Tuesday, November 26, 2013


In my last post I said that I would tell some more about recent dance events and explain what a henna party is. Unfortunately technical issues prevented me from uploading the music that was supposed to go with that post. So I'm going to go ahead with a post I've been meaning to do for a while.

Readers of this blog will remember this picture from several posts ago:

At the time I was responding to a request for more old pictures on the blog and I had found this cool picture in a newspaper clipping. I did not know the identity of the gentlemen in this picture other than that they were the "Ardziv" (Eagle) Band of Philadelphia. Thanks to noted oudist Mr. Richard Hagopian we have the answer. From left to right they are Bernard Kondourajian (1897-1988), violinist - who seems to have been the leader of the band, G. Kalayjian, vocalist and oudist, and K. "Tommy" Nersesian. Here's a recording of them playing a "Haleh" (titled on the disc as "Halay-Kotchari") :
Kondourajian appears to have immigrated to the US from Arabkir in 1913. The other band members may have been from Arabkir as well since many people from that town settled in Philadelphia. (Thanks goes out to Paul Sookiasian for some of this background information.) In English they wrote their name as the "Arziv Orchestra" and according to Mr. Hagopian they played in the 40s. Well, it turns out I have several 78s from this group - I had confused the 78s with another Ardziv band that was out of Boston, and didn't realize it was the group pictured. On several of the 78s including the one above, they are accompanied by an "M. Kalemkerian" who is listed as playing "fingan". My assumption is that this "instrument" consists of looping a string of worry beads around your vest button, holding the other end out, and scraping the worry beads with a glass (finjan means cup in Turkish.) I know that this percussion "instrument" was often used among Armenians and Greeks in the old days, and specifically Joe Vosbikian mentions it as having been used in Philadelphia in the 30s in an essay on the website dedicated in his memory "Hoachland."

Now, those of you who aren't familiar with the kef culture will ask me "what's a Haleh?" The Haleh is type of dance also known as Halay, Kochari, or Govand. These different terms are used in different parts of Armenia. Govand is specifically the term that was used in Van. Modern day Armenia uses the term Kochari. The term "Haleh" is apparently a broken down form of "Halay", a word that in the Turkish language refers to (I believe) an even wider spectrum of line dances than its usage in the Armenian culture. The Turkish word halay is apparently derived from a Kurdish word meaning circle.

The way everyone older than 30 in Detroit does the Haleh is very similar to this video, except in the video they are holding pinkies as in a regular Armenian dance, while in a Haleh they would be holding hands with all fingers interlocked, and standing very close to one another: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcTysM9jUC0. Also, they tell me that when the old timers would dance it they would stand together "like a wall" and they would "barely move". Now when I say it was slow and they would barely move I don't want you to get the impression that its an old man's dance. By old timers, I simply mean the older generation that had been born in the Old Country. The movements are slow but done with strength and power. The barely moving means in terms of moving to the right like a normal Armenian dance. They do move up and down quite a bit. The video indicates the dance as Gyovnd (Govand). As far as I know, that's a Vanetsi term, and so I suspect that the Detroit Haleh is of a Vanetsi origin. This dance is used as the "Chapter Dance" for the Detroit AYF Chapter at AYF Olympics.

Some may argue that Kochari, Halay and Govand are all different dances. But they have important things in common: they are circle dances, or as we say "line dances," originally they were done by men only, they have a masculine character to them expressive of strength and vitality, and originally they were done by holding hands with fingers interlocking, the men standing very close shoulder to shoulder to each other so they almost form a wall. And then there are some steps but these are done slowly, steadily, and with strength and as said the old timers would barely move. The fact that Haleh and Kochari are considered synonyms is shown by the above recording's label, which reads "Halay-Kotchari".

The current most popular Haleh today among young Armenian men in the Eastern US especially in the ACYOA is seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYEKg3zAg8o. According to Tom Bozigian this one was created by Armenian youth in Yettem, California (near Fresno) in the 1970s. It was made up by a group of guys for a dance contest. In the past 10 years it has gained popularity among the young men of the Eastern US. It was reintroduced to the ACYOA events by a couple of guys who learned it at camp. Names will not be disclosed to protect the innocent. This dance is only done by guys, while the girls dance in a circle around the men's circle, doing the "old haleh."

Apparently what happened is that the men got sick of the fact that their "men's only" dance was taken away from them, they needed a dance that the girls wouldn't even want to do, thus the Yettem Halay filled a need that was there. Supply and demand.

