Peter Davidian

Peter Davidian: An Australian-Armenian Master of Indian Music

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YEREVAN/OCEAN SHORES, Australia — Peter Davidian (born in 1958) is an Australian/Armenian composer and sitar player with a musical career extending for half a century. He has studied music from age of eight, and has become proficient for sitar, guitar, harmonium, drumkit, darbuka and tabla. In the 1980s, he studied the sitar and Indian music theory with Ustad Ghulam Qadir Khan of the Jaipur Gharana school in India. He has taken part in numerous musical projects and events, including recitals, film soundtracks, studio recordings and education. Davidian also a composer with more than 10 albums featuring sitar, Indian, Armenian and western musical genres. His most recent albums are “Instrumentalism,” “Artsakh,” “The Armenia Suite” and “Urartu.”

 Dear Peter, there are two basic music traditions in India, northern and southern. The specialists say that very rare musicians master both traditions. What tradition do you follow?

My studies of Indian classical music and of sitar, are related to the North Indian system, known as Hindustani music. This style is a combination of Persian Classical Music and the ancient southern Indian system known as Carnatic music. This has suited my own history, as my Armenian family had a long history in New Julfa, Iran (Persia) and then in India, South East Asia, before arriving in Australia after World War II.

As about the point that few musicians master both traditions of Indian music — yes, only a rare musician could accomplish this, as they would have to master the different use of musical phrasing, rhythmic techniques, decoration of notes and understanding of the two systems of Raga. It is also a matter of geography, as Hindustani Raga music is found in the north of India, while Carnatic music is in the south and is a purer form of the ancient Vedic India. A more common situation is Hindustani and Carnatic musicians drawing on certain characteristics to embellish their performance in either style. Pure Carnatic music is usually only found in southern India in areas like Tamil Nadu.

Sitar music is very meditative. I always think that sitar players are very harmonious people – am I right?

Trying to keep a balanced and calm outlook is an attribute we aspire to. In India it is regarded as Nada Yoga, the union to God through sound/music. I have experienced this phenomenon many times in Armenia too. The music of the motherland, the beauty of the mountains and the incredible spiritual state of mind when sitting in ancient places, like Tatev, Geghard, Sanahin, etc. Of course, as a father and musician, who has seven children, staying calm and not becoming upset by daily stresses of life and finances, has certainly been challenging!! As an Armenian, I can become sad when reflecting on the hardships, disasters and wars that have beset our people. But our general optimism, survival instinct and our resolute nature to get on with living are things to be very proud of.

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Is your devotion to sitar connected to your family ties with India?

Yes, there is certainly continuity in that. My grandparents, Carapiet and Rose (Vartuhi), both attended Armenian schools in Calcutta, having both been born in Persia. Also, my great-grandfather, Marcar and great-grand-uncle, Mesrope, were Armenian priests that came from New Julfa to Calcutta and Singapore, for the church services there. Mesrope was a priest in India and Singapore. Apparently when he returned to New Julfa he spent the rest of his life as a traveling ashugh. For me, the sitar has become my main instrument of choice, after 40-plus years of rigorous practice techniques and performances in Australia, Europe, Asia and Armenia. It satisfies my need for musical discipline and spiritual satisfaction. I hope that a little of this can be experienced by my listening audience.

You are a descendent of Julfa Armenians who spread through various countries of Asia. Our readers will be interested to know Davidian family saga.

My ancestors were from Julfa, Nakhijevan, and were part of the mass forced migration of Armenians from this region by Shah Abbas of Persia in the first decade of the 1600’s. They crossed the Arax River and journeyed to Isfahan, Persia, where they were given land across the river there, to build a new life in New Julfa. Many Armenians from New Julfa travelled further to India and Asia for work, business and perhaps a better life. There has been a long association of Armenians and Indians, that continues to this day. As outlined above my great-grandfather and his brother were Armenian priests that came and went from India and Singapore. My grandfather, Carapiet, was born in New Julfa, travelled to India for school, at the Armenian Philanthropic College in Calcutta. After some years in India, he then moved for work to Makassar, the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, where he worked in an export company, eventually as a manager and then became the British Vice Consul there. He had returned to New Julfa to marry my grandmother, Rose Gevorgyan, in 1920. They returned to Makassar where my mother Elsie was born in 1922. Unfortunately, tragedy struck two months later, when Rose was killed in a car accident. My grandfather eventually remarried Rose Edgarian of the Edgar shipping family. They had two sons, my uncles, Ronald and Arnold. In 1942, more tragedy arrived, with the Japanese military invading the Dutch East Indies during World War II. My family’s comfortably established life came to an end. They were all imprisoned in jungle prison-of-war camps, for the next 3 1/2 years. Miraculously they survived the extreme hardships, disease and poor diet until the end of the war, with the Australian army freeing them from the prisons.

