When I was living in Chicago I went to a restaurant one evening where a local Armenian band was playing. It was a typical “kef” lineup: oud, guitar, dumbeg, and clarinet. As the boys started to tune up, they were asked what number they would begin with. One of the musicians suggested something, and the oudist played the first few notes of the melody to confirm the tune they were speaking about. They nodded at each other and then, instead of going into one of the typical Armenian or Turkish songs one would hear in such a venue…they launched into a heartfelt rendition of Ara Dinkjian’s composition, Picture.
At what point does an artist become a phenomenon? At what point, a legend? At what point do we stop discussing who influenced that artist, and start to discuss whom he himself has influenced? Although I am certainly not the first to realize or write about this fact, I want to note that in the case of composer and oudist Ara Dinkjian, it is certainly a fait accompli: Ara Dinkjian is a legend in Armenian music and has been for many years now.
His compositions, almost all instrumentals when done by him, have become international hits. (We might also ask, at what point does a song become a “classic”?) They have then been given lyrics in Turkish and Greek, and the resulting songs have also become international hits. Why in Turkish and Greek? In his early career (1980s) it seemed Ara’s music was gaining the most popularity in those countries, though he himself was born and raised in New Jersey, where he still lives. Perhaps the Armenian community was not ready for him in those days. He was ahead of his time. When it came to listening music, concert music, our community still could not think past Gomidas Vartabed and the classical school. The oud was proper in dance music where it had to battle for dinner-dance and wedding reception supremacy with the keyboards and modern pop styles that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The primary artist who did play the oud in a concert setting, George Mgrdichian, essentially made his fame by using that instrument to play the works of Komitas Vartabed.
I will not attempt to explain here the somewhat circuitous route by which Ara Dinkjian eventually became acclaimed by the Armenian public, but acclaimed he is, and in addition to the Turkish, Greek and Hebrew lyrics, his songs are now being given Armenian lyrics by the likes of Istanbul-Armenian singer Maral Ayvaz.
What is it that speaks to the hearts of all three peoples? Very simply, Ara grew up in the atmosphere of Armenian-American kef music, based as it is on the Anatolian folk music of Western Armenian regions like Sepastia, Kharpert, Dikranagerd, and Cilicia, where Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish and Turkish traditions came together and on the other hand, the urban café music of Istanbul and Izmir, a style that was composed, performed, and propagated by generations of Greek, Armenian, Sephardic Jewish, Bulgarian, Gypsy and Turkish artists, in the mostly Greek-owned tavernas and gazinos (cabarets) of the city.