The original Vosbikian Band of 1939: From left, Charlie Mardigian, Sam Vosbikian, Joe Vosbikian, Mike Vosbikian and Peter Endrigian

With Passing of Mike Vosbikian, Original Member of Pioneer Dance Band, An Era Ends

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By Harry A. Kezelian III

PHILADELPHIA — Eighty years ago, in 1939, three teenage Armenian-American brothers, Sam, Mike, and Joe Vosbikian, from St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in North Philadelphia, started a band with their two friends Charles Mardigian and Peter Endrigian. The Vosbikian brothers were the children of Genocide survivors Bedros and Vartanoush Vosbikian, and what they did truly marked a rebirth of Armenian culture in the Diaspora.

The “Fabulous” Vosbikian Band was the first Armenian band whose members were born in the United States. They were pioneers. They were the instigators of an entire movement. They were copied by many, but equaled by few. And in the nativist atmosphere of early-20th century America, what they did was bold.

Mike Vosbikian, the last living survivor of the original band, passed away Wednesday, August 14, peacefully, at his home in Medford, New Jersey. His death marked the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Vosbikian Band, and truly the end of an era.

It can honestly be said that the history of dance music in the Armenian-American community would not be the same without the Vosbikians. Unlike other immigrant ethnic groups in America, who turned their attention to Big Band Swing in the 1930s, the Vosbikians turned to Armenian folk music — jazzed up to their liking and to the enthusiasm of their young Armenian-American peers. Through them and through the genre they gave birth to — now known as “kef music” — the survival of Armenian folk dance in a social setting was secured in America.

Emulating the earlier immigrant-generation bands, such as Bernard Kondourajian’s Arziv Orchestra, which played at the picnics, weddings, and hantesses of 1930s Philadelphia, the Vosbikians played a combination of folk, popular, operetta, and both Western and Eastern Armenian tunes, with the true Western-Armenian beat that they learned from their parents’ generation, born in the town of Malatya in Kharpert Province. They gained popularity in their hometown and made their first out of town appearance at a 1940 AYF jamboree in Union City, New Jersey.

The Vosbikian Brothers, from left, Sam, Mike and Joe

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Though elder brother Sam (Sahag) Vosbikian, who started out on clarinet and later switched to oud — both traditional instruments in the old country — was the instigator and leader, and younger brother Joe (Hovsep) gave the band its soul with his impassioned, intense Armenian vocals, the heart of the band was the man referred to by surviving family as “Uncle Mike,” who introduced the jazzy sounds of the saxophone to Armenian folk music.

Manuel Vosbikian, born May 29, 1921, in Philadelphia, was known to his friends as either “Manny” or “Mike.” His father Bedros Vosbikian who arrived in America as a stowaway in 1913 and brought his brother Thomas and his fiancée Vartanoush to America in 1916 out of the clutches of the Young Turks, was an amateur clarinet player, lover of music and dancing, founder of Quickie Manufacturing, and pillar of the Armenian community in Philadelphia. Vartanoush, matriarch of the Vosbikian family, was a Genocide survivor and, like Bedros, was born in Malatya.

Mike Vosbikian, a saxophone player and occasionally a vocalist, started the first Vosbikian Band with his two brothers Sam and Joe, and buddies Charlie and Peter in 1939, at the age of 18. We can presume he was fresh out of high school. The line-up was clarinet, drum set, dumbeg, banjo/violin, and saxophone. “Manny” played the alto saxophone, which introduced an American vibe to the band’s traditional Armenian folk songs. As the guitar or keyboard is today, in the 1940s and 1950s the saxophone was considered the key ingredient differentiating Armenian-American music from the actual music of the old country, and made the Vosbikian Band modern for their time.

