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:
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: 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:

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:

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.