Our AYF Olympic Music

Certainly, the AYF Olympics is about athletics. But, for many, they are equally interested in the dances and performers. My interest in the music and the dances has equaled and at times surpassed my interest in athletics. 

For the past few weeks, I have been reaching out to various musicians, the vast majority of whom were AYF members themselves and asked a few basic questions: What was the Olympics job you most enjoyed? Why was that? Who were the other musicians on the gig? What was the most memorable music you heard at the Olympics when you weren’t playing? What year and city? Who were the musicians?

I thought it would be fun to share the answers; others might enjoy the trip down this musical memory lane.

Everyone I contacted responded and provided the following. I have added my own comments and summary as well. Writing articles about the Olympics for the Armenian Weekly has always been a labor of love. This one, because of my connection to the music, is even more special to me.

Mal Barsamian, 2015 Providence

Steve Vosbikian, Jr: The most memorable time playing at an Olympics was with the Vosbikian band at the 2018 Olympics in Philadelphia. Being on stage with my father and uncles was an honor and a joy. I have always enjoyed listening to my musical mentors Hachig Kazarian, Mal Barsamian and Ara Dinkjian.

Mark Gavoor: The Vosbikian Band was founded in 1939. They are the longest running Armenian band in the US by a long shot. Their dedication to our music is something to be admired. Stevie is an example of how each generation keeps it going and keeps getting better and better. Read their history in Harry Kezelian’s excellent blog Kef Time USA.

John Berberian, Mal Barsamian, Mark Gavoor, Ara Topouzian, Ron Tutunjian, Rich Berberian and Bruce Gigarjian, 2001

John Berberian:  The Olympics event that I most enjoyed playing was the Sunday night ball and breakfast concert that was held in Philadelphia in 1982. The musicians were Onnik Dinkjian, Hachig Kazarian on clarinet, Ara Dinkjian on guitar, Bobby Sohigian on dumbeg and myself on oud. The two additional musicians who joined us for the dance portion on Sunday night were Greg Janian on large drum and Carnig Mikitarian on sax. This was a “double header,” so to speak, that went from 9:00pm Sunday night to 4:30am Monday morning. The concert was impromptu but came off beautifully. Those in attendance were actually having a quiet breakfast in low light while we played. This was so successful and novel that a few years later Detroit asked that we do the same.

John Berberian, 2015 Providence

The dance that I enjoyed when not playing was the 2018 Philadelphia Olympics Ball. The Vosbikians played that night, and they were terrific. I stood by the stage and simply enjoyed seeing and hearing one of the greatest “Big Band” sounds of our time. I enjoyed their fathers when I was younger, and I am thrilled to see their kids keeping the tradition alive. And, if I may add, we are looking forward to having them on stage at next year’s AYF Alumni night in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

I started playing Olympics in the early 60s. Prior to that, I can remember being intrigued by the sounds of the Gomidas Band in particular with the oud virtuosity of George Mgrdichian. The early years of Olympics reserved Saturday night for American music. New York AYF featured Lionel Hampton and his band in 1958. 

Then there was the Richmond Ararat band with Bedros, Mickie, Murad, Butch and a few others. One thing they were known for was to interject a little bit of “Dixie” in their repertoire every now and then. I’m sure that I left out a few other bands, but one thing for sure was that they all had their own unique effect on our Olympics music and on our Armenian musical culture in general over the years.

M.G.: John Berberian took our music a quantum leap higher with his fiery style and passion in two iconic albums: Oud Artistry and Expressions East. He is the reason I play the oud. After years of practice and playing, he is still the benchmark many of us try to achieve. Hearing him over the years at the Olympics has been a great joy.

Mal Barsamian and Hachig Kazarian, 2016 New Jersey

Mal Barsamian: First time I played an Olympics was in Boston 1981. I played with Leo Derderian, Vahe Magarian and Mickey Kerneklian at the Sheraton. It was for the Alumni Dance. I brought along my ‘odar’ friends from high school, as we had just graduated. The room was empty at first, but my friends were astounded at how quickly the room filled up, and everyone was dancing.

