Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Tribute to John Berberian and Onnik Dinkjian

There is a dinner at an Armenian Church in New Jersey Saturday, September 27, 2014. It is a tribute dinner for two very special musicians: Onnik Dinkjian and John Berberian. It is organized by the Friends of Onnik and John; an organization created, no doubt, for the sole purpose of throwing this tribute and testimonial dinner. I would love to go and if I were still living in CT, I probably would be attending. As I live in Illinois, I will take prepare this blog to convey my admiration and best wishes. As the committee solicited comments from other musicians parts of this post might be read at the event.

John: From about the age of 14, I have been mesmerized with the "oud artistry" of John Berberian. I am not even sure if my admiration for John began after I decided to take up the oud or if my admiration for John led me to the oud. I think they were somehow simultaneous and independent events.

The John I was mesmerized with was the John of what are the best albums of American Armenian diaspora: Oud Artistry and Expressions East. I have wanted to play like John on those albums since I first started playing the oud. Those albums were to oud players of my generation like The Exciting Sounds, on which
John was the oud player, of Hachig Kazarian was to budding clarinet players of the same era. I wanted to play like John then and... I want to play like John now. He was haunting, vibrant, and so expressive on those albums which in my humble opinion were the pinnacle of the Armenian-American a la turca style. I have told John on many occasions that his Taksim that went into a chifte telli on Expressions East is the single best recording of an Armenian playing the oud I have ever heard.

I have always wanted to play like John. Who wouldn't? For all the years I have been practicing and playing, that is still my goal. I have had a good musical career myself but am still in awe and admiration of John. He is still the oud player I would love to be like.

Of all the times I have heard and been in awe of John's playing, one day stands out in my mind. We were having a summer gathering of Armenians at our Connecticut house. David Attarian was there and had brought an accordion. John had stopped by and brought a violin of which he is also quite skilled. The three of us had a little impromptu jam session that I wish we had recorded but it was before the days of smart phones. The music was old fashioned, sweet, and most definitely rooted in and reminiscent of that first generation of Armenians that survived the genocide and were trying to create new lives and families in this country.

Onnik: I have not known Onnik nor have I been a fan for as long as I have known and been a fan of John's. I have always admired Onnik's talent and skill but, honestly and no offense intended, his repertoire was not my cup of tea back in the day with the exception of Chifte Chifte on the House of the Seven Uncles. Apparently, I was more into Turkish music back then. Sure, I learned all of the songs Onnik popularized over the years. It was an absolute requirement as a working musician because singers in the groups I played with loved his songs and people regularly requested "that song Onnik sings."

I am not sure when I got to know Onnik personally. It was gradual and probably began in the 1980s but for sure in the 1990s. I had increasing opportunities to sit and talk with Onnik. Silly as this may sound, my admiration for Onnik, his artistry, and his repertoire grew ten fold from just getting to know him. Another factor was that as I aged I came to appreciate and like all styles of Armenian music. Not surprisingly, Onnik has become an absolute favorite of mine. What can I say... I am still learning.

As you may know, Onnik writes lyrics. My all time favorite line of his is in his song Karnan Dzaghig:
Sosi'in baruh yar djan, Hagopin heduh yar djan
      Polor ashkharuh yar djan, chigah numanuh yar djan yar yaro djan
Anyone that has ever seen Sosi and Hagop Kadian dance, like many of the attendees of the tribute dinner, knows that Onnik captured a perfect memory. He also captured something much more. In these few simple, yet profound lines, he expresses the magic that can exist between musician and dancers in this style of Armenian music we so love. This music and dance synergy moves our hearts and souls.

I saw Onnik just a few weeks ago at the AYF Olympics. We had a great conversation about Armenian life and music. I love his views and insights on things. I love his energy and zest for life in general and how he brings this onto the stage and into his performances.

Onnik is, as we used to say, the real deal.

John and Onnik: There is an article in the Armenian Weekly online about the friendship and musical partnership of John and Hachig Kazarian. That article might be directionally correct but the real partnership is between John and Onnik. John and Onnik, Onnik and John, they are an amazing partnership that is threefold in nature. Obviously, they are friends or no other kind of partnership could have lasted this long without deep friendship and admiration as a base. They are, most certainly, musical partners. The Tribute Dinner for which this piece is written, is to specifically celebrate and honor this musical partnership and all it has meant to so many of us.

But, let us not underestimate the other third and more subtle part of their partnership. They are business partners. To be at the pinnacle in the music, however large or small the market, requires talent and showmanship which John and Onnik have in great abundance. It also requires branding and some business savvy. There are countless examples of very talented Armenian musicians who lack this sense and no one knows or admires them they way John and Onnik are admired. Both Onnik and John have their own brands to be sure. They also have a very strong collective brand. In this case, one plus one is definitely greater than two. Onnik and John both stick to the brand they created when their partnership began even if they didn't consciously create the brand. They innately know their audience and what that audience wants. So, I am not speaking of business or branding in any cold or calculating sense. Onnik and John definitely have this sense and it stems from love for the music and the people that love the music.

I have seen them perform together at big dances and national events like the AYF Olympics. They are always good and everyone always enjoy them. The most enjoyable, however, I ever found them is when they play for their "home town" folks at the St. Vartanadz dinner dances in New Jersey. The music was wonderful but it had more of relaxed and comfortable feel there. Of course, that is where Sosi and Hagop used to dance...

Congratulations John and Onnik! You are national treasures and personal treasures to me.

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