Friday, November 20, 2015

New book on Armenia Diaspora Music

For possibly the first time in history, a full length book in English, and a scholarly one at that, has been published which includes an in depth look at kef music.

Sylvia Alajaji, Ph.D., has written the book "Music And The Armenian Diaspora: Searching For Home In Exile."

Dr. Alajaji is an Associate Professor of Music at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her research through the discipline of ethnomusicology has led her to compose this book which is the first of its kind, though several articles, theses or dissertations (including by the author herself) have been done on the topic. Interviews with leading authorities on different styles of Armenian music including kef music legend Richard Hagopian have contributed to the making of the book. I myself have ordered the book and I promise a review of it at some point in the near future to appear here on "Kef Time USA."

As far as I can tell, the book is an analysis of the differing developments or conceptualizations of Armenian music in different diaspora communities after the Genocide. Armenians in Lebanon performed semi-classical Armenian folk music with a nationalist direction, following in the footsteps of Gomidas, and later developed Armenian pop music (estradayin). Armenians in the US played the music they had played in the Ottoman Empire, in Armenian and Turkish languages, in a Near Eastern style (kef music). Finally the Lebanese Armenian and American Armenian music cultures came into confict when the Lebanese Armenians immigrated in large numbers to especially Southern California after the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975.

The author's starting point is the question "what is Armenian music?" and she seems to be highlighting how the musical differences in the different diaspora communities reflected different conceptualizations of Armenianness, politics, etc.

The chapters of the book are:
1. Ottoman Empire, 1890-1915
2. New York, 1932-1958
3. Beirut, 1932-1958
4. Beirut 1958-1980
5. California

...representing as far as I can tell, 1. Gomidas, 2. immigrant kef musicians in NYC Greektown, 3. Semi Classical Armenian folk music in Lebanon 4. Armenian pop music in Lebanon 5. Armenian pop music meets kef music in California

The book is certain to be interesting. I found a teaser youtube video of Prof. Alajaji explaining her book somewhat to another academic at Duke University:

Unfortunately for our purposes, she didn't say much about kef music in the interview but it was interesting nonetheless and I'm looking forward to reading the book! To be continued.....

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Your Homeland And The Phonograph" (old advertisement)

The following advertisement was found on the back cover of the Pharos Records songbook of 1928. Pharos Records was an Armenian-owned record company in New York City in the 1920s. Their catalogue contained numerous Armenian and Turkish songs by mostly Armenian artists, with Greek and a few other ethnicities represented. The songbook is a valuable document with lyrics to the songs that are on many of their records, whether in Armenian or Turkish, printed in Armenian letters.

Pharos was not a producer of phonograph equipment and the advertisement below was not selling any particular brand of phonograph. But of course, Pharos wanted you to have a phonograph, so that you could buy their records to play on it. The ad is interesting and touching because it probably gives some of the real reasons that early Armenian immigrants did buy phonographs, and what listening to Armenian and Turkish songs meant to them, especially considering the events of 1915.

Your Homeland And The Phonograph

                The phonograph is that instrument of music, through the grace of which it has become possible to make alive the songs of the homeland and the sweet memories of them. The picture of your ancestral country, the faces of its folk singers, and each syllable of all those songs which lullabied your childhood to sleep and enflamed your youth, will always remain burning and alive in your memory through the grace of the phonograph.

                Let the phonograph be an indispensable object in your house, a beautiful ornament in your parlor, and enjoy it a bit, in order to draw inspiration from the pleasures of an unmatched branch of the fine arts, Music.

                The phonograph is the live communicator of music, through the grace of which you can at all times, in your home, have near you all the singers, not only those who are your compatriots, but also those belonging to other nations and who have fame and talent. Through the grace of the phonograph, even the dead artists will speak with you in the sweet-sounding language of their songs.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Onnik's latest album takes us back to the "old country," but with a fresh vibe

For years, singer Onnik Dinkjian has been one of the biggest names in the Armenian-American kef scene. Born in Paris in 1929, and living in America since 1946, Onnik might be the oldest active kef musician today but his energy still outpaces many of his younger peers. Personally, I last saw him sing at AYF Olympics in Detroit last September and in the words of my generation, he "killed it." Both Onnik and oudist son Ara's careers have been profiled elsewhere and I will get straight to the point of my post.

Onnik's latest production, "Diyarbekiri Hokin" (The Soul Of Diyarbekir [Dikranagerd]), is truly a landmark album in our music. I knew that a recording specifically of Dikranagerdtsi folk music was in the works, and that fact in itself was notable, as far as I was concerned. But I didn't anticipate how great the album would actually turn out!!! From the first listen I couldn't believe my ears. Onnik, and son Ara who led the ensemble on oud and did most of arrangements along with Istanbul-Armenian guitarist Ari Hergel, managed to create an album that was as traditional as you could possibly get in this day and age, yet sounded fresh, alive, vibrant. Musician friends around the country agreed with me that this album was something special. Opening with a traditional Diyarbakir Peshrev, the audience is kept waiting for Onnik's vocals but enjoys this expertly played Near Eastern classical piece:, setting the mood for the album you are about to hear. Best enjoyed with a bottle of arak, mezza, and good friends, this is not your typical "kef" dance album, but a real work of art.

The instrumentation and songs are completely traditional but the arrangements at times were very modern, especially in the background rhythm section. On the intro to a few of the songs you hear some modern guitar playing and percussion that then leads into a traditional kef song. But even the typical kef songs were made fresh and new by Onnik's interpretation. For example, on the every popular song "Kale Kale" (i.e. Hayde Kale) Onnik sings not like he's at a kef belting out lyrics, but gently, as if he's in his backyard singing to his wife or perhaps granddaughter. Of course, this understated style was always what has set Onnik apart from his fellow kef singers and earned him the name of "the Armenian Frank Sinatra." This song in particular was a highlight for me and one feels you can actually hear Onnik smile as he sings the lyrics.

An interesting aspect of the album were the two tracks interspersed between the songs, where Onnik speaks in fluent Diyarbekir Armenian dialect about life in the old country. Most Armenians will be unable to understand it - I was just able to get the gist of what topics he was discussing - but his enthusiasm shows through and it is a valuable legacy of our heritage. Maybe those tracks will go over a little better in New Jersey :)

In correspondence with Ara, he told me that his intention with the project was "to reclaim Armenians' historical presence in Dikranagerd". To this end, many songs from Dikranagerd that previously have been sung in both Kurdish and Turkish (by Armenians as well as Turks and Kurds) were sung with lyrics written mostly in Diyarbakir Armenian dialect by Onnik, or lyrics taken from Dikranagerdsi Armenian poetry or folk songs. Devoted kef music fans will note the song "Liberde" recorded by John Berberian with Robert Afarian on vocals, done here as "Siranoush." The instrumentation seems to have been chosen with the same idea in mind, taking us back to the Diyarbakir that could have been if 1915 had never happened. Notably, the producer of the album, Aytekin AtaƟ, who FUNDED the entire project is a Kurd from Turkey. If you have been following Armenian current events, you know the now Kurdish-run municipality of Diyarbakir gave the historic St. Giragos Church back to the Armenian community, the first return of a historic Armenian church to ever take place since 1915 (see (Onnik mentions the St. Giragos church in his Diyarbakir monologues on the album.) Aytekin, like the leaders of the Diyarbakir municipality, is one of a growing number of Kurds who have embraced the Armenian cause (which as Ara reminded me, is really a human cause), sometimes putting themselves at risk for doing so. Not only Kurds, but Turks as well, as the ensemble on this recording, aside from Onnik, Ara, Ari, and Greek kemence player Socratis Sinopoulos, were to my knowledge mostly Turks. Quite impressive. As Onnik is quoted in the liner notes: "See, we are very happy together. If 1915 had never happened; we could have been brothers and sisters, relatives, neighbors and we could have lived on the same land all together."
In addition to the traditional pieces are a number of songs written by early Armenian-American immigrants from Dikranagerd, notably Hovsep Shamlian, many of whose compositions, written in 1920s New Jersey, are still popular today. (Famous oudist Roupen Altiparmakian had a saying "if you want to have kef with Armenians, you need to find Dikranagerdtsis") Two of the 3 Shamlian songs on the album are the already mentioned "Kale Kale," and "Sheg Mazerov Er," which are extremely popular and well known to most Armenian-Americans and the third, "Zuyk Me Jermag Aghavni" is well known at least to people like me who own kef albums, having been recorded years ago by Onnik with John Berberian. Based on my collection of 78 rpm records, I would have to say that Dikranagerdtsi immigrants had an influence on kef music that was probably out of proportion to their numbers in the community.

And then there are the songs Onnik has written, mostly episodes from his life. The second track, where we hear Onnik sing for the first time, was written by Onnik to a Diyabakir folk melody. The lyrics in Western Armenian paint a picture of Onnik's mother Zora who tragically passed when Onnik was five. Her voice was legendary among the Dikranagerd Armenians of Paris, who, as the song depicts, would come and sit on the floor, eagerly waiting to hear her sing the songs of their homeland. Onnik dedicated the album to his mother Zora, and this tribute to his mother who I'm sure was a huge influence on his pursuit of Armenian music, seemed like a great way to open this album of songs, some of which she probably sang herself.

It seems like a good way to end this review, too. If you haven't yet, get Onnik Dinkjian's "Diyarbekiri Hokin" on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or however else you get music!!! You won't regret it.