left to right: Gary Alexanian, Harry Minassian, Carnig Mikitarian, George Righellis at the Jumbo Lounge in Somerville, 1958

BOSTON — By now, most readers of the Mirror-Spectator, particularly those who live in the Boston area have heard that oudist and singer Harry Minassian passed away this June. Amongst all the other bad news of the year 2020, the Armenian community lost a great artist. His obituary was duly noted in our paper and tributes have appeared in social media and other Armenian publications.

This writer never had the chance to speak with Minassian in person, and only saw him perform once — briefly. Therefore, to try to do justice to Harry Minassian’s memory, this writer contacted multiple musicians, friends, and family members to gain perspective on the life of a truly remarkable artist in the history of the Armenian-American community.

Harry Minassian playing oud

The Consummate Live Kef Performer

The first thing to say about Harry Minassian is that he was a consummate entertainer. More than one fan attested to the fact that more than almost any other Armenian kef musician, he had a seemingly innate ability to get a crowd going. Harry Minassian was an extremely talented and sensitive oud player. In fact, he took lessons from the legendary Udi Hrant Kenkulian himself, and was one of the five American-born Armenians to receive the title of “Udi” (oud master) from Udi Hrant in 1969. He was also a singer who played oud as he sang. His vocals seemed to hang in the air like a kind of mist which intoxicated his audiences. Somehow intense and gentle at the same time, his knowledge of Turkish as well as Armenian meant that he was able to put feeling into the lyrics that he was singing and make the audience feel them too, whether they understood the language or not. Although many artists sing and play the oud at the same time, Harry’s ability to do so was fluid and natural. Minassian was the Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby of kef music — he performed at the highest level of artistry, and made it look easy.

I spoke with one fellow musician who asked him to play at his wedding due to his renowned ability to work a crowd. The groom had to ask Harry in advance about how extensive his “Armenian set list” was because Harry was one of the last holdouts of the Armenian musicians who still performed predominantly in the Turkish language. Harry, always the gentleman, graciously handled the request to sing only in Armenian, but this was rather atypical for him. His agility with the Turkish language and his adherence to that repertoire is of course not unusual for Armenian-American kef musicians of his generation, but it was Harry Minassian’s specialty, and this fact makes a lot of sense if one knows something about his background.

Immigrant Beginnings

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Harry Minassian was born on February 6, 1937 in Brighton, Mass. and grew up in Watertown. His parents, Hagop Minassian and Vehanoush (Karamanian) Minassian, were both from the region of Kayseri (Gesaria) in Central Turkey. The Kayseri area is known to history as Cappadocia, and though lying outside the boundaries of Historic Armenia, is full of ancient, medieval and modern Armenian history. It was a region inhabited by Armenians, Greeks, and Turks until the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

His mother, Vehanoush, was born in the city of Kayseri itself, where the Armenian community was Turkish-speaking, and his father, Hagop, was from the outlying village of Nirze, where the people spoke both Turkish and Armenian. When Harry Minassian was a child, along with his brothers Nazareth and Louis, Turkish was spoken in the home, as this was the language the family was most comfortable with, while Armenian was spoken outside the home.

Onnik Dinkjian, Bobby Sohigian, John Madanian and Harry Minassian

One of Minassian’s earliest musical mentors was also a native of Kayseri — Hagop Avakian, a local oud player and singer in Watertown who gave Harry some of his first lessons on the instrument. Avakian, along with Arto Boghosian of Constantinople on the violin, had formed a band called the Boston Ardziv Orchestra that performed locally. Like many of the early Armenian immigrant bands in the US, much of their repertoire was sung in Avakian’s native Turkish. (As an aside, Arto Boghosian’s brother was the well-known comedic actor Edward Boghosian of New York, writer/singer of the original Sood Eh, Sood Eh in the 1940s.)

Hagop Avakian’s grandson, Ken Maranian of Texas, shared that although Harry did take lessons from Avakian, he soon surpassed his teacher.

Later, Harry also studied with the famed blind artist Udi Hrant Kenkulian of Istanbul — the acknowledged all-time Armenian master of the oud — who travelled to the US on an almost yearly basis from 1950 to 1963 and mentored many young musicians in this country.

