Troy Chamber president films documentary on Armenian music

By: Terry Oparka | C&G Newspapers | Published March 12, 2015

 Ara Topouzian’s documentary film, “Guardians of Music,” depicts the Armenian music scene in Detroit during the ’40s and ’50s.

Ara Topouzian’s documentary film, “Guardians of Music,” depicts the Armenian music scene in Detroit during the ’40s and ’50s.

Armenian music likely would not be what most people think of when they think of the music that has made Detroit.

But it has.

Troy Chamber of Commerce President Ara Topouzian will share the culture and music of his Armenian heritage in a film he created and produced, which will air on Detroit Public Television March 16. 

According to the University of Virginia, Armenians settled in the Anatolian highlands, where some believe Noah’s Ark set down, as early as 7000 B.C. The university website states that “Armenian folk music, forged over centuries in the language and rituals of everyday life, traditionally accompanied everything from family celebrations to sowing fields to funerals, and remains a rich brew of historical elements.”

Topouzian, an Armenian-American Farmington Hills resident, has performed his kanun, a 76-string lap harp, at music festivals and venues across the United States. He was awarded a 2012 Kresge Arts in Detroit artist fellowship for his mastery of the harp, an unrestricted $25,000 competitive fellowship.

He was awarded a $12,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant  from the James L. Knight Foundation to produce the 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 the clubs and dance halls. It aims to show the diversity and vibrancy of the Detroit multicultural music scene during that time.

Topouzian said the kanun predates the piano and goes back to the fifth century.

“The musicians played in their leisure time for the most part,” he said. “It’s because of them they kept the music alive for so many years. It’s my way of saying thank you.”

Topouzian’s film is part of a PBS special Armenian night event in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide and how the music survived, Topouzian said.

“Film is an important lens for examining the stories that shape our communities,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation in a prepared statement. “We hope that Detroiters will watch this film to celebrate Armenian culture and learn more about their shared histories.”

“Guardians of Music” is scheduled to be televised at 9:30 p.m., following the documentary titled “The Armenian Genocide” by Emmy Award-winner Andrew Goldberg. The documentary is the story of how over one million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in World War I.

Dan Alpert, senior vice president of philanthropy at DPTV, said the Detroit Public Television’s Arts and Cultural programming mission likes to put the spotlight on various communities that make up the “mosaic of Detroit,” with one of those communities being the Armenian community.

“We thought, let’s bring the new program, ‘Guardians of Music,’ to broadcast and bring back the historic program, ‘The Armenian Genocide,’ put them on one night and use that as an opportunity for the Armenian community of Detroit to be more in touch with their history and culture.”

Alpert said it is important to be in touch with one’s roots, especially culturally.

Alpert added that the great thing about America is everyone shares a sense of community from its diversity.

“We came from many places, and together we are best when we recognize the diversity that is within us and work together collectively.”  

“That is how this evening came together,” Alpert added.

“The Armenian Genocide” is narrated by Julianna Margulies, Ed Harris, Natalie Portman, Laura Linney, Orlando Bloom and others.  It includes interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, as well as never-before-seen historical footage.  The film will air at 8 p.m.

“This is what the Turks didn’t take from the Armenians,” Topouzian said of the music. “It’s a great story for Detroit.”

“Guardians of Music” is scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. March 16.