Ara Malikian in Spain (Anton Corbijn photo)

The Virtuoso Fiddler of the Mediterranean

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Imagine Frank Zappa brought back to life, but as a crazed violinist running up and down a stage playing a hundred miles an hour to adoring crowds: sexy, long dark hair flying in all directions wearing workout gear and the occasional leather short sleeve jacket. The music changes from classical (Stravinsky) to rock (Led Zeppelin) and finally to his own unique compositions. There in a nutshell you have Ara Malikian, one of the most gifted, fun musicians playing on the world stage today.

Genre-bending, eclectic, original and ferociously individualistic, Malikian started out in the most typical way: taking classical violin lessons as a child in Beirut. For Malikian, as for others caught up in the Lebanese Civil War like the poet Shahé Mankerian or the writer Vahé Berberian, childhood was cut short in 1975: “Actually I didn’t have a childhood,” explains Malikian, who was only six years old when the war broke out. The war raged on, Lebanon was destroyed: “When I was 15 I went to Germany to try to survive and earn my living playing the violin…so I missed out on all the things that a child or teenager would do during this time.”

Listening to Malikian play, Tina Guo or Ashley MacIsaac come to mind, with elements of the Charlie Daniels band perhaps when he rocks it out. But when the tenor changes to classical pieces, you could just as well be listening to Joshua Bell. Malikian admits to having changed styles and influences over the years, but in the end, he has come back to his early influences, namely Bach and Paganini. Listen to Malikian play Stairway to Heaven and then Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and you begin to get an idea of his range. Says Malikian: “There are so many ways and styles of playing. Each of them is valid if it’s made with passion and you can transmit your feelings to the listener.”

Passion isn’t something that is missing from his violin. Watching Malikian’s performances live and then on YouTube, from Lebanon and Israel to Greece, Turkey and Spain — where he now makes his home — one adjective kept coming back to mind: “Mediterranean” or “Միջերկրական.” His playing possesses a quick, hard rock tempo but also slows down into fiddler-like laments. And of course, given these stylistic propensities and his own wanderlust, a gypsy comes to mind both visually and artistically. The type of playing so beautifully portrayed in the documentary “Latcho Drom (Safe Journey),” which follows the changes in Gypsy music as director Tony Gatlif traces the Roma journey eight thousand kilometers out of India, all the way to Iberia.

Malikian agrees in this assessment: “Mediterranean is a lifestyle. All the different art forms practiced around the Mediterranean basin are related. Music, literature, painting, theater, dance, culinary arts etc…They all have something in common, inspired by the historical heritage and logically I feel that I am part of it.”

Armenian folk music enamored Malikian from an early age, a genre he finds lends itself well to the violin: “Logically I’ve also played most of the works of Armenian classical composers like Komitas, Khachaturian and Babadjanian. Malikian performed at the famed Byblos music Festival in Lebanon several years back and is planning a concert at the end of 2022 in Yerevan: “I played in Hayastan 30 years ago and have been back several times.”

Ara Milikian (Anton Corbijn photo)

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Like many gifted professionals, Malikian has suffered from being overly critical of his own work: “For many years, I didn’t dare show anyone my compositions.”

Does Malikian have a favorite piece?: “ It would be difficult for me to choose one that I like most because as a composer I feel I am in constant evolution. However, if I had to choose one composition from the classical repertoire it would be Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Perhaps because of his range, style and look, Malikian’s reviews have ranged from the superlative to the underwhelming, in the case of one disgruntled critic from The Sunday Times. But the boy genius turned international star has learned over the years how to roll with the critical punches: “I am very sensitive, but I care less about what critics write. The audience —that’s what really matters.” By adapting classical pieces Malikian continues to help push violin and classical music forward: “It cost me many years of searching, experimenting, and making mistakes until I found my way and my personality. And now I enjoy making music more than ever.”

Malikian is currently on a world tour with his latest album Ara. So if some time in the coming months you hear a beautiful, lone plaintive violin carrying a soulful Mediterranean melody on a breeze somewhere near you, it may just be Ara Malikian — warming up until he rocks the house out.

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