Andrew Hagopian

For Andrew Hagopian Music Is in His Blood

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FRESNO — One of the most promising young musicians in the realm of Armenian dance and folk music in the United States is a 21-year-old third-generation Armenian-American college student: Andrew Hagopian of Fresno.

Andrew recently spoke about how he, along with his older brother Phillip, is carrying on the traditions handed down to them from their grandfather, legendary oud player, singer, and folklorist Richard Hagopian.

This writer first met the Hagopian brothers in Chicago, at the Poon Paregentan dance of 2018. We, the attendees, knew that Richard Hagopian’s grandsons were going to be performing. Two young guys appeared on the stage who could not have been much more than 20. As the attendees went to order drinks the improvisation of an oud taksim began to fill the room. We smiled and felt contented, relaxed in the familiar strains of our music. Yes, it even sounded like Richard’s oud. It was Phillip Hagopian playing. Then a powerful, vibrant, and deep voice filled the air. “Who’s singing?” we asked each other, astounded. It couldn’t be “the boys”…

It was, indeed. They could sing like their grandfather, too. At that moment I felt I had been transported back in time to a Fresno ACYO Dance in 1956 at one of Richard Hagopian’s first gigs. At that moment, I knew that I was witnessing a special moment in time, the first gig “Back East” of the grandsons of Richard Hagopian, the inheritors of his special legacy in music.

About his beginnings in music, Andrew Hagopian says: “I was born into a traditional Armenian household. Music and family were crucial to me and my brother’s upbringing. Ever since I can remember, my parents always played Armenian music in the house, when we travelled, or had a family gathering. My brother Phillip and I became mesmerized by it. We embraced the music any chance that we could get. All of the inspiration came from our grandfather, Richard Hagopian, who was always someone my brother and I looked up to, not because he was Richard Hagopian the Armenian oud player, but because he was our grandfather. We knew how well known and respected he was in the community, but we always saw him as Grandpa. We didn’t see him as other Armenians viewed him within the community.”

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A Storied Legacy

Richard Hagopian, born outside of Fresno in 1937, son of a Genocide survivor from Erzurum, has long been one of the premier oudists, singers, and entertainers in the Armenian-American community.

Known for his oud mastery and authentic interpretation of Armenian and Anatolian music, singing in Armenian and Turkish, “Oudi Richard” was the only student in the US of master musician “Kanoni” Garbis Bakirjian. Bakirjian was a kanon player and singer who had been renowned in pre-WWI Constantinople (Istanbul) for his mastery of the system of modes that governs Armenian liturgical music and Ottoman classical music. He had been a deacon at the Patriarchal Cathedral as well as a musician at the Sultan’s court.

The famed blind master “Oudi” Hrant Kenkulian of Istanbul, a Genocide survivor from Adapazar hailed by many as the greatest Armenian oud player of all time, also took the young Richard under his wing when he toured the US throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Gaining the title “Oudi” from Kenkulian in 1969, a year after his breakthrough album, “Kef Time Las Vegas,” Hagopian followed up with three more “Kef Time” albums with the team of Hachig Kazarian on clarinet, Buddy Sarkissian on percussion, and Jack Chalikian on kanon. The group played at the annual “Kef Time” events in Hartford and Cape Cod for some 35 years, and countless other engagements, inspiring a generation of musicians.

Andrew Hagopian with his band mates, with from left, George Nigosian, clarinetist Michael Kamalian, Hagopian and Shant Paklaian

The elder Hagopian also taught his music to his sons, including Phillip and Andrew’s father, Armen (a clarinetist), who perform frequently in Fresno, most notably the famous annual Grape Blessing Picnic on the Armenian Apostolic feast day of Asdvadzadzin (Assumption of the Mother of God). It’s a special holiday for the Fresno Armenians, many of whom still make their living in agriculture, and treated as a festival with music and shurch bar (traditional line dances).

