Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Coffeehouse Classics

That's the voice of Garbis Bakirgian, better known as Kanuni Garbis. I know, to many of you this will sound like "middle eastern wailing." But listen to the voice. His pitch is impeccable and his dynamics and the sustain of his voice are too. It's just that the music he performs isn't everybody's cup of tea.  It's what we kef music fans call "heavy." This isn't the usual Armenian dance music heard at parties - it's listening music, the type of thing you would hear in a coffeehouse, and usually sung in Turkish. In the old days, Armenian coffeehouses were common in the US. In the 1920s on South Solvay Street ("Armenian Boulevard") in Delray, Detroit, there were at least 10. These were places where men gathered to talk and argue, often about Armenian politics. "Incidentally" (as Saroyan wrote) they also played tavloo (backgammon), cards, smoked, and of course, drank Turkish coffee. Saroyan humorously claimed that the coffeehouse was invented so the men could get away from their wives, and there's probably some truth to that statement. Women never entered the establishments.

Anyway, Garbis was a well known player of the kanun, a singer, and often worked with oudist and singer Marko Melkon. (A kanun is an instrument similar to the zither, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanun_%28instrument%29) Garbis and Melkon were very big in the kef scene but I haven't posted much of them because most of it is available on CD. Here the oud is played by Marko Melkon and the violin by Nick Doneff. Lyrics (Turkish): "They said [to me] don't love a sweetheart, you'll become her enemy, and you'll become an enemy to your friends too"


Garbis was born in Turkey in 1885 and was a well known musician in Istanbul who also toured the Mideast with his band. Garbis was known for his voice and his knowledge of Eastern music theory (makams) even more so than for playing the kanun. He played at the court of Sultan Abdul Hamid (otherwise known for massacring thousands of Armenians in 1894-95), and because of his voice was ordained a deacon in the Armenian Church to serve as soloist for the legendary Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople Maghakia Ormanian. In 1922 (the same year Ataturk succeeded in taking over Turkey), Garbis immigrated to the U.S. Garbis played in NYC until health reasons forced him to seek the warmer climate of Fresno, California, in 1949. In 1950 Richard Hagopian, still a kid, began taking lessons from him, on the advice of Oudi Hrant. (Richard got his unique singing style from Garbis.) Garbis died in 1969 and is buried with his wife Takouhie in...suprise, suprise...Glendale, California.

In case you were wondering, this is the type of music you are supposed to listen to when smoking a nargileh (hookah). Not pop or house or techno.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Coming to America

Its Armenian Christmas today, but unfortunately I don't have any Christmas-related recordings.

To all my Armenian Christian friends: Christos dznav yev haydnetsav!

Of course it's also the beginning of a new year...a time of new beginnings...so here's song about a man starting fresh in the land of the free and the home of the brave...it's not quite kef music by strict definition but its a fun Armenian song:

Yep, its our old friend Edward Bogosian, who we last heard in the first post on this blog singing his all-time hit "Soode Soode." "Sofi Jan," a tale of immigrant life is one of my favorite pieces by Maestro Yetvart. It is unusual in that in addition to the violin and oud there is a very prominent piano on this track. Also, it's in a moderately fast 6/8 which combines to make it sound more like Eastern European music. Although thats not my thing in general, I really like this song. The depiction of immigrant life is very poignant "come on and let's suffer together" yet the singer sounds happy, not depressed. My family has now been in America for 100 years. When they got here they suffered but they never lost hope. They struggled and they made money and raised children and grandchildren and great grandchildren (me). That's why this song resonates with me, and I'm sure many of you reading this.

Yela, yega America - I got up, I came to America     
Gananch dollar-uh yes shaheloo - To earn the green dollar
Paytz guh tzavim yes useloo - But it pains me to say
Gananch derevuh chi kudah - I didn't find the green leaf (money)
Aman aman Sofi jan - Aman aman Sofi dear
Naz m'uner toon, Sofi jan - Don't be coy, Sofi dear
Aman aman Sofi jan - Aman aman Sofi dear
Naz m'uner toon, Sofi jan - Don't be coy, Sofi dear

Herik herik toon zis danches, - Enough, enough, with you torturing me
Minchev yerp toon zis al khapes? - And until when will you keep fooling me?
Yegour yertank menk, ay Sofi - Come on, let's go, oh Sofi
Vorbes tzavenk miasin - So that we can suffer together

Usbasel em yes al nra - I've been waiting for her
Gyankus eller eh oo al g’erta - My life has come and it goes
Yegour yertank menk, ay Sofi - Come on, let's go, oh Sofi
Vorbes tzavink miasin - So that we can suffer together

Kani me dari al verchuh - And a few years later
Bzdig mun al danuh mechuh - There'll be a child in the house too
Aghchig muh ulla ne kezi - If it's a girl, for you
Manch muh ulla ne indzi - If it's a boy, for me
Since I haven't already I thought I would do a bio of Mr. Bogosian for those interested in this major figure in the early Armenian-American music scene. Yetvart Boghosian was born in Constantinople in 1900, the son of Nazaret Effendi, a schoolteacher at the Bezazian School in Istanbul and the Varvarian School in Kum Kapu, whose thick eyebrows and glaring eyes behind his round eyeglasses frightened many a student, despite his short stature. In reality though, Nazaret Effendi was a kind man who loved clever jokes, and his son took after him. Yetvart got his start in showbusiness at a very young age in the Armenian theaters of Constantinople, and was formed by the theater movement of the Menagians and the Benlians (not sure who they were). He was one of the founders of the "Hay Arevelyan Taderakhoump" (Armenian Oriental Theatre Troupe) in Kum Kapu.

At the age of 20 Boghosian came to America where he often went by Edward, the direct translation of his name. Settling in New York, he toured the country performing in Armenian plays, and made records of Armenian comedic songs which were very popular. Many of them, like "Sofi Jan" give us a fascinating look at the life of the first Armenian immigrants. He wrote the words and music of most of his records. More classically trained singers said that although he didn't have quite as good of a voice, he undoubtedly had an extraordinary ear for music, and feel for the music he was performing. He was also known to enunciate his words carefully so that the listener could understand the lyrics. In the 20s he recorded on Pharos records but by the 1940s he was recording excusively for Metropolitan, another ethnic record company. He has an extensive amount of 78 rpm records and 2 LPs, which were made around 1960 and 1975, and were compilations of his 78 recordings, with a few originals on the second LP. According to noted oudist Mr. John Bilezikjian, Bogosian used Garbis Bakirgian on Kanun, Marko Melkon on oud, and Nick Doneff (who was Bulgarian) on violin for his 78 rpm records. This makes sense since they were essentially the house band for the Metropolitan and related labels. Certainly Garbis played Kanun on the recordings that included that instrument (not on Sofi Jan), because he is pictured on the first Bogosian LP and it says "Accompanied by Kenar Orchestra" next to his picture. As for who is playing piano on this piece I have no idea.