Oh and Detroit has added to the Yettem Halay by adding the "Southfield Spin" as one of the "special moves" (shout out to Mr. Banks). Not only that, but in the past 5 years or so we have developed the position of "halay caller" who stands in the center of the circle and yells out the next move that should be done. This was created by Brandon Maake to solve the problem of huge Haleh circles which, getting larger and larger, were increasingly hard to coordinate, and generally included a ton of people who apparently didn't know what the hell a Haleh was.

I will have to disappoint Mr. Jon Pelaez at this point and inform you that this version of the Hale is not native to Dikranagerd, New Jersey, or Puerto Rico. As stated this Haleh was created by the Yettem, California ACYOA guys in the 70s. The steps seem to be a more elaborate version of the "Kharpertsi Haleh" as seen in the Aradzani Dance Group instructional video (http://www.armenianvendor.com/product_info.php?products_id=1043).

Speaking of Kharpert, here's a version of the Haleh recorded in circa 1927 by violinist Stepan Simonian (who was born in Kharpert,) with his son Haigaz on piano and an unknown dumbeg player.

Special thanks to Fr. Garabed Kochakian (grandnephew of Stepan Simonian) who shared his precious copy of this 78 rpm recording with me.

In both the old and new haleh, the call and response shouts of "Oor eh?" "Hos eh!" can be heard. Oor eh means "where is it" and "hos eh" means "it's here," but in context it means "where's it at?" and "it's right here," a statement of machismo by the guys dancing the Haleh. It was taught to me that the whole point of the Haleh is to impress the girls by showing off.Sometimes one guy will yell "oor eh" and all the others yell "hos eh," another variation is that the girls yell "oor eh" and the boys yell "hos eh." Haleh is one of the favorite dances of the Armenian youth in the United States. It's also often a show-off piece for the musicians, who treat it as an improvisation on a short theme or riff. Probably you have caught the drift of that by now - none of the pieces above were the same yet they all have a similar pattern to them. Armenians from present day Armenia are used to hearing the kochari played on a davoul and zourna, and the older Armenian-American recordings of the halay are usually played on the similar clarinet or at least a violin as above. But at some point in Armenian American culture, the halay became a showcase for the oudist - perhaps inspired by George Mgrdichian's great rendition on his album "The Oud" recorded under the pseudonym "Aram Arakelian" in 1958. (http://www.amoeba.com/the-oud-aram-arakelian-ensemble/albums/841766/). But undoubtedly the best Armenian oud halays are played by Mr. John Berberian, seen in the video above, but also in this great California performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3LeJbmqSig. I can't follow that act, so to all a good night and a Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kef in Review: the Summer of 2013

Hello to everyone out there in cyperspace - I can't believe it's been since April that I've blogged on here. A lot has taken place since then. So here's the rundown of the latest Kef events.
(Click below to hear a clip from Kef Time Providence: Onnik Dinkjian singing Ko Siro Hamar with an oud solo by John Berberian)


L to R: Mal Barsamian, Richard Hagopian, John Berberian
at Kef Time Providence/ACYOA Sports Weekend
This year's ACYOA (Armenian Church Youth Organization) General Assembly and Sports Weekend was held in Providence on Memorial Day (yes I know that was a long time ago!). The entertainment for Saturday night was a dance held officially under the auspices of the local parish (rather than the ACYOA), billed as "Kef Time Providence." And boy did they put together some band! The headliners were Richard Hagopian (oud/vocals), John Berberian (oud), and Onnik Dinkjian (vocals). Betwen the three of them, we've got two of what I would rank as the top three living Armenian oudists (the other being John Bilezikjian), as well as the two most popular vocalists in the kef genre. I've never heard of the three of them being on one stage at once and neither had most people I talked to. The rest of the band was a veteran group as well, up to the task of participating in this supergroup: Mal Barsamian (clarinet), Ara Dinkjian (background keyboard), Ron Tutunjian (dumbeg), Chris Vosbikian (dumbeg), Paul Mooradian (one of the most veteran musicians in the kef scene) on tambourine (which we call the "daf"), and up and coming oudist Brian Ansbigian (the only member of the group in his 20s). Before the music started, I had no idea what to expect. All these people had never been on one stage before. How would they balance out all the star players that were on stage? My friends and I went with Brian to the the ballroom when the musicians were setting up. It was there that I snapped this photo of the two masters conferring (Richard Hagopian with his back to the camera and John Berberian facing it), one would assume to discuss the format of the evening's music:
The Summit Meeting
In any case they did not disappoint. What ended up happening was that John and Richard played oud at the same time (their hands were practically strumming up and down in unison), accompanied by the rest of the group. It seems to me that Richard took most of the taksim intros and John took most of the "rides" (solos during the song). Richard and Onnik switched off on vocals, and the group performed many of the signature songs of Richard, Onnik, and John.