Despite all this family history, Andrew Hagopian says “I was not pushed or pressured into learning Armenian music by my parents or grandfather. I took interest in it purely out of the joy and happiness it brings me and others who enjoy it. I started banging on a small dumbeg at the age of 3 alongside my brother who would sing and strum on the oud. We would spend ours pounding out tunes and having a good time together. That was our form of entertainment growing up.”

At a young age, Hagopian had access to material that most Armenian kids just didn’t have. He was captivated by the music of his grandfather and his bandmates. “My brother and I would sit in front of the television watching old VHS recordings of our grandfather performing at huge functions across the United States. We would try to imitate all the musicians’ movements and techniques of playing the instruments. Buddy Sarkissian was famous for playing multiple drums and getting caught up in the music by exhibiting his excitement through various head jerks and hand motions as he played. As I got older and was studying [him], I realized that he wasn’t … shaking his head just because he felt like it, but because he was an entertainer and he also used that as a way of indicating what drumming pattern he was to do next, and keep rhythm. I did the same thing for all the musicians who inspired my playing. Everyone I studied exhibited the same traits, they were not just playing the music, they were entertaining, they were connecting to it, and they were expressing it in their fashion.”

Naturally, Hagopian also attended his grandfather’s live performances: “I would sit alongside my grandfather’s band at local affairs where I would hit a def (tambourine) and enjoy watching the dancers dance.”

Getting Serious at a Young Age

After getting all of this music ingrained in his head, the younger Hagopian says, “At the age of 7, I wanted to take my music to a higher level. My parents, seeing that I was serious, convinced me to learn the piano as a basis for music theory and basic musical training. When I was 11 years old (2010), I became an Alliance for California Traditional Arts Apprenticeship member under the guidance and instruction of my Grandfather, Richard Hagopian. The first instrument I learned with him was the kanun. He taught me the Armenian Modal System, kanun technique, and performance posture. He did not teach me songs. He strictly had me go home, select songs I was interested in, identify the mode they were in, and learn them by ear by the time our next lesson the following week. After completing my training on the kanun in 2013, I wanted to learn more about Armenian music and became interested in the oud. Because I had already learned kanun and the Armenian Modal System, learning the oud was a quick process for me. My grandfather taught me Oud Technique (fingering and picking), Oud Maintenance, and History. It was a must that I study and learn classical Ottoman music including Longas, Pesrevs, and Saz Semais because they strengthen an artist’s playing. I also was taught the art of Taksim (Improvisation) which is important in relaying or expressing my emotion in my music and in order to be successful at it, you must know the modal systems and the proper format of constructing a taksim.”

“My goal is to make my mark in the Armenian community just as my grandfather did and serve as a cultural outlet for Armenians to socialize, connect to the culture, and continue the culture. Through performing at large Armenian affairs, I get to witness Armenians come together, meet one another, and eventually end up playing for their wedding. It is truly an amazing feeling that I play a small role in bringing Armenians together. As an Armenian, I feel that it is my duty to continue a part of my culture. My connection just so happens to be through the music which I can express to others,” said Hagopian.

Making a Mark ‘Back East’

Indeed, Hagopian has been making his mark in last few years. One of his first out-of-town gigs was at Chicago’s Poon Paregentan (Armenian Mardi Gras) dance in 2018, already mentioned. This is the biggest social event of the year in the Chicago Armenian community, and Andrew performed on guitar and vocals with his brother Phillip on oud and vocals, Michael Kazarian of Detroit on dumbeg (son of grandfather Richard’s trusty bandmate, clarinetist Hachig Kazarian) and father Armen Hagopian on clarinet. Along with his older brother Phillip, an impressive oudist himself, the 18-year-old Andrew made a big impression on the local Armenians who had attended from around the Midwest region. Even though he wasn’t playing his now-signature oud, his impassioned vocals and enthusiasm for the music garnered attention. From there, he was invited to play at the startup event Kef Time Lake Michigan that summer in the beach town of New Buffalo, MI, halfway between Detroit and Chicago, creating a memorable night for those who attended. There he was joined by the young Michael Kamalian of Milwaukee on clarinet, along with Shant Paklaian of Chicago on dumbeg and veteran Detroit area musician George Nigosian on guitar. Clearly gaining traction in the region, the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America’s (ACYOA) Racine, Wisconsin St. Mesrob Chapter invited Phillip and Andrew Hagopian, along with Kamalian and Paklaian to perform at the annual ACYOA General Assembly and Sports Weekend on Memorial Day of 2019 giving him exposure to the wider East Coast Armenian youth. Hagopian says, “Over the past few years, I have been trying to grow a name for myself here in California as well as across the Mid-West and Back East. I have always enjoyed performing for ACYO events because I enjoy watching my fellow peers my age engaging in our culture and having a good time. It is a good feeling to see a group of 300 Armenian youth all dancing together under one roof, dancing traditional Armenian folk dances that were danced in the villages of Classical Armenia.”

Covid Makes Social Media New Venue

A number of picnic appearances, restaurant shows, and a second Kef Time Lake Michigan followed before Covid shut down the Armenian community’s vivid social life and schedule of dances. Hagopian was not daunted. He soon became known for his “Facebook Live” concerts playing oud and singing, as well as prepared videos, spread through social media, of himself singing and playing all the instruments in the arrangement, overdubbed. Both the live concerts as well as the permanent videos include Turkish-language songs, which have always been a part of his repertoire as well as his grandfather’s. This repertoire, which was quite typical for Armenian musicians before the 1960s, has become controversial in recent decades.

“During the pandemic, I have taken this opportunity to educate my listening audience on traditional Armenian folk songs as well as expose them to songs that were composed and or performed by Armenian artists in Turkish.”

“I have received some backlash because of the Turkish music but what many people do not realize is that these songs were sung and danced to by many of our Armenian ancestors even after the Armenian Genocide of 1915. When migrating out of their homeland, they did not have [many] possessions or loads of wealth. They only had memories, customs, and traditions that they brought with them to wherever they settled and built for themselves a new Armenia, continuing all these traditions.”

“The way I see it is that it is my way of bringing peace between two cultures and trying to bring them closer through cultural similarities. Music is an expressive Art form which shouldn’t be criticized or shunned but accepted and understood. Most of all these folk songs were about love and peace. The music does not represent a negative influence. For the most part, my music has been accepted and has served to tear down some barriers and hostile aggression. I have gained a huge Turkish audience online that sees and appreciates me as an Armenian and accepts me for who I am because I am demonstrating peace and expressing my emotion through song.”

Style and Influences

When asked whether Hagopian sticks to the style passed down from his grandfather, or tries to put his own imprint on the music, he replied: “I try to make my own mark by expressing my style and twist on traditional Armenian music while I remain to exhibit the style and techniques of musicians prior. As I think it is important to modify and create new music, it is just as important to keep alive the old. It’s like saying we don’t need those ancient manuscripts that Armenians created thousands of years ago, we just wrote a new book with better information. I will leave it to other colleagues of mine in this industry to create new influence. It is my role, and anyone else who wishes to preserve our ancestors’ image, to do so by educating themselves about where they come from and who they are.”

Who are the musicians prior that he emulates? Hagopian mentions his great-grandparents (Richard Hagopian’s parents), Angel, who played piano and her husband, Khosroff, who loved to sing. He names oud greats John Berberian and the late Harry Minassian.

“As they are different in their ways or performing and entertaining, they both have the spirit and the drive to give their all to the music. They dedicated themselves to the music and let it speak through them.” Hagopian notes that as he was trained to play by his grandfather, “I listened closely to these musicians, taking what I liked from each of their styles and created my own by combining their skill. To anyone wanting to be their own musician, you must listen to everyone and everything to create your own sound. You take a little from everything you hear, you practice it, and execute it.” Hagopian also named the Oudi Hrant, Kanoni Garbis, the Istanbul Greek oudist Yorgo Bacanos, and the well-known Armenian immigrant oud player Marko Melkon (Alemsherian), a native of Izmir who made his career in New York. These last four, of course, are from the generation of Hagopian’s great-grandparents — the last generation born before the Genocide.

