Filmmaker Aramazt Kalayjian Brings ‘Tezeta’ to Life


Filmmaker Aramazt Kalayjian Brings ‘Tezeta’ to Life

By Gabriella Gage

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — Tezeta is a word of great significance in Ethiopia. In Amharic (Semetic language spoken in Ethiopia), it means memory, nostalgia or longing. It is also the name of a type of Ethiopian jazz and the ballads in that style that have been sung by countless Ethiopian singers. More recently, it has served at the linguistic inspiration for “Tezeta [The Ethiopian Armenians,]” a documentary by Armenian-American filmmaker, Aramazt Kalayjian.

The film, currently in production, explores the historic connection between Armenians and Ethiopians, with music serving as the main cultural bridge between the communities. Through the film, its creators hope to preserve the culture legacy of the small, relatively unheard of Armenian community in Ethiopia. “From 40 Armenian orphans adopted by Emperor Haile Selassie after the Genocide to perform as the first imperial orchestra of Ethiopia in 1924, to Alemayhu Eshete, the ‘Elvis’ of Ethiopia, Armenians have left their imprint on the cultural and musical landscape of Ethiopian society,” said, Kalayjian, creator and director of the project.

Kalayjian explained, “I chose [Tezeta] as the title for our documentary because of its connection to the music as well as the implied sentiment.  ‘tezeta,’ memory, nostalgia, these are what people describe when thinking about the connection between Armenians and Ethiopians.” He added, “Music has been the main cultural vein by which Armenians were able to sustain a connection and impart their musical craft to Ethiopian society. Through the stories and people I mentioned previously, they were able to elevate the level and quality of music performance, composition and appreciation in Ethiopia.”

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Kalayjian first heard of the Ethiopian-Armenian community as a small child, growing up in the Hudson River Valley of New York. “As a child, my father had always told me stories of how many places we had Armenian communities. Poland, Uruguay, Australia, India and this also included Ethiopia. He had told me about an Ethiopian classmate he had at the now-closed Melkonian Boarding School.” But Kalayjian didn’t begin to fully explore his father’s tales of little-known Armenian communities until years later while he was living in Harlem, New York.

Kalayjian had taken an interest in the arts from an early age. He attended the Pratt Institute where he graduated with a degree in communications design. While attending a 10-week documentary filmmaking collaborative at the Maysles Institute in Harlem, Kalayjian explored the art of writing a treatment, budgeting, story-telling through video and what it takes to make a documentary film.

One day while visiting the Schoenberg Library of African Studies in Harlem, Kalayjian recalled his father’s stories and decided to ask if there were any materials that showed a historical connection between Armenia and Africa. The librarian — who Kalayjian noted happened to be half-Armenian —brought forth two books that described the trading patterns and goods between Armenians and Ethiopia during the 14th century. “I was enthused. It was magical, almost like discovering a secret treasure that had been hidden,” said of his discovery. The next day, Kalayjian met with his friend and musicologist, Miles McNulty, who introduced him to a series of Ethiopian music produced by Francis Falceto called “Éthiopiques.” While browsing the multi-disc collection, Kalayjian happened to find an Armenian name in the credits — Nerses Nalbandian. “After hearing this, and after some research, I learned about an orchestral group of 40 orphans of the Armenian Genocide from Jerusalem who were adopted by Emperor Haile Selassie I to serve as Ethiopia’s first imperial orchestra. I was hooked, I realized that there was a profound story whose surface I just began to touch.”

While planning his move from New York to Armenia, Kalayjian and his wife, Ani Jilozian, decided to visit Ethiopia in order to collect stories and began research on what he calls, “the Ethiopian-Armenian cultural and musical romance.”

Kalayjian explained that many people are aware of the story of the 40 Armenian orphans who served in the Ethiopian orchestral band and of their bandleader, Kevork Nalbandian, who wrote Ethiopia’s first national anthem. “What people don’t know about,” Kalayjian said, “are the others who worked to elevate Ethiopia’s level of music. Sona Stordio who taught piano lessons to many in Ethiopia. Ashkhen Avakian, who served on the board of Ethiopia’s only university-level music school, Yared School. Haig Manougian, who served as leader of the Police Academy Band for 10 years and spent six years translating Ethiopian church music from the traditional St. Yared musical notation to European musical notation,” and countless others. “The depth of which the Armenians helped to nurture the musical craft in Ethiopia is truly unknown.”

Kalayjian said that the response of both the Armenian-Ethiopian community, and the larger Ethiopian community has been amazing.

“Once people heard that I was making a documentary about their story through the narrative of music they were enthused and offered photographs, stories and the vulnerability of being on-camera, which is a huge gift of access and priceless to a documentary filmmaker.” He added, “It’s as much an Ethiopian story as it is an Armenian story because many Armenians here were adopted as Ethiopians. There was one gravestone of an Armenian doctor that I visited in the Armenian cemetery that speaks volumes, ‘Born in Ethiopia, Lived for Ethiopia, Died for Ethiopia.’”

“Tezeta [The Ethiopian Armenians]” is slated for release later this year. Recent and ongoing fundraising campaigns are aimed at supporting the completion of the project, with hundreds of hours of footage already filmed.

“We recently raised funds for the final leg of production and post-production of our film.  Even though we didn’t raise our goal, we consider it a success and will help us complete collecting materials here in Ethiopia,” said Kalayjian.

“We are pursuing different grant-making organizations [Armenian, Ethiopian and international] to fund post-production as well as a concert to be held in Yerevan with an Ethiopian band and Ethiopia’s last performing pop star, Vahe Tilbian. We’re consciously hopeful that we will be successful in bringing this great musical culmination to stage in Armenia,” he said.

The film’s producers also hope to have the film tour festivals worldwide and say that plans for a museum in Ethiopia are also in the works.

Kalayjian’s dedication to the project is in part due to the uniqueness and strength of the Ethiopian-Armenian community itself. “Their common religious foundation gave them a bridge into the hearts and minds of Ethiopia’s royalty and people. This created a bond of trust allowed Armenians to thrive and help thrive with a great gift of commonality among Ethiopian society,” he said referring to the fact that both Ethiopian and Armenian Apostolic Churches are members of the Oriental Orthodox communion of churches. There are also similarities between the Ethiopian and Armenian alphabets.

As production moves forward, Kalayjian said he hopes “to educate an international audience of the huge contribution afforded Ethiopia by Armenians and the cultural and musical romance they shared. If I can inspire others to desire to know more, I would feel like I have succeeded.  The importance lies in the fact that many Armenians and Ethiopians don’t know Armenians were or are here.”

For more information on “Tezeta [The Ethiopian Armenians],” the history of the Ethiopian-Armenian community or to donate to the film’s production, visit

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: