Hovsep Joseph Bedrosian playing his prized zourna (W.P.A. California Folk Music Project collection, AFC 1940/001, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

Celebrating Six Generations of One Family’s Traditions in Fresno

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(This story celebrates six generations of one Armenian family’s traditions, music and food in Fresno. In a story originally written by Harout Arakelian for their Sound Archive series, the Armenian Museum of America celebrates these talented musicians and their contributions to recorded music history. Much of the text presented in this article is sourced from Arakelian’s piece at https://www.armenianmuseum.org/sound-archive)

FRESNO — On August 17, 1940 in the Central Valley of California, the Bedrosian family of musicians, led by Hovsep Joseph Bedrosian recorded four unique songs on the privately owned record label GME Records that were collected by famed ethnographer, Sidney Robertson Cowell. The Armenian Museum of America’s Sound Archive celebrates these musicians and their contributions to recorded music.

That weekend, the Bedrosian family gathered to enjoy music, singing, dancing, and traditional Armenian food. Hovsep was joined in the self-recording session by his son Avedis (Harry) and his cousin Bagdasar Bedrosian. Much of the information related to these self-recordings is captured in the grooves of these discs as each song begins with a brief introduction by Avedis in Armenian and English. While Avedis is given the title of “director,” these recordings highlight the musical mastery found within Hovsep and his prized zourna (or zurna, zerna).

The zourna, a double reed wind instrument, was not frequently recorded commercially in North America. Its significance is intertwined in the early Armenian-American experience with the most noteworthy performer being virtuoso Hovsep Bedrosian. Born in 1857 in Verin Khokh (Upper Khokh, a part of the village Khokh in the Southwest region of Kharpert, known for its fine wines and davoul [base drum] players), it is likely that Hovsep learned how to play the instrument in his youth before emigrating to the United States  in 1893.

Both Avedis and Bagdasar were born in Verin Khokh in 1893. Hovsep’s wife, Youghaper, and son Avedis joined him in America in 1907. On these recordings, the local accents from that specific region can be heard, making the recordings fascinating not only to music aficionados but also to linguists. While these recordings are the only known commercial recordings by Hovsep and his family, it is possible that his performance career began much earlier. According to one of Hovsep’s granddaughters, Jane Gamoian, an accomplished performer of Armenian and Middle Eastern dance and currently the director of the Temple Dancers for Daughters of the Nile in Fresno, Joseph was hard-working and industrious, and initially worked at the “Krikorian Circus” in Massachusetts, and then as a musician for the P. T. Barnum Circus.

This information is substantiated by the field notes of Sidney Robertson Cowell. As part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the New Deal, Sidney Robertson Cowell was responsible for the California Folk Music Project. (The WPA was an ambitious employment and infrastructure program created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, during the bleakest days of the Great Depression.) This New Deal project was organized and directed by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Northern California Work Projects Administration. Sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, and cosponsored by the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive), this undertaking was one of the earliest ethnographic field projects to document European, Slavic, Middle Eastern, and English- and Spanish-language folk music in one region of the United States.

Hovsep Joseph Bedrosian: Fresno’s Master Zourna Player

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Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Hovsep and other Armenians in the Fresno  area. The United States Library of Congress has the field recordings available and among her field notes is a quote by a Mr. Martin who says that the zourna is played in “all the best circuses!”

Listen to these recordings at: https://www.armenianmuseum.org/hovsep-joseph-bedrosian

Also see:

https://www.loc.gov/collections/sidney-robertson-cowell-northern-california-folk-music/about-this-collection/

During the four tunes, Avedis is constantly heard referencing people in attendance, interacting with the musicians and adding to the festive atmosphere. With disc GME #1 titled “Highleh” (or Haleh/Halay – a dance), he informs us of the location, the date and the musicians. When we put the needle to the record and the scratchy sounds dance through the speakers, a voice is heard. Avedis, the director of the session says: “Aysor Okosdos dasne yote hazar ine hariur karasun, chaloghnere Hovsep yev Bagdasar Bedrosian…”

According to the information on disc GME #2 titled “Eachayak,” (that means three feet while the tune is a four step dance), a home recording device was provided by Dr. George Elgin, a resident of Chicago who visited the Kandarian family in Fresno. As a matter of fact, for GME #3, the tune “Lavook” was recorded as a request by Markar Kandarian. Avedis, endearingly in his half-English half-Armenian says they couldn’t turn Markar down. The short introductions that open each song are charming and unique ways to document the Armenian language. The variety of the tunes that are all dance numbers and the remarkable zourna playing of Hovsep represent a dynamic musical culture and how the music from a small village named Verin Khokh was transferred to the fertile farmlands of Fresno.

“In the 1940s in Fresno, Saturday nights were Keyma and Lamb Chop Nights, with music, dancing, and singing at the family home. My late mother, Mary Perch, said Sunday afternoons were reserved for gatherings of the neighbors and family members who enjoyed Grandpa Hovsep playing his zourna, with the family joining in with music and dancing,” says Melene Ouzounian, one of Hovsep’s six great granddaughters who lives in Fresno. “During his lifetime, Grandpa Hovsep (who passed away in 1949) was insistent (and particular) about the kinds of foods he would eat or drink. He loved Armenian food that was prepared specifically by my grandmother Beatrice. What’s amazing is that my gifted and talented grandmother cooked and baked for eleven people, three meals per day, plus snacks and beverages for five young growing children, mother and fathers-in-law, and two sisters-in-laws.”