While the verdict seems to be clear that Hagopian considers himself a traditionalist, he also adds, “I enjoy listening to jazz music and American vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel. All the music I listen to I try to incorporate in either my style or arrangements. I like to experiment with different tones and melodic riffs in my Armenian music. Listening to Chick Ganimian [Charles Ganimian, the noted New York oudist of the 1950s-1980s] has definitely expanded my view on our music as it has done for many other oud players. Chick was revolutionary not only to Armenian music but also Jazz artists during his day. There are certain techniques which they call ‘Chick Licks’ which I enjoy to play from time to time which make the music unique and interesting to listen to. I enjoy playing different styles because it is a way I can connect to my audience because someone may register it with their favorite oud or kanun player.”

As to what the special draw of the oud is, he replied, “The oud is an excellent instrument because it is completely based on free will and is extremely expressive. What do I mean by free will? I can place my finger down on the fingerboard of an oud and not have a fret tell me what note or even tone I want unlike a guitar. I can use differing techniques to convey feelings such as sadness, happiness, fear, suffering, love, pride, and a lot more. The oud connects me with my audience and most importantly connects me to myself. This music has become a part of who I am and I hope that people get inspired by my music to want to be more connected to the culture themselves.”

The oud, however, is not Hagopian’s only instrument: “Besides the oud, I can play the kanun, piano, guitar, 6 string bass guitar, and percussion (dumbegs/drums). The kanun is such a beautiful sounding instrument and adds to any Armenian ensemble. The thing that makes the kanun so special is that it embellishes the music and brings the mood to a whole new level of emotion and feeling. It can express extreme sadness or happiness depending on the nature of the player and or song. But besides the oud and kanun, I enjoy playing the guitar because I can use my knowledge of musical theory to form beautiful chord progressions which just tie the music together. The guitar in our music not only serves to fill in the bottom frequencies which the oud, clarinet, and kanun have difficulty doing, but it also helps drive the music and motivate the dancers to get into their sense of Kef.”

Emotions of Armenian Music

For Hagopian, the twin loves of Armenian culture and music compel him to delve deep into this music.

“I am driven to play by my love for the music. I think if I did not love the music, it would definitely be a challenge to entertain. I personally strive to make my music have greater impact on others. By doing my research into the music and learning more specifics of a certain piece, it makes my performance of those songs that much greater….. When I play our music, I wish to be seen as someone who is truly serious and passionate about the music. I want my audience to know how I am feeling, what I am feeling at that very moment when they look into my eyes and hear the mood I am conveying. What inspires me most when playing is looking up from the oud and seeing everyone I know and everyone in the room bonding over their culture, appreciating their unique identity as an Armenian.”

Hagopian certainly has favorite compositions to which he goes back again and again.

“One of my favorite Armenian songs is a chant composed by blind oud master Hrant Kenkulian, Ghurjeet (Cottage), which was a love song dedicated to his wife Aghavni. [it says] ‘You are my sole need. I am satisfied with a piece of dry bread and water. Humbly, we shall eat and I will watch and hope that you will be mine forever.’ Hrant’s compositions expressed tragedy or love from his own life. When playing his works, I feel his sorrow, I feel his pain, and I allow that emotion to sound its voice through the oud. You have to truly feel that emotion in your heart in order to convey that message to your listening audience. Another one of my favorites is another Hrant selection, Hastayim Yaşıyorum. [sung in Turkish] ‘I am ill but living because of your memory. I wait with hope that someday you will return. My poor heart is decaying with longing for your love. I wait with hope that someday you will return.’ The most inspirational albums in my life have been the Buddy Sarkissian and Richard Hagopian’s “Kef Time Las Vegas,” John Berberian’s “Echoes of Armenia,” Harry Minassian’s “Exciting Moods of the Middle East,” Onnik Dinkjian’s “Inner Feelings of Onnik,” and Joe Kouyoumjian’s “Harpoot to Istanbul” [note: the last album was produced by, with vocals and arrangements by Eddie Mekjian of Worcester, MA].

