Vahe Der Manuelian Never Skipped a Beat

HAVERHILL, Mass.—Vahe Der Manuelian never met an Armenian band he didn’t like.

Vahe Der Manuelian, left, in his playing days with the New England ‘Ararats,’ and right, with the inimitable Roger Krikorian, his favorite dumbeg buddy.

With his trusty dumbeg tucked away safely in his trunk, he made the rounds, looking for a gig. He traveled to picnics, anniversary celebrations, house parties, weddings, and kef times, itching for a chance to bang his hands silly.

Over the years, he performed with his favorite dumbeg companion, the late Roger Krikorian, whenever and wherever the two should meet. Other notables who relished his services were oud virtuosos George Mgrdichian, Johnny Berberian, and Harry Minasian, and clarinet impresario Kachig Kazarian.

He would fill in the gaps, stand in for respites, and enhance any band’s repertoire, and accompanied such divas as Anahid Changelian during one concert/recording series.

But nothing replaced his early years with the New England “Ararats.” He joined that orchestra in the mid-1950’s and established his niche as a fledgling talent on the dumbeg. In essence, he never stopped playing, instrument or not.

“He hit the steering wheel on his car, banged on tables and chairs, and just about anything else in sight,” said his wife Satenik. “You could say he had an unquenchable thirst for his dumbeg. That’s who he was. That’s how I met him. That’s how I saw him die.”

Vahe died suddenly on Aug. 7 during a visit to Rockport, Mass., one of his favorite seashore destinations, leaving behind a rich legacy that included his family, friends, the Armenian community, and consummate musicianship. He was 73.

“Much as Vahe considered George Mgrdichian the epitome when it came to the oud, he always felt Roger was at the head of his class as a dumbeg player,” added his wife. “When Roger died, Vahe was devastated. He never got over it.”

By the casket stood one of Vahe’s favorite dumbegs with a towel draped over it—the towel he used to wipe the perspiration when he overexerted himself. Three dumbegs formed an elegant decor in the living room of his Haverhill home and they were all spoken for as heirlooms for the grandchildren. One day perhaps they will carry forth the tradition set by their granddad.

I remember him as the guy who ushered me into the AYF and served as my role model. Vahe and his late brother Vahram formed the Somerville “Nejdeh” AYF and turned it into one of the better chapters in New England. Vahram passed on 20 years ago.

It wasn’t athletics that carved an impression, though impressive as that was, but the educational side of AYF life. The Somerville kids were known for their lofty skills in debating contests with other chapters, as well as literary contributions to the Hairenik Weekly.

Vahe and Vahram were usually at the forefront of such activity and encouraged their members to get involved, heed the educationals rendered, and serve the organization with pride and conviction.

At Boston University, which he attended in the late 1950s, Vahe was one of the catalysts behind the formation of an Armenian Club.

He was a founding member of the St. Stephen’s Church Couples Club and served as Sunday School superintendent while Satenik taught classes. Vahe also directed the St. Stephen’s Credit Union for a stint and served a term on the Board of Trustees.

“He was a man of deep faith and devotion to God,” said Der Antranig Baljian in his eulogy. “I saw him in church a few days before his death. What a blessing to him and a consolation for his family that one of the last things he did was worship the God he loved so much. His great charm, kindness, and happy-go-lucky nature will never be forgotten.”

Vahe saved his best moment for last. Together with his family, they traveled to Lake Tahoe to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary just two weeks prior. The entire Der Manuelian clan, which features son Stephen, daughter Susan Grubbs, their spouses Betsy and Todd, along with grandchildren Michael, Matthew, Samantha, and Jack, had the time of their lives.

“I’m the happiest and luckiest man alive,” he later told friends. “How many people get to celebrate a golden anniversary with their entire family around him? It’s everything a guy like me would ever want.”

After graduating from Somerville High in 1956, Vahe went on to secure a degree in business management from Boston University. In his early years, he was practically weaned on the violin before turning into a percussionist.

Vahe spent 25 years working in human resources for Star Market Corporation, ultimately climbing the corporate ladder to director. He eventually established his own personal development/HR consulting firm, which continued until his death.

Nobody was more prompt than Vahe, meeting all appointments on the dot and expecting the same punctuality from everyone else.

“We’ll miss his easy smile, the mischievous twinkle in his eye, and especially his admonishment to his kids, grandkids, nieces, and nephews when they got a little antsy,” added Der Antranig. “His sense of humor added a little levity to life.”

As thunder was heard on the day of his funeral, it may very well have been a spiritual sign—not the showers that were being predicted, but Vahe playing his dumbeg for the angels above.

Memorial contributions may be made to St. Stephen’s Church, 38 Elton Ave., Watertown, MA 02472.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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