Hank Mardigian

Tribute: Hank Mardigian, A Life In Music

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PHILADELPHIA — On June 21, the Armenian kef music world bid a farewell to pioneering bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Henry “Hank” Mardigian. He was 93.

Born in Philadelphia on July 19, 1928, Mardigian was a bandleader and arranger who played saxophone, mandolin, banjo, and oud, as well as sang. Freely admitting that he was no virtuoso at any instrument, he was best known as the frontman of the Gomidas Band, one of the original Armenian-American dance bands of the 1950s and 60s, in which virtuoso oudist George Mgrdichian got his start.

Mardigian was a warm and genial figure who nurtured talents, highlighted his bandmates, and always gave tribute to those who had introduced him to the music scene, namely Sam Vosbikian and the Vosbikian Band, while always striving to differentiate his own music as well as pay it forward. As for George Mgrdichian, when asked who taught him to play the oud, the virtuoso used to joke that “Hank did!” It was an exaggeration, but the truth was that without Mardigian and his band, Mgrdichian may have never had the chance for his talents to flourish.

Mardigian led a life in music that touched on nearly every aspect of the mid-20th-century Armenian-American dance music scene and community life.

2. The Gomidas Band: L to R, Ray Mirijanian, Roger Mgrdichian, George Mgrdichian, George Terkanian, Hank Mardigian

Philadelphia Kef Time

Mardigian’s early family life gave him a solid background in folk music. His father Nishan was a native of Malatia, while his mother Angeline (nee Ajemian) hailed from an “aristocratic family” from Constantinople.

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Nishan’s father, Mardig Khantzian, had owned a metal factory in Malatia and was well-off. Two brothers named Bedros and Thomas Vosbikian worked for him, learning the tools they would later parlay into their Philadelphia manufacturing firm, which became Quickie Corporation. The close friendship between the Vosbikian and Mardigian families would later prove decisive for Hank Mardigian’s music career.

Nishan took the name “Mardigian” upon arriving with Angeline in the US in 1921 and settling in Philadelphia, alongside a large community of Malatia Armenians which included Bedros and Thomas Vosbikian and other family friends who had survived the Armenian Genocide. Along with Henry (Hank), the Mardigians had two other children, Charles and Elizabeth.

It was growing up in the 1930s in Philadelphia that Mardigian’s relationship with music began.

“Every Saturday, they would come over our house,” he related in our 2018 interview, “my father, Bedros Papi [Vosbikian], Tomas Papi [Vosbikian] and Hapet Papi [Hovnanian] – I loved him, he was my favorite man – they would sit there, and they would have mezza and they drink and they would play…Tomas Papi played violin, Bedros Papi played clarinet, another one played dumbeg, and they sang and they drank…

“And me and Jimmy [Vosbikian, whose father was Thomas] were there every Sunday. They would have rakhi. My father and Hapet Papi made the best rakhi in the city of Philadelphia. And they would stink the whole house up for 3-4 days, and you couldn’t take a bath because they’d have the bathtub tied up.”

Training with the Original Vosbikian Band

In 1939, Bedros Vosbikian’s three sons, Sam, Mike and Joe started the original Vosbikian Band with Hank Mardigian’s brother, Charlie, and one or two other family friends. This pioneering band set the stage for all the other Armenian-American bands of the 1950s and 60s. Sons of immigrants, the first American-born generation carried forward the roots music their parents had brought with them from Anatolia into a dance-oriented genre that later became known as “kef music.”

At the age of 14, just after WWII broke out, Mardigian and his best friend, Jimmy Vosbikian, got their first musical instruments at school. Jimmy was first in line and grabbed a clarinet. Hank wanted a clarinet too, but there were none left. He took a saxophone instead. The boys quickly became interested in the jazz music popular in the 1940s. But Jimmy’s older first cousin Sam Vosbikian had other plans. “We all lived a block away from each other, and Sam used to bring his mother over, and the banjo over, and say ‘forget about that, you’re Armenian, you’re going to play Armenian music, that’s not for you.’” Banjo? At the time of the Great Depression, the oud was scarce, and the banjo was a common substitute for pickup bands. This would become Hank Mardigian’s first instrument on which he learned to play Armenian music.