Concert For Artsakh

On December 12, a unique concert took place sponsored by the Knights of Vartan “Arax” Lodge of Providence, RI. The Artsakh-Armenia Relief Concert was a virtual event livestreamed over Facebook and Youtube. The goal was to raise money for displaced families of Artsakh through the performance of an “Armenian New England Ensemble” consisting of some of that region’s well known “kef musicians” and the “Richard Hagopian Ensemble” streaming in from the Hagopian ranch in Fresno, and consisting of grandfather, Richard Hagopian on oud and vocals, son, Armen Hagopian on clarinet, and grandsons, Phillip Hagopian (dumbeg) and Andrew Hagopian (kanun). Andrew’s kanun performance in this event was outstanding, as well as his singing on the last selection. The New England group also did an excellent job, with veteran virtuoso oudist and clarinetist Mal Barsamian, as well as young duduk player Mher Mnatsakanyan, standing out. The concert, set up in the style of telethon, included speakers from the Knights of Vartan and local clergy from all Rhode Island Armenian churches. The concert was emceed by Sonya Gasparian Taraian, host of the Armenian Radio Hour of Providence, the longest running ethnic radio program in the United States.

Hagopian views the music that he plays and that he learned from his grandfather as an important part of the Armenian historical legacy:

“It is important that the origins of our ancestral music remain alive in order to not lose a very important part of our identity. The songs are not just random words put to melodic tones but written history of our ancestry. The majority of Armenian songs are about a great love or loss in a person’s life, but there are also songs of everyday life, historical occupations, social customs and more. It is another form of our history which is not written… It is an art form or “history book” that can be passed from generation to generation through vocal expression. Music is our past, present, and future. It shows us where we came from, where we are, and most importantly where we are going.”

He continues, stating that aside from being a way to document the history of the Armenians, the music is “a dedication and honor to our ancestors. This type of music is extremely expressive and yet very simple. The music conveys a sense of love, peace, friendship, and deep sorrow. It is a part of our culture which shouldn’t be discarded and forgotten.”

Working On New Album

Hagopian is currently working on his first album, to be entitled “Roots of Our Homeland,” which will be a collection of traditional folk songs from the villages of Historic Armenia. The album will be compiled predominantly of traditional shourchbar dance songs, as well as other historical compositions. Hagopian has done all the arrangements after consulting various versions of the songs and will perform all the instruments on the album himself, which will include oud, kanun, dumbeg, guitar, bass, and other percussion. He is also including some friends in an interesting twist: “I will also be including my closest friends on this album as background ‘Kef Gees’ as I find it important that I include those who are closest to me in this production. I want to convey a sense of cultural heritage as well as friendship. The music should pull us all that much closer and that is the goal of this album. I hope that my listening audience will receive that message and interact with the album by dancing and singing along. These songs are of great importance to the Armenians and should be preserved for generations to come.”

Hagopian, who is studying marketing in college, has undertaken to design the unique album cover as well: “On the front of the cover will be a walnut tree with deep roots in the shape of Classical Armenia and all around the tree is new growths of “offspring.” The offspring represent the Armenian Diaspora and the will to survive, start a new Armenia wherever Armenians settle.” Why a walnut tree? “I selected a walnut tree because of its deep roots and because a lot of Armenian instruments are made from the wood of Walnut trees because of their abundance in Armenia.”

“I am very excited for this album to be released as it is my first and hopefully not my last,” Hagopian tells us. The album will be available for purchase or streaming online through Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music.

 

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