DETROIT, Mich.—Ara Topouzian is one calibrated musician, whether he’s performing on the kanoun, recording other people’s music, compiling a documentary about the history of Armenian music in his community, or keeping others informed with a blog he has called “Hye Times.”
You cannot help but notice his contribution to the arts, given the number of awards he has received and the impact he has made in the medium.
His traditional musical style keeps to his Armenian heritage but has expanded to include music from around the Middle East, as well as jazz, fusion, new age, and blues.
A one-hour film documentary on the history of Armenian music in Detroit appears to be a surefire treasure. He’s also narrating it, drawing from his own experiences as well as others from previous generations.
The film features visits to local metro Detroit locations where Armenian music was once prominent, as well as rare interviews with some artists and nightclub patrons of that era.
Topouzian calls it “Guardians of Music: A History of Armenian Music in Detroit.”
He’s sharing rare photographs and newspaper clippings that promoted music in the clubs and dance halls in an effort to show the diversity and vibrancy of his area.
“As the Armenian community grew in America, so did the opportunities to hear Armenian music,” Topouzian notes. “For a 50-year period (1920-70), the Detroit community hosted thousands of church events, picnics, and dances that centered on Armenian folk and dance music.”
Eventually, he adds, non-Armenian nightclub owners recognized the need to dedicate an evening or two for “Armenian Night” featuring local Armenian bands. In turn, this brought new patrons to their establishments.
The documentary includes traditional music ranging from ballads that describe village life from past centuries to upbeat dance songs performed at weddings, dances, and picnics. These traditions have been handed down by generations, many of them landing in the United States and specifically Michigan.
Topouzian has partnered with historian and documentary producer Brian Golden to photograph and edit this documentary.
The Detroit community, which numbered approximately 3,000 in 1915, has since grown to 30,000-40,000. Many worked in the automotive industry. Desperate to create a new home with memories, they brought with them not personal wealth but identity, traditions, and their music.
Topouzian has made it a personal mission to preserve all that, and he’s cultivated it over several years, forging ahead despite monetary concerns and attention to his family and job as a recording artist. Among his many tributes is a Kresge Artist Fellowship in 2012.
In reaching out to the community, he recently came across a DVD copy of a video produced several years ago that includes footage from a 1935 Armenian festival at the State Fairgrounds.
It shows Armenian musicians playing clarinet, oud, davul, and violin, and was commercially released years later for television.
“In looking at the pictures of the clarinet player, I’m unfamiliar with who this musician is, which makes the mystery that much more appealing to me,” he says.