Mickey Kerneklian

I truly enjoyed playing at the main dance of the 1984 Watertown Olympics at Sheraton in Boston with Rich Berberian, Bruce Gigarjian, Paul Mooradian and Ron Tutunjian. Also in 1997, the same group played with the addition of Ara Topouzian on kanun and Stepan Mgrdichian on bass. A real treat for me was in 1996, when I had the chance to play with the great George Mgrdichian in Marlborough, Mass.

As for my favorite Olympic bands where I was just a listener, there are so many. Let me list a few. I loved the 1983 Olympics at Rocky Point Palladium in Providence. It was the last Olympics that Bobby Sohigian played. Another amazing Olympics memory was the 1971 Olympics Picnic at Camp Haiastan. Buses up and down Summit. Hachig, Richard, George, Eli, Leo Arzoomanian and Bobby Sohigian played the picnic.  There were three buses from Montreal. There are many great musicians, but truly Bobby Sohigian was something special. In 1974 at the  Worcester Olympics picnic at Camp Haiastan, Hachig, John, Bobby and George were playing when I arrived. I could hear Bobby’s drum before I heard the other musicians. It sounded like a rocket. In 1976 in Providence at the Civic Center, Bobby put on a show. All eyes were on Bobby at Boston University’s Case Center in 1977; he was amazing.

Mal Barsamian, 2015 Providence

M.G.: Mal is an amazing musician. We have heard him at the Olympics play excellent guitar, clarinet and saxophone. Not many know that he is also an exceptional oud player. He recently released an album, The Exciting Sounds of the Mal Barsamian Band, in which he plays all the instruments on all the tracks. Read Ara Topouzian’s review of this album in the Armenian Weekly.

Mal is an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to this music. We talked for over two hours for this article. I had to edit his comments down the most of anyone. We have to get Mal’s memories down on video.  

Bruce Gigarjian and Paul Mooradian, 2005 Providence

Ara Topouzian: The most memorable Olympics band job was the year I played a Saturday night with Mal Barsamian and Richie Berberian in Washington, DC in 1997. It stands out because it was a main night dance, and I was playing with some great friends – Mal, Richie, Ron, Bruce, Stepan and Paul. What made it especially memorable was toward the end of the event when the bridge on my kanun decided to collapse in the middle of a haleh! The microphone was situated on the bridge, so when it collapsed, the sound it made was like a bomb went off! All I could do was laugh and felt, well, I’m done for the night! 

Paul Mooradian, Hachig Kazarian, Onnik Dinkjian, Carnig Mikhitirian, Ara Dinkjian, Bruce Gigarjian, John Berberian, 1984

I felt the best Olympics ensemble of my generation was in Watertown, MA in 1984. (Probably the most bootlegged recording out there…) Bruce Gigarjian joined the All Stars that year on dumbeg with Onnik, Hachig, John, Carnig, Ara Dinkjian and Paul Mooradian. This was a solid sound that provided nonstop dance music all night. I have glimpses of Bobby Sohigian playing dumbeg (in previous years), and I am sure if I was a little older, any ensemble he was part of would be just as memorable. 

M.G.: Ara Topouzian helped popularize the kanun to its rightful place in our music once more. He is the recipient of numerous awards, and his music has been heard and sold around the world. In 2012, Kresge Arts of Detroit recognized Ara with a Kresge Arts Fellowship for his achievements and contributions to his craft.

Onnik Dinkjian, 2016 New Jersey

Onnik Dinkjian: All of the Olympics I was involved with were fantastic, memorable and unforgettable. I do not really have a favorite. They are all special. I love watching the people and seeing them dance and enjoy themselves. Obviously, every time I play with Ara is a plus. It is a dream any father would cherish. I love to see the young people, like Michael Gostanian, Raffi Massoyan and Stevie Vosbikian play. It makes me proud to know that our music will continue.

