Udi Hrant on an album cover

Kef Music – the Jazz of Armenian People


By Harry Kezelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Imagine a world where jazz music in America remained to this day the most popular dance music for parties, just as it was in the Big Band Swing Era.

Where the jazz world didn’t turn away from the mainstream and become overly artsy after World War II, becoming a style of music for bohemians, beatniks, and intellectuals.

Where the high school proms and the college formals featured bands with trumpet, saxophone, and piano, and the kids danced updated versions of the jitterbug and modernized versions of the foxtrot.

Where instead of being superseded by rock and roll, disco, hip-hop, and techno, jazz continued to be America’s favorite music, and regarded by everyone as the great American native art form.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

This is not an exact analogy, but it’s not too different from the situation that exists in the Armenian-American community with kef music, aside from Southern California and except for the last part, being regarded as a great art form.

One interesting similarity is that Armenians (and some other Mediterranean ethnic groups) still hold “dances.” If you say to your non-Armenian friends that you are going to a “dance,” they will often look at you funny. Because who goes to “dances,” aside from high schoolers or college fraternity and sorority members? When does one “hire a band,” except for at a wedding? Of course, throwing dances as the primary form of a social event and having live bands play at these dances was common among all Americans in the 1940s. Armenians did the same thing, only they had their own ethnic music and their own ethnic dancing at their events.

But the similarities don’t end there. Although some would argue that it’s impossible to define jazz, many would agree that there are at least a few salient characteristics that are needed for music to be jazz. The three most important characteristics are swing or syncopation, blue notes, and improvisation. If we take a look at these, we see definite similarities with what we know today as Armenian “kef music.”

Although kef music is not played in swing rhythm, rhythm is very important. The plethora of different rhythms such as 10/8, 9/8, 5/4, 7/8, and so on give kef music its driving force, along with using the simple 4/4 rhythm as used in Greek and Arabic music, and 6/8 rhythm as used in Persian and Eastern Armenian music. Of course, rhythm is an important part of all music but it becomes extremely important in kef music because certain dances were created to be danced to certain rhythms.

Next on the list of attributes of jazz are blue notes. These are those bending, swaying, low-down notes that we associate especially with the female African-American blues singers. Of course, any jazz soloist on trumpet or saxophone also uses those slightly “off” notes to give the music a “soulful” flavor. In Middle Eastern music, there is a concept called quartertones or microtones. Many people in books or on the internet describe these as “notes between the notes.” Perhaps that’s true in Classical Turkish or Arabic music. But in kef music as played by Armenians, playing those notes is better described as “bending notes,” which is just another way to say “playing blue notes.” The Armenian musicians aren’t as technical, they play what sounds good to them. This is easiest to do on the oud or violin because they have a fretless fingerboard. With the clarinet, certain notes are easy to bend by changing one’s embouchure, and the same is true for the duduk. In fact, duduk players bend notes and play quartertones just as much if not more than the clarinet players in kef music, although this isn’t true of some of the other instrumentalists from Armenia who frown on quartertones. The bent notes are often heard in the singing of the Armenian clergy, especially older men born in the Middle East, but to say that this is the result of Turkish or Arabic influence would be quite wrong. While there are people out there who do show Turkish influence, the majority of the clergy of the old school sing with bent notes merely to inject some feeling into the sharagan, as the late Fr. Diran Papazian said “of course when I say I am singing from these notes, I don’t mean note for note! Hoki bedkeh das!” (You have to give it soul.)

Noted Armenian music expert Krikor Pidedjian described Papazian’s singing as “the way Armenian liturgical music was meant to be sung.” Some types of Armenian music which are either classical and rely on the piano and Western instruments or certain folk instruments whose playing has been “straightened out” during the Soviet Era, or pop music using the synthesizer keyboard, are unable to inject this type of soul, except when it comes to the vocalist. But kef music, and also duduk music, retain the “hoki notes” as we might refer to them. The only difference here between kef music and jazz is that kef music accentuates different “in-between” notes than American jazz does, in keeping with the melodic patterns of the Armenian people.

