FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich.—What does it take to win a $25,000 Kresge Artist Fellowship Award for musical excellence?
For Ara Topouzian, it’s the support he received from his parents, Armenag and Norma, both of whom dedicated their efforts to the advancement of the Armenian community, here and abroad.
“I was always encouraged by my parents to strive for more, and owe so much to them,” said the kanun virtuoso and noted recording artist. “Musically, I have many mentors and role models. I got my start in Armenian music as a child sitting with the Vosbikian Band at the old Atlantic City kef weekends. I am truly honored by this award.”
Topouzian was among two dozen Metro Detroit literary and performing artists to receive this award. Each of the 24 fellowships included an unrestricted prize of $25,000 rewarding creative vision and a commitment to excellence within a wide range of artistic disciplines.
Topouzian was selected for his accomplishments as a world music artist specializing in the kanun, an instrument he has played for decades. He was part of a 19-piece world music group that premiered to a sold-out audience at the Detroit Orchestra Hall.
He enjoys sharing his heritage and talent teaching workshops for children and adults, and demonstrating various Armenian and Middle Eastern instruments, as well as folk music.
The money will be used to promote world music to a wider audience. A question-and-answer session with the artist follows.
Q: Relate a couple of highlights from your career.
A: In 1995, I was commissioned by the Armenian Relief Society to produce an album that benefited a pre-natal clinic located amidst Armenia’s earthquake devastation. The album, “For the Children of Armenia,” raised over $20,000 for that clinic in memory of my late mother. In 2002, I produced another album that was dedicated to the thousands of children saved by the Nork Marash Medical Center in Yerevan.
Q: Your impressions of the kanun?
A: It’s one of the most important traditional instruments used in Armenian and Middle Eastern music. The instrument is the granddaddy of the piano–75 strings tuned in 3-string unison.
Q: Your outside work, family, and personal life?
A: By day, I work as an economic development director for the City of Novi, one of the biggest and growing cities in Oakland County, Mich. I’m married to Della Cassia Topouzian and we have two children, Aline Norma, 3, and Alexan Peter, 11 months.
Q: Something about you that may surprise others?
A: A lot of non-Armenians do not know about my musical background. I once performed for over 1,800 patrons at Detroit Orchestra Hall. At a reception that followed, people I interact with at my day job came up to me in utter shock. They were there for the concert and had no idea that would be me on stage. I’ve been playing Armenian music for 25 years.
Q: Impact of Armenian music on our society?
A: The younger generation isn’t as interested as my generation and that troubles me. I feel that as musicians, we have an obligation to teach and preserve our music so that it continues to live. Music is part of our rich history and tells an important story. We should never forget our story.
Q: Your favorite recording?
A: I have a record label—American Recording Productions—which I founded in 1991. To date, I have recorded 30 albums. Among my favorites is “Whispers of Ellis Island,” which features Joe Zeytoonian on oud. This was dedicated to the millions of Armenians who arrived in America through Ellis Island. Another is “Eastern Winds,” featuring a number of local non-Armenian musicians performing Middle Eastern music. Both have been very popular.
Q: What does this award mean to you?
A: Very humbling. The Kresge Artist Fellowship is a prestigious honor that I don’t take lightly. It isn’t just about the money. The fellowship will allow me to show an even wider audience my capabilities as a musician, and gives me the motivation to learn more music with different genres. I plan to utilize the money in ways that will help advance my career as a musician while promoting world music to wider audiences.
Q: How did you qualify to receive this? Were you nominated?
A: I applied for it as you would a grant. It was a very competitive process with over 450 applicants. I was judged by a panel of professionals within the music and performing arts industry. They reviewed my music, watched concert videos, and ultimately made their decision.
Q: What impact does this make in the world of Armenian American music?
A: A huge impression. It gives us the recognition within the non-Armenian sector that we deserve. Hopefully, it will also show other Armenian American musicians that our talents are not just limited to picnics, dances, and weddings. The joke to some is that we are all “picnic band musicians” and I don’t agree with that. Many of us are exceptionally talented musicians. I look at others like Ara Dinkjian and Mal Barsamian. We’ve successfully branched out to play with a variety of musicians and genres. More of us can be doing this.
Q: What projects do you have in the fire now?
A: I perform quite a bit in Michigan. With two small children, it’s hard to execute projects. I recently completed original music for an upcoming Armenian documentary with Mark Gavoor, another good musician friend.
Q: Who is your role model?
A: I have several. Aside from my parents, there are others like Mark Gavoor and Jack Chalikian, a kanun player associated with the Kef Time Band. Jack took the time to give me mini-lessons at Kef Time Hartford. I won’t forget that. I’ve had the good fortune to play with a variety of musicians over the years and learned something special from each of them.
Q: How do you feel about commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide?
A: We have an obligation to commemorate it to the outside world. Whenever I talk about my music, I always mention the genocide. It has an impact upon the musicians and what we play. I’ve always felt our annual commemorations were being directed toward the wrong audience. We should be educating non-Armenians. The number of misinformed people I speak to about the genocide is staggering. We have an opportunity to commemorate an event to a nation that may never have heard about the Armenian Genocide.