“Every week, one hundred pounds of flour was used by the Bedrosian family to make their own lavash bread (cracker bread). Mixed by hand, left to rise, rolled out very thin, cooked on an ogagh (grill), and dried. Lavash was eaten dry with their soups and stews, but lightly moistened with some water to eat along with fresh cheese or as a sandwich. Today our daughters in Fresno work with yeast, and they can make anything. They make homemade dough for pizza and include their children (ten in total!) in that process. I am so proud of all of them,” adds Melene.

Here are a few of Hovsep Bedrosian’s favorite recipes from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that Melene and her extended family still enjoy today:

Meatless Keyma (Eetch)

This tasty dish can be served as a meal or as an appetizer with Armenian bread, cheese and olives.

Ingredients:

2 medium white onions, chopped and sautéed in 1 cube butter

2 cups fine (#1) bulghur (cracked wheat)

2 cans tomato paste

3 cans water

Cayenne pepper, sugar, and salt to taste

2 small white onions, finely chopped for topping

1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped for topping

Preparation:

In a large pot, sauté 2 white onions in 1 cube of butter until golden brown. Add the tomato paste, water, and spices, and cook on medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring. Remove pot from heat; add the bulghur, stir, and set  aside. Cover pot and let ingredients set for one hour or longer.

Spread ingredients on a large platter, top with chopped onions and parsley, and serve with pita bread or cracker bread.

Serves 4.

Shish Kebob

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds leg of lamb or filet of beef

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup onions, chopped

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

1/2 cup red wine, to taste

2 large onions, cut into wedges for skewers

2 large green or red bell peppers for skewers, cut into pieces, or choice

of vegetable (zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

Bone leg of lamb (traditional kebob), cut into cubes. Place lamb cubes in a large bowl; add the olive oil, chopped onions, parsley, red wine, and salt  and pepper to taste. Toss a few times, cover, and marinate overnight.

Cut large onions into wedges. Alternate lamb cubes on skewers with onion  wedges and bell peppers (or choice of vegetables). Grill over medium heat to desired doneness, turning the skewers every few minutes. Serve with Armenian rice or bulghur pilaf, salad, and homemade yogurt, if desired.

Serves 4.

Bulghur Pilaf

Ingredients:

1 cup #4 bulghur

1/2 cup vermicelli noodles, crushed

1/2 cube butter

2 cups water or chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, chopped and browned in butter to golden

 

Preparation:

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the bulghur and vermicelli, stir, and cook for 5-8 minutes on medium heat, tossing so vermicelli does not burn. Add the remaining ingredients except the sautéed onions. Bring  ingredients to a full boil, cover, and cook for 20-22 minutes on medium low heat.

While pilaf is cooking, sauté the small onion in 2 tablespoons of butter until golden brown. When pilaf is ready, stir in the sautéed onions and serve.

Serves 4.

The Armenian Museum of America

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The Armenian Museum of America Sound Archive features selections from the museum’s roughly 3000 disc collection of early Armenian recordings and musical ephemera. Explore the links below to listen to songs, learn about pivotal musicians and see images of original records. Special thanks to Jesse Kenas Collins, Harry Kezelian, and Harout Arakelian whose ongoing contributions of research and consultation have been critical to assembling the writings presented here. Go to:

https://www.armenianmuseum.org/sound-archive

https://www.armenianmuseum.org/hovsep-joseph-bedrosian

Materials relating to Hovsep Bedrosian from Sidney Robertson Cowell’s California Folk Music Project can be found on the Library of Congress website: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, DC USA 20540-4610 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.afc/folklife.home

https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Joe+Bedrosian&new=true&st=https://www.loc.gov/item/2017701179/

https://www.loc.gov/collections/sidney-robertson-cowell-northern-california-folk-music/articles-and-essays/the-ethnographic-experience-sidney-robertson-cowell-in-northern-california/

https://www.americaslibrary.gov/sh/oddball/sh_oddball_wind_2_e.html

https://www.armenianmuseum.org/on-the-edge

Bedrosian Family Traditions and Recipes Cookbook

Melene Ouzounian is the author of a commemorative cookbook featuring 800 family recipes in memory of her beloved mother, Mary Perch, Hovsep’s granddaughter, and her family. It is available for purchase at $25.00 each, plus $5.00 postage. To order, e-mail Melene at:  meleneouz@aol.com.

Special thanks to Fresno’s Melene Ouzounian and Jane Gamoian for their family recipes, photos, memories, and information for this story. Some recipes from Hovsep Bedrosian’s granddaughter, the late Mary Perch, were featured in The Armenian Mirror-Spectator Newspaper in September 2021. See: https://mirrorspectator.com/2021/09/09/fresnos-mary-perch-beloved-matriarch-
and-dedicated-community-volunteer/

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