Boris Andreasyan in 1969

Boris Andreasyan: Guitarist for More than Half a Century

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YEREVAN — Solo guitarist, singer and songwriter Boris Andreasyan (born in 1953 in Nakhichevan) is one of the most unique figures of the Armenian music scene. He plays a variety of music: blues, rock, pop, folk, funk, fusion, jazz, flamenco, but in a recent interview said his preferred style is jazz rock fusion.

In addition to bass guitar, he plays the banjo, bouzouki, tar, oud, keyboard and percussion instruments. In 1970, he founded his first rock band, “1 + 2,” which Russian music critic Artemi Troitsky mentioned in his book Back in the USSR on Soviet rock music as the leader of Armenian rock. Boris played in different groups, in 1975 at the fifth All-Soviet Competition of Pop Artists in Moscow, he was awarded the title of laureate with “Armina” vocal and instrumental ensemble.

In 1975–1978 he worked as a solo guitarist and singer in the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia led by Konstantin Orbelian. In 1978–1979 Boris played in the jazz quartet of the Armenian Television and Radio Committee, from 1982 to 1989 in the “Armenia” band of the hotel of the same name. Between 1991 and 1995 he lived and worked in the US, and between 2002 and 2004 in Moscow.

Currently Boris Andreasyan composes, writes music, and two of his books have been published recently. 

Boris Andreasyan with Jermaine Jackson

Boris, your life is very interesting.

First, let me thank you for the interview. I was born in a family of teachers: my father taught mathematics, my mother Armenian language and literature. I was raised in a neighborhood next to St. Sarkis church of Yerevan. First my parents took me to ballet first, but the ballet moves seemed girlish to me, so I ran away from the dance school. The same happened when they took me to the folk dances. Yet, I attended a sports school for three years, where I became a champion in in-school gymnastics competitions. I almost reached the status of a master of sports, but one day after hearing about the possibility of muscle injuries, I left the sport.

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And how were sports replaced by music?

I can say that God saved me by giving me musical ability, and the guitar revolutionized my whole life, due to which I was cut off from the bad influences of the neighborhood as a child. So, it was 1967, I was not yet 14 years old. My father took me to the Philharmonic Orchestra for a concert by the Czech guitarist Karel Duba and his “band. We entered the hall, I noticed the milky color guitar on the stage. For the first time in my life I came across an electric guitar. I saw it and… almost fainted. My legs weakened, I trembled, I was delighted by the beauty of the instrument. And listening to the sound of the guitar during the concert, I went completely crazy, and at that very moment I decided on my future profession. I told my father that if you do not buy a guitar for me, I would not go to school. From that day on, my life changed completely. There was no music store in Yerevan at that time, people bought instruments for their children from abroad. I started to wonder who would have a guitar around. Eventually I found a half-broken Soviet guitar. I bought fish hook strings, there were also tar strings in the house. I put them on the guitar and my endless training began. Hakob Petrosyan, the guitarist of the first beat group of Armenia, Yerazoghner (Dreamers), lived next to our house. I got acquainted with him and asked him to show me how to play the guitar and a few chords. And I started playing the guitar with everything possible. The first work I heard on the guitar was Enrico Masias’ song Oh guitare, guitare, the second one was What I’d Say by Ray Charles. Soon we had a Lithuanian tape recorder, which I used to record my favorite songs on TV or radio and then play them back on my guitar. When I first heard the Beatles’ songs, I was just shocked, my eyes filled with tears, my mother said: “Borik, what happened to you?” Thus, I became a guitarist myself. There were no guitarists at that time, so the Beatles, Deep Purple and Chicago became my first virtual teachers, inspiring me, which shaped my musical taste and style preferences.

Boris Andreasyan

And in those deep Soviet times, how did Western music reach Armenia?

Our main sources were “Voice of America” and “Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty” stations. We had a hard time catching radio channels․ Throughout the Soviet Union, KGB special services disrupted broadcasts with silencing devices. One time I was called to the KGB when I received a letter from a friend living in the US. They interrogated me and reprimanded me: “We know you also propagate capitalist music!” I knew it was more to intimidate or to find out about people’s connections. It was an atmosphere of ignorance and disgust, affecting the human psyche to such an extent that one dreamed of escaping from Soviet Union. It was terrible, we had no right to think differently, to have a worldview other than the Bolshevik communist ideology.