Growing up as typical American kids of the 1930s, the Vosbikian boys were fans of Big Band Swing, and enjoyed the sound of the sax, which was increasingly popularized by the likes of the Benny Goodman Orchestra or the Count Basie Orchestra featuring saxophone player Lester Young. Later, in the 1940s, Charlie Parker would gain popularity as the top sax man in jazz. So why not put that sound into Armenian music? Old timers like Udi Hrant and Kanuni Garbis were probably shaking their heads in disbelief, not to mention the classical conductors of the Gomidas school like H. Mehrab and K. Proff-Kalfayan — though one gets the feeling that the iconoclastic archrival of Gomidas (and notorious Communist) Grikor Mirzayan Suni, the leading Armenian classical musician in Philadelphia, was barely suppressing a grin.

Who else but Mike Vosbikian, would, in 1950, think of playing an introductory solo to Saro’s aria from “Anoush,” Partzer Sarer, on the saxophone! Few would consider doing something like that even today, but Mike Vosbikian was ahead of his time. Is it any wonder that almost every Armenian-American band of the 1950s had to have a saxophone in their lineup? Everybody wanted to be like the Fabulous Vosbikians. Mike wailed on the sax memorably on the recording Vosbikian Special II, and soloed on Partzer Sarer, but all of the 22 songs the band put out in 1949-1951 prominently featured Mike’s saxophone — except an oud solo by Sam. Mike’s sax was an integral part of the band’s sound and is still remembered as such today by Armenian music fans.

When Mike was drafted in 1942 during World War II, he served his country with honor, as did his brother Joe. Older brother Sam got home leave to take care of the family, and he kept the band going while he was at it. Sam got a hold of an oud which he learned to play, and told his younger cousin Jimmy (son of uncle Thomas Vosbikian, a violinist), who was practicing jazz clarinet with friend Hank Mardigian on saxophone, that the two of them were Armenians and therefore “should play Armenian music!” The two joined the band and help keep it alive through the war years until Mike returned to take over on saxophone duty. (Jimmy stayed in the band, while Hank branched off to form the Gomidas Band and managed to replicate the Vosbikian Sound while discovering oud legend George Mgrdichian.) Charlie Mardigian and Peter Endrigian were no longer with the band after the war. The new band, the one which cut the 22 tracks at 78 rpms and which was destined for fame, featured Albert “Junior” Santerian on dumbeg (son of Bedros Vosbikian’s dumbeg player, Harry), Steve Ajdaharian, a crossover from the local ACYOA, playing piano and introducing numerous new songs, and a switch for vocalist Joe Vosbikian from drum set to a special oversized dumbeg custom-made in the Vosbikian manufacturing facility. New brother-in-law and recent arrival from Baghdad, vocalist Jirair Hovnanian was the only band member not born in the US – but he too was a post-Genocide diasporan child, born to distant relatives that had ended up in Iraq – Philadelphia’s answer to Onnik Dinkjian. By the way, Onnik has stated on the record that it was seeing the Vosbikian Band play for the first time at an engagement in New York, that inspired him to want to learn to play the oud and sing “that kind of music” – and we know that his desire to sing, at least, was a smashing success.

On the Vosbikians’ 1957 LP, “Vosbikian Presents Armenian Folk Dances,” Mike furthered his musical influence by the band’s recording of his own composition, Tepo Jan, an ode to Jirair Hovnanian’s father, Stepan, and now a Vosbikian band classic. It’s an Armenian-American tale of a father berating his American born son to find a suitable bride, only to be told that Tepo has already invited a girl over for dinner, vaghe irigoon. The charm of this simple but catchy tune is only increased by being sung entirely in Malatyatsi-Armenian-American dialect.

