Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Fabulous Vosbikians: All American Kef

Today's post concerns one of the most influential groups in the history of Armenian dance music in America. It can be said that without this group the music as we know it today would not exist anymore. The group of which I speak is the "Fabulous" Vosbikian Band.

The Vosbikian Band is the longest running Armenian band in America. Founded in 1939, they are a family band still going strong today with second and third generation members.

The band was founded originally by three brothers, Samuel, Manuel (Mike), and Joseph Vosbikian, born to Armenian immigrant parents from Malatya, Turkey, just after WWI. They were typical members of the "Greatest Generation", grew up during the Depression, served in WWII, and listened to Big Band music of the time like any other American kids.

But the Armenian legacy held strong in the Vosbikian family. Sam, Mike and Joe's immigrant father Bedros Vosbikian (b. 1892 in Malatya) was a clarinet player, who performed Armenian folk music with his brother Thomas on violin and Harry Santerian on dumbeg. Bedros had stowed away on a ship to America in 1913 and in 1916 brought his brother and his bride-to-be, Vartanoush, who had miraculously survived the Armenian Genocide, to Philadelphia. Bedros' saga is told by his daughter-in-law, Irene, in her new book "Bedros": http://www.amazon.com/Bedros-Irene-Vosbikian/dp/0615887244

Bedros and Vartanoush had 4 sons and 3 daughters but it was the 3 oldest boys, Sam, Mike, and Joe who in 1939 took the revolutionary step, when some of them were still in high school, of starting the first Armenian band composed of American-born members. (Picture below.)

L to R: Garo "Charles" Mardigian (usually played banjo), Sam Vosbikian (leader), Joe Vosbikian, Mike Vosbikian, Peter Endrigian (on dumbeg). The 1939-1941 band.
The first band played at various functions in Philly and made their first out of town appearance at an AYF Mid Atlantic Jamboree in Union City, NJ in 1940. When the boys went off to WWII the band was put on hold but after everyone had returned a new band was formed in 1946, with the original 3 core members and some new band members. It was this second band, billed as "The Fabulous Vosbikian Band," which really made a mark in the Armenian social and music scene as the first American born Armenian band, performing regularly at social functions, releasing records, etc.

L to R, top row: Mike Vosbikian (sax), Jirair Hovnanian (vocals), Jimmy Vosbikian (clarinet, vocals)
L to R, bottom row: Steve Ajdaharian (piano, vocals), Joe Vosbikian (dumbeg, vocals), Albert Santerian (dumbeg),
Sam Vosbikian (oud, bandleader)
In the 1946 version of the band, Sam switched from clarinet to oud, Joe from drum set to traditional dumbeg, and Mike stayed on sax. Joe was also one of the band's vocalists known for his "deep emotional vocals bringing the old intensity into modern Armenian music." The 3 brothers teamed up with cousin Jimmy Vosbikian (son of Bedros' brother Thomas) on clarinet and vocals (he was the star vocalist of the group, to whom "everyone pauses to listen"), and Albert Santerian also on dumbeg. In 1948 Jirair Hovnanian, who had immigrated with his brothers from his birthplace in Baghdad, Iraq, and ended up marrying Vosbikian sister Elizabeth, joined the band as a vocalist, adding many new songs. In 1949 Steve Ajdaharian joined as a pianist and sometimes vocalist. Joe also contributed vocals. In 1950 Steve Terkanian was added as a tambourine player. The above oil painting depicts the 1940s-1950s era Vosbikian band. 

From 1949-1951 the Vosbikian Band recorded 22 songs, the first by an American-born Armenian band. These recordings became hugely popular and influential in kef music. Later, in 1957, the Vosbikian Band produced the first LP by an Armenian-American dance band. Influenced by the Big Band Swing music of the time, the Vosbikians used saxophone (for the first time) and piano in an Armenian folk/dance band. They added an American flair to traditional Armenian folk music - for example Steve Ajdaharian's piano solos and Mike Vosbikian wailing on the sax on numbers like "Vosbikian Special II". Even aside from that, the Vosbikians had a unique sound like no other Armenian group; instead of making everything seem sad, they made everything seem happy. Yet, though they had a happy-go-lucky "American-Armenian" image and sound, they were actually more authentic in many ways that many of their peers who were giving into commercialism. For instance, on listening to their 1957 LP, "Vosbikian Presents Armenian Folk Dances," I felt I was there, live at an Armenian youth dance in the Catskills or the Jersey Shore in the 50s, - without the smoothed-out, Westernized style that makes some other bands of that era sound like the soundtrack to "Cleopatra" with Elizabeth Taylor. It was these recordings and this sound that was influential to the careers of a whole generation of American-born Armenian musicians.