Arto Tuncboyaciyan

Topics: Jazz, Kef, Music
People: Udi Hrant

The last attribute that distinguishes jazz from other forms of music is improvisation. And oh, has kef music got improvisation! This is another aspect that distinguishes it from most other forms of Armenian music (again, duduk music also frequently uses improvisation, as does Eastern Armenian clarinet playing). Those who are the true devoted fans of kef music will wait and listen for an oud solo or a clarinet “ride,” and everyone remembers how the crowd would gather around the stage to watch the late Roger Krikorian take a dumbeg solo. Completely freestanding solos are considered an art form by the oud players, known by the Arabic term “taksim,” and the greatest master of taksim playing, Udi Hrant Kenkulian (1901-1978) is considered the greatest Armenian oud player who ever lived. Otherwise solos are played in the middle of the song, as a part of it, after the singer has completed the lyrics, just as in the classic, pre-WWII forms of jazz. The plucking of the oud strings in a soulful and rhythmic solo immediately incites the feet and arms to dance in the tak bar, and the high soaring improvisation of the clarinet fills the shourch bar dancers with euphoria as they move along their line. This type of soloing is generally something we don’t hear any more in American music. Guitar solos in rock are usually not improvised, but are the same every time, unless the band is named the Grateful Dead, and solos don’t even exist in electronic music. (Interestingly, the improvisatory desire of musicians today is now reflected in freestyle rapping, but contrary to freestyle lyrics being a new idea, in historic Armenia singers freestyled lyrics to common folk melodies. This is something that has been captured on a few very early recordings in the US, and is still practiced by a few traditionalists in Armenia.) But unlike in the American rock or electronic music scene, we still have this amazing skill of improvisation being practiced in the Armenian community, yet very few people seem to take any notice of it or consider it an art form, even when it comes to the often-praised music of the duduk.

Hachig Kazarian

Jazz improvisation, on the other hand, was and is considered the central feature of jazz as a great American art form, and the idea was glorified in the jazz biopics of the otherwise conformist 1950s, like “Young Man With a Horn” starring Kirk Douglas and Doris Day, where Kirk Douglas’ character, based on jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, describes his kind of music as “playing from the heart” and asks a bandleader “do you really want us to play it the same way every time?” This playing from the heart was what excited people in the era when jazz was the most popular music in the country, and just as in the Big Band era, the jitterbug dancers were egged on by Benny Goodman’s improvised clarinet solos, Armenian dancers to this day are egged on by the heartfelt improvised solos of Hachig Kazarian and other clarinetists. When it comes to oudists, Johnny Berberian puts so much soul into his oud playing that you feel like you are on top of a mountain in Armenia, and Richard Hagopian’s insistent rhythmic and intricate-yet-driving playing makes it impossible not to dance. Their solos are just as much a work of improvisatory art as any jazz musician’s.

Most jazz fans today prefer the post-WWII sound, which was originally called “modern jazz,” but they wouldn’t deny the artistry of Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries whose heyday was before the war. There are some artists in Armenia who attempt to mix the post-war jazz with Armenian classical music, and refer to their creations as “Armenian Jazz.” We even have Ara Dinkjian and Arto Tuncboyaciyan, who having sprung out of kef music, have created their own wonderful forms of Armenian Jazz with a more Western Armenian slant. But these styles are actually “modern” Armenian jazz, and just as modern jazz, are not really intended as dance party music. What isn’t recognized is that kef music itself is a living Armenian equivalent to the classic jazz of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, which in our community (see my previous article on ACYOA Sports Weekend) still has the ability to both move people on the dance floor and at the same time to be a highly cultivated, expressive, and soulful, art form. So, let’s celebrate our master musicians, such as those named above, and especially, especially, encourage our young up-and-coming musicians, keep them playing, hire them for dances, get them involved and recognized for their artistry, and finally recognize kef music for what it is, the Great Armenian-American Art Form.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: