Katarina Kacunkovic: ‘Through My Granny I Feel My Armenian Roots’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/BELGRADE — Katarina Kacunkovic is a Serbian singer, songwriter, producer, vocal educator and radio host. She was born in Belgrade, in the family of famous sculptor Milorad Rasic Rasa, and judge Mirjana Rasic (maiden name Miljkovic) of Serbian-Armenian origin. Her maternal grandmother was Pergrui, the daughter of Tateos Kandikian and Peruz Amerikian, originally from Keghi (near Erzurum), and Constantinople. Although Katarina received classical music education, her solo debut was in 1991 with the Belgrade Radio and Television Jazz Orchestra. During her 30-year professional career, Kacunkovic has collaborated with various local and foreign musicians in different forms (concerts, writing lyrics and music).

In addition, she has been a voice coach, a radio host, and music programmer.

She has published several albums: “Belgrade Jazz Stage 93” (1993), “Erect Woman” (2006), “New Life” (2009), “Tribute to Mirko Souc” (2011), “Ten Endless Stories” (2019), Christmas Cards (2019), performing jazz, blues, soul, and pop songs. She has also made recordings for the Belgrade Radio archive…

Dear Katarina, you are a well-known singer in Serbia. What do you consider as the main achievement in your artistic career?

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To be honest, my greatest achievement overall is my family: my three gorgeous daughters, and my marriage that has lasted almost 30 years. Considering the fact that for the mentioned period of time, we in Serbia have gone through some pretty turbulent moments, I think I have managed to do so many beautiful things artistically, professionally, and yet managed my family to grow alongside my career.

Apart from the period before 1990, when I used to perform as a classical singer, as well as a studio musician, my very important debut was in 1991 when I became the soloist with the Serbian Radio and Television Big Band. I was pregnant with my first child at the time. My jazz career began then.

How did it happen that you and your brother, Rastko Rasic, being born in the family of a sculptor and a judge, became musicians?

We grew up in a very artistic environment. Our house was always full of poets, painters and musicians. At one point I thought I will become a painter, but it didn’t seem to be for me, since it involved more of a solitary life. I liked company, and I liked the stage. Plus, I grew up surrounded with really great music: from jazz to rock. When I was a teenager somebody called me to sing in their punk band, and soon after that I auditioned to sing solo at a local music school, and I was accepted. I fell in love with opera. During my days at the music school, my brother Rastko (who is nine year my junior) was having problems with his lungs due to frequent bronchitis, so the doctors suggested that he, if possible, should play trumpet, to strengthen his lungs and body. I took him for an audition at my music school. He was accepted and finished four years of playing the trumpet, after which he studied drums at the percussion department. He went to Berklee College of Music in Boston afterwards where he was granted scholarship. Today he lives in London and works as a musician.

As for me, I chose to sing jazz music predominantly, as well as its derivative forms.

You mainly sing in English, also in Serbian. Have you ever thought about singing in Armenian?

Topics: Music

Certainly, only I don’t know the language at all. Although I remember hearing my grandmother and my great-grandmother speaking Armenian (mostly when they were talking something secretive). I’ve never learned it. The only thing I remember are parts of a song for children about the little sparrows…

How did your Armenian ancestors arrive in Serbia?

My great-grandfather Tateos Kandikyan was a pharmacist in Istanbul and started his business in the Turkish capital. He became very respectable and wealthy, so he and his wife Peruz lived in a villa on the Bosporus. It was some years before 1900 when the Sultan gave him behest to move to a town named Tetovo (present day Macedonia), which was a province of the Ottoman Empire at the time. They built a house with a pharmacy, which was one of two in the whole region. My grandmother Pergruhi (and seven more children) were born in that house, which still exists.

To what extent has the Armenian identity been preserved among these eight children?

To a great extent, I should say. First of all, the successors of my great-grandparents’ sons (Noubar and Gabriel) still hold the surname Kandikyan (for instance, my cousin Tigran Kandikyan had a career as a soccer goalkeeper on the “Piunik” Yerevan soccer team).  The feminine line is large, because my great-grandparents had four daughters beside my grandmother: Luiz, Anzhel, Vergine and Armenuhi. There was also a son called Harutiun, who died as a child.

All of us were raised in the loving memory of Armenian descent. The stories, similar to those of William Saroyan, were told about the humour, the kindness, the humane personalities that each member in the family held. Plus, the family is obsessed with pomegranates. That’s so Armenian!

I know you have a song in English, Noubar and Gabriel, dedicated to your grandmother’s two brothers. Mount Ararat is mentioned in it, too.

The first lyrics in English that I wrote was Noubar and Gabriel. I used their names to pay tribute to those two outstanding persons and true Armenians, to talk about something that Armenians, as a very old nation, as the first Christians and the nation that once held that part of the land, talk about and look upon with the great sadness — Mount Ararat. As well as with the pomegranate, mentioned in the Bible story about Adam and Eve (it wasn’t an apple – the translation went wrong, so they used the name of the fruit that looks seemingly the same), also the biblical mountain is something that this nation feels deeply connected with for the millennia because, Armenians are a rooted nation, have been on this part of the Earth for a long time.

Your Armenian grandmother’s name was Pergruhi, which means “joyous girl” (or woman). Please tell us about her.

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up with her. Her persona left a deep, and significant mark in my heart, my soul, and on my thinking. She set standards in my ethic values, she taught me how to love and respect God, the creator of all things — Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent. Through her I feel my Armenian roots. She died in 1976, but I miss her still.

I met people with one-quarter Armenian blood who told me their Armenian grandmothers have had an important role in shaping of their personality. What about you?

I have to say that my mother is pretty much Armenian, and very connected to her numerous Armenian cousins. They all look alike! But, what is interesting is that both my father, and my husband, who are Serbian, are so pro Armenian. Sometimes they used to be even more passionate advocates for Armenians. My husband Bozidar was recently on a business trip in St. Petersburg, and was sitting at a business dinner at a huge table with people from all over the world, but he saw a couple with characteristic faces, so he approached to them, and asked the astonished people if they were Armenians. Of course, they all laughed at the fact that he could recognize Armenians only by being married to one for so long.

How are your relations with the Armenian community in Serbia?

When the Baku pogrom happened in 1990, the intellectuals of Serbia, and the Armenians living here formed the Serbian-Arminian Friendship Society, and my mother became the secretary. The society existed for several years during which time it did a pretty nice job in connecting these two countries on a national, cultural and political basis. Then came the years in which we had war in the former Yugoslavia, which resulted with the NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999, so naturally, the society dissolved due to the events.

I don’t know the Armenians that came to Serbia in the past 10 to 15 years. I know some of them, and I hope that I will soon be able to take more part in the community events, and programs.

Your three daughters are also devoted to art.

My firstborn, Angelina, also has a significant career of her own, as the lead singer, and guitarist in the band named Random. (One of her musical inspirations, among others, was System of a Down, and Serj Tankian). She is also a photographer that does most of the shootings for me.

My second daughter Sara is studying to become a film director. My latest video, Satellite, as done by her and my Angelina.

The youngest, Justina, is still in high school. She plays the drums, like her uncle. She is extremely musically  talented, but she’s still searching for her inspirations.

I have never had blind ambitions for my children, never thought they had to achieve something because of me. I will support every decision they make in the future, and try my best to support them as much as in my power. That is what I have learned from my parents.

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