Instead of the banjo, though, Mardigian would play saxophone when Sam Vosbikian recruited the wo younger boys to fill the spots of his brothers, Mike and Joe Vosbikian, who had been drafted and shipped out to Europe. Mike Vosbikian had played sax, so Mardigian was needed on that instrument while Sam switched to playing an oud which he had recently obtained, and Jimmy took Sam’s old spot as clarinetist.

The lineup of oud, clarinet, saxophone, and two dumbegs which was established during those years would become standard for most Armenian-American dance bands in the 1950s and early 60s. But when the older boys came home from the war, Mardigian became “expendable” as Mike Vosbikian resumed saxophone duties and newcomer pianist/vocalist Steve Ajdaharian, ironically introduced to the band by Mardigian, was added to the roster. The bandstand was too crowded and Hank Mardigian was out of the music for several years.

Birth of the Gomidas Band

Mardigian, whose family attended St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church in West Philadelphia, was a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) growing up. In 1949 a friend named Johnny Kitabjian and a group of fellow AYF members were trying to start a new band, and they invited Mardigian to their practice session at the old St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in North Philadelphia.

“I told them to wrap it up,” Mardigian laughed. The group was unwieldy, had too many instrumentalists, and one fellow was even trying to follow along on a trombone. But with Mardigian’s help, the band got a little more organized and by 1950 adopted the name “Gomidas Band,” which was suggested by Kitabjian’s mother. The original band included two clarinets (George Mgrdichian and Roupen Gureghian), two saxophones (Kitabjian and Mardigian), Johnny Mukhalian on oud, Roger Mgrdichian on dumbeg, and apparently had as many as 8 members at one point.

When the Korean war started, oudist Mukhalian and founder-saxophonist Kitabjian were both drafted, and so was Mardigian. The latter was injured and returned to the States in 1951. By this time he had obtained a rather expensive oud and was itching to play. With Mukhalian and Kitabjian out of the band, it was Mardigian’s turn not only assume leadership of the band, but also to become the star oudist, like his mentor Sam Vosbikian. As far as Mardigian was concerned, he was the only one in the band who knew how to play the instrument. But George Mgrdichian, at the time known as a 16-year-old clarinet prodigy, had other ideas.

“You can’t lead the band sitting down,” Mgrdichian objected. He had a point. Mardigian had positioned himself as the bandleader, but oudists traditionally played sitting down at the time. Mgrdichian begged the older musician to show him how to tune the instrument and some basic technique, and Mardigian complied. But when he refused to allow his teenage bandmate to take the expensive instrument home with him, the defiant Mgrdichian went out and bought a ukulele to practice on! Mardigian assumed that by the next band practice they could move on from this little escapade, but when Mgrdichian showed up, picked up the oud, and started playing melodies, the bandleader relented. “Go ahead, take it,” he said. In six months, “he was playing chords and things, he was a natural,” Mardigian recalled.

The Peak of Armenian Band Music

“The 1950s and 60s were the peak of Armenian band music in the United States,” Mardigian stated. “Who could imagine that you could get thousands of Armenian kids to hear a band play. Not hundreds, thousands!”

“New England was the best,” he added, also commenting that “the Vosbikian Band were the innovators, everyone else copied them.”

The Gomidas Band had a long way to go to get out of the shadow of the Vosbikians, however. The success they had was due to the oud virtuosity of George Mgrdichian and the organizational skills and musical ideas of Hank Mardigian.

In addition to Mgrdichian on oud and Mardigian on saxophone, the band included George’s brother Roger Mgrdichian on dumbeg, George Terkanian on dumbeg and as primary vocalist, and Roupen Gureghian on clarinet. Since the band had members from all the Armenian churches and groups in Philadelphia, Mardigian went to each church and told them the group would play one free job a year for their community.  Although most of the musicians were AYF members, their first New Year’s Eve job was actually a party for the Armenian Democratic League (ADL), Mardigian recalled. They also played often for the Greek Orthodox Youth Association (GOYA) as well as Assyrian conventions and weddings.

The band was gaining popularity up and down the East Coast – they headlined the ACYOA’s annual convention, in 1954 in Troy, NY – but Mardigian was still itching to differentiate their sound from the popular Vosbikians. The breaking point was a 1956 gig in New York.

“Mike Vosbikian used to book the jobs, he booked two on the same day. Called me up and said, ‘can you help us out.’ One was in New York City, the other in North Jersey. We’ll each play half of the job. We [the Gomidas Band] got to play the original one in Audubon Hall.” The two bands switched events halfway through the night and passed each other in the Holland Tunnel, according to Mardigian. Apparently they sounded so much alike that no one was the wiser.

