that today, it is simply being blissfully unaware.
OK. I am not naive; I understand clearly what happened to us. The Turks unceremoniously threw us out of THEIR country with extreme prejudice. They did it because they wanted to, because they could, and who knows what other motivations... Pan Turinism and purity of this and that. I get this. I really do. I can, however, separate politics and culture. It is not all black and white though there are less shades of gray in the political parts of this. This is my humble view of things.
In Summary: These three factors overlap greatly. The deification of the purity of Gomidas, the look westward away from Tartary if you will, and the elimination of all things Turkish and vile from our culture are rooted in the same thing. There is a consensus to try to create pure Armenianism however that may be defined. For some, it is to dress up in their finest clothes and jewelry attend a concert hall and hear Kele Kele played by a string quartet and just maybe think of some noble peasant singing in four part harmony with no semi-tones while harvesting perfect apricots.