Ara Dabandjian plays the oud during Element Band’s recent performance at the Ford Amphitheatre

Element(ary) Music from the Soul

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LOS ANGELES — Among the cavernous cliffs of the Santa Monica mountains, the sweet hues of Armenian melodies rise into the air, floating high up above the Ford Amphitheatre, where more than 1,000 audience members are transfixed by the musicians on stage, who come from all walks of life, to create folkloric music with a novel twist.

As their music comes alive here in Los Angeles for a diverse audience, attesting to the unifying essence of Element Band, a mixture of cultural nostalgia and emotional tradition envelopes the crowd. The group’s performance centers around its latest album, É, but the evening is also filled with their signature fusion tunes they have become known for over the last 14 years on the world stage.

“It’s more fulfilling to record Armenian music and present it to a wider audience,” said Ara Dabandjian, founder of Element Band, in an interview. “The fact that I’m able to serve Armenian music in places and to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it is something I’m very proud of.”

Element Band vocalist Natalie Avunjian

The moving songs, performed live in an eclectic and energetic atmosphere throughout the two hour concert last month, ranged from folklore to lullabies to love songs, forging parallels to the band’s three previous albums but strongly standing out with a message: “É,” which means existence in Armenian, celebrates the being of the band, which officially formed in 2004 and quickly made a name for itself opening for the legendary Demis Roussos at the Kodak Theater in its inaugural year.

Since then Element Band has continued to increase its visibility, experimenting with different forms as it searched for its core identity, which Dabandjian concludes is “strictly” Armenian. The group, under the capable leadership of its director, ensure that their live performances are as fulfilling as their recorded albums, particularly when the audience is just as invested as the musicians on stage.

“We derive energy from the audience,” said Dabandjian. “Performing in front of a full house is a whole different experience on stage and you can feel the vibe that everyone is immensely enjoying themselves.”

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Playing a multitude of instruments on the album and on the stage, including the accordion, piano, mandolin, saz, percussion and oud, Dabandjian has been the innovator of this contemporary and imaginative genre of music. The diverse band members, who range from Armenian to Filipino to Persian, play a variety of instruments, creating a unique and distinct sound while performing Armenian songs, without sacrificing that unmistakable identity.

“I don’t think as an artist you can ever get to where you want to be,” said Dabandjian who worked on arranging, recording and producing “É” for close to a year. “But I feel this is my best work up to this point.”

Ara Dabandjian playing the accordion during Element Band’s recent performance at the Ford Amphitheatre

His accordion strapped steadily on his shoulders, Dabandjian softly introduces the group’s next song, one that has not been sung live since the band’s inception over a decade ago, the personal meaning too strong. Like many of Element Band’s selections, these compositions and lyrics are rooted in history, in culture, in family and ultimately, in humanity, the melodies a lifetime in the making as the notes stirred and swished in Dabandjian’s subconscious as he drove on those long smooth stretches of California’s freeways, from Tarzana to Victorville, where he owned a fiberglass factory. It was on those 100-mile rides that he would compose in his head arrangements of the songs he grew up with, bringing to life the soon-to-be recorded sultry, tango-influenced Ov Du Geghetzik with the crying violin to the refreshing and energetic drum-heavy rendition of Anush Hairenik.

This piece that Element Band was about to perform was no different; like many Armenian songs it was akin to collecting dust on a bookshelf until Dabandjian decided to chronicle it, in the process unearthing his mother’s acapella vocals on the opening verse of Vorqan Tzangatza (How Much I Longed). Tinged with her own longing, the song would be the first and last time her voice was recorded.

“My mother’s voice was beautiful,” said Dabandjian. “Growing up in the environment she did, however, she was never able to take her natural abilities to the heights she wanted to.”

That environment was one of relentless survival, as direct descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors whose priority was merely to live. The roots of Vorqan Tzangatza and the sold-out concert under the stars of Hollywood last September can be traced back thousands of miles away to the Armenian enclave of Bourdj Hammoud in Beirut. This Mediterranean port city that served as a haven for hundreds of thousands of Armenians, was experiencing an explosion of arts, culture and music in pre-war Beirut of the 1960s, the so-called Golden Age, where an abundance of ideals and diverse influences fused together. It was here where Dabandjian grew up among a rich palette of records and instruments, picking up a mandolin at the age of 3, inherently determining his own future.