But in any case, it is known that Armenia, compared to other Soviet republics, was more free, and alternative music was developing here. What was the reason for that? Maybe the ties with the Diaspora?

Of course it is too. The Kremlin was not very interested in what was happening in Armenia. On the other hand, we Armenians always had outstanding personalities, both in science and art. Few people in many cities in Russia were interested in rock, and we were already playing rock here. It is not accidental that the first rock festival in the USSR took place in Yerevan, in 1968, at the Dinamo sports complex, which was attended by famous Russian singers and bands. Until 1972, such festivals were held every year at Dinamo, organized by Rafik Mkrtchyan, nicknamed Sirkhan, who, in today’s words, was a producer, and greatly contributed to the spread of rock and pop music in Armenia, despite the fact that his concerts were illegal, without state permission. For several years he brought bands from Russia and the Baltics to Yerevan rock festivals, and about five or six Armenian groups participated in them. He even brought a group of Papuans from the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow to Yerevan, which was an incredible phenomenon at that time. The ticket cost one ruble, but if 5,000 people came, the profit was already a lot of. Rafik Mkrtchyan even organized the concert of the group Dreamers in Moscow, at the Luzhniki stadium. Sirkhan always had two suitcases with him, he kept the money in one of them, in the other he had false documents about the “legality” of the concerts. He was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, after which he died.

Boris, you have been creating groups since you were 15 years old. Was it official, did not the KGB control it?

No, we just got together with the boys and formed a group at the so-called houses of culture. We worked for free. I gave my first concert in 1968 at the Polytechnic Institute with the Amprop (Thunder) group of the institute. During this concert works by the bands Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were performed for the first time in Yerevan. When I started playing Robert Johnson’s blues-rock song Crossroad performed very well by Eric Clapton (I believe most of the audience had not heard such music), I saw the first row of audiences start dancing, jumping, moving their chairs, and even how many were broken. The policemen came and threatened me from the side of the stage, shouting, “Stop it!” and after the speech they demanded that I pay for the damage to the chairs, but I, explaining my innocence, avoided it. After that concert, my fame began to spread in the city. In 1969 I was invited as a solo guitarist by the band “Vulkan,” with which I had several concerts. Then, after the disbandment of that group, I created my “1 + 2” big-bit quartet. After its disbandment I was drafted into the Soviet Army, where I served in 1972–1974.

I spent my military service mainly in the Tyumen region. There were many interesting episodes in the army. We traded goods with northern Khanty people, some of whom did not even have passports. In the taiga I even met a bear, a lynx, a deer, an elk, a wolf and a fox, and from a helicopter I saw a pack of wolves chasing a deer. Another time I barely escaped drowning in a swamp when my cinematographer and I went deep into the forest to pick mushrooms and berries. God has saved me from many dangers. Anyway, I was appointed the head of the military unit club. I opened a library in the club and installed a film screening device. I flew 500 miles by helicopter to Tyumen, where the military paid me to buy books for the library and instruments for the orchestra, and I rented ten foreign films from the city cinema to be screened at the military unit, which was unheard of in the army. I managed to find musicians from our military unit of 120 people. I formed an orchestra, which we called Molodost (Youth), and the instruments were: guitar, bass guitar, trumpet, two saxophones, percussion. I prepared a program, we had speeches both in the military unit and in the surrounding settlements. Unfortunately, there are no recordings, but I still have the reviews of the local newspapers. We performed songs by the Beatles and Crеаm as well as Russian songs. It was incredible: Soviet soldiers performing Beatles from the stage in uniform. As an exception, they allowed the performance of our orchestra at the youth song and orchestra competitions held in Tobolsk and Tyumen, where we took the first place, received a first class diploma and became a laureate. It was a real sensation.

