Dawn of Diaspora Armenian Pop Music

By Boghos Shahmelikian, Translated and expanded by Vahe H. Apelian

The below article is last chapter of Boghos Shahmelikian’s "Յիշատակներ  Անցած Օրեր" ("Memories and Bygone Days"). The book, translated into English and expanded as “The Dawn of Armenian Pop Music”, will be published soon.—Editor

Not long after I arrived in the United States, Adiss [Lebanese-Armenian singer, bandleader Harmandian] offered me to play bass guitar in his band at the nightclub he owned. At the end of my first day’s performance as I was getting ready to go home and leave my guitar behind, Pierre, Adiss’ brother, who played the drums in the band, advised me to take my guitar with me and cautioned that it could get stolen.

For years I had played with The Five Fingers [band] at the La Fourmi [a restaurant in a Lebanese mountain resort]. All of us left our instruments at the open-air restaurant. The possibility that they may be stolen had never crossed our minds. Lebanon is a small country. It was the country where everyone knew everyone else.

By Boghos Shahmelikian, Translated and expanded by Vahe H. Apelian

The below article is last chapter of Boghos Shahmelikian’s "Յիշատակներ  Անցած Օրեր" ("Memories and Bygone Days"). The book, translated into English and expanded as “The Dawn of Armenian Pop Music”, will be published soon.—Editor

Not long after I arrived in the United States, Adiss [Lebanese-Armenian singer, bandleader Harmandian] offered me to play bass guitar in his band at the nightclub he owned. At the end of my first day’s performance as I was getting ready to go home and leave my guitar behind, Pierre, Adiss’ brother, who played the drums in the band, advised me to take my guitar with me and cautioned that it could get stolen.

For years I had played with The Five Fingers [band] at the La Fourmi [a restaurant in a Lebanese mountain resort]. All of us left our instruments at the open-air restaurant. The possibility that they may be stolen had never crossed our minds. Lebanon is a small country. It was the country where everyone knew everyone else.

Lebanon not only welcomed the survivors of the Genocide of the Armenians but it also integrated them in the social and political fabric of the country. Unhindered by unwarranted intrusion in their personal and communal lives, the Armenians prospered financially and thrived culturally. In the sectarian make-up of governance in Lebanon, the Armenian community is considered one of the largest and is constitutionally assured of representation in the government. The Armenians thus became not only a constituent of the political make-up of the country but also enriched the cosmopolitan culture of its society.

The 1960s and the first half of the 1970s marked the golden age of music in Lebanon, especially in Beirut. The Armenians contributed far more than their demographic share. Many of the musicians and the music bands that made Lebanon the entertainment capital of the Middle East were Armenian.

In summer the music bands and the singers entertaining the public in Lebanon’s famous mountain summer resorts–stretching from Dhour Shweir up to Mrouj–were almost all Armenian. In the center of Dhour Shweir, at the restaurant Le Centre, Vartivar Antossian sang with his Los Amores band. Right across it, at the Hawie restaurant, Adiss Harmandian sang accompanied by Jacques Kodjian and his band. Some 200 yards up the hill in a restaurant next to Hotel Kassouf, Ara Kekedjian sang accompanied by his band. Almost next to it, at the Homenetmen restaurant Varouj and his Days band performed every weekend. The La Fourmi restaurant wasn't far from it. The Five Fingers performed there. A little farther up the hill was the next summer resort of Bois de Bologne. Levon Katerjian sang there at the Samaha restaurant accompanied by his band. All these restaurants would be filled to capacity on weekends and the great majority of the customers were Armenian. The "Aztag" daily featured a cartoon, by Massis, depicting singer singing, “Who am I”, while the singer in the next restaurant sang, “Who are you?” In fact, while sitting in a restaurant one could hear the singer in the next.

In the late 1960s (the early 1970s), Alex Manougian was invited to Lebanon for the inauguration of a community center to be named after him. A dinner dance was held in his honor at Beirut's famed Hotel Phoenicia. The partitions between two large adjoining ballrooms were removed to accommodate the festivities. Almost all the prominent members of the Armenian community were present to pay homage to the great benefactor. The ballroom exuded exuberance. Only several years earlier, the Armenian community had commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Genocide of the Armenians in the stadium named after President Camille Chamoun. That somber event had become a psychological boost to the community as well. The community had realized that it had come a long way since the 1915-1923 ordeal and was thriving, felt prosperous and confident. An Italian music band and Adiss, who was at the pinnacle of his career, provided the evening’s entertainment. I accompanied Adiss and his band.

While, addressing the audience, a teary-eyed Alex Manougian said that Ashoogh Djeevani (Աշուղ Ջիւանի)  had gotten it all wrong when he had sang that "bad days, much like winter, come and go…”. It’s not only the bad days, Manougian said, but also the good and happy days are also ephemeral. His words were not meant to be cautionary but were uttered to reflect his joy at the moment. The words proved to be prophetic nonetheless. Civil war erupted in Lebanon not too long after and changed the course of the country and of the Diaspora forever. The heart and soul of the Armenian Diaspora, the Armenian community of Lebanon, much like its host country, was gravely wounded, dysfunctional and prone to large-scale emigration.

Almost all the musicians I have mentioned in this book had their debuts in Lebanon. Some of them eventually achieved worldwide acclaim. I have attempted to portray the era as completely as possible and their contributions to the golden age of Armenian pop music in Lebanon as objectively as I could. I pray readers found my narration not only unbiased but also entertaining and enjoyable.

I have been in the United States for over three decades. I often reminisce about the bygone days in Lebanon. Last but not least, I would like to note that along with the many musicians I mentioned in this book, I also remain indebted to Lebanon for making my youthful aspirations to be a musician and our collective experiences in music possible. In doing so Lebanon became the cradle that ushered the “Dawn of (Diaspora) Armenian Pop Music ”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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