In 1969, Harry Minassian was one of the five young oud players whom Hrant chose to bestow with a diploma (marked with Hrant’s thumb print in red ink) and the right to be referred to as “Udi.” The others were Charles “Chick” Ganimian of New York, George Mgrdichian of Philadelphia, Richard Hagopian of Fresno, and John Berberian of New York. With Harry Minassian’s passing, only Hagopian and Berberian remain with us.

Maranian also reminisced about house parties with his grandfather Hagop Avakian playing oud, others playing mandolin and other instruments, where in an atmosphere of family members and friends that hailed from Turkish-speaking Armenian communities such as Kayseri, Marash and Aintab, Turkish was the language of conversation and especially of song.

Harry Minassian was a part of this scene and transmitted that atmosphere to the stage in his performances.

From Armenian Youth Dances to Nightclub Gigs

Around 1950, teenage brothers Carl (oud and vocals) and Nick (dumbeg) Zeytoonian started the Orientales Band in Watertown. Aaron (dumbeg) and Ara (clarinet) Der Marderosian joined them, as did Berj Krikorian (percussion and vocals). They decided they needed a second oud player and invited young Harry Minassian into the band.

Like the Vosbikians, Barsamians, and so many other American-born Armenian bands of that era, the Orientales filled the need for ethnic dance music at Armenian-American youth events. With two oudists who were both vocalists (Carl usually sang in Armenian, and Harry usually sang in Turkish), two dumbegs, a clarinet and the other vocalist, Berj, who usually played the tambourine, they gained popularity in the New England area.

Richard Samoorian, who later was ordained an Armenian Apostolic priest as the Very Rev. Ghevont Samoorian, hung around the band, acted as a consultant and music arranger, and occasionally played piano.

Around 1954 the Orientales produced 6 recordings on 78-rpm discs, including a “chifte telli” oud solo by the 17-year-old Minassian in the style of Udi Hrant, and in 1956 they played the massive Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) Convention and General Assembly in Washington, D.C.

Joe Zeytoonian (younger brother of Carl and Nick), himself an accomplished oudist, confirmed that Turkish songs were still acceptable at these type of community events in the 1950s, but certainly “toned down” compared to their prevalence in the ethnic nightclub environment of the time.

Three oudists: Harry Minassian, Joe Kouyoumjian (his student), John Berberian, kanunist Jack Chalikian

Expanding Musical Palate

At around the same time, Harry drifted from the band and began playing gigs in Boston’s ethnic nightclub scene.

In many ways he was a traditionalist (and was considered as such later in life) but he was also an innovator, especially for the time. Master oudist John Berberian shared with us his memories of this period, both personal and historical: “It was about 1961 when I first heard Harry play. He was playing with Gary Alexanian on dumbeg and George Righellis on guitar. The trio was then better known as ‘Harry, Gary, and George.’ Their sound was unique and unlike what I was used to in New York. For one thing, it was the first time I heard a guitar played in the ensemble, which greatly added to the rhythm and chords. That sound led me to introduce the guitar into my band in New York. Harry played with many fine musicians and could be heard almost every night of the week at a different venue in New England. In fact, when I dated my wife who was from Massachusetts, it was not unusual for me to take her to listen to Harry three times in one week. It seemed like an explosive time for our music everywhere.”

This oud and guitar trend which was started primarily by Harry Minassian, spread to Armenian groups throughout the country; guitarists that were usually of Greek descent were brought into Armenian-led bands; such as Manny Petro of the Kef Time Band (Richard Hagopian’s cross-country group) or Nick Kenis of the Hye-Fyes (from Providence). Unlike the Armenians, the Greeks had been using guitar in their folk music for possibly a hundred years and had developed their own style of rhythmic-harmonic accompaniment to Mediterranean/Middle Eastern melodies. And with a Greek guitar player, the Armenian groups could incorporate more Greek repertoire and vocals, which added to their appeal for the clientele of the era’s ethnic nightclubs.