In 1957 Armenian music started to make some small appearances on the pop charts, starting with the 45 single Harem Dance. That track, originally recorded in Detroit, had been entitled Arax Bar but was renamed when New York’s Kapp Records bought it, in keeping with the exoticism of the era’s marketing. Mardigian wanted to jump on the recording trend and he faced the same issues of record companies who wanted to sell Armenian kef music through exoticism, sexploitation, and orientalism. He had an appointment with the infamous Morris Levy of Roulette Records, which was owned by the mafia. Levy asked him the meaning of the name “Gomidas Band.”

The ensuing record, “Oriental Delight,” which was released in early 1958, was one of the earliest LPs of Armenian-American kef music.

In order to differentiate their sound, Mardigian played mandolin on several tracks on the album. The record also marked George Mgrdichian’s breakthrough into oud solo pieces.

The band continued to grow in popularity as gigs opened up at the Jersey Shore resort town of Asbury Park, which was exceedingly popular with Armenians in that era, as well as the similar resort areas of the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York.

Udi Hrant in particular approached Mardigian and asked them about his fantastic young oudist. “We played in the Catskills one summer. And Udi Hrant hears George play and he comes over and says, ‘Who is this, I’d like him to stay with me.’ He stayed the whole summer and Udi Hrant played violin and George played the oud.” Hrant mentored Mgrdichian and even invited him to come to Istanbul, which did not come to pass. The famed New York-born oudist Chick Ganimian of the “Nor-Ikes” band was a rival who became a friend. Altercations between Ganimian and his rivals, the Gomidas Band and the Vosbikians, sometimes got to the level of fisticuffs. But at the end of his life, Ganimian, who struggled with alcoholism and died young, was taken care of by Mardigian, who took charge of his finances until his ex-wife stepped in.

Hank Mardigian’s 1958 LP, “Oriental Delight”

Finally On Top

By the early 1960s, George Mgrdichian was attending Curtis Institute of Music, and Mardigian wanted his second shot at making an album. By this time, the band had a new clarinet player, Ray Mirijanian. Mardigian didn’t want to involve Roulette Records with the new recording, though he was still under contract.

The resulting album, “Portraits of the Near East,” (1961), “put us over the top,” Mardigian said. He clearly viewed it as his crowning achievement. Because they used their original name of “Gomidas Band,” the record company was apparently none the wiser having originally contracted with them as “the Hank Mardigian Sextet.” In addition, the cover art featured historic photos of Western Armenia, including images of everyday people and village life, which was not part of the typical marketing for Middle Eastern music at the time.

Soon after the album was released, Mardigian received a call for a booking that he couldn’t meet. “I said ‘we’re booked that day, why don’t you call the Vosbikian Band.’ They said, ‘we don’t want the Vosbikian Band, we want the Gomidas Band.’ The phone almost dropped out of my hand.” Mardigian had made it – the public considered him on the same level as his mentors, the Vosbikian Band, who were the most popular group in the community at the time. “I never told anyone in the band that, I didn’t want anyone to get swell heads,” he stated.

In 1962 the 5-year contract with Roulette Records was set to run out. The company decided to exercise their contractual option to force Mardigian to record three more full albums. Mardigian decided to make one album of Armenian, one of Greek, and one of Turkish songs. “Back in those days, an Armenian band was forbidden to play Turkish music,” Mardigian remembered. “But I noticed in New England some were playing Greek. And in New York, there was a band, the Nor-Ikes, who played 90-percent Turkish.” The three albums that were made were entitled “Rendezvous in Armenia,” “Rendezvous in Greece,” and “Rendezvous in Istanbul.” In particular, “Rendezvous in Armenia” stands out as one of the band’s achievements in terms of Armenian folkloric music, and one of the easiest to track down today from a used record dealer. Some of the songs, such as the Western Armenian folk dance Ousge Gou Kas, owe their preservation and continued popularity to the efforts of the Gomidas Band.

The End of an Era

The tumultuous days of the late 1960s were also a turning point for Armenian bands. By 1967, George Mgrdichian was set to graduate Juilliard. He and Mardigian clashed when the latter wanted to add a guitarist, Skippy Krepelka, to the lineup. Mgrdichian complained that another string instrument would interfere with his oud playing. Robert Afarian, a Syrian-born singer who was popular with kef groups at the time as a specialist in singing Turkish and who had a slightly shady reputation, approached the Mgrdichian brothers with a plot to take over the band.

George played a few more jobs in the summer of 1967, but his career in kef music seemed finished. George Mgrdichian, rather than teaming up with Afarian, pursued his now-lauded solo career, with his first concert at Town Hall in New York City that year. He was said to have “brought the oud out of the cabarets and onto the concert stage.” Of course, he couldn’t have done it without Mardigian. New stars like Onnik Dinkjian, John Berberian, Hachig Kazarian, and Richard Hagopian dominated the Armenian kef music scene. The era of the 1950s-style “name bands” was over, and nobody wanted saxophone in Armenian folk music anymore.

But Mardigian’s friends didn’t forget him. In 1976 he received a call for an event in Atlantic City. The promoters wanted him to form a “Hank Mardigian All-Stars” group. Since George Mgrdichian was busy doing a concert in Lincoln Center, Mardigian recruited New York’s John Tarpinian on oud, with old friends Haig Hagopian on clarinet, Albert Santerian and Joe Vosbikian on dumbegs. Seven hundred and fifty people attended the affair even though Mardigian had been out of the business for nearly ten years. Mardigian even ended up forming a group in his later years that played strictly in Philadelphia, with Greg Vosbikian on oud, Souren Baronian on clarinet, and World Music figure Rowan Storm on percussion and vocals. The group booked 28 jobs in one year without leaving Philadelphia.

A Consummate Musician and Gentleman

Hank Mardigian was married as a young man to Eugenie Jihanshah, from a New York Armenian family, with whom he had two daughters. After his wife’s passing, he remarried to her good friend Juanita Arce, of Puerto Rican heritage, who wholeheartedly embraced the Armenian community and culture. This author remains indebted to Juanita for her hospitality and her facilitation of our interview with her beloved Hank in 2018.

As Hank’s Armenian name was Hampartzoum, he used the song “Hampartzoum Yayla” as the Gomidas Band’s theme song. The strains of this sprightly tune recalling Armenian folklore originated in the opera “Anoush,” composed by Armen Tigranian, but Mardigian and the other kef musicians have long been fond of playing it in the rhythm of a joyful Western Armenian shourchbar (line dance). It is hard to imagine another way to celebrate the life of Hank Mardigian than to send him off with hampartzoum yayla, yayla jan yayla, ser orer yayla, yayla jan yayla….

Hank Mardigian was predeceased by his first wife Jeannie, and survived by his wife Juanita, his daughters Dawn Semola (Vince) and Lisa Nercesian (Michael Kalaitzis); grandchildren Valeri Bradley (Matt Keim), Keith Nercesian (Celeste DiBenedetto), Adrina Bradley and Scott Bradley, Jr., great-grandchildren Ani, Henry, and Blaise, and 5 nieces. In lieu of flowers, donations to Hank’s memory may be made to Holy Trinity Armenian Church (Cheltenham Pennsylvania), or the Disabled American Veterans, 5000 Wissahickon Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144.

YouTube Links:

See the following YouTube link for Ousge Gou Kas, a rare Western Armenian folk song preserved by Hank Mardigian and the Gomidas Band. Hank can be heard playing mandolin on this track with George Mgrdichian playing chords on the oud, a rare approach in this style of music. The vocals are by Roger Mgrdichian.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHnh7WsXsjU

See the following YouTube link for “Come My Sweet One” (Yeg, Yeg, Anoushiges) featuring Hank Mardigian on mandolin and George Terkanian’s whistling!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMItTErls9w

See the following YouTube link for “Kismet” an original arrangement by Hank Mardigian in the Middle Eastern influenced style of the 1950s which features his saxophone along with George Mgrdichian’s oud and the rest of the band

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly1R4voH1cU&list=OLAK5uy_mby2A9uUFFggjAulpN8hQAK9ILJtOapqY&index=8

See the following YouTube link for the Vosbikian Band’s performance of Hank Mardigian’s theme song, which is the “kef” version of Hampartsoum Yayla

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ozr57ylLNY&list=OLAK5uy_n87hyvTjArxm9Zz7_5FeK-X9ea9Bi7Yaw&index=2

 

 

 

 

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