The Vosbikian Band is the longest running Armenian band in America. Founded in 1939, they are a family band still going strong today with second and third generation members.
The band was founded originally by three brothers, Samuel, Manuel (Mike), and Joseph Vosbikian, born to Armenian immigrant parents from Malatya, Turkey, just after WWI. They were typical members of the "Greatest Generation", grew up during the Depression, served in WWII, and listened to Big Band music of the time like any other American kids.
|SAM, MIKE, JOE|
|BEDROS AND VARTANOUSH|
Bedros and Vartanoush had 4 sons and 3 daughters but it was the 3 oldest boys, Sam, Mike, and Joe who in 1939 took the revolutionary step, when some of them were still in high school, of starting the first Armenian band composed of American-born members. (Picture below.)
|L to R: Garo "Charles" Mardigian (usually played banjo), Sam Vosbikian (leader), Joe Vosbikian, Mike Vosbikian, Peter Endrigian (on dumbeg). The 1939-1941 band.|
|L to R, top row: Mike Vosbikian (sax), Jirair Hovnanian (vocals), Jimmy Vosbikian (clarinet, vocals)|
L to R, bottom row: Steve Ajdaharian (piano, vocals), Joe Vosbikian (dumbeg, vocals), Albert Santerian (dumbeg),
Sam Vosbikian (oud, bandleader)
From 1949-1951 the Vosbikian Band recorded 22 songs, the first by an American-born Armenian band. These recordings became hugely popular and influential in kef music. Later, in 1957, the Vosbikian Band produced the first LP by an Armenian-American dance band. Influenced by the Big Band Swing music of the time, the Vosbikians used saxophone (for the first time) and piano in an Armenian folk/dance band. They added an American flair to traditional Armenian folk music - for example Steve Ajdaharian's piano solos and Mike Vosbikian wailing on the sax on numbers like "Vosbikian Special II". Even aside from that, the Vosbikians had a unique sound like no other Armenian group; instead of making everything seem sad, they made everything seem happy. Yet, though they had a happy-go-lucky "American-Armenian" image and sound, they were actually more authentic in many ways that many of their peers who were giving into commercialism. For instance, on listening to their 1957 LP, "Vosbikian Presents Armenian Folk Dances," I felt I was there, live at an Armenian youth dance in the Catskills or the Jersey Shore in the 50s, - without the smoothed-out, Westernized style that makes some other bands of that era sound like the soundtrack to "Cleopatra" with Elizabeth Taylor. It was these recordings and this sound that was influential to the careers of a whole generation of American-born Armenian musicians.
But perhaps even more influential was the fact that they had started a band at all. For a bunch of American-born guys to take such a step of creating a working Armenian dance band in the 1940s was no casual act. This was a time when the first American born generation of Armenians was coming of age and deciding whether they wanted to continue the Armenian heritage or not. No doubt their father's musical talents and strong Armenian pride inspired the Vosbikian brothers in this significant, and influential decision. When other ethnicities were forgetting their traditional music (i.e. the Jewish community all but rejected "klezmer", their folk music, to the point where it had to be "revived" in the 1970s), the Vosbikians started a movement among young Armenians to live out their heritage through music.
Some of the bands in that era were the Nor-Ikes of NYC (founded by oudist Charles "Chick" Ganimian in 1948), the Artie Barsamian Orchestra of Boston featuring the legendary clarinetist of the same name, the Gomidas Band of Philly, founded by Hank Mardigian around 1950 and featuring the legendary oudist George Mgrdichian, Mike and Buddy Sarkissian's group operating out of the Merrimack Valley (Lawrence and Lowell, Mass.), the Aramites Band of Worcester, Mass, founded in 1951, the New England Ararats hailing from Rhode Island, the Ardziv Band of Detroit, founded by clarinetist Simon Javizian, and the Arax Band of Detroit who were the first Armenian group to have a recording on the Billboard charts. All of these bands were formed by first-generation-American-born Armenians, and almost all of them, with the exception of Mike and Buddy Sarkissian, copied the Vosbikian line up of 1946 in their basic format: oud, clarinet, saxophone, and two dumbegs (or a dumbeg and a "cocktail drum") an instrumentation that was standard until the mid-60s. Some have called it the Armenian Big Band era. Rather than a dumbeg and guitar, the pace was set by 2 dumbegs, and the Vosbikians had their own giant, hand made versions.
|CHRIS VOSBIKIAN PLAYING GIANT DUMBEG HAND MADE BY HIS UNCLE JOE VOSBIKIAN|
It was in this era that kef music as we know it today was born. Styles and repertoire from all the parts of Turkey that Armenians had immigrated from combined into a new pan-Armenian-American style. New dances like the Armenian Shuffle were created and a host of songs from Soviet and Russian Armenia were adopted - always being transformed in the process into an Anatolian style, notably by changing the 6/8 meter to a 10/8, which the Vosbikians excelled at. According to Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, with the melding of the different regional styles from Turkey, although "The music lost much of the subtle [regional] characteristics," the new style "brought new vigor" and "enabled the community to integrate itself on a much wider scale as a common interest of all groups."
