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.