Richard and John grinding away
A friend of mine was continually telling me as we stood watching in awe: "This is it, Harry. This is the best it's ever going to get." While I didn't want to think that I would never see a performance this good again, he had a point. It's unlikely we'll see all three of these guys on the same stage again. All three of course are legends, but my personal favorite is Richard Hagopian (John or Onnik are just as good - its just personal preference), and my all time favorite song played by him is Parov Yegar Siroon Yar, an Armenian love song written by Oudi Hrant. I was sitting with the girlfriend of a friend of mine (who had gone to use the restroom) when Richard started to play a taksim in his old familiar style:
I was really feeling it - a mixture of excitement and contentment/relaxation/nostalgia in hearing my favorite music live. To me its a sensation like no other. Kef still lives and all is right in the world. But then when the melody started into "Parov Yegar" I couldn't control myself. It was drawing me irresistibly to the dance floor. I felt bad about leaving the girl sitting by herself, especially because she didn't know anyone else there, but she said "no, go ahead."  Figuring my friend would return momentarily I made it for the dance floor. My favorite song, this was it! And not only that, but it turned into an epic medley. Parov Yegar was followed by a clarinet solo by Mal, then "Sivasda Bir Yar Sevdim" (a popular Turkish number), then a oud solo by what sounds like John Berberian from the recording, then "Hele Hele Ninnaye" the well known Armenian folk song of Dikranagerd (among other places), on which Richard and Onnik (a Dikranagertsi himself) traded verses back and forth, "Dikranagerdi Halay", and finally "Sut Ictim Dilim Yandi" (Turkish) during which I experienced some new dance moves :) It was an unbelievable performance, but the rest of the dance was just as great, as you can hear from the short clip at the top.
The end of the night (Richard picking up dollar bills
that are customarily thrown at the musicians)


While you're listening to the 15 minute-long clip I just threw at you, let me tell you a little about the Asbury Kef. This event took place August 2-4 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Asbury Park was a popular summer resort town frequented by Armenians (among other people). However, it's probably best known as the Jersey Shore beach town where Bruce Springsteen got his start. At any rate the idea of the weekend was to recreate the old glory days of Armenians going to the Shore with hanging out at the beach during the day and socializing at night. The title of this event was "Return to Asbury" and the Armenian Students Association (ASA) did a great job putting it on. One of the stated purposes was to propagate the traditional Armenian dance parties with a live band playing the old instruments, meaning kef music and other traditional styles of Armenian music - in my mind a great cause. The first night was a bar night and the second night was a dance. My cousin and I drove all the way from Detroit to Asbury Park, a feat I don't think I'll try again. We stayed in Ocean Grove with its interesting Victorian architecture. During the day before the dance there was a happy hour at the pool at which dumbeg player Ohannes Berin had organized an open jam session (or as they called it in the old days, a "hookup"). He had contacted me to play at it as well as serve as MC, and I agreed. Ohannes asked me if I could get other musician friends to participate and I was able to get Paul Derderian on oud and Mike Givelekian on vocals. The others didn't step up to the plate....you know who you are. :) Nevertheless we had a GREAT time.
L to R: Paul Derderian, myself, Ohannes Berin
During the jam session I played clarinet, Paul played oud and Ohannes, dumbeg. Mike G. and I shared vocal duties. We also had as guest vocalist Mike's father Mirijohn who did a great rendition of Dele Yaman! I'm sure someone has video of this. Michael Gostanian (probably the most prominent kef singer in the younger generation) even sat in on dumbeg. In all we had a great time and thank you to Ohannes for organizing this. 

