SHREWSBURY, Mass.—Over the past six decades, many have come to know Johnny Berberian as a talented oud virtuoso playing countless gigs and recording a plethora of records and CDs.
You’ve seen him play dances and concerts, weddings and special occasions. His musical resume is still being written every time he picks up his instrument and plucks the strings.
Many count Berberian among the very best who have ever played the oud—and very few can boast of such a long and distinguished career.
But what you may not know is that as a child, he was weaned on the violin and continues to shift gears during a rare moment.
Anybody who’s heard him play violin will tell you his versatility with this instrument deserves added applause.
“Despite my eagerness to learn the oud at an early age, my father encouraged me to study the violin instead because it represented a more respectable instrument with greater potential in America,” Berberian recalled.
His dad sent him to a violin music school at the age of 9. After a few months, Berberian began taking private lessons.
“I can remember the first day I auditioned in front of my teacher,” Berberian reminisced. “He asked me to perform something I knew, so I played ‘Catskilli Jampan.’ Needless to say, it was not what he was expecting and from that day forward, I had to concentrate on Western classical violin form. I remember going to my lessons and having my mother carry my violin through the tough neighborhood streets so my friends wouldn’t poke fun at me.”
While pursuing violin lessons, Berberian slowly taught himself the oud with some help from his father and a myriad of old 78 RPM and LP recordings. In later years, personal encounters with master oud players such as Oudi Hrant, Marco Melkon, George Mgrdichian, and Chick Ganimian complemented his artistry.
In the back room of his father’s dry cleaning store was a workshop where Yervant repaired ouds. It is where Johnny learned valuable skills about oud repair.
At 16, he got to sit in with 2 of the very best in the business—Mgrdichian and Ganimian—at a Greenwich Village coffee house called Harout’s before a listening audience. Soon after that, he hooked up with the Vanites Band in Whitinsville, and the beat hasn’t subsided.
“I was placed between the two oud greats and introduced to the audience as an up-and-coming player,” Berberian traced back. “It was my first public exposure and what a thrill! I was fortunate during my college years and later to be offered recording contracts from well-known studios like Mainstream, Roulette, Verve Forecast, MGM, and RCA Records.”
Berberian graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. As a student, he never stopped playing the oud, performing regularly in Manhattan music venues.
Berberian expanded beyond the ethnic music market in the 1960’s before “world music” became fashionable with a series of LPs that explored fusions between traditional Middle Eastern music, psychedelic, rock, and jazz. By then, he had more than established himself in the musical genre.
In 1970, Berberian started his own recording company called Olympia Records. He’s recorded 10 albums on his own and performed guest spots with various other Armenian and international artists, not to mention movie soundtracks and documentary films.
What’s more, he’s played no fewer than 2,500 gigs, including 43 AYF Olympic Weekends—and still counting.
“Despite the knowledge and experiences within Armenian folk culture, I’m quite attentive to Western classical music,” he says, “in particular, violin concertos by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and others.”
As to his favorite classical master, that would be none other than the iconic Jascha Heifetz.
Versatility extends itself willingly to other great Armenian musicians. Mal Barsamian juggles the clarinet with the oud and saxophone. In fact, Oudi Hrant, though sightless, also played violin, as did Richard Hagopian and John Bilezikian, two other oud virtuosos.
Clarinetist Hachig Kazarian plays and actually composes on the piano, but is capable of performing many other wind instruments. Others like Ara Dinkjian and John Vartan play multiple instruments as well when deviating from the oud.
“You may not know that vocalist Onnik Dinkjian is self-taught on the oud and actually accompanied himself in his early musical career,” Berberian pointed out.
The oud and violin are not Berberian’s sole instruments. He can also play mandolin and other string instruments like a jumbus and viola.
“But my concentration, of course, is on the oud and occasionally the violin for fun and select occasions,” he maintains.
Berberian was born and raised in New York City (West Harlem). He was selected to sing and represent his school in what was called the All-City High School Chorus. The group performed in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Most memorable was singing in five-part harmony on subway platforms and inside trains as they returned home after practice.
“I always enjoyed choral singing,” he said. “I’ve been singing in the Armenian church for almost 40 years now—first at Sts. Vartanantz (New Jersey) and now at Soorp Asdvazadzin (Whitinsville, Mass.). Although I enjoy singing harmony with Onnik and others, I prefer to concentrate on my oud playing where I get the most enjoyment.”
The women in Johnny’s life happen to be his mother, Sirpouhi, and wife, Barbara (Goshgarian), both compassionate to his musicianship with boundless motivation. Barbara, or Bobbie as she’s affectionately called, seldom misses a gig and remains his favorite fan, whether listening, dancing, patronizing, or promoting. Both are extremely active with the church. Three children and six grandchildren bring them ultimate joy.
How would he like to be remembered? The legacy is far from ended.
“I’d like to be known as a first-generation Armenian American who helped preserve the folk music of my ancestors,” he says. “I would also like to be recognized for developing a manner of playing rooted in that tradition but with my own style and a flare for current day.”
“I’ve done my best to pass the baton forward by teaching oud to some aspiring, very talented players. It has given me great pleasure to see their progress over the years.”