Once I went to a dance hall, approached the musicians, and asked them to let me play. I told them the chords, the rhythm and started the song Crossroad. A furor arose, as it was not common for a soldier to play that style of music and still sing in English. After my talk, a man approached me with his wife and introduced himself as the city commandant. I was confused for a moment, because I was out of the military unit, it was late, but the guard told me I have no problem, that he liked the guitar very much, and invited me to stay at his house for a few days and teach him a few chords. The commandant even called our military unit and told my commander that I was with him so that they could meet me in all matters, not give me any physical work and take me home for another 10 days. I stayed at his house for about a week, then I returned to my military unit and it happened, I was given a 10-day vacation. I remember very well, on December 31, at exactly 11:55 pm, I knocked on the door, my mother opened it and an unspeakable joy erupted in our house. I returned to the military unit, served for another five months, was demobilized with honor, and returned home to Yerevan. A month later, the director of the Armina orchestra Aksel Bakunts invited me to work in his group. There I met my first wife, singer Zara Tonikyan.

In 1974, in the competition of all-Soviet pop groups held in Moscow, we took the third place with the Armina”orchestra and received the title of laureate. We returned to Armenia as heroes, even the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia highly praised our victory. Konstantin Orbelian was one of the members of the jury of that competition, who invited me to work in the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia as a solo guitarist and singer. My professional development took place there, I also specialized in jazz music. Orbelian was very strict, often rude, maybe it was due to that strictness that there was discipline and musical professionalism in the group. During the Soviet era, musicians were qualified by the Ministry of Culture, and I had the highest music rate of that time – 13 rubles, 50 kopecks. Orbelian also assigned me a high salary of 220 rubles.

But there were always ideological pressures.

Yes. It was a law that a Soviet citizen was not allowed to enter a capitalist country until he visits a socialist country. That was the reason the in 1976 KGB did not allow me to tour France as a member of the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia. It would be difficult for the orchestra to be without a guitar, and many songs and compositions would be left out of the program, so Orbelian and Minister of Culture Gurgen Arakelyan went to the KGB and explained that if the guitarist did not come, the tours would fail. As an exception, the KGB allowed my departure, but they rejected the three female singers, Alla Pugacheva, Larisa Dolina and Zara Tonikyan, apparently fearing that they might not return.

For many of our musicians, the borders of Armenia were narrow, you too worked abroad for some time.

In 1980–1981 with a one-year contract, I worked in Moscow, in the Jazz Ataka band formed by Stas Namin, with top musicians. In 1991, at the invitation of a friend, my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas. There I started playing, participating in jam sessions with local jazzmen and bluesmen. Many did not believe that I was from Armenia. Two months later my wife returned to Armenia, and I stayed so that I could help my family and relatives financially. Then I moved to Los Angeles and started playing in different nightclubs while dealing with my green card issues, which was resolved a few years later. But I decided to return to Armenia, saying in my mind, that I will eat black bread with my nation, but will not go anywhere from Yerevan. I came back and I have never regretted that step for a second.

Andreasyan with George Benson and keyboardist Thom Hall in Yerevan in 2009

Now tell us please, what international figures have you cooperated with?

I do not even remember the names of many, but I will tell about a few.

At the 1977 World Jazz Festival in Belgrade, I performed in a joint concert with the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia with American musicians, drummer Leon Chancler, bassist Byron Lee Miller, and guitarist Charles Frank Johnson, accompanied by world-famous keyboardist George M. Duke and trumpet player Freddie Hubbard, with whom I participated in the jam session with many other famous musicians.

In 1980 B. B. King was giving a concert at the Yerevan Philharmonic. Pianist Davit Azaryan and I went and decided to get acquainted with him during the concert break. No one was allowed backstage, but they knew us, so we approached B. B. King and introduced ourselves. He asked who I had played with and was amazed to learn that I had played with George Duke and Freddie Hubbard in Belgrade. “Can you play with me now?” “I can.” “What will you play?” “Whatever you ask.” I was already excited that we should play together now, and suddenly two people approached, wrapped their arms around me and took me out. B. B. King was amazed at what happened. Fortunately, at that moment the director of the Philharmonic was passing by, who intervened: “Where are you taking him? He is our musician, our guitarist!” They replied, “We thought he was a black marketer, he wanted to buy dollars,” said the KGB people, and let me go. But it was already late, the concert had started, so I was deprived of performing with a great musician. In 1993, I went to the giant Guitar Center on Sunset Avenue in Los Angeles. Suddenly, B. B. King and his entourage entered. I approached and said: “Мaestro, do you remember me?” He did not remember. As soon as I said, “Yerevan! KGB!,” he immediately remembered, called the store staff and said: “Now I have to tell you how I saw with my own eyes how the KGB catches people, not knowing why.”

