The cover of the LP Near East After Hours (L to R: Diran DerMarderosian, Harry Papazian, Jack Chakoian, Carl Narsasian, George Chakoian, Costa Provas)

ԼINCOLN, R.I. — As we pulled up to the well-kept, unassuming 1950s-style ranch, my driver announced: “this is the House that George built.” Getting out of the car, I stared up at the home, which was as well-constructed as one could hope, but did show the marks of a personal design. “You built this yourself?” I asked. “Well, I had someone do the brickwork,” George replied. Nobody’s perfect, I suppose.

George Chakoian is 97 years old and still lives with his wife of more than 70 years, Mary, in the house he built in here. Down the street is a house his younger brother Jack once lived in before moving to North Providence. Jack passed away earlier this year at age 95. By now you have realized that 97-year-old George was the driver in the first sentence. I was supposed to meet with George to interview him, but when I asked for directions to his home, he insisted on picking me up.

George is one of the last of a breed of Armenians from the first generation born in America, who embody what was great about the Greatest Generation. His late brother Jack could have been described in the same manner. Both were WWII veterans; George served in the Air Force in World War II and worked for the government as an aerospace engineer for over 50 years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. He and Mary live by themselves with no assistance, and their home is the picture of the American Dream. Military ribbons, pictures with Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, and a Gontag from the Catholicos of All Armenians adorn the walls of the family room; an award recognizing Chakoian as an inductee of the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame sits in the dining room under wedding pictures of his daughters; a baby grand piano and an oud can be found in the living room, the 1950s décor of which is in impossibly pristine condition. And he still drives.

When I visited Providence two years ago, George’s brother, Jack, 93 at the time, also insisted on driving. Jack Chakoian was an interior decorator for some 50 years and owned his own business, RI Decorators in Cranston. Aside from being a successful businessman, Jack was a fixture at Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Church in Providence, attending every function and Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) dance (often leading the line even in his 90s), showing up to Divine Liturgy every Sunday, and acting as a general pillar of the community.

A self-described “gym rat,” Jack was known for staying in excellent shape his entire life — one of the more popular stories about him was how he would play basketball with ACYOA members who were in their 20s when he was well into his 50s, and more than keep up.

A World War II veteran like his brother, Jack had served his time in the Navy, and was honored at the North Providence Town Hall in 2014, where he spoke as the Armenian flag was raised in honor of the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.  Jack spoke about his parents’ survival story as well as growing up in the early Armenian-American community, which can be viewed here:

Jack Chakoian

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Jack’s passing on this past June 30 was a loss not only for his beloved large family (he was a great-great-grandfather) but also the Rhode Island Armenian community who knew him as a passionate, engaged, avuncular figure that was always ready to support everything that went on in the Sts. Sahag and Mesrob church and community.

George was just as involved in the church as Jack was, if not more so. Both brothers worked together in the 1970s to raise money for the parish through organizing bingo nights, Jack being dispatched to other New England churches to learn how it was done. Ultimately over $500,000 was raised for Sts. Sahag – Mesrob. George served as Diocesan delegate from Providence for many years as well as being Secretary of the Diocesan Council. The Primate would invite him as part of a select group of Armenian-Americans to greet visiting VIPs, such as President Levon Ter-Petrossian on his first US visit. The honor continued even after George was no longer on the Council.

George Chakoian with oud once owned by his teacher, Harry Hasekian

Love For Music

Another thing that kept George and Jack together was their love of Armenian music. George is most likely the oldest living Armenian oud player in the world and led the New England Ararat Orchestra for 56 years. Two years in, his brother Jack joined the band playing saxophone. The core of the band formed by George, Jack, and clarinetist Carl Narsasian were together longer than almost any similar group, rivalled perhaps only by the original Vosbikian Band and the Kef Time Band, depending on how you count years played together.