Topics: Concert, Music

His house reflected this burst of creativity where Dabandjian was soon playing the saz as his mother sang and his father plucked the mandolin. He would spent countless hours listening to old records of Ophelia Hambardzumyan and Rubik Matevosian that arrived from Soviet Armenia, his ears glued to the large bronzed brass phonograph in his living room.

“I have scratched every vinyl in my house since the 1960s,” said Dabandjian. “My parents used to yell, laugh and be happy all at the same time.” He has kept those scratched vinyls, his first markers into the musical world.

He echoed centuries of music through his mahogany stringed instruments and as he honed his talents, his mother encouraged him to learn the violin as it would enable him to play multiple instruments with ease. At the age of 10 he enrolled at the Conservatoire Libanais in Beirut where he was just beginning to receive formal training when it all came to a crashing end — quite literally — with the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. The bloody conflict created a chasm in this culturally rich, vibrant community that rejuvenated a sizeable Armenian community after the attempted extermination of its population. It was where they had recreated their lives, their families, their work — and it was where they began to play music again — to once again have a reason to celebrate their life and their existence.

Element Band vocalist Soseh Keshishian Aramouni

As the violence escalated, Dabandjian’s conservatory lessons were cut short by a war that would ultimately change the course of his and his family’s life. Immigrating to the United States as a teenager, Dabandjian and his family settled in Philadelphia. He brought along a mandolin and an accordion, carrying with him a few lessons from a neighbor, but left behind the saz and his one-stringed oud, missing his hometown and desiring to return.

“Back in Beirut, life was stable for my parents and they had an idea of where to direct me,” said Dabandjian. “However, once we immigrated to the US, we faced many challenges on many different fronts, as do most immigrants.”

Though he was now far from his birth city, the lavish array of music he was raised on stayed with him as did all of the international influences that had filled his ear. From the musical instrumentation of Beirut’s Harper to the rock and roll of Led Zeppelin to the Mediterranean sounds of Greek vocalist Demis Roussos, Dabandjian continued to study and play music on his own, soaking in the myriad of musicians he had been exposed to in his hometown while seeing them perform live as well as in his imagination through those vinyl records.

“Artists see things and I hear things,” said Dabandjian. “At that young age to consume those classics and different languages shaped me and I became the product of all of that.”

From Fado music queen Amalia Rodrigues to Caesaria Evora’s Cape Verdean morna blues, he is “infatuated by it all.” An opera and classical music fan, Dabandjian would play Mozart in the background of his bike shop he opened in his early 20s in San Diego. He dabbled in various professional paths but kept music a vital part of his life as he listened to new sounds while retaining the revolutionary music of those locals in his childhood neighborhood — Hartar, Ara Kekedjian, The Five Fingers — the inflections of which can be heard in Element Band’s arrangements.

“All of these musical sounds brew in me to this day,” said Dabandjian. “I always paid attention to what each musician did instrumentally to a specific piece of music and what one did differently from the other.”

By the time he turned 40, Dabandjian was a self-described “horrible businessman,” and a push from his oldest nephew gave him the courage to finally tune into what was stirring inside of him since the day he began making music on his parents’ egg-slicer.

Element Band on stage during their recent concert at the Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles

He soon set off on recreating his favorite Armenian songs, composing without barriers and remaining open to experimentation, allowing himself to come alive as a musician.

“The best part about it is that I’m free,” said Dabandjian. “I haven’t put up any barbed wires with music because people and the industry can be limiting.”

Although he was without professional musical training, he had the vital elements of a musician — the ear, the creativity, and a musical legacy passed down from his parents, who encouraged his music even in the US when they were all trying to find their direction.

“I was always a musician at heart, at home and at parties,” said Dabandjian. “I always knew I should return to my true love of music and that is what has happened.”

His primary concern is the vulnerability of losing this cultural music, stressing that “it will disappear.” He cites the song Tou Anmegh Es as an example, which is titled Meghavor Achkeroun on the “É” album, a smooth jazz rendition by vocalist Natalie Avunjian.

“I haven’t heard anyone sing or record that song in at least 30 to 40 years,” said Dabandjian, who remembers Levon Katerjian’s recording in Eastern Armenian. “Through Element Band, yes, they are listening to it in a different form, but at least it is not getting lost.”