The dance was played by a combination of the Michael Gostanian Ensemble and the Artsakh Band, with Chris Marashlian on bass guitar. I wish I could name all the musicians but I can't. To my memory, Chris Vosbikian (dumbeg) and Stevie Vosbikian (clarinet) were there, Michael Gostanian (vocals), Armen Sevag (violin), Anthony Deese, Aram Hovagimian (keyboard), Antranig Kzirian (oud), and Chris Marashlian (bass guitar). I think Dave Hoplamazian was also there (?) but we've already got two ouds and a violin so if he was I don't know what he played. Sorry kefji's I can't remember much of that night! I know some of you will read this so please send in corrections. A special guest who showed up in town at the last minute was Brian Ansbigian on the oud. I don't remember too many specific details from that night but the two bands kept the crowd dancing nonstop and we did everything from tak bar to tamzara. In all, the assembled kefjis of the young generation did a spectacular job. 

After the dance we had a little hookup of our own in the hotel lobby, Brian played oud, I sang, Garo Papazian (I don't remember where he showed up from!) played dumbeg, and Ohannes played tambourine. Stevie Vosbikian also joined us on dumbeg at one point. Now at this time all the bars in town closed down because it was 2 AM or whatever. So a stream of people started showing up at the hotel, who were staying there. For some reason, they were all hipsters. This crowd of hipsters enters the lobby as we are in full blown kef mode playing and singing really heavy stuff, like chifte telli's and whatnot. The hipsters were enthralled by our sounds and crowded around us. They started to ask Brian questions. "What is that" (an oud) "What kind of music is this" (Armenian) "Where are you guys from" (Brian says Boston) "Do you do this in Boston? I want to be Armenian!" (said one drunken hipster). If any of you hipsters are reading this I'm glad we were able to introduce you to our music. So that was my kefji summer. I was unable to attend AYF Olympics as I had a friend's wedding to attend. But I did get to play oud and sing at the henna party the night before the wedding!  (the bride is a huge fan of kef music). Unfortunately the hotel had no microphones and no one could hear me. We had fun anyway. If anyone has stories or videos or audio of the music at AYF Olympics, feel free to post it and/or send it to me and I will put it up. OK, that's all for now. Next post I will catch you all up on the events of the past couple months, get back to checking out my 78s collection, and explain what a henna party is.
The inevitable Lobby Hookup - yes, we do this at every Armenian event
L to R: Me, Garo Papazian, Brian Ansbigian, Ohannes Berin, Paul Derderian.
With his back to the photo, Timothy "Dimig" Aivazian.
Brian intentionally posing as the young John Berberian from the cover of Oud Artistry.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In Memory of the Armenian Genocide of 1915

click on the above link to hear "Derzor Dasdanaaci" by Vahan Boyajian

First a couple notes, yes I know I'm almost a week late on this, but what can I say. Second, I actually own this same record but when I tried to upload it to Soundcloud it kept coming out extremely soft even though it was playing loud and clear on my iTunes. So that's why we have a link today instead of an embedded track.

Derzor Dasdaanaci means something like "the ballad singer of Derzor" or "one who sings a ballad about Derzor." A destan is a type of Turkish song that I am roughly translating as ballad. And the c is pronounced as a "j" here according to modern Turkish spelling. This song is more commonly known as "Derzor Cheollerinde" (Derzor Çöllerinde) meaning "in the deserts of Derzor." Derzor or Der Zor is the Armenian name for Deir ez-Zor, a city in present day Syria. During the Armenian Genocide of 1915, it was the main destination of the deportations ("death marches") of the Armenians from their homes by the Ottoman Turkish forces. When the Armenians arrived in the desert outside Der Zor, they were killed. Even though it is actually the name of a city in Syria, to most Armenians the words "Der Zor" has no other meaning than "the killing fields."

This song, sung in Turkish, describes the conditions in Der Zor during the genocide. It was apparently composed by those who were on the death march. Dr. Verjine Svazlian has done much research on this and other songs related to the Genocide, all sung in Turkish. A summary of her research can be found here: http://www.cilicia.com/armo_geno-songs.html

The first verse of Boyajian's version goes like this (in phonetic spelling):

Der Zor cheollerinde yarali chokdir - In the deserts of Der Zor there are many wounded
Gelme doktor, gelme, charesi yokdir - Don't come doctor, don't come, there is no remedy
Bir Allahdan gayri hech kimsem yokdir - Aside from the One God I have no one at all
Millet ughurina giden Ermeni - Armenians who go (i.e. march, are deported) for the sake of the Millet

He also ends every verse with that last line. Millet is a special word used in Ottoman Turkish often translated "nation," which in our modern parlance would be translated "ethnic group." The Ottoman Empire had 4 main Millets, the Islamic Millet, the Greek Millet, the Armenian Millet, and the Jewish Millet, in addition to the smaller millets such as the Assyrians or the Protestants. Each ethnic group was self-ruling in internal matters like education, marriage and divorce, and inheritance law. The head of each ethnic group was their religious patriarch, who was directly answerable to the Sultan. Of course in the case of the Muslims, the Sultan himself was basically their patriarch (as the Caliph). So in other words, the Armenians were being deported and killed because of their ethnicity.

