Armenian musician to share cultural heritage with performance

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published January 13, 2016

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FARMINGTON HILLS — During the 1915 Armenian genocide, about 1.5 million of Turkey’s Armenians were killed, with many others forcibly removed from the country by the early 1920s, when the massacres and deportations ended.

In 1915, Turkish government leaders devised a plan to remove and massacre the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire. There were believed to be about 2 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the massacre.

Those who fled the atrocities took with them many things, including music and instruments not to be forgotten.

“Why is that significant for music? When the refugees and survivors fled, those that lived, they took with them the clothes on their back — and also took with them their music and culture,” Armenian-American musician Ara Topouzian said. “This is something that has survived 2,100 years — past genocide. I want the music to survive for my children and my children’s children. All of our music tells a story; it is a very rich part of our history and something I want to see preserved.”

Topouzian, of Farmington Hills, has performed the kanun, a 76-string lap harp, at music festivals and venues across the United States.

He will perform back at home during the Evening of Armenian Music and Culture at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Farmington Players Barn Theatre, 32332 W. 11 Mile Road.

Hosted by the Cultural Arts Division, the event will feature the Ara Topouzian Ensemble.

Topouzian’s traditional musical performance maintains his Armenian heritage and has grown to include music from throughout the Middle East, as well as jazz, fusion, new age and blues, according to a press release.

“I play … the grandaddy of the piano,” Topouzian said. “It goes all the way back to the fifth century. It is still played quite often, but throughout Armenia and the Middle East. It was an instrument that I always loved and I picked it up a little bit later in life, when I was in college.”

Topouzian said that when he would see musicians play the kanun, he became enthralled.

“That, in turn, led to my wanting to pick up an instrument,” he added. “Depending on what region of the Middle East, some of them (kanuns) are bigger, some of them are smaller. But I have always been captivated by the sound it makes. It is a very full sound.”

Topouzian, who calls his craft a professional hobby because he doesn’t perform full time, said he wanted to play in Farmington Hills as a way to give back. Event funds will be donated to the Cultural Arts Division.

“It kind of came about because I’m the Artist in Residence for the city of Farmington Hills, and I offered (to perform) because I don’t think it has been done that often,” he said. 

Topouzian was the 2015 Artist in Residence, a post that is nomination based. Winners are selected annually by a jury of past winners and professionals in the community, according to Cultural Arts Coordinator Rachel Timlin.

Over the past summer, Topouzian visited art and music camps at Heritage Park to perform and educate the campers about Armenian music, she said.

“He wanted to share Armenian music and its history with the Farmington area while at the same time benefiting the Cultural Arts Division,” Timlin said.

Funds raised at the upcoming concert will offset costs to produce the annual Festival of the Arts at the Costick Center.

“We are thrilled to have such a wealth of creative talent in our community and very happy to highlight the talents of Ara Topouzian,” she said.

Topouzian was awarded a 2012 Kresge Arts in Detroit artist fellowship, an unrestricted $25,000 competitive fellowship,  for his mastery of the kanun.

He was also awarded a $12,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant from the James L. Knight Foundation to produce a one-hour film titled

“Guardians of Music.” It features people in metro Detroit who played Armenian music in the ’40s and ’50s, and showcases photographs, film archives and newspaper clippings used to promote Armenian music in clubs and dance halls.

Topouzian said he is looking at keeping a musical tradition alive.

“I look at it as I’m carrying on the tradition,” he said. “I would love this tradition to be carried forward into the next generation for them to play.”

He added that it is becoming more difficult for the music to be preserved.

“My father’s generation, they are all in their 80s and … early 90s — that is the generation that loved this music the most, and they are passing away. So as every generation moves on, it is becoming that much more difficult, I think, for the music to stay preserved.”

Tickets cost $15 for all ages and are available at recreg.fhgov.com, by calling (248) 473-1848 or at the Costick Center, 28600 W. 11 Mile Road.

Staff Writer Terry Oparka contributed to this report.