At just five years old and alongside his father Onnik, Ara Dinkjian’s music career began. Eventually, he attended Hartt School of Music and graduated holding the only ever college degree in the oud. He has graced the stages of the World’s Fair, the Sts. Vartanantz Church bazaar, Carnegie Hall, and just about every AYF Senior Olympics Grand Ball. He has performed before crowds at the Istanbul Congress Center, Jerusalem’s International Oud Festival and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Ara Dinkjian is a musician, a composer and my dad.
A lot of people know a lot of things about him: his ancestral history which he weaves into all of his projects, the brand of his go-to oud strings (La Bella, of course), the collections that come together to make his discography, the fact that he is always punctual and incredibly reliable. And while all those things may be true, they are not what I imagine when I think of Ara Dinkjian. Not even close. When I think of my dad, I imagine this:
Down a set of 13 steps, through a hall lined floor to ceiling with dusty old books, and across the cold tiled flooring of the basement, you’ll find a little white door. And on the other side of that door is my father’s music room.
Growing up, I’d crouch right outside that door, my ear pressed against it hoping to pick up some bits and pieces from songs. Something I could tuck away in the back of my mind to hum later when I was alone and wonder where that sweet tune came from. Then I’d knock three times, sometimes even daring to use the brass knocker shaped like a g-clef. It hung right within my reach, as if it was put there just for me.
My father would watch me stroll over to the toy chest—a rough set of tiny unpainted drawers full of treasured trinkets he had collected over the years. A tarnished silver ball that when shaken would make the most magical sound as if Tinkerbell herself was trapped inside. A bright orange kaleidoscope that, if gazed through at just the right angle, could make anything transform into piecey rubies or diamonds. A wooden whistle that would make the sound of a train passing—my father could always make the sound best. Two pennies that were so tiny I remember thinking they could fit in the pocket of a mouse—just enough to buy a little cube of cheese. I’d play with those toys on the spotted carpet, but I was always listening, always curious and eager to discover more.
Slowly I’d lift myself up from the rug. My father would look away from his work to watch me wander around his special space. He’d let me explore anything I wanted, even the terribly old and fragile things so long as I was careful. He’d leave me to do as I wished and would only instruct me on how things worked if I asked. There were so many incredible things in his music room. I can remember them all:
There was a wall of records—thousands of them. Each one slid neatly into a sleeve, sometimes plastic, sometimes paper or even wax. I would walk past them running my fingers along their spines, pretending I was Belle searching for a book in the Beast’s grand library.
There was a shiny black piano that always reminded me of a limousine—slick and cool, and if you were lucky enough to take a peek inside you’d realize how truly intricate some things in life are.
There were photos framed and mounted crookedly. Some people I recognized sitting up on a stage with my father at dances. Others I wasn’t quite sure I knew but something in their nature said they knew me. There’s one of a little boy playing the dumbeg—he had the same soft brown eyes as my father, but he wore shorts and knee high socks. Some photos were so old and grainy that it was hard to really make out what they were of, but they must have been important if he had them framed.
There were all sorts of special machines. Some played music, some recorded music, some altered music. The most amazing, of course, was the record player. I could choose any record I wanted—any one of them—and I’d take notice at how my father slipped it from its jacket. He’d lower the black licorice disc with such care onto the turntable, and with his thumb and forefinger, he’d lower the needle right onto its grooves. An exact science. There’d be some scratchy sound followed soon after by music—all kinds of music. Jazz, rock, classical, opera, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, and of course my personal favorite as a kid: a special narration of Grover that I’d lie flat on my back, eyes closed, following the playful sound of the character’s voice.
There were instruments everywhere. Each beautiful and unique in their own way. Some in cases ready for my father to take on trips, some high up on shelves, some strung up on pegs and hung around the room. There were guitars, clarinets, a keyboard and a trumpet he had turned into a lamp. There were doumbeks and zournas and kemenches and a funny sounding xylophone with long, skinny mallets. And of course, seated right there on the couch as if it was someone, not just something, was my father’s oud. His friend.
But the greatest thing of all, the most special treasure there, the real reason I found myself entranced by that room, was my father. I remember feeling like I understood Mary Lennox entirely, feeling like I myself had found a little secret garden tucked away in the basement of my very own home. I remember the sounds of footsteps above me and muffled voices through the ceiling, as if I were in some sort of dream. As if my actual life was somehow on hold when I was down in the music room and my father would ask me, “Isn’t it peaceful down here?” I remember my nerves as I reached out to touch the smooth rounded belly of my father’s oud, and my utter surprise at how light it felt once he encouraged me to pick it up, to lay it across my lap with one hand around the slender neck and the other draped over its side. I remember feeling proud that my father trusted me with his precious belongings, with his own memories and special little things.
And I will always remember crouching right outside the little white door, my ear pressed against it, soaking it all in. The music, the mystery, the magic that was my father’s music room.