Other versions of the song have "Dininin ughurina giden Ermeni" (Armenians who go for the sake of their religion), or "Armenians who die for....."

Vahan Boyajian was an Armenian singer who recorded as far as I can tell, almost exclusively in Turkish. He was an immigrant to the US and recorded here in the 1920s for Columbia as well as his own record label "Bilbil" (Nightingale) as seen in the above video. Here he is accompanied by the typical violin and oud duo.

My great-grandmother Vartanoush narrowly escaped being sent to Der Zor by paying a large bribe to the Turkish gendarmes while the caravan was near the city of Rakka in present day Syria. She and her family crossed the river into Rakka where they lived for a time, before her family all died, she was adopted by Bedouin Arabs, and after the war, sent to an orphanage in Aleppo and subsequently brought to the United States in 1921 to be the bride of my great grandfather Onneg Kezelian. Grandma Vartanoush's sister-in-law Sirvart was not so lucky, however. After being taken to Der Zor, the group she was with was slaughtered. She was cut across the back with a sword and she fell, they thought she died but later someone came and found her and another woman still alive, she was taken away and eventually came to America where she remarried my great-grandfather's cousin - but she had the scar of the sword mark in her back the rest of her life. I could go on and tell about my other great-grandparents that were in the massacres but I'll leave it at that so as to not drag out this post. This post is in memory of all those who died in 1915, and to all those who survived. Asdvadz hokineruh lousavoreh/may God enlighten their souls.

PS here is another version of the song, sung a capella by Vartan Shahpazian from Kharpert, living in Fresno in 1939 http://memory.loc.gov/afc/afccc/audio/a426/a4266b2.wav

It is also interesting to note the similarity of this melody to Gyozals Khrov Eh by Kusan Shahen

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Who Are These Guys?

I've had some requests for more pictures on the blog so here's an interesting one I have come across. These gentlemen are apparently the "Ardziv" Band of Philadelphia. The picture was accompanied by an advertisement for 2 of their records, "Lai-Lai Sofigus" and "Khunchouyki Yerk" along with the lyrics to the songs. (Khunchouyki Yerk is the well known Wine Song or Seghann Eh Arad; Sofig was the second part of the opening number on John Berberian's "Echoes of Armenia" album with Onnik Dinkjian and Armen Babamian on vocals). I have no idea who the guys in this band are, and would welcome any information about them. The picture was cut out of an old Armenian newspaper, I'm guessing from the 1950s based on other clippings found with it. This picture shows a typical Armenian band of the 20s-40s, almost certainly of the immigrant generation. Oud, violin, and drum was a very popular combination in that era. The plucked and sustained sounds of the oud and violin respectively, complement each other, and the drum of course gives the beat. The fact that the oud and violin are both fretless and can play any note also adds to the versatility of this combo.

Since I haven't before, let me also explain the title picture that appears at the top of the blog. This was found in a book on Yerzinga published in Yerevan, but the picture is of a Yerzengatsi picnic in Detroit! As you can tell the picture shows one man playing the oud and another the tambourine while a woman and man dance, and a crowd looks on. (The man dancing with the woman is at the far right). If anyone knows who any of the people are in that picture I would welcome that information as well. The picture is I believe from the 1930s but I am not sure.

For those unfamiliar with Armenian culture the style of dance they are doing is called "tak bar" which is usually a couples dance with a man and a woman, facing each other with arms at shoulder length and forward, sometimes snapping fingers. This is the second most common type of Armenian folk dance, after the line or circle dances where a large group lines up linked by pinkies and dances that way. The Armenian youth today refer "tak bar" in English as "freestyle". As you can see from her face it seems the woman is really feeling the music.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ode To The Gamavors

Karekin Proodian - Gamavor Zinvor by Harry Kezelian

Hello everyone, the hiatus is over and "Kef Time U.S.A." is officially back in action.

Today's recording, "Gamavor Zinvor" is in 10/8 time and is sung in Armenian by Karekin Proodian with oud and violin accompaniment. (The oud is possibly played by Mr. Proodian himself). This was originally recorded in the 1920's on M.G. Parsekian Records and later in the 20's pressed by Pharos Records, who seem to have bought out MGP (both were independent Armenian record labels). Note the nice taksim intro on the oud.

