Armenian Friends of America Uses Dance Music to Unite Armenians of Merrimack Valley

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

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.”

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At the time, he was turning 65, and realized that despite his decades in the area, he did not know many Armenians living nearby who attended other churches. To rectify this, he organized the first Hye Kef 5 in October 2013 to bring together all the varied Armenian communities of the Merrimack Valley. Arzigian said, “You see, I am a musician, and our Armenian music has no boundaries.”

Arzigian created an organizing committee, and received great support from the Knights of Vartan. The current committee, in addition to Arzigian, includes Peter Gulezian, Scott Sahagian, Sharke Der Apkarian, Mike Naroian, Mary Ann Janigian, Lu Sirmaian, Garo Karibian, Jr., and Therese Keoseian.

The ticket price is set at the absolute minimum by design, in order to allow as many people as possible to be able to afford to attend. Money is raised for the four Merrimack Valley Armenian churches as well as for worthy causes each year through the sale of raffle tickets at the event. The churches supported by AFA, a nonprofit organization, are St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic Church of North Andover, the Armenian Apostolic Church at Hye Pointe, Haverhill, Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Apostolic Church of Chelmsford and Ararat Armenian Congregational Church of Salem, New Hampshire. This year in addition to the churches, two Armenian orphans will be assisted by the proceeds.

Each time Arzigian is at one of the AFA events, seeing Armenians from all walks of life and factions come together, he exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful thing in the world for me. This is the way it should be all the time. For information on next year’s banquet, planned for October 14 in the same hotel, see www.armenianfriendsofamerica.org.