My father, Reginald Allen, originally from an Irish and English ship building family, was one of these soldiers. My family eventually repatriated to Australia, after losing their house and possessions, to start a new life. My mother married Reginald, in Sydney in 1952, and they had two sons, my brother Ross and myself. More tragedy for our family arrived in 1964, when my father died, from long term health issues related to five years of active duty in WWII. At the time we were living with my Armenian grandparents, and so now we continued living with them for many years.

I grew up in an Armenian household in Sydney, Australia, with regular Armenian food, mixed with some Indian, Persian and Indonesian dishes. My family spoke many languages, including, of course, Armenian, English, Malay and Dutch. We had music from all these cultures in our history and attended the Armenian Church in Surry Hills and then Chatswood, Sydney for special occasions.

Peter Davidian

How and when did your connection with Armenian music began?

I would have first heard Armenian Church music as a baby and young child at the Armenian Church in Surry Hills, and later at the new Chatswood Church. Growing up in the 1960s in Australia did not provide much exposure to Armenian music, only some Soviet-era vinyl LPs that we had in our home, of folkloric music and music of Komitas and Sayat-Nova. I still have these recordings, and cherish them dearly. Later as a musician I became aware of the duduk, through film recordings and music of Djivan Gasparyan, and the music of Gurdjieff, and of course, Charles Aznavour. As I am also a jazz drummer, I knew of New York drummer Paul Motian, and also the music of the band Night Ark. In today’s modern world we can enjoy the music at our fingertips!

I have been able to record my own instrumental music over the years, blending Armenian, Indian and some western music traditions. From my first album “Sandalwood Dreaming,” through to my recent work, in 2020 I recorded music entitled “Artsakh” after my travels to Armenia and shortly after the terrible war. All profits were donated to children of soldiers who gave their lives protecting the motherland. Since then I have recorded music for the Armenia Suite, which will be released under the title “Urartu” in 2024, again reflecting musically, my further journeys in Armenia.

We met last November in Yerevan after your brilliant concert. You discovered your motherland relatively lately. Do you feel a certain attachment to the country?

Yes, it was wonderful to meet at the Russian-Armenian University Concert in Yerevan with my Davidian Ensemble. It is always a great honor to perform in the Motherland and to such appreciative audiences. On that occasion we had just returned from Areni and Yeghegis in the south of Armenia, playing our music for Artsakh refugee families. If we can bring just a little musical joy to our people, who have really been through difficult times, then the smiles on their faces is something I will never forget.

I first came to Yerevan in January 2019, with my family, to honor my mother’s passing. She was never able to travel here, as we lived in the diaspora, on the other side of the world. As soon as we arrived by air, the whole plane applauded that we had touched down on our sacred Motherland, with a view of Mt. Ararat to complete the picture. I really felt that I had arrived home, after so many generations have passed! An incredible feeling. My wife Sonia, said I didn’t sleep for days, as I was so excited. Since that first trip, I have returned four more times, and travelled across the country, north, south, east and west and have loved every moment, met so many beautiful people, joined in music with world class musicians and enjoyed the food of this great country.

I have to give special thanks to Aslanian family for their abundant hospitality and travels, Indian Armenian Friendship Group for their concerts and generosity, Rananjay, Ruzanna, Veronika, Karen, Roza and all the others. Avag Magaryan world class blul player, that joins me in the ensemble, percussionists, Orestis, Levon, John and Simon, touring duduk master Arsen Petrosyan, for our collaborations and dance teachers Kristina and Astghik, who I perform with. Also, the Waldorf Steiner School, on Saryan Street, who always welcome me to give recitals and workshops with the students.

The latest exciting news for me, is my meeting with oud musician, Tigrane Kazazian, and the recording of a new album, on my last days in Yerevan in December 2023. The weaving of our sitar and oud is a mesmerizing experience, and I believe quite unique. We are currently in post-production and will be releasing in 2024, with many concert performances planned.

I am very keen to return again to Armenia as soon as it is possible. My genetics have too strong a pull for me, to always return to the Motherland!

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