M.G.: Onnik, of course, is a national treasure. Everyone who has ever attended an AYF Olympics and seen him perform knows this. Earlier this year, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow. It is an awesome honor for Onnik and his family. It should make all of us proud as well. Read about Onnik and view samples of Onnik’s performances on the NEA webpage. Also, watch the AYF Olympics Commemorative Video Series: Entertainment in which Onnik, Ara and Hachig are interviewed and reminisce about our music.

Rich Berberian, 2016 New Jersey

Rich Berberian: Of the many AYF Olympic events I’ve performed at over the years, I most enjoyed the 1989 Boston Olympics dance. My musical collaboration with Mal Barsamian was newly evolving, and we were really rocking as a group with Ron Tutunjian, Bruce Gigarjian and Paul Mooradian. That night we released our first recording as a group that became known as the “Brown Album” – even though it was initially released on cassette and sold over 4,000 copies.

On a purely musical level, there are two Olympics that stand out in my memory. The first was the 1972 Los Angeles Olympics. The band as I recall was John Berberian, Onnik Dinkjian, Carnig Mikitarian, George Righellis, Bobby Sohigian and another drummer from LA whose name I can’t remember. The big “hype” out of LA was they had this dumbeg player who was better than Bobby who had to be part of the band. He was good, but Bobby destroyed him. Our east coast guys were extra strong musically that weekend to show the LA crowd what “real” Armenian music should sound like. Best Olympics ever. 

To me, the 1975 Detroit Olympics was the all-time best Olympics on a purely musical level. I believe it was the second time an Olympics weekend was headlined by Richard Hagopian. Accompanying him were Hachig Kazarian, George Righellis and Bobby Sohigian. The dance was at the Cobo sports arena, and the band was simply on fire. They played non-stop until 3 am. What stands out in my mind is how Bobby Sohigian could fill this huge hall with sound playing dumbeg and not use a microphone. The “Kef Time” group was in its prime at this time; we followed this event with Kef Time Hartford eight weeks later. A final memory from that weekend was that somehow, the Detroit AYF Olympic Committee had the main street by the hotel and Cobo renamed to Armenian Youth Federation Blvd. Somehow, I coerced an athletic person to climb the street post in the middle of the night and take down one of those street signs for me. I still have it hanging in my “man cave” today.  

M.G.: I remember going to the Worcester Olympics in 1974. I walked into the hotel, oud and suitcase in hand, without a room reservation. The first people I saw were Rich Berberian, John Harotian and Ron Tutunjian. They said, “Stay with us.” “OK.” That kicked off a weekend of nonstop partying and music. We along with a few others played the hook-ups Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. These were the days when the hook-ups were impromptu. We all had a rocking good time as did our AYF peers who danced until dawn to our music. 

Ara Dinkjian, 2016 New Jersey

Ara Dinkjian: I think it was Washington, D.C., either 1992 or 1997. The musicians were my father Onnik, John Berberian, Hachig Kazarian, Carnig Mikitarian, Roger Krikorian, and myself. At the peak of the Sunday night ball, in the middle of a rocking dance number, I slipped on a toupée. As each of the musicians looked at me, they fell apart laughing and stopped playing. Eventually the music completely stopped (except for me and my keyboard). The thousand dancers looked at the stage to find out why the music stopped, and all they saw was the musicians cracking up, all because I had hair!

Ara and Onnik Dinkjian

I was always the youngest person in the band by a generation for many years. I was given an entre to be on stage and learn. As I got older, I felt the music was going to die on my generation’s watch. Our music started to become less frequent. I personally felt I needed to pass the baton of the culture to the next generation. Raffi Massoyan sought me out when he was six. He became my first student. Then 20 years later, he played with us at the Chicago Olympics last year. It was simply gratifying. When I see the Kzirians, Hagopians, Vosbikians, Michael Kamalian, and Datev Gevorgian, they have an energy and enthusiasm that is contagious. I tell these young people, “When you see a young kid staring at you when you play, go up to them during a break and introduce yourself and ask them about themselves. They may be too shy to approach you. We have to encourage them and pass the baton.”