But perhaps even more influential was the fact that they had started a band at all. For a bunch of American-born guys to take such a step of creating a working Armenian dance band in the 1940s was no casual act. This was a time when the first American born generation of Armenians was coming of age and deciding whether they wanted to continue the Armenian heritage or not. No doubt their father's musical talents and strong Armenian pride inspired the Vosbikian brothers in this significant, and influential decision. When other ethnicities were forgetting their traditional music (i.e. the Jewish community all but rejected "klezmer", their folk music, to the point where it had to be "revived" in the 1970s), the Vosbikians started a movement among young Armenians to live out their heritage through music.

Some of the bands in that era were the Nor-Ikes of NYC (founded by oudist Charles "Chick" Ganimian in 1948), the Artie Barsamian Orchestra of Boston featuring the legendary clarinetist of the same name, the Gomidas Band of Philly, founded by Hank Mardigian around 1950 and featuring the legendary oudist George Mgrdichian, Mike and Buddy Sarkissian's group operating out of the Merrimack Valley (Lawrence and Lowell, Mass.), the Aramites Band of Worcester, Mass, founded in 1951, the New England Ararats hailing from Rhode Island, the Ardziv Band of Detroit, founded by clarinetist Simon Javizian, and the Arax Band of Detroit who were the first Armenian group to have a recording on the Billboard charts. All of these bands were formed by first-generation-American-born Armenians, and almost all of them, with the exception of Mike and Buddy Sarkissian, copied the Vosbikian line up of 1946 in their basic format: oud, clarinet, saxophone, and two dumbegs (or a dumbeg and a "cocktail drum") an instrumentation that was standard until the mid-60s. Some have called it the Armenian Big Band era. Rather than a dumbeg and guitar, the pace was set by 2 dumbegs, and the Vosbikians had their own giant, hand made versions.

As to their success in the community, an article in the Armenian press by Elizabeth Noorigian Simonds, who having grown up in that era, stressed that the Vosbikians brought together all the Armenians regardless of political affiliations stemming from the old world that unfortunately were tearing the Armenian community apart, and regardless of generation gap between the old and the young. The Vosbikian band was a phenomenon in the Armenian community, breaking down barriers and simply creating good times and memories for the generation that grew up dancing to their music.

It was in this era that kef music as we know it today was born. Styles and repertoire from all the parts of Turkey that Armenians had immigrated from combined into a new pan-Armenian-American style. New dances like the Armenian Shuffle were created and a host of songs from Soviet and Russian Armenia were adopted - always being transformed in the process into an Anatolian style, notably by changing the 6/8 meter to a 10/8, which the Vosbikians excelled at. According to Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, with the melding of the different regional styles from Turkey, although "The music lost much of the subtle [regional] characteristics," the new style "brought new vigor" and "enabled the community to integrate itself on a much wider scale as a common interest of all groups." 

By the mid-1950s, it was official: it was apparently "cool," among young American-born Armenians, to play Armenian dance (kef) music. Even as the "Big Band Armenian" era came to an end in the 60s, a second generation of Armenian-Americans, in relatively large numbers, continued to enter the field of Armenian and Near Eastern music. You can probably count the number of Armenians who made any kind of name for themselves in jazz or pop music on your two hands, and even less for rock music. As for classical music, many Armenians entered that field, but certainly not as many as who entered the "Near Eastern" scene. This strong trend continued throughout the 60s and 70s, and the tradition continues unbroken, though maybe on a lesser scale, today. In a 1978 interview, veteran singer Onnik Dinkjian had this to say about the bands from the 40s and 50s: "All I know is that those bands--the Nor-Ikes, the Gomidas, and the Barsamians, and so on--were really the pioneers, the beginners of what we are trying to do today...A lot of credit is due these bands because to be living far, far away from Armenia and to first learn the instruments, and then to get together, listen to their parents and the old records, and learn that music is highly commendable. These boys could just as well have learned jazz, or any other type of music, but they put their heart and soul into the Armenian music...My hat is off to them."

In other words, if it wasn't for the Vosbikians and those who followed them, we might be dancing to only American music at our Armenian weddings and social functions today.

The Vosbikians continued their family tradition. In 1963, the teenage sons of the original band members first appeared on stage, billed as the Vosbikian Juniors, which developed into the Steve Vosbikian Ensemble coming out with their LP, "Armenian Reflections" in the early 1970s.