As far as the types of songs he selects, he aims to be authentic, while still remaining “adaptable to the ear that wants to have fun and be nostalgic.” He knew from the beginning, however, that song selection would be of “utmost importance” harking back to his childhood when he would eagerly listen to a new record from Led Zeppelin or the Styx, only to find that he would love one song, but not the rest of the album.

“I always knew I wanted to make albums where I picked the cream of the crop and people could listen to the whole album over and over so I am always mindful of that,” said Dabandjian, who also encourages his vocalists to choose songs they are emotionally attached to, as that passion will come through in their performances.

In a society where mediocrity is hailed, Dabandjian’s music portrays the genuine meaning of art. While it is much easier to consume baseless pop numbers, Dabandjian is actualizing a documentation of sorts of folkloric Armenian music. He is quick to clarify that is he no ethnomusicologist, but relents somewhat, remarking that perhaps he is in his “own way and microcosm.”

“If your work is honest and true to your beliefs, people will see that,” said Dabandjian. “Many people have said that if it wasn’t for Element Band, their children would not listen to Armenian music and you can’t give me a bigger compliment than that.”

His music embodies him to his core as he humbly composes not for vanity, ego or a quick buck, but because he sees the significance of bringing quality songs to the forefront and breathing life into classics. Dabadjian presents Element Band to contrasting generations — from the Armenian teenager in Glendale to the American airplane mechanic in Santa Paula.

“We are not cheating you out of music,” said Dabandjian. “We are giving you something real.”

Upholding the tenets of substantive Armenian music outside of Element Band, Dabandjian fully embraces his life as a musician and composer as he works on a variety of artistic projects, such as the “Papak” album he recorded with German-Armenian musician Aren Emirze. The duo composed music to Western Armenian poetry, subsequently embarking on their 2017 PAPAK Tour, which kicked off in Beirut, Lebanon with performances in France, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and the United States.

While performing live, he aims to give the best show possible. At Element Band’s recent concert, Dabandjian, as the artistic director, brought in a melange of special guest musicians to the Ford Amphitheatre stage, such as a trumpetist and bouzouki player, always keeping out an eye and an ear for a pleasurable sound. The band of professionals, including vocalists Soseh Aramouni and Natalie Avunjian, violinist Shant Mahserejian, guitarist Aragas Abramian, contrabassist Armen Manavazyan, cellists Artyum Manukyan and Mahsa Ghasemi, pianist Vahan Bzuni and percussionists Vinny Mezian and Ando Harutyunyan, stay fresh by bringing a mixture of spontaneity and raw talent to the centerstage.

“We are authentic on stage and even if we make mistakes, it is all part of the experience,” said Dabandjian.

His musical journey came full circle when he returned to the city that had such a profound effect on him all those years ago.

“It was very impactful and emotional for me to perform in Beirut,” said Dabandjian who played for a sold-out audience in Bourdj Hammoud’s Hagop Der Melkonian Theater in 2015. While there he returned to his old haunts and his schools, reflecting emotionally on his experiences there as the youngest of five children, noting that he was very attached to every single person in his family, who have been his lifeline.

From there he moved onto his first trip to Armenia where he was again greeted with great enthusiasm and fanfare — so much so that the family of Ardashes Kachadrian, the original composer of Anoush Hairenik, gifted him the musician’s original notes and signed the composition. While there he also taught at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies, reflecting on it as a gratifying experience as he composed, arranged and recorded music with the young students. He seeks to pave the way for these future musicians, the way that was done for him as a youngster in Beirut.

“Element Band is the tip of the iceberg and by passing it onto the next generation, they can take it to an even higher place,” said Dabandjian.

Until then, he continues to channel his art through his music, stringing into existence the unfulfilled dreams of his mother, of those singers in Bourdj Hammoud, and of all those whose voices could only take them so far. Through fingers strumming on the gut strings of the oud or pressing down on the ivory keys of the accordion, he creates melodies that evaporate into the starry speckled night, echoing the souls and the unsung songs of all those before him, bouncing off the Santa Monica mountains and transcending into the cobalt sky from the hills of Hollywood to the highlands of Armenia — and everywhere in between.

 

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