The lyrics are as follows:

Gamavor zinvor too yes - You are a volunteer (gamavor) soldier
Verkis palasan too yes - You are balm for my wounds
Amen kisher kez g'erazem - Every night I dream of you
Srdis hadoruh too yes - You are a piece of my heart

Yes ullam, yes ullam, hop! - I want to be, I want to be (hop!)*
Koo dadragut yes ullam - I want to be your turtledove
Asdoodzmen meg moorad g'oozem - I want one wish from God
Hureshdagut yes ullam (2nd time: nushanadzut yes ullam) - That I should be your angel (2nd time: that I should be your fiancee)

Guh kales zinvori bes - You walk like a soldier
Getsvadzkut usbayi bes - Your stance like an officer
Ches garogh kudnel aghchig muh - You cannot find a girl
Vor kez sire indzi bes - Who would love you like me

Yes ullam, yes ullam, hop! - I want to be, I want to be, (hop)*
Koo dadragut yes ullam - I want to be your turtledove
Yegeghetsin jermag koghkov - In church, in a white veil
Kovut ganknadz yes ullam - I want to be standing next to you

*Hop or Hopa is an Armenian exclamation similar to the Greek "Opa"

Although gamavor simply means "volunteer" in Armenian, it also has a specific historical connotation. The Gamavors were members of the "Armenian Legion" which fought under French command against the Turks during World War I. The recruits were made up mostly of the Armenian Genocide survivors of Musa Dagh, then living in refugee camps in Port Said, Egypt, and Armenian immigrants living in the US. Musa Dagh was a mountain with 6 Armenian villages just north of Antioch. When the Turkish Army came to deport the Armenians there, the Armenians had engaged in armed resistance and held out until they were rescued by a French battleship. The Armenian Legion fought notably in the Battle of Arara in Palestine and then, with other French forces, moved north into Cilicia, which they occupied while the exiled Armenians returned and declared independence. After a couple years, the new Kemalist Turkish army drove the French out and the (native) Armenians with them. This song is in tribute to those brave soldiers. It was later made popular by Mike Sarkissian - more information about Sarkissian and his version of the song is found on Prof. Leon Janikian's site, The Archive of Armenian Music in America. The song has proved popular and was recorded by John Berberian in '66 (instrumental only), the Vosbikian Band with the late Joe Vosbikian on vocals in  '97, and by Khatchig Jingirian in 2009 (in a 6/8 meter). The beginning of this youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tTBF201BIU also features the song played by John Tarpinian and Souren Baronian, in a style similar to John Berberian's '66 version - on which Souren played.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gone Fishin'

By the two masters of American music

Wish it was something that fun....."Kef Time USA" will be on hiatus until the beginning of March due to studying for the bar exam. See you then!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Oudi Hrant and the Art of Taksim

Click the link to hear a "Husseini Taksim" played by Oudi Hrant

Taksim is a term for an improvised piece of music in the Near Eastern/Mediterranean tradition. The Eastern Armenians use the word "mugham" which when specified as an instrumental mugham, is basically the same thing as a taksim (there is also a vocal mugham). The Western Armenians whose tradition this blog is discussing use "taksim," as do the Greeks, Turks, Arabs and others (although spelled in various ways). I have also seen the word "Menanvak" which is a proper Armenian word meaning something like "solo piece of music." A taksim is something like a jazz solo, except in its classical form it is truly a "solo" with no meter, no chords, and no percussion backing it up. One person, playing one instrument, completely improvising a kind of melody.

The traditional genres of music, secular and religious, Christian and Muslim, in Greece and the Near/Middle East do not use scales in the western sense. Instead they use "modes" which to a layperson are basically scales, but in musicology there is a difference. In western music we also have modes, but we usually only use two: the major and the minor. Any scale called major, ie C major, D major, etc. is considered to be in the Major mode. In the near east, there are a ton of modes. The modes are called "makams"(various spellings) and have rules or guidelines attached to them. A traditional, classical taksim is an improvisation in a given mode, with "modulations" (transfers) to other modes, which follows the rules of the mode, and the guidelines of how to play a good taksim, but otherwise completely improvised by the musician, using no meter or rhythm (well some would argue there is a type of very long meter to it), and unaccompanied by any other instruments - as heard in the Oudi Hrant track attached to this post.

