Vatche

Vatche Delights Taste Buds and Ear Drums

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LOS ANGELES — It’s half past twelve on a Saturday afternoon in Sherman Oaks. Extended families are ready to feast on homemade mante and manaish, kebab and kufteh reminiscent of the flavorful meals of Beirut as they catch up with loved ones. The restaurant is abuzz with activity, the phone is ringing off the hook and warm greetings are extended to the Armenian regulars while recommendations are made for newbies as eggs are cracked and chicken is grilled on the hissing stove.

The man behind this lively scene, savory food and center of hospitality is Vatche Meguerdichian, the international singer who made a name for himself covering songs from across the globe with his trademark smooth voice and the longing emotion he injected into each lyric, delivering a glimpse of the sweet yesteryear for his loyal audience.

For those aching for the sound and the taste of the Mediterranean, Alcazar is the place to be as a never-ending revolving door of customers satisfy the taste buds of all ethnicities, attesting to its success. Vatche says both singers and restaurateurs have elements of engaging with an audience and entertaining — one through the ear and the other through tastebuds. Hitting that notion home is a sign that hangs above the kitchen that declares: Without music, life would B ♭(be flat) as a crystal chained cross dangles over the passionate words of the owner.

A prominent singer, particularly during the height of his success in the 1980s and 1990s, Vatche provided the soundtrack to the lives of so many Diasporans — displaced for a second round after the Armenian Genocide from those very communities they sought refuge in — Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, to name just a few.

As the Armenian communities in the Middle East faced upheaval and instability, they made their way to Los Angeles, California, the weather perhaps similar to the Mediterranean climate. But the influx of immigrants, like those before them, were reminiscent and in search of their culture — and Vatche was able to fill that void. He brought that regaled life, the Paris of the Middle East, back to the displaced, giving them a flavor of home, from thousands of miles away.

Vatche at his restaurant

His array of songs, ranging from French to Italian to Arabic, had roots particularly in the Golden Age of Lebanon where the cosmopolitan city attracted stars and tourists from around the world — Brigitte Bardot in one corner, Omar Sharif in the other. The city was offering the finest food, music and beaches on the surface while a war rumbled in the capital’s underbelly among the factions, sects and outside influences. It was during this multicultural apex in Beirut’s history that Vatche first emerged as a popular voice, paving the way for his future as a beloved pop icon.

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As a youngster growing up in this culturally rich time, Vatche attended the Lebanon Evangelical School for Boys, where he was fixated on rock and roll, listening to Deep Purple, Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Beatles, as well as the international crooners Charles Aznavour and Enrico Macias. He tuned into Armenian singers as well, appreciating the influences of Ardashes Avedian, Gyorky Minassian and Adiss Harmandian.

Gravitating naturally towards music, Vatche picked up a guitar and started teaching himself chords as he strummed on the strings. Pursuing his musical inclinations, he soon formed a band called The Dreams and their songs served as the backdrop for the trendy and fashionable nightlife of Beirut — from Le Paon Rouge at the Phoenicia Hotel to the Beachcomber at the Coral Beach Hotel. Vatche was immersed in an inspiring musical milieu.

“Bands from Italy would play at these venues and I would sometimes be invited to perform alongside them,” said Vatche. “I learned a lot from them but when they left during the civil war, I took over.”

While his father initially felt that a music career was too risky a venture to pursue, he gave his blessing once Vatche proved himself academically and passed his baccalaureate, receiving high grades and earning acceptance to the prestigious American University of Beirut, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.

Leaving Beirut

But soon, the situation in war-torn Beirut became too precarious, and following stints in Cyprus and Iran, Vatche arrived with his family in Los Angeles in 1981. He put his AUB degree to good use, working in accounting, but heeded the words of those close to him who encouraged him to return to singing.

“I started performing at a small restaurant in Pasadena called the Gypsy,” related Vatche. The owner was his friend from Lebanon and urged him to sing in the venue during the weekends. “After my start there, the gigs started coming in because the audience liked the variety of songs I sang.”

They liked it so much so that fans began to ask for his albums, which encouraged Vatche to enter the studio. Pursuing professional vocal training and refining his knowledge of eight languages, he recorded his first album in Los Angeles in 1983 to much fanfare. The volume was comprised of international songs once recorded by prominent French, Italian, Persian, American and Arabic singers, as well as newly penned English and Armenian songs for his audience that immediately “embraced” him in the Los Angeles community.

“People went to record shops in Hollywood and the owners would call me up and say the albums are selling and they wanted more,” said Vatche. As he continued to record hit albums in succession, he turned towards larger venues, the pinnacle of which was headlining a show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in 1986 to an audience in the thousands, where he was accompanied by an 11-piece band and 15 dancers. He followed this achievement with another colossal performance at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. Vatche continued to expand, building a studio in his home in order to record and produce in an independent space, arrange his own music and play all of the instruments himself, creating as authentic a musical album as possible.

