Local Racine Band, the “Near East Beat”

Racine Brings Back Armenian Picnic Season

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RACINE, WIS. — After a hiatus of two years, Armenian Picnic Season is back and in the Midwest, the storied community of Racine, Wisconsin, kicked it off this past weekend.

Armenian Folk Dance Led By Ari Antreassian
Festival Goers Enjoying Themselves
Racine’s Rev. Avedis Kalayjian (right) with Der Andreas Garabedian of Chicago

The small town that has been referred to as “the Fresno of the Midwest” is home to the largest Armenian community in Wisconsin, rivalling the Armenian community of Chicago and second only in the region to Detroit. The country roots of Western Armenia run deep in this community, which primarily traces its ancestry to settlers from the villages of Tomarza and Jujun (both near Kayseri) as well as Kharpert during the first wave of Armenian immigration to the US. Finding a similar small-town environment in the Western Hemisphere, the first Armenians — workers who had been transferred from Worcester, Mass. to nearby Waukegan, Ill. — arrived in Racine in the 1890s and our host, St. Mesrob’s Armenian Church, was founded in 1922. Before that year, the Racine community had to share its priest with the fledgling region known as Chicago!

Yeretzgin Karen Kalayjian led many of the dances.

The annual Racine Armenian Festival traces its roots to the church picnics sponsored by St. Mesrob’s in those early years, and which have been held without fail until Covid-19 put a damper on the 2020 Fest. Now, in 2021, the Racine Armenians were back and ready to go. The festival was hosted this year at the church’s property, a change from the usual location at a park on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Featuring kebab, Armenian vendors, and the “Near East Beat” Armenian band, the picnic was attended by Armenians and non-Armenians from Wisconsin, the Chicago area, and beyond.

The food was the typical Armenian-American picnic fare. As a change of pace, the attendees were offered pastor Fr. Avedis Kalayjian’s Yerevan style pork khorovadz, rather than lamb shish kebab.

The vendors included an Armenian book and souvenir store, and a stand offering jewelry and themed Festival t-shirts. The t-shirts sold out very quickly. Even Fr. Avedis’ patented “Armenopoly” game was on sale — a Monopoly take-off where locations like Mount Ararat and Sardarabad replace Boardwalk and Park Place.

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The Armenian folk dance music was provided by the “Near East Beat,” which was composed of Kai Kazarian (guitar, vocals), Jimmy Hardy (clarinet), Vahan Kamalian (dumbeg), Stepan Fronjian (guitar, vocals), and the young Michael Kamalian (oud). Jimmy Hardy’s “Kharpert style” clarinet led the group through the traditional dances such as Tamzara and Halay, but the real attraction was Michael Kamalian of Milwaukee, who at the age of 20 is already a fine clarinetist and oudist. At the festival Kamalian played oud, supposedly his secondary instrument, but any 20-year-old who plays the oud that well as their primary instrument is to be applauded. Kamalian’s inspiring runs excited the dancefloor, which was full of young faces his own age, high-school and college-age young Armenians from Racine, excited for the folk dances of their forebears. Yeretzgin Karen Kalayjian, a New Jersey native who met her husband Fr. Avedis (originally of DC) in the ACYOA, led many of the dances.

St. Mesrob’s Gym Served As Indoor Dining Area

The weather was excellent and the hot sun shone down upon the open spaces of Racine. Not a tall building was in sight as the spectator watched the young people dance in a continuous circle to the strains of the dumbeg, oud, and clarinet which echoed across the fields of Southern Wisconsin. One felt only a step away from the village of Tomarza where so many Racine Armenians traced their roots.

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