Blind musician Hrant Kenkulian (1901-1978), generally known as Oudi Hrant was a master of the oud (fretless lute) who was probably best known for his taksims. He was an Armenian born in Adapazar, a city close to Istanbul which had a large Armenian population before the Genocide of 1915. After WWI, Hrant's family settled in Istanbul. Hrant started out singing in the church choir, but soon moved on to the oud. He made his career in Istanbul, but he toured the US in 1950, and did a world tour in 1963 to Paris, Beirut, Greece, America, and Yerevan, Soviet Armenia. He was a teacher of many Armenian-American oudists including Richard Hagopian. He was the pride of the Armenian people, and many consider him to be the most soulful oudist ever to emerge from Turkey.

Although Hrant played oud taksims in the classical style he was also an innovator known for introducing upstrokes in oud playing, which in its traditional form had only used downstrokes, as well as many other new techniques.

Besides the "classical" taksim as heard in the Hrant clip, there are other types and times where improvisation is used in kef music. For example, short taksims are very very often used as an introduction to a piece, as seen in this video where Richard Hagopian does an intro taksim on oud before singing the popular Chakaji Zeybek: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux7D-iQPMvk
With introductory taksims, the soloist is often accompanied by the other musicians playing drones, trills, and drumrolls.

In addition to the introductory taksims, American Armenians usually take solos in the middle of their songs just like jazz or rock musicians, and these can be considered a type of taksim, called in Turkish "usullu taksim" (rhythmic taksim), but Armenian-American musicians generally refer to a solo in a song as a "ride," i.e. taking a solo is "taking a ride." Taking a ride is more improvisational than a rock solo, which is often rehearsed and prepared beforehand, but more restricted than a jazz solo, which in modern jazz basically goes all over the place while a "ride" will stay in the same key and basic scale or mode, even if the classical rules are ignored. Here's a video of America's greatest Armenian clarinetist, Hachig Kazarian, taking a ride: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUOlioWh_AA. As you can hear, the other instruments are keeping the rhythm for him to "take a ride" on although the video cuts off when they go back into the song. The rides are what makes kef music really a middle eastern equivalent to traditional jazz. Here's another ride, played by John Berberian, one of the best if not the best living Armenian oud player: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVfxFE8MnTg

In traditional Classical Turkish music, taking "rides" was frowned upon and was considered a "gypsy" practice, although the traditional unaccompanied taksim (such as Hrant's) was highly regarded.

In eastern Armenian music, there is the concept of mughams which are basically the same as taksims. To be fair, here's a clip of an Eastern Armenian "mugham" played on tar, which takes the place that the oud has in kef music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTSEZ_oXDUM

These improvisations are one of the main things separating Armenian-American kef music from other genres of Armenian music, such as pop, classical, Soviet-Armenian folk music as played by the State Dance Ensemble. But as we've seen above, improvisation isn't restricted to Western Armenians, Eastern Armenian folk music also has improvisation. But in any case, the solos are half the reason that "kefjis" (fans or players of Armenian-American kef music) are drawn to the music. Why? In their improvisations, the musicians have a chance to show off their virtousity, but also to put their heart and soul into the improvisation which expresses their emotions and moves the listeners. For example, on the album Kef Time Fresno, there is a 5 minute long clarinet Taksim by Hachig Kazarian. In the liner notes, it says: "His plaintiff [plaintive] Clarinet Taksim closes the album and all the torment and persecution of generations of Armenians, gone by, are reflected in this beautiful closing number." A taksim or ride can express that, or anything else. The emotions of the musicians expressed in their solos are truly the "soul" of kef music. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Nor Daree, Kef Style

Though I have been absent from the blog for a couple months, I would like to take the opportunity of a New Year's Resolution to start blogging again. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Armenian Christmas (this Sunday, January 6) to all my readers.