Harry Hasekian with oudist Edward Bashian playing at Assyrian picnic

The band claimed to have played over 1,200 weddings, mostly Armenian, but also Greek, Arab, Assyrian, and “one Irish wedding.” They also made three 78 rpm records (singles) and three LPs, in the early 60s: “Harem Twist” (a marketing idea to capitalize on the Twist dance craze), “Near East After Hours” which pictured the band before an Armenian feast at the local Seventh Veil restaurant, and “Next Stop Near East.” The albums, which are typical of the Armenian-American band sound of the 1950s and early 1960s, stand out for their strong orchestration and their unique choice of repertoire, incorporating Armenian and Turkish kef standards, reworked Sayat-Nova material, Armenian children’s folk songs like Lorig and Garmir Kini, Anoush Kini and then the offbeat songs that only the Ararat Band played. The latter included the Dolma Song and Kogh Berber. These two songs, George relates, were picked up by the band’s drummer and vocalist, the late Diran DerMarderosian, on a trip to Syria and Lebanon, where he learned them from Armenian taxicab drivers! A YouTube video of Jack Chakoian singing the Dolma Song at a Providence picnic in 2004 (viewable here: got over 35,000 hits, and has made it back to Beirut.

For a genre that tends to be male-dominated, George, originally a violin player, took a liking to the oud from an unusual source: his mother. Though father Daniel Chakoian was a proud Armenian from Palu’s Khoshmat village, it was their mother, Margaret, an Amasia native who had a love for Armenian folk music and sang often in the house. Margaret had two female Armenian friends who came visiting often, and both of them played the oud. The three would sit and have their tea, George says, as his mother’s two friends would play their ouds, and all three women would sing, Margaret and the one friend in Armenian and the other friend in Turkish. Women oud players were more common than many people are aware, however it seems they generally played in private settings like this rather than in public.

Ararat Orchestra playing a reception for Soviet Ambassador the US (at left)

George mentions the early immigrants’ fondness for Turkish songs as a matter of course. His father was a survivor of the Hamidian massacre and his mother of the Genocide of 1915, but it was part of the music they grew up with, and nobody at the time seemed to have a problem with it, other than a few hotheads who were usually members of the ARF. George’s father Daniel, on the other hand, was an ADL member who was responsible for another Chakoian record — George has subscribed to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator since the inception of the paper in 1932. His father bought him a subscription when he was only 8 years old.

Once George decided he wanted to play the oud, he looked for a teacher. He asked the oudist in a band that was visiting from Worcester, and the man told him “I don’t give lessons, but I know who does.” He gave George the name of Watertown’s Harry Hasekian, who just happened to be one of the greatest Armenian immigrant musicians in the country. Hasekian, a master violinist born in Marash, was an expert in Middle Eastern classical music and had further refined his craft at the Boston Conservatory. He had cut records with Kanuni Garbis Bakirgian and performed in concert with Oudi Hrant Kenkulian on his visits to the United States. Hasekian was also an accomplished oudist. But there was another hitch: when George approached Hasekian, he was told “I don’t give lessons, because I only teach by notes” (most American born oudists then and now prefer playing by ear, as folk musicians.) George, who had had some violin lessons, doggedly replied, “well, I read music.” Hasekian agreed to mentor him.

Ararat Orchestra in later years (L to R: Myron Kizirian, George Chakoian, Carl Narsasian, Jack Chakoian)

After a couple of years studying with Hasekian, George was ready to start his own group. But their friendship continued. In the late 1950s, Hasekian visited Istanbul with musician friends and searched the music shops for high-quality ouds. They returned with an elaborate Arab-made instrument that was said to have been built for an Egyptian king. Two years later, Hasekian passed away and his family decided to gift the prized oud to George, who had been his favorite student. He still has it.

In 1954, George started the New England Ararat Band with a clarinet player and a drummer. The original clarinet player was replaced by Carl Narsasian and the band went through multiple changes in the rhythm section over the years. Playing jobs all over New England, George interacted with the other musicians of his era. New York oudist Chick Ganimian was a houseguest. The Vosbikian Band were well known to the Chakoians and George particularly had a friendship with oudist Sam Vosbikian. But Jack Chakoian was the heart and soul of the band. George says he never particularly asked Jack to join, but there he was with his saxophone. George reminisced that Jack used to have Armenian music on everywhere he went, and would always turn it on as soon as he got in the car. After discussing his successful career, community involvement, and music, I asked “How will you remember your brother?” George just smiled, thought, and then replied, “he was a kefji.” Nothing could have been more simple.

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