By Aram Arkun
ANDOVER, Mass. — The number of events and programs which regularly bring together Armenians from different churches and organizations in common cause is not that large, but gradually increasing. Perhaps the Philadelphia Armenian Nor Daree (PAND) gala, begun in 1981 and still going strong, is the best known such event on the East Coast. The Armenian Friends of America, Inc. (AFA) started a similar tradition for the four Armenian churches of the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts, and held its fourth dinner dance, Hye Kef 5 (5 stands for 5 hours), at the Hilton Doubletree Hotel in Andover on October 22. A record number of nearly 440 Armenians attended.
A key draw for the event was the group of well-known Armenian folk musicians including legendary singer Onnik Dinkjian, his son Ara Dinkjian (keyboard), Mal Barsamian (clarinet), master oudist John Berberian, Jason Naroian (dumbeg) and Ron Tutunjian (dumbeg). Some Armenians drove for hours from other areas just to hear them.
The formal program during the dinner compared to most Armenian events was brief and meaningful. Four Armenian clergymen, one from each of the churches in the Merrimack Valley, blessed the meal together. Later, AFA Chairman John Arzigian presented a plaque honoring Tom Vartabedian for his decades of commitment and achievements in serving the Armenians of the Merrimack Valley, New England, and internationally as an ambassador of Armenian culture. A cluster of trees was planted in Vartabedian’s name in Armenia through the Armenian Tree Project by AFA. Vartabedian was not able to come in person due to illness; he was represented by his daughter Sonya Vartabedian Sico. She conveyed a message from her father, who had told her, “‘You know, it might sound corny, but we are all one family. Even if we go to different churches and belong to different things we are one community. United, we succeed, divided we fail.’ His hope is that we all for generations to come stay united.”
Aside from the music, the main thing for most guests was an occasion for camaraderie for Armenians who live in the same region but may not see each other often because they attend different Armenian functions and churches. Arzigian explained in a statement on the AFA website that he came up with the idea for AFA in 2011 while at an Armenian dance. Despite the crowd, he said, “Once again, I was missing many of my Armenian Brothers and Sisters.”