There have been an inordinate amount of events planned for this year featuring popular Armenian singer Onnik Dinkjian - and not without good reason. At the age of approximately 83, Onnik is still a powerhouse performer. It truly is a feat incredible for his age. The Paris-born Onnik, who came to America as a young man, is often known as the "Frank Sinatra of Armenian Music" but even the Chairman of the Board had to retire from singing at age 79, while Onnik showed no signs of stopping in the two events I saw him at recently. The man's vocals are still incredible as well as inimitable and his energy onstage is unreal for a man of his age. The first event I attended was held in December, in Detroit (Onnik had recently played Providence on Thanksgiving weekend), which was sponsored by St. John's Armenian Church. This was a high-toned dinner dance, and the entertainment definitely focused on Onnik himself. He did all his signature songs, such as Havada Sirelis, Aghmoogi, Amenu Daran (a folk song from Dikranagerd), Agh Anoushes (Misirlou with Armenian lyrics), and Hey Jan Yerevan. He even sang a few stanzas in French in the middle of a fast Armenian dance number, in fact he did this twice as I recall. Onnik also continually connected with the audience, making remarks such as: "Wow, you guys can really dance!" and "I don't know about you, but I'm having a great time" and "I've been here (Detroit) before, but I've never seen anything like this!" (there was a 300+ crowd, large for an Armenian dinner-dance) delivered in his French-Armenian accent. He came down off the stage and strolled around the dancefloor, singing directly to various attendees. In short Onnik was Onnik and there was no stopping him. In a future post I may say more about Onnik's career but here I am focusing on the two events.

The second event I attended was PAND 2013. PAND stands for Philadelphia Armenian Nor Daree (New Year), and it is a two-day dance event thrown by an independent committee of Armenians in Philly, with the proceeds going to the 5 Armenian Churches in the Philadelphia area (including the Protestant and Catholic Armenian Church - most Armenians being Orthodox). As many readers of this blog will know, the Armenian community is horribly divided into factions due to political issues which we won't discuss here. But PAND is one of those few events/organizations that bring all members of the Armenian community together in unity. No one feels out of place at PAND, and its been going strong for some 30 years. At the Eve of the Eve Dance, Armenian pop singer Harout Balyan kept the dancers going, but for me, and the other "kefjies" the best was yet to come on New Year's Eve itself. This year, a really amazing team of musicians was brought together by the committee, and although Onnik was the featured attraction, the musical entertainment was just as focused on the accompanying musicians - Greg Vosbikian (oud), Dave Hoplamazian (violin), Chris Vosbikian (dumbeg), Jake Terkanian (dumbeg) and the internationally known composer-musician Ara Dinkjian on keyboard. Ara seemed to be serving as the "maestro" for everything that went on on stage. Onnik was once again at the top of his game and sang many popular Armenian songs such as the ones already listed. As I entered the room i heard the familiar strains of the "Laz Bar," one of the traditional Armenian dances, and headed immediately to the foot of the stage with a musician friend. I spent much of the time at the stage just watching the band play, as in between stanzas Greg Vosbikian took oud solos or Dave Hoplamazian took violin solos (both of which were outstanding). Chris and Jake even had a double drum solo on one song. It was a combination of all ages of musicians - the senior Onnik, middle aged Greg and Ara (Onnik's son) and the latest generation of musicians - Dave, Chris (Greg's son), and Jake, who i'm guessing are in their 30s. It was one of the hottest combinations of players that had been seen in Philadelphia, or anywhere else, in a long time. I can remember Mr. Vosbikian taking a solo and Onnik just feeling the music, giving Greg the limelight. I remember Dave's unique violin solos which were applauded with shouts of "Aferim" ("Bravo" in Turkish)...and Chris and Jake's wild, back to back drum solo's, which were just incredible. It was a night I will not soon forget. If anyone has video from the night, if you send it to me I will post it in this blog. I am sorry but I do not have any material to post that would do justice to this evening. I encourage my readers to purchase Onnik Dinkjian's albums, as well as those of the other musicians. Onnik himself, in addition to his impeccable vocals, talked with the audience just as he did in Detroit, although he didn't come offstage (or at least I didn't see it), dedicated a song to his granddaughter (who was in attendance) and encouraged audience participation (shouting "hey" on Hey Jan Yerevan). For me the highlight of the evening was when Onnik held the microphone up in front of the stage, and along with him, a huge group mostly of young people in their 20s, many 4th generation Armenians-Americans like myself, sang - actually shouted the chorus of the Armenian Wine Drinking Song: "Lutsnenk Ungerner, Pazhagneruh Li, Togh Hayots Kini, Mez Anoush Lini." The translation is "Friends, fill the glasses full - may the wine of the Armenians be sweet for us." These immortal words were penned by the poet Sarmen, and set to music by composer "Kousan" (minstrel) Garo Zakarian, both Soviet Armenians, yet this song is extraordinarily popular among American-Armenians, especially during wine toasts. To their words, "may the wine of the Armenians be sweet for us," I can only add, may the music of the Armenians be sweet to our ears.