By the mid-1950s, it was official: it was apparently "cool," among young American-born Armenians, to play Armenian dance (kef) music. Even as the "Big Band Armenian" era came to an end in the 60s, a second generation of Armenian-Americans, in relatively large numbers, continued to enter the field of Armenian and Near Eastern music. You can probably count the number of Armenians who made any kind of name for themselves in jazz or pop music on your two hands, and even less for rock music. As for classical music, many Armenians entered that field, but certainly not as many as who entered the "Near Eastern" scene. This strong trend continued throughout the 60s and 70s, and the tradition continues unbroken, though maybe on a lesser scale, today. In a 1978 interview, veteran singer Onnik Dinkjian had this to say about the bands from the 40s and 50s: "All I know is that those bands--the Nor-Ikes, the Gomidas, and the Barsamians, and so on--were really the pioneers, the beginners of what we are trying to do today...A lot of credit is due these bands because to be living far, far away from Armenia and to first learn the instruments, and then to get together, listen to their parents and the old records, and learn that music is highly commendable. These boys could just as well have learned jazz, or any other type of music, but they put their heart and soul into the Armenian music...My hat is off to them."
In other words, if it wasn't for the Vosbikians and those who followed them, we might be dancing to only American music at our Armenian weddings and social functions today.
The Vosbikians continued their family tradition. In 1963, the teenage sons of the original band members first appeared on stage, billed as the Vosbikian Juniors, which developed into the Steve Vosbikian Ensemble coming out with their LP, "Armenian Reflections" in the early 1970s.
In 1975, the first and second generation musicians joined together to create an album entitled "Armenian Dance Favorites." It was to be the first of 10 volumes of albums released periodically up until 2004, featuring a vast array of Vosbikian family members. The albums are available here: http://armenianvendor.com/armenian-cds-dvds-armenian-dance-music-cds-c-24_37.html?page=3 The most active members in the second generation were bandleader Steve Vosbikian (clarinet), Greg Vosbikian (oud), Sam Vosbikian Jr. (dumbeg) (all sons of Sam), Mike Vosbikian Jr. (sax), and Steve Hovnanian, son of Jirair, on vocals, who along with Roger Krikorian is one of the two best kef singers of his generation in this writer's opinion. Skippy Krepelka (of Greek descent) on guitar was added to the group to round out the sound.
Out of that generation, oudist Greg Vosbikian has also recently released his own solo album, "Armenian Stone." www.cdbaby.com/cd/gregoryvosbikian
The third generation of Vosbikian family talent has developed with Chris Vosbikian (dumbeg/keyboards - son of Greg), and Stephen Hovnanian (saxophone) and for a time Haig Hovnanian (dumbeg), sons of Steve Hovnanian, all playing as members of the Philly Kef Band (most active in the late 90s and early 2000s). Later, Chris joined the Michael Gostanian Ensemble on dumbeg, and with them, recorded one of the most well-received kef albums of the current generation ("Traditions"), and Steve Vosbikian Jr. joined the Philly Kef Band on clarinet. Steve Jr. continued his Armenian music education and became adept at the Eastern Armenian folk and rabiz styles, prompting him to create his new band, Artsakh. Chris continues to be an in-demand dumbeg player in the more traditional kef combinations. Stemming all the way back to their great-grandfather Bedros, Steve Jr. and Chris are continuing the family tradition. Steve Hovnanian's daughter Karinne Andonian is also a talented vocalist that has appeared on one of the band's albums and appeared with the band at Return to Asbury 2015.
Unfortunately, almost all of the original band members have passed on, with the noted exception of Mike Vosbikian, first saxophonist in an Armenian band, now in his mid 90s. Check him out, singing with Leo and Mal Barsamian a few years back:
At the Vosbikian Band's appearance at Return to Asbury 2015, Mr. Mike Vosbikian Sr. was honored for his contributions and did his rendition of "Dollarjee." The band as put together for that event is pictured below at their rehearsal.
|THE VOSBIKIAN BAND REHARSING FOR RETURN TO ASBURY 2015|
(L to R: GREG, MIKE JR., STEVE SR., STEVE HOVNANIAN, CHRIS, kneeling: STEVE JR.)
What makes the Vosbikians different? In conversations with others of my age, we often compare the various bands and musicians that we've listened to, especially the older groups, and analyze them: i.e. John Berberian or Richard Hagopian might be the greatest oud player, and Richard is no doubt the "heaviest" and most traditional. John might have more soul, say some, but the dancers who want to get their groove on to an old school "chifte telli" go for Richard all the way. Hachig Kazarian, too brings the traditional style along with soul and technique, and Onnik Dinkjian has the vocal chops to be called the Armenian Frank Sinatra while his son Ara's oud style is minimalist, modern, and expressive. It's a tossup whether John Berberian's first two albums, or Richard and Hachig's four "Kef Time" albums are the best records in the genre, although Onnik's albums, still appearing in his late 80s are phenomenal and so is his stage presence!
So what do the Vosbikians have, aside from being the originators of it all? Well they do have their own inimitable style, that I don't think any other band has even tried to replicate. But the thing that stands out for me is this: they play with the most HEART. They put their all into it, forget being an oud virtuoso, forget eastern makams and quartertones, when you listen to the Vosbikians, more than any other band, you can tell that they really and truly LOVE this music. They play for love of the music, not for fame, or virtuosity, or ethnomusicology, or to impress belly dancers, or to sound heavy, or to sound badass.....they play because they love the music and want to spread the love and joy and happiness through Armenian music and dancing...they are the most authentic not in the ethnographic sense, but in the human sense, because it was never fake with them, never posturing, never trying to impress, just playing the best they knew how, to make people happy...just check out the below youtube videos I took at Return to Asbury 2015....I'm sure their father/grandfather/great-grandfather Bedros more than approves!
|BEDROS VOSBIKIAN ARMENIAN DANCING|