On October 24 I took advantage of the opportunity to see
perform live with his son Ara Dinkjian
in Istanbul. The concert
was one of the most emotional, inspiring musical experiences I’ve had thus far.
The entire performance from beginning to end was a tour de force.
Onnik is by far the greatest interpreter of Armenian
traditional and folk music alive today. He is now in his mid-80s and he still
passes for a man at least 20 years younger in terms of appearance and vitality.
I never recall him hearing him sing so well, not in performance and not on his
recordings (I have them all). Perhaps the clarity of his voice that night was
attributable to the sound system and acoustics of the hall. Most of the time,
when he does sing live, he does so in ballrooms and gymnasiums where you can’t
really hear anything since the sound is so muffled or distorted.
Onnik took to the stage on fire, wearing a silver gray
double-breasted suit adorned by his signature French cuffs. The night after his
Istanbul concert he performed in Vienna with the band, the same that played
behind him on the latest recording he made of songs from Dikranakert titled Diyarbekiri Hokin / Ermenice Diyarbakır Şarkıları
(which incidentally is by far the best
music project he has ever been a part of, not only due to his talent but also
to Udi Ara’s masterful arrangements).
also sang other old favorites, notably “Hey Oualla,” a song from an early
recording he made that still endures, and “Hay Herosneri Yerk,” which is an old
patriotic song that pays homage to monumental figures in the Armenian
revolutionary movement of the early 20th century. This song brought the house
down, despite that a large part of the audience was Turkish.
At one point nearly half way through the concert the
audience was so riled up by the music that dozens of people engaged in the
traditional line dancing through the hall’s aisles. So the vibe suddenly
transformed into the same spirit of the thousands of Armenian youth balls that
Onnik has performed at, mainly on the East Coast for at least forty years.
The concert closed with a gorgeous father and son
performance of “Garod,” a heartbreaking song that Onnik first recorded on his
Just For You album in the late 70s, and it also appeared on the enthralling Voice of Armenians - Live in Jerusalem
album from 2007. "Garod" is also incidentally the title of an excellent documentary available on DVD about Onnik and Ara
and their first visit to Diyarbakır.
I have trouble listening to “Garod” these days because I usually can’t get
through the song without breaking up. It is such an intense, morose song about
longing and lost love. Naturally, I began to weep last Saturday night. Just the
fact that I was there at all, combined with the somber mood of that ballad, was
all too much to take.
It was my first time hearing Udi Ara perform in concert.
Although I have listened to his recordings countless times the depth of his
music cannot fully be appreciated without seeing him play oud in person. The
concert opened with "Diyarbakır Peşrevi," the opening track and an instrumental
piece from Onnik’s latest record. While Onnik took a short break to catch his
breath Ara and the phenomenal ensemble played some favorites from his catalog,
such as “Picture,” the title track from the first Night Art album. “Picture”
was incidentally rearranged for the second The Secret Trio recording
, a sublime
masterpiece that was released at the beginning of this year. I have tremendous
admiration and respect for Udi Ara and his moving music, particularly his
original compositions, and I was privileged to meet him very briefly backstage.
He takes after his father as being a true gentleman, a very cordial, welcoming
person. I hope I’ll have a chance to discuss music with him soon.
It is a great pleasure to finally see Onnik perform on the international
stage. His credit as a world-class professional vocalist is long overdue, and
his extraordinary talent I believe has not been fully appreciated during much
of his career in the US. There isn’t anyone who can sing traditional and
popular Armenian songs like him, not with the same verve and deep-felt passion,
and certainly not with that rich tenor voice that becomes more intense with
age, like a fine Bordeaux.
I am thankful to Onnik for introducing me to
Armenian song when I was a little boy, in the days when I was obsessively
listening to his legendary album ONNIK that was recorded the same year I was
born. He was my hero then, and he still is to this day. I’m relieved that I
finally had the courage to tell him so as I embraced him Saturday night.
Labels: Arts and Entertainment, Music, Personal Experiences