In 1975, the first and second generation musicians joined together to create an album entitled "Armenian Dance Favorites." It was to be the first of 10 volumes of albums released periodically up until 2004, featuring a vast array of Vosbikian family members. The albums are available here: http://armenianvendor.com/armenian-cds-dvds-armenian-dance-music-cds-c-24_37.html?page=3 The most active members in the second generation were bandleader Steve Vosbikian (clarinet), Greg Vosbikian (oud), Sam Vosbikian Jr. (dumbeg) (all sons of Sam), Mike Vosbikian Jr. (sax), and Steve Hovnanian, son of Jirair, on vocals, who along with Roger Krikorian is one of the two best kef singers of his generation in this writer's opinion. Skippy Krepelka (of Greek descent) on guitar was added to the group to round out the sound. 

Out of that generation, oudist Greg Vosbikian has also recently released his own solo album, "Armenian Stone." www.cdbaby.com/cd/gregoryvosbikian

The third generation of Vosbikian family talent has developed with Chris Vosbikian (dumbeg/keyboards - son of Greg), and Stephen Hovnanian (saxophone) and for a time Haig Hovnanian (dumbeg), sons of Steve Hovnanian, all playing as members of the Philly Kef Band (most active in the late 90s and early 2000s). Later, Chris joined the Michael Gostanian Ensemble on dumbeg, and with them, recorded one of the most well-received kef albums of the current generation ("Traditions"), and Steve Vosbikian Jr. joined the Philly Kef Band on clarinet. Steve Jr. continued his Armenian music education and became adept at the Eastern Armenian folk and rabiz styles, prompting him to create his new band, Artsakh. Chris continues to be an in-demand dumbeg player in the more traditional kef combinations. Stemming all the way back to their great-grandfather Bedros, Steve Jr. and Chris are continuing the family tradition. Steve Hovnanian's daughter Karinne Andonian is also a talented vocalist that has appeared on one of the band's albums and appeared with the band at Return to Asbury 2015.

Unfortunately, almost all of the original band members have passed on, with the noted exception of Mike Vosbikian, first saxophonist in an Armenian band, now in his mid 90s. Check him out, singing with Leo and Mal Barsamian a few years back:


At the Vosbikian Band's appearance at Return to Asbury 2015, Mr. Mike Vosbikian Sr. was honored for his contributions and did his rendition of "Dollarjee." The band as put together for that event is pictured below at their rehearsal.

What makes the Vosbikians different? In conversations with others of my age, we often compare the various bands and musicians that we've listened to, especially the older groups, and analyze them: i.e. John Berberian or Richard Hagopian might be the greatest oud player, and Richard is no doubt the "heaviest" and most traditional. John might have more soul, say some, but the dancers who want to get their groove on to an old school "chifte telli" go for Richard all the way. Hachig Kazarian, too brings the traditional style along with soul and technique, and Onnik Dinkjian has the vocal chops to be called the Armenian Frank Sinatra while his son Ara's oud style is minimalist, modern, and expressive. It's a tossup whether John Berberian's first two albums, or Richard and Hachig's four "Kef Time" albums are the best records in the genre, although Onnik's albums, still appearing in his late 80s are phenomenal and so is his stage presence!

So what do the Vosbikians have, aside from being the originators of it all? Well they do have their own inimitable style, that I don't think any other band has even tried to replicate. But the thing that stands out for me is this: they play with the most HEART. They put their all into it, forget being an oud virtuoso, forget eastern makams and quartertones, when you listen to the Vosbikians, more than any other band, you can tell that they really and truly LOVE this music. They play for love of the music, not for fame, or virtuosity, or ethnomusicology, or to impress belly dancers, or to sound heavy, or to sound badass.....they play because they love the music and want to spread the love and joy and happiness through Armenian music and dancing...they are the most authentic not in the ethnographic sense, but in the human sense, because it was never fake with them, never posturing, never trying to impress, just playing the best they knew how, to make people happy...just check out the below youtube videos I took at Return to Asbury 2015....I'm sure their father/grandfather/great-grandfather Bedros more than approves!





Friday, April 1, 2016

Collectif Medz Bazar - the best new thing since sliced basterma

A short time before Christmas I saw a video on youtube that was nothing short of a revelation. All I could tell for sure was that these were young French-Armenians and they were rapping about some type of Turkish or Armenian food called "Kokorech."

To those that knew about Collectif Medz Bazar long before me, I apologize that I am late to the game, but more importantly WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME ABOUT THEM!!!

I have to say, this is one of the most creative, wonderful expressions of music and art by young Armenians that I have ever seen. 

In recent years we have seen many young Armenians coming up with new ways to express themselves in the realm of music. Until I saw this video, there were very few of these musical expressions or artists that I felt an identification with. Without naming names of other artists, it seems most young Armenians who try to do something "new and different" from traditional Armenian music, either modify the dance music with house and techno beats and/or too much keyboard, or try to take the purist canonical Armenian songs of Gomidas and others and perform them in some funky, hipster-ish style such as acoustic guitar, jazz fusion, classical guitar, a capella singing, etc. 