M.G.: In the AYF world, we know of Ara Dinkjian as Onnik’s son who used to play guitar and now plays keyboard whenever Onnik sings. What many of us don’t know is that Ara is a world-renowned oud player and composer. Among his incredible accomplishments and performances, he had his song, Dinata (Homecoming), performed at the closing of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

John Harotian: I loved playing the Alumni Dance just last year in Chicago with Mark Gavoor, Ara Topouzian, Ara Dinkjian, John Paklaian, Scott Paklaian and Greg Tootooian. We had a great sound. The dance floor was full. My favorite Olympic Bands were in 1971 in Boston with Hachig Kazarian, Richard Hagopian, George Righelis and Bobby Sohigian. I also liked hearing John Vosbikian play the G clarinet in Toronto in 1973. Anytime Bobby Sohigian played the dumbeg at an Olympics was memorable to me. He was the best.

M.G.: I play in a band with John Harotian. We both moved to Chicago and always wanted to play together and now we do. It has been a lot of fun. I agree with John that last year’s Alumni Dance was a most memorable AYF gig. Everyone had a wonderful time that evening. I also have to agree that hearing Richard Hagopian for the first time in 1971 was one of my favorite Olympics memories as well. Richard, Hachig, George and Bobby made me love the music more than I already did.

Antranig Kzirian, Michael Gostanian, Jim Kzirian, 2017 Racine

Antranig Kzirian: The first Olympics I ever attended was in New Jersey. I just remember the awe being there and hearing the All Star Band. My love for the music took on new heights because of that. I also remember the 1995 Olympics in Marlborough, MA. The dances took place in a cavernous convention hall. I was so excited to see John Berberian. At the 1991 Boston Olympics, I loved watching Richard Hagopian and Arto Tunc. A few years ago, as some of you may know, I was in a rock band that toured the world: Viza. I had finished a tour in Europe with Viza and flew from Bologna to Philly for the AYF Olympics. It was such a contrast. I had just finished an exhausting tour doing the “rock and roll oud thing,” and the very next night I am playing with my friends and family in my hometown at the AYF Olympics.  

M.G.: Antranig has also taken our music to new levels. He has toured the world with Viza. He teaches oud in person and via Zoom. He and Aram Hovagimian created an amazing resource for Middle Eastern music. Missing the music at the Olympics just about now? Enjoy their streaming service.

Bruce Gigarjian, 2016 New Jersey

Bruce Gigarjian: The first Olympics I went to and enjoyed the most was 1974 in Worcester. I was a young teenager. John Berberian,  Hachig Kazarian, Onnik Dinkjian, George Righellis and Bobby Sohigian were playing. For some reason, I gravitated to the rhythm section. It was that Olympics that inspired me to take up the drum. The Olympics was a few months after my parents’ anniversary party where Bobby also played. I started playing with my brother, and over time I earned a reputation amongst the New England musicians. The first Olympics I played was also the most memorable. It was 1984 in Watertown, 10 years after the first Olympics I ever attended. Bobby Sohigian was supposed to play but was in poor health. Bobby suggested to John that I take his place. It was a most special endorsement coming from Bobby who was my drumming idol and sadly passed away a few months after that… way too young. The band was John Berberian, Hachig Kazarian, Onnik and Ara Dinkjian and Paul Mooradian. 

After that Olympics, due to the influence of being around the great George Righellis, I picked up the guitar and have played both dumbeg and guitar at several Olympic dances.

M.G.: Bruce related that he was in charge of the music in 1984. When he was offered to play dumbeg for the Sunday night dance, he was concerned that it might look like a conflict of interest. He is such a good and decent fellow, no one thought it was. He is also a guy who quietly and expertly does his job…be it on guitar or dumbeg.

Ron Tutunjian: When playing an Olympics, it doesn’t matter when it was…it was always about the people. When I played with Mal Barsamian, Rich Berberian, Bruce Gigarjian and Paul Mooradian and looked at all the people dancing in unison, I got the chills. It is an indescribable feeling.

