How Could Such Beauty Be Left Behind?

Zabelle Panosian’s Breathtaking Recordings

Special for the Armenian Weekly


Zabelle in 1922
Zabelle in 1922

Zabelle Panosian was 23 years old and the mother of a 6-year-old girl when she recorded just 11 sides for the Columbia Record Company in 1916-17. Of those, she recorded one that, to this day, takes the breath away of those who are fortunate enough to hear it, across nationalities and languages. Her “Groung” (“Kroonk” in modern transliteration) is among the most stunning vocal performances made in the United States or elsewhere, and likely among the best-selling performances of Armenian-language music before World War II. And yet, little is known of the artist responsible for it.

Born in Bardizag (present-day Bahçecik, Turkey) on June 7, 1891, she emigrated to the U.S. in April 1896 and married the photo-engraver Aram Sarkis Panosian, 12 years her senior. She lived in Brookline, Mass., from 1908 until at least 1920. She is said to have toured with the great tenor and student of Komitas Vardapet, Armeneg Chah-Mouradian, in the late 1910’s to raise funds for Armenians. She was in Washington, D.C. in February 1920 at a benefit for the Near East Relief Campaign. She applied for a passport that same year, at age 29, to visit France to study, to Italy to see her brother, and to England and Egypt to “locate lost relatives.” Her application gives her height as 5’5″, her mouth as “medium,” chin as “round,” hair as “dark,” face as “round,” and nose as “straight.”

zabellepanosianRobert Karayan has noticed that she was profiled, in photo only, in an edition of “Hai Guine” (Armenian Woman), the first feminist bi-monthly journal of Istanbul, founded, published, and edited by Hayganouche Mark from 1919-33. Panosian and her then-14-year-old daughter returned through Ellis Island two and a half years later on Jan. 23, 1924, from the port of Cherbourg, France, to her husband at 520 E. 183rd St. in Manhattan. A few years later, she made another trip with her daughter Adiena (or Adrina), then still single at 22, and returned to New York through Gibraltar.

And that, for the moment, is where her story seems to leave off. She died in 1986. However, I own two copies of her sublime masterpiece, and each are totally different takes—in different keys and one featuring bird-sound effects. Both are identical in every way visually, with the same catalogue and matrix numbers stamped into the shellac discs. Why would two different takes exist that appear to be identical? My theory, and it’s only a theory, is that Columbia sold so many copies of it that they wore out the original metal parts—the “stampers,” they’re called—and had to revert to an unissued “take” of the performance to keep up with demand for the recording. I do not know which is the first take released, and I do not know at present whether there is a third take in circulation. The recording stayed in print from its 1917 release until Columbia records deleted its Armenian-language recordings in 1931.

Zabelle_DC_1920And why would they have to keep a performance of a classically trained Armenian-language performance in print for more than a decade? Why would it have been so popular? For two reasons, I think. First, because the performance is so incredibly powerful. And second, because the lyrics, speaking to the loss and bewilderment and frustration of the Armenian-American Diaspora, were expressed so clearly to its listeners.

“Crane, where are you coming from? I am servant of your voice. Crane, have you not news from our country? Hasten not to your flock, you will arrive soon enough! ”

And yet, for nearly a hundred years, nothing has been written about this great artist and performer. It is, to me, amazing and terrible. It speaks to the core of not only the American or the Armenian but the human question: What is the nature of remembering? How could such a beautiful thing be left behind?

You can hear Zabelle’s “Groung” here:

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Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski

Ian Nagoski is a music researcher in Baltimore, Md. His label, Canary Records, specializes in early 20th-century recordings in languages other than English. In 2011, Tompkins Square Records published his collection, “To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1930.”
Ian Nagoski

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  1. As noted in the YouTube comments, this is not the “standard” Groong/Kroonk melody. One person commented that this is the Agna Groong with some personal twists added to the melody. I personally have never heard this version before.

  2. This is different. And an echo from the past. A direct

    That note she holds at 1:38 is amazing.

    “The recording stayed in print from its 1917 release until Columbia records deleted its Armenian-language recordings in 1931.”
    Ugh. Tragic. What’s the story of the Columbia’s Armenian recordings? How big a collection was it?

    “Her “Groung” (“Kroonk” in modern transliteration)” This is an West and East Armenian difference. But these days Eastern pronounciation is dominating more.

    • {I […] don’t have to make comments on every little thing that goes in the Armenian world.} ~Poster ‘Random Armenian’ voicing his opinion in August 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm in the thread “Khanasor, Lisbon Five Commemorated in Washington” in relation to the statement made by the OSCE US rep to the effect that ‘occupied’ territories around Artsakh must be returned to the Azeris.