Vinyl Standouts and Mamma

Minassian’s first album, released in 1966, was “Near East Enchantments.” The album, featuring Minassian, Alexanian, Righellis, Lebanese-American violinist Freddie Elias, and clarinetist Carnig Mikitarian, exemplified the New England Nightclub sound heard on other albums of the era, with almost all Turkish songs. But Minassian was not just an artist focused on the repertoire of the past. As the Armenian “estradayin” genre developed in Lebanon with Adiss Harmandian’s hit song Dzaghigner in 1968, Harry kept up with the music coming out of the Middle Eastern communities. His second album, “Exciting Moods of the Middle East,” released in 1973, featured the first ever Armenian-American recording of Harmandian’s worldwide hit Karoun Karoun, which had been released earlier that year and has since become a modern Armenian classic. The album, which featured the late dumbeg artist Roger Krikorian as well as clarinetist Steve Vosbikian, Sr., was a tour de force for Minassian and one of the best examples of his style and repertoire. Kicking off with the Armenian patriotic tune Herosneri Genatze and including the latest songs being popularized by Harmandian in Beirut (Karoun Karoun, Noune, and Akh Im Yar), the album also included the recent song out of Turkey, folk-rocker Baris Manco’s Daglar Daglar, (Mountains, Mountains) which became a signature song for Minassian.

Harry wasn’t the only Armenian who took notice of the song — Lebanese-Armenian singer Maxim Panossian released his Armenian language version of the tune in 1977 as Achkes Jampout Ge Sbaseyi.

A prominent place in the album was given to the nostalgic-romantic Turkish folk song Her Sabah Her Seher, originally popularized by Udi Hrant and to this day closely associated with Harry Minassian. The irresistible danceablity of this song captured on a record Minassian’s live performance style which had generations dancing tek bar (Armenian solo dancing). Finally, the unforgettable ballad Mamma closed out the first half of the album.

It is with the song Mamma that we fully understand the relationship to the Turkish language and Turkish songs that Harry Minassian and many of his generation had. This song, which was a Turkish translation of Charles Aznavour’s hit La Mamma, was often sung by Minassian in live performances, especially when his own mother was in the audience. Minassian was devoted to his mother Vehanoush, a Genocide survivor from the Armenian community of Kayseri, and he sang this song to his mother in her native language, which like most Armenians from Kayseri, happened to be Turkish. This was so emotional for her that she would rush the stage at the end of the song and start kissing her son. It was emotional for the audience as well, to the point where Mamma (“Annem” in Turkish) became known as one of Minassian’s signature songs long after his mother had passed on.

Minassian’s third album, released around 1981, was self-titled and became known as “The White Album.” In this recording, accompanied by Hachig Kazarian on the clarinet and Roger Krikorian on dumbeg, Minassian showed his mature, developed style, performing with impeccable ease several works by Udi Hrant such as Siroon Aghchig and Srdis Vra Kar Me Ga and Turkish favorites like Kadife and Gelin Gelin. The album also included the moving Bir Ihtimal Daha Var, another of Minassian’s signature songs. John Berberian, joined by a group of other musicians, played it in a posthumous tribute to Minassian on the “Echoes of Kef Time” Armenian segment of the Boston radio show “Grecian Echoes” with Meleti Poulioupoulos, one of many Harry Minassian tributes that effervescently began to flow across social media and elsewhere after his death.

A Legacy of Music, Family and Friends

Despite Minassian’s three great albums, Armenians, particularly those in New England, really knew him from his live performances, and not from his LPs. Ask any kef music fan who has seen Harry Minassian live and you will hear nothing but praise and “rave reviews.” Many of his fans recorded his performances on cassette or video, and many of these videos have now been made available on the internet.

Incidentally, the Armenian song most associated with him was performed live countless times but was never on any of his albums: Akh Anoush. This beautiful 10/8 melody combines the aspects of an Armenian line dance and a love ballad, sung in Western Armenian. “Akh Anoush, Anoush, Anoush / a bit of sugar, a bit of almonds / you are named after sugar, I guess / but you are sweeter than sugar.”

Minassian’s legacy as a musician and a human being was described to me by his son, Gary Minassian: “My dad would practice the oud always. He was a perfectionist. He had a great gift; when he started playing people would jump up and start dancing…as far as him being my dad…he was simply the best. Always there when you needed him; a caring and loving husband to my mom [Gail Minassian]. My dad never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was always kind and approachable. My dad also passed on his teaching from Udi Hrant to Joseph Kouyoumjian and Zaven Donabedian.”

Fellow oudist John Berberian gave as good a summary as anybody: “Harry was not only a colleague but one of my best friends. I will always remember Harry for the gentleman he was, the music he shared and the friendship we had together. I will miss him greatly!”

Minassian will be missed by not only his loving family and friends but his many fans. Hoghe tetev ulla, Udi Harry. May you rest easy, as easy and relaxed as your music made us feel – and just as memorable.

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