M.G.: Ron is the younger brother of Bob Tutunjian who contributes so much to the reporting of the AYF Olympics. Bob focused on AYF athletics and Ron on the music. Ron loves to play. He loves the music. He loves the people and the atmosphere. I love that about him and relish every opportunity I get to play with him. His testimony here is the shortest, but I am certain it is the most heartfelt.

Hachig Kazarian, 2015 Providence

Hachig Kazarian: Actually, I had a few memorable years for different reasons!

The 1971 Olympics in Boston was enjoyable because of the combination of musicians. Richard Hagopian was on oud and vocals, Eli Nazarian played kanun, George Righellis was on guitar, Leo Arzoomian was on the conga drum and vocals, and Bobby Sohigian played the dumbeg. 

My third Olympics was in Providence in 1959. It was the first one that I was actually hired. I played with the HyeTones of Detroit that included Cory Tosoian, Kelly Kuchukian and Adam Manoogian. It was at the Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. The musicians were my best friends and my heroes. We had a lot of fun playing.

Last year in Chicago, I thought we played very well together. I feel I was “on” from beginning to the end of the night which is not easy at my age.

Also, it was a great pleasure meeting and playing with the Richmond Ararat Band. It was in Detroit, perhaps 1961. The band members that I recall were Bedros Bandazian on oud and Mickey Kerneklian on clarinet. I played saxophone.

Hearing the Aramites for the first time at the 1957 Olympics Niagara Falls and then the Vosbikians and Gomidas bands together in Philadelphia 1963 really stick out in my mind.

M.G.: I grew up in Detroit to Hachig’s music. His Govand on “the green album,” The Exciting Sounds of Hachig Kazarian, inspired a generation of clarinet players. His contribution to the Olympics music is incredible. Along with John Berberian and Onnik, he is a true AYF Olympic All Star. 

Besides the AYF video mentioned above, any fan of Hachig should listen to his interview on Taqs.im Podcast.

Putting this together has been a great experience. I appreciate all the musicians for their time and consideration in collecting and sharing their thoughts. I was delighted that John Berberian, Mal Barsamian and Hachig all mentioned Mickey Kerneklian. Mickey is an awesome clarinet player and a consummate ensemble player. He has a sweet sound. I was proud to play several gigs with him in the 1990s and 2000s while living on the east coast. I never knew that he played Olympics, but that is only because he played when I was just a kid. It is no surprise that he did, and I am happy that John, Mal and Hachig acknowledged him.

Bobby Sohigian

There is a recurring theme in this. There is a musician everyone mentions and reveres. There is a musician I wish I could have interviewed:  Bobby Sohigian. He is a true legend, and he died way too young. Whenever we discuss his talent, musicians in my generation are amazed that he was so loud and powerful with or without a microphone. Whenever he wanted, he could take all the attention of the spectators gathered around the stage from the rest of the band with a flurry of unbelievable pops, rolls and syncopations. Then he would let up and again become an integral part of the group. 

There was no Olympics this year. But, there is a lot about the music we love in this article.

Looking forward to 2021 in Worcester.

Mark Gavoor is Associate Professor of Operations Management in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University in Chicago. He is an avid blogger and oud player.

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  1. Mark….a very refreshing and educational article. Hearing from the musicians about their experiences is an opportunity we don’t usually experience…Thoroughly enjoyed reading. Thanks. A good bridge to next year.

  2. Mark,that was an amazing commentary and history of the Armenian Olympics. I have fond memories of our days together especially when you were playing the oud. You were fantastic and I learned a lot from you for which I will be eternally grateful. God bless you and your family. I wish you many happy and successful years. A reward you so richly deserve.

  3. I love the AYF Olympics lens through the eyes of the various Armenian musicians I have had the privilege to hear play over the decades. It’s a very integral part of the weekend and could not live without. It is a common thread every evening that weaves the Olympic fabric together along with athletics. You can’t have one without he other!! Hats off to all our musicians. See you on the dance floor in Worcester!!

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