Kanonist Ara Topouzian being interviewed in his home

Metro Detroit Couple To Tell Story of Armenians in Music


DETROIT — Can music heal? That’s the question husband and wife filmmakers Lisa Hagopian and Eric Harabadian are asking in their upcoming documentary, “We Thrive.”

The documentary, which they are working on now, will highlight Armenians in Michigan who have made their career or their avocation in the music world — not only Armenian music, but Classical, rock, pop and more. Hagopian and Harabadian’s thesis is that many Armenians have found music as a way to move on from the scars of a troubled past.

“We started the project a few months ago, and it came out of conversations that Lisa and I have been having,” said Harabadian.

Hagopian and Harabadian were born and raised in the Metro Detroit area; they had recently finished a documentary “Paradise Boogie,” about the past, present and future of Detroit’s blues scene. (Music fans around the country will recognize the classic song Boogie Chillun from radio and countless films, TV shows, and even commercials, but few may realize that it is by Detroit’s John Lee Hooker, rather than a Chicago bluesman.)

Left to right: Sean Blackman (guitarist), Eric Harabadian, Lisa Hagopian

Eric Harabadian is a musician and guitarist, who has played rock, blues, and even some jazz. He had a band called Chain Reaction for some 30 years, playing the local bar scene. But he also always took an interest in Armenian music growing up as his grandmother always played it at home. Of course, the Detroit area has no lack of live Armenian music, from numerous wedding bands to well-respected church choirs.

The duo says they were fortunate enough to get Paradise Boogie on local public television, and were thinking “more about a personal story” since the first two were more music oriented. “Lisa wanted to not do another music documentary,” Harabadian states. “We were thinking about doing an environmental topic.”

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But then Hagopian came across an article about an Armenian immigrant in Detroit who had a short-lived record label in the 40s and 50s, producing Armenian folk and classic songs (https://www.armenianmuseum.org/the-tar-haig-ohanaian-and-george-shah-baronian). She realized that Armenians have had a long history of making music in the Detroit area.

Harabadian, for his part, says he was inspired by the Armenian community events in the Detroit area. “I always saw the joy and vibrancy. My family all know the history; I heard all the stories about the Genocide. All ethnicities have had oppression, but don’t let it define them, but the music has this rich history. And I don’t think a lot of people know about Armenian culture.”

The hard part of the project, the couple says, is the funding. There are fees for music licensing, which historically have been extremely restrictive, (only in the last few years have changes in the law made it possible for sound recordings to be in the public domain, and so far it only applies to those that are more than 100 years old). There are fees for photo licensing to be paid to libraries, universities, and public archives in order to use historic photos in their possession. The two would also like to use Genocide survivor accounts, but those videos are also copyrighted by whoever owned them.

Kim Kashkashian

Some filmmakers use materials like this without permission, but Hagopian and Harabadian want to do it the right way and PBS won’t show it unless all the legalities are in place.

Fortunately, the duo found an organization, Fractured Atlas, which provides “fiscal sponsorship” to creative projects like theirs. The organization uses its nonprofit status as a clearinghouse for donations to similar endeavors. Those who wish to donate to the “We Thrive” music documentary, can do so through Fractured Atlas and get the tax deduction, without Hagopian and Harabadian having to file for nonprofit status. (The link is [https://fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/we-thrive-documentary-film/campaigns/4555].) The couple is also using GoFundMe.

Some of the local Armenian-American musicians who are slated to appear in the documentary are Dan Yessian (composer and music producer), Sean Blackman (guitarist, performing artist in world-fusion style), Rubik Mailian (classically trained vocal soloist and conductor of St. John’s Armenian Church Komitas Choir), Ara Topouzian (folk and kef style kanon player, record producer), Eliza Neals (blues-rock singer), Chuck Alkazian (record producer), Simon Javizian (clarinetist, elder statesman of the local kef music scene), Kim Kashkashian (world-renowned classical violist), Hachig Kazarian (Juilliard-trained clarinetist, folk/kef musician and noted authority on Western Armenian folk music).

“Something I was told by other creatives is, write about who you are and where you come from,” said Harabadian, who has also been a freelance writer for years.

The project is slated to be completed by Fall of 2022.


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