Neither of those styles did I identify with, although sometimes I enjoyed them. But Collectif Medz Bazar (whose members, apparently are not all Armenian but Armenian, French, Turkish, and other ethnicities living in Paris) has created for the first time, music that was new and different, but which also resonated with me. (Of course, my first love is the kef music of groups like the Kef Time Band or Onnik Dinkjian, but that music is not "new and different.") Medz Bazar has created music that is new without trying to compete with clubbing music, that's Armenian without being inside the box 100% certified by Gomidas, that has the Turkish and all the other influences. And it has authenticity, and the spirit of being a young Armenian in the Diaspora.

Let's take the video...from the opening scene where everyone is waking up, sleeping under Armenian style afghans or "medz mayrig blankets" as I called them growing up (and we owned several), to the scenes walking through the streets of Paris, going to a restaurant, dancing in the street, I loved this video. The style of the whole thing, both music and video, was to me above all AUTHENTIC. It was not posturing and trying to be cool or badass or hipster like some of the other artists that have come along. These young people seem to be GENUINE and really having FUN with the music and the video they created. At the same time, they created something of high quality.

I have never eaten Kokorech before but that's not the point. The scenes dancing in the street and going to the Turkish-Kurdish restaurant reminded me, when I watched the video again today, of my days only a few years ago in college at the University of Michigan, where I spent most of my time with the other members of the Armenian Club. Mostly everyone was Armenian, but people would bring their non-Armenian friends to hang out with us, and they loved the Armenian (or Anatolian, or Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern) lifestyle and socializing. Our friends were Anglos, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Indians, and other ethnicities. I remember times dancing in the streets of Ann Arbor, parties at our apartment where we drank ouzo, ate our own homemade shish kebab and pilaf, or beoregs I brought from home, and played the CD "Kef Time Detroit" at full volume. I'm pretty sure I even had a medz mayrig blanket. There have been times we did the Michigan Hop in the streets. The Kokorec video reminded me of just that same lifestyle that we lived. 

I also listened to the entire album of Medz Bazar, entitled "Kokorec". A brief run down of the album:
1. Kokorec - See above
2. Jarnana - Getme - Ok, apparently this song is in Albanian. I had no idea what language this was at first. Then they sing a really catchy song in Turkish, that sounds basically like a Hayastantsi pop song minus the keyboard. But I mean that in a really good way.
3. Dolama - This song was really cool. It also has a music video. I like how they are lying around and then decide to sing this off-meter song in Turkish. Really nice clarinet solo in the beginning of this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7sIYCZe_nA
This was cool as they did this classic Armenian song in Armenian French and Turkish. Even the Armenian lyrics are new as far as I could tell. 
5. Al Ayloughs. They basically did this classic Armenian folk song straight but they nailed it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnpoWUHyPww
6. Ayayay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noloriaD5go This one was in French and it also had a European or French style to it.
This was a heavy Armenian folk song that sounds like it's from Moush or somewhere like that. I noticed the influence from the Kotchnak and Akn singing groups, which I didn't mention but two of Medz Bazar's members are the children of the leaders of those groups. Obviously they inherited the talent. 
This was really enjoyable. I remember this song from a Shoghaken album. They killed it on this number and then added in a Kurdish (?) song in the middle for good measure. This is a great Armenian dance number. 

This post is really getting too long, but I have to also at least mention two other things. "Notre Patrie" in which the group sings about the confusing relationship with the homeland and the Diaspora, as well as political issues in Armenia, especially as huge numbers of Diasporan youth descend on Armenia each summer. This one I couldn't relate to quite as much as I've only been to Armenia once (though it was in the summer pretty much as they describe) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u8xvw_hN28 

And 'Ariur Ar 'Ariur, in which the main singer raps about being an Armenian in the Diaspora. I really can't go in depth about all the things he brings up, but suffice it to say, he's poking fun at a lot of ideas that are held by many Armenians (i.e., hating the Turks) and also showing the conflicts we grow up with as Armenian young people in the Diaspora, again it really resonated with me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Txv_EnPpOhc

In summary, I can't believe it took me a year and a half to discover Collectif Medz Bazar, but I am so happy that I did. This music completely speaks to me and I'm sure it will also to many of you. To me this is a truly authentic group giving voice to the youth of the Armenian Diaspora, and not just Armenians but others as well! From a fellow young Diasporan Armenian musician, I wish the best of luck to the members of Collectif Medz Bazar and I hope they create another album, and I really hope I get the chance to see them perform one day.