      Is the amazing note Zabelle Panosian holds at 1:38 bigger thing that goes in the Armenian world than the official position of the US government on the mode of settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

      NOTE: I don’t contest your freedom to post whatever you like or your choice for a thread. I’m only asking—since you chose to post here but kept deathly silence in the thread “US OSCE Co-Chair Is Sounding More Like Aliyev”—whether Zabelle Panosian’s breathtaking recordings made in 1916-1917 are, to you, bigger thing than an outcome of a modern armed conflict, which was suggested by one of the mediators and whose statement had preceded the recent killings of Armenian servicemen and shelling of Armenian boarder villages.

    • I’ll post on whatever I feel like john. I have nothing to prove to you or anyone else here. Deal with it.

    • {I’ll post on whatever I feel like john. I have nothing to prove to you or anyone else here. Deal with it.}

      I am. But the question that’s being dealt with is not related to anything that you have to ‘prove’ to me or anyone else. With no intention to contest the freedom you’re given by AW to post whatever you feel like, you’re only required by a fellow poster, as is customary in any intellectual debate, to clarify your position on one of your own statements.

      Clarify. Not prove.

      And not squash quibbles… Please.

      Shall I repeat the question or you’ll shift for yourself?

    • “Is the amazing note Zabelle Panosian holds at 1:38 bigger thing that goes in the Armenian world than the official position of the US government on the mode of settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?”

      This is a dishonest and loaded question. Posting a comment on this article does not imply the NK conflict is not important. This “clarification” you’re asking of me is a way of asking me to prove myself. And I don’t, and nobody else does.

      You brought up the NK conflict here, not me. This is actually harassment because the comment I made here makes no mention of the NK conflict in any way.

      I will not post anything more under this article. I’m sure we’ll have more discourses under other articles relevant to the topic.

  3. Random Armenian – “ugh tragic” is maybe too strong: deleted doesn’t mean “erased” like a computer file, it means removed from its catalogue. Though of course if there was no longer a series of specific Armenian recordings then no more new recordings could be added to that series. The WW2-period campaign in America to melt down old records for war materials is a genuine “ugh tragic” though, because many rare deleted recordings were lost forever, including perhaps some of these Columbia Records Armenian ones. And “john” – are worthless comments like this all you have to say? Please stop such trolling.

    • Why, Steve, you’ve come to the conclusion that my posts are worthless after having familiarized yourself with all of them? At least I post in an attempt to confront mind-tilting and disinformation on these pages. What do you do? Pop up here out of the blue and stigmatize other posters’ comments as worthless and their opinions as trolling? Is this all you can do? Weak, man…

    • Those recordings would be interesting to search for. Columbia must have them somewhere in some warehouse.

      Interestingly one of the executives of Columbia Records was Armenian: George Avakian.

    • I doubt they will still have them. What you will have will be some 1941 photos of record company bosses donating a truck-load of deleted original recordings to be melted down for their raw materials for the war effort.

    • Thanks for the added info on the melting of records for WWII. Hopefully these records resurface from private hands released digitally.

  4. john – your comment to Random Armenian here was worthless because it was unconnected to the article content or to what RA had posted. You were trolling and nothing more. And I recall your trolling of posts made by Random Armenian in the past and their aim appears to be harassment. Aren’t there Armenian forums that exit solely for that purpose that you can use?

    • Steve:

      The one who is trolling is you.
      The one who is harassing is you.

      I have been reading ArmenianWeekly for years.
      I have also been reading comments by AW readers for years.
      I am quite familiar with [John]’s comments and also with the individual who posts under the handle [Random Armenian].

      Various people use the forum provided by ArmenianWeekly to post anti-Armenian comments.
      Some are openly so, some are very subtle and sophisticated.
      Kudos to ArmenianWeekly for giving those people the opportunity to expose themselves.

      As long as AW gives us the opportunity, we are going to counter those whose aim it is to spread disinformation about RoA and NKR.
      I am glad there are intelligent and knowledgeable people like [John] on our side who have the experience, the knowledge, and the presence of mind to recognize what some of these posters are trying to do, and care enough about our Armenian Nation to vigorously debunk the anti-Armenian disinformation being so spread.

      If you (generic you) can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
      And the fact that you (specific you) calls poster [John]’s debunking of trolls “trolling” and “harassing” means he is hitting the bullseye.

      Keep “trolling” and “harassing” [John].

  5. A haunting, amazing voice. It’s heartbreaking to think that she recorded this song while other Armenians were still being slaughtered or dying of thirst and starvation in hellish places like Raqqa and Der Zor. Again today, hate and horror are being visited on these same places today. What has been learned in 100 years? It would appear that hate and intolerance is prevailing over love and peace.

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