The covers of his compositions, originally sung by greats including Joe Dassin to Adamo to Peppino Gagliardi to Demis Roussos, evoke nostalgia that may at first have captured audiences, but as they continued listening, they discovered the distinct voice and persona behind these updated covers.

“Musicians and music critics recognized I was doing covers but adding colors of my own,” said Vatche. “People would say they looked forward to seeing how I would arrange the songs with my own creativity.”

Perhaps what drew listeners to Vatche’s records went beyond the lyrics and the instrumentation; they symbolized a deeper meaning of survival for the scattered Armenians, unifying their multilingual and layered existence through his music.

As Vatche’s popularity continued to grow, so did his memorable performances. He recalls one in particular when he was invited to sing in Beirut alongside Barry White in the 1980s, noting that it was an “honor” to share the stage with the legendary Grammy Award-winner at an Armenian wedding that lasted until sunrise.

 

Alcazar Is Born

Completing his goals with music, Vatche was ready to unveil another passion of his and in 2000 opened up the Middle Eastern restaurant Alcazar in Encino, California. For years his friends urged him to establish his own culinary space because they knew he loved to entertain, was “selective” about cuisine, and would provide the best experience to his customers.

“I felt it was time to have something else in my life,” said Vatche. “I always looked ahead and I was aware singing could not last a lifetime.” He performed at fewer events and began to learn about the restaurant industry, teaching himself about the business.

“I knew the taste but I worked on how to prepare the dishes,” said Vatche. The timing was fortuitous, as the style of music transformed in the early 2000s and he took a step back to focus on his restaurant with his undivided attention.

“The whole landscape of music changed around that time,” said Vatche, who saw a red flag when technology and computer applications began taking over music production. “The market for my style of Estrada international music started fading.” Instead of selling out and playing a style he did not feel came from within, he decided the time was ripe to concentrate on food.

“Music is my first love and passion and I was blessed to make a living out of it,” said Vatche, who opened his current location in Sherman Oaks five years ago. “I feel very good that I excelled in two things in my life, both music and cuisine, and it gives me so much satisfaction that I never feel like I am working.”

Although he has his hands full expanding his restaurant, Vatche has his finger on the pulse of music and is encouraged by the next generation of Armenian musicians, who are fusing traditional and modern elements into their compositions.

“The last 10 years or so rabiz music became mainstream, a style I didn’t like listening to or singing,” said Vatche. “But right now I’m seeing new talent from Armenia who are reviving folk music with that Estradaian touch we had in the 1950s and 1960s, while utilizing technology to come up with something respectable.”

Vatche has always encouraged and welcomed collaborations with other artists, understanding the importance of humility and partnership not only for the good of the community but for the enhancement of music. A prime example of this partnership is when two Armenian music idols came together, Adiss and Vatche, to record their album of duets, “From the Heart,” in 1993.

“Adiss became an icon as an Armenian singer and he wanted to show that he could sing in other languages too,” said Vatche. At the peak of their respective successes, they merged the best of both worlds — Vatche as a pioneer in the international music scene and Adiss’s stronghold in the Armenian language. They bonded and trusted each other’s musical inclinations in the recording studio as Adiss gave “carte blanche” to Vatche to arrange and record the music, delighting listeners with their duets, including Karoun Karoun and Hayastan.

In honor of the album’s release, the duo organized a Christmas dance, a sold-out concert pushing themselves to finish the much-anticipated album within a month while working up to 20 hour days.

“The album was very successful and people kept asking us when we would record volume 2,” said Vatche. “We enjoyed working together and that is an album I will always feel very proud of.”

More guests enter Alcazar while greeting the singer-restaurateur as “Chef Vatche,” including a business owner from next door who comments on how delicious and fresh the manaish is and mentions to the knowing guests that Vatche is a musician and to find his songs on YouTube.

While Vatche’s music came to light through live performances and recorded albums, it is through this digital age that he is rediscovered, over and over again, as his voice transcends the decades, genres, ethnicities and generations.

“I think my music is timeless because the songs I sing are timeless,” said Vatche. “My goal has always been to reintroduce these songs in a different shell.”

His audience eagerly awaits his return to the studio to see what Vatche, whose nostalgic voice and gusto remains intact, will come up with next. In the meantime, they will settle for a handmade Mediterranean meal from the legend himself.

To learn more about the restaurant, visit http://www.al-cazar.com. To see and hear some of Vatche’s songs, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH34p4MgUuw&list=PL3mNbH958lISjN3hREZ4GE75mLma

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