In 1991–1995, during my time in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, I played with many famous musicians in various nightclubs, such as with Frank Sinatra’s drummer in Las Vegas Peppers jazz club (I do not remember the last name). In the Blues Club I met the world-famous singer Al Jarreau. Then I played in different clubs in Los Angeles, the Baked Potato jazz club, Athenian Gardens and Port of Athens, as well as La Strada and Casablanca restaurants in Beverly Hills. There is an interesting episode related to Al Jarreau. During the tour of our Armenian band Melomans in Australia in April 2010, the band’s keyboardist Armen Harutyunyan (according to his story), along with humorist Ashot Ghazaryan and his Australian friend, approached Al Jarreau’s manager at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney and asked him to meet the singer. Knowing that they were from Armenia, Al Jarreau warmly welcomed them and during the conversation asked: “Do you know an Armenian guitarist with Russian name? Unfortunately, I do not remember his name. I heard him in 1991 in one of the clubs in Las Vegas, I got a good impression from him.” The boys immediately guessed and said: “Perhaps you mean Boris? “Yes, yes, Boris,” Al Jarreau shouted, and the boys added, “We know him personally, he is our friend.”

In 2006 I met Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine Jackson and his wife Halima Rashid in Yerevan. Jermaine admired Armenia and Mount Ararat, asked several times, “Is this really the biblical Mount Ararat?” He was happy, he was saying he must go home and definitely tell Michael, Janet and other siblings about Armenia and convince them to come together to Yerevan. Alas…

In 2009 the Yerevan Perspectives organization invited the legendary guitarist George Benson. They asked me to take care of him and accompany him everywhere. Together with the organizers we met him at the airport, I said that I consider him my virtual teacher and that I was the first to play and distribute his songs in Yerevan. We immediately became close. When we arrived at the Marriott Hotel, he asked that the presidential bodyguards be released. It was around 12.30, Benson said: “I do not want to sleep, can we go to a jazz club?” I called our famous jazz pianist Malkhas and told him to set the table for 10 people in his club, as George Benson and I were coming. Malkhas thought I was joking. Finally, we went to the club, sat down. There was a guitar on the stage, but it was of poor quality, and I did not understand how I dared to play it in front of Benson. We were together for two days. We took him and his band to the Cognac Factory. At the end, he looked at Mount Ararat with admiration and said: “In fact, I have come to heaven, I do not want to go to Moscow anymore.” We went from the factory to the concert and sports complex. Before the concert, we were resting in the dressing room provided for him. I do not know why I was only allowed to enter, perhaps so as not to disturb them. He offered to drink white wine, then he said suddenly: “Shall we play together?” I would not dare to offer such a thing! Anyway, he brought his guitars (it was already an honor to play his GB-15 and GB-20 instruments!) and we jammed for more than half an hour with question and answer accompaniment. It is a pity that it was not filmed. He said that he had never played with anyone before the concert in his life.

At our Philharmonic, I met world-famous guitarist Stanley Jordan. We had an interesting conversation, we took pictures. Sometime later, I met the equally famous guitarist John McLaughlin and his the 4th Dimension band. Before that, at the request of the main organizer of the concert, I appeared on TV, presenting John McLaughlin and his upcoming concert. A very warm relationship was established between us, even while leaving the airport with the organizer McLaughlin invited us to the opening ceremony of his new house. Years ago I could only dream of meeting and getting closer to such great musicians.

And what do you do now?

Now I am in a creative period. I write music in jazz and jazz-rock styles, I have dozens of works that I want to release on CD. I need a producer, a sponsor for this job, but it is difficult to find. I do not know if anyone will be interested in my project and such music.

The above-mentioned path and all that meetings, collaborations and contacts with artists representing different nationalities, cultures, ideas, as well as my spiritual worldview led me to the idea that for the sake of God and high art, the world, indeed, can and should become a kinder and safer place for people, if, of course, the leaders support that and do not hinder the implementation of such initiatives. All the nations and states of the world can better understand, know, appreciate and love each other, and for that all they need is pure love and respect for each other and free and sincere dialogue.

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