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 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.