Jimmy Vosbikian, as lead vocalist, sang on the original recording of Tepo Jan. Mike was never featured on vocals in the band’s early recordings, but he eventually became a solid vocalist in the band’s later, post-1970 sessions, with an off-the-cuff bluesy delivery reminiscent of jazz legend Jack Teagarden. Tepo Jan was a favorite, but of all the songs that Mike made popular, the most famous was no doubt Dolarjee, a number which as Steve Vosbikian Jr. has put it, is a “Vosbikian-ized version of Akh Im Anoush Yar.” How much of the song Mike wrote himself and how much he got from an earlier parody version of the classic Armenian folk song (and it had many parody versions), is a question whose answer he took with him (along with the song’s actual lyrics). But essentially, the tune is a warning directed at a wealthy, older Armenian man (the “Dollarjee”) about the perils of looking for a bride later in life simply on the strength of money. Though the Dollarjee foolishly persists in looking for a dasnuyen ver, ksanen var, harsuntsoon, Uncle Mike tells him to just take a shot of oghi and “ays yerke ganche boralov!”

Many have noted that not only were the Vosbikians a musical inspiration, but that their music crossed all barriers, generational as well as political, in the Armenian community. It didn’t matter how old or young you were, or what church or agoump you went to — everyone loved the Vosbikians. I hesitate to say it, but perhaps they were part of the reason that Philadelphia is known to this day as the most unified large Armenian community in North America. Their popularity inspired not only Onnik Dinkjian, but the growth of all the other bands in the Armenian-American community, such as the Nor-Ikes of New York, the Ardziv of Detroit, the Artie Barsamian Orchestra of Boston, the Aramites of Worcester, the New England Ararats of Providence, the Gomidas Band of Philadelphia, the Barrites of Los Angeles, the Hye-Tones of Detroit, and more. Surpassing the earlier regional-based Armenian folk music prominent at hayrenagtsagan picnics, the new pan-Armenian-American style of music originated by the Vosbikians helped the youth and even the older people to come together and form one Armenian-American community. The rise of prominent virtuosos like George Mgrdichian, Chick Ganimian, John Berberian, Hachig Kazarian, and Richard Hagopian would not have happened without the “kef music” scene that the Vosbikians helped create.

The Vosbikian’s fame was such – and this was one of Uncle Mike’s favorite stories to tell – that in 1949 the Vosbikian Band was contacted by the US State Department for a very important mission. The government was hosting the Shah of Iran, here on a state visit to meet with President Harry Truman. They were throwing a grand reception ball for the Shah at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Since there were no Persian musicians to be found to play for His Highness, the State Department chose the hottest Armenian band in the land – the Fabulous Vosbikians. As Uncle Mike told it, the Shah had recently divorced his first wife, and women were paraded before him in his search for a new queen, as the Vosbikians played from a balcony area, heavily guarded by Secret Service agents. Incidentally, the Shah met actress Grace Kelly that night, whom he unsuccessfully began wooing. Can you imagine Hollywood starlets dancing before Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the 10/8 rhythm of the Armenian Highlands? Mike Vosbikian lived it.

Uncle Mike, with his cool-dude sunglasses, saxophone, and still-brown 1950s hairdo, ended his days at age 98 as an icon for younger Armenian musicians, especially his son Mike Jr., nephews Sam, Steve, Greg, and John Vosbikian and Steve and Peter Hovnanian, grand-nephews Chris and Steve Vosbikian Jr., and grand-niece Karinne Hovnanian Andonian, who are all active in music. Predeceased by his beloved wife Viola, his brothers Sam and Joe, and his sisters Sarah Hovsepian, Elizabeth Hovnanian, and Virginia DerHagopian, he was the last remnant of the Original Vosbikian Band, and almost the last remnant of the entire generation of Armenian-American musicians active in the 1940s and 1950s.

He leaves behind his sons Mike Jr. and Mark, their wives, his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his vast extended family.

Though his death marks the true end of an era, as Armenian-American musicians we will always have, enti temen (from the other side), the voice of Uncle Mike ganchel-ingad yerkere in our ears, with the style that only he possessed. May that voice and that beloved saxophone, and most importantly, the spirit he brought to the music, which was the beating heart of the Vosbikian Band, remain with us and inspire us for years to come as we proudly continue what he and his brothers started 80 years ago.

Long live Uncle Mike, and long live the music of the Armenian People!

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