Club 27: A Fitting Farewell

You’ve heard of Onnik Dinkjian. We’ve all heard of Onnik Dinkjian. “He sang at my wedding—my parents’ too.” “I have three copies of The Many Sides of Onnik.” “We listen to Havadamk on the car ride to Sunday school.” “Hoy Nazan is my kids’ favorite song!” “I can’t remember an Olympics without his voice.” These are all common refrains. Well, this past weekend was his final performance at St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in New York City. 

Onnik Dinkjian

To commemorate this monumental event, I could tell you about his humble childhood growing up in a dirt floor shack. How he lost both parents at a young age. How he was adopted by his godparents and moved to the United States in 1946. How his music career started with choir practice at church and has grown in achievements and awards. How he’s just as sweet at home as he is on stage—perhaps a little less hammy, but nonetheless. How he’s selflessly served his community through music for over 70 years, and how as his granddaughter, I’m just so proud. I could tell you he’s a legend, but I don’t have to tell you any of that, because like I said, we all know Onnik. No, instead I’d like to tell you about Club 27, and I think he’d like that, too. 

A packed dance floor

Ornate oak doors open upon a modest church basement. A self-service coat closet is on your right, and Aunt Louise and Uncle Morris man the ticket table on your left. You’re told your mom already paid for you, so you make your way inside, stopping every couple of steps to kiss and greet the usual cast of characters. Round tables are draped with red and gold cellophane tablecloths, a few peppermints scattered across them. Aunt Lulu and Aunt Sally, Aunt Alice and Aunt MaryAnne are already seated at their usual table—front row seats to the dance floor. Uncle Pete and Uncle Avi are setting up behind the bar, and Aunt Meg runs Poland Spring bottles out from the kitchen. On the little stage, with a big Mount Ararat painting, the musicians are already seated—Jimmy on dumbeg, Dad on keyboard, Raffi on oud, Stevie on clarinet, Onnik. The music starts, and it’s time to dance.

Front row seats to the dance floor

For four hours, you shoorch bar and halleh, tamzara and pampouri, solo dance with your Meme and smile to watch your friends dance with their grandmas, too. You look around and see everything and everyone doing exactly what they always do at Club 27. There’s Aunt Rosemary leading line after line, and you stare at her feet to make sure you’ve got the steps right. There’s Big Mike sitting by the corner of the stage, waving his cane and egging on the dancers. There’s the hierarchical order of who stands where during the halleh, and don’t even think about trying to break into the center of that line. My nephews are at a table—one sipping on a seltzer with muffling headphones covering his ears, the other fast asleep across two chairs pushed together. There are the two odar women who come every year, because they feel something in this music. There’s Aunt Roxy with her funky jacket and Aunt MaryLou making everyone laugh. There’s more money in the tip basket at the bar than what they sold in drinks. There’s phones out recording and moms Facebook live-ing. Pinkies grow tired and feet grow sore, but no one dares to stop dancing, because Onnik hasn’t stopped singing. 

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The coffee is served and you know the night is coming to an end. He sings one final song—Yerevan like always, but this time there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Everyone pitches in to clean up the hall. We roll up the tablecloths and stuff them into the garbage cans. The musicians’ equipment is loaded into their cars. The secret window is opened up and the bottles of alcohol are stashed away. The night is over although no one wants it to be.

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There is something so magical about Club 27, something I wish I could bottle up and keep to myself, store on my shelf and revisit when I feel my identity waning, when I just need a little kef. For so long, I’ve watched my Pepe up on that stage. I’ve seen how he accompanies these incredible club-goers as they carry on our traditions and harness our culture, as they create community unlike anything anywhere else. I’ve watched as they, too, have accompanied him. They transport Onnik back in time. They restore him into the young man whose career started on that very same stage. 

Margo Dinkjian, the author’s mother, dancing

Club 27 is not just a dance in a crowded church basement. It’s a time capsule, a suspension of reality, where a performer and his crowd don’t feel or act their own age. It’s a cherished tradition that will never be the same. But that’s how things go. Onnik gave his final performance at St. Illuminator’s Cathedral—a fitting farewell. His music, his impact, his legacy and his beloved Club 27 will reign forever, though. We’ll make sure of it.

Arev Dinkjian

Arev Dinkjian

Arev Dinkjian grew up in an Armenian household in Fort Lee, NJ. She was always surrounded by art, sourced by her musical father and grandfather, Ara and Onnik, or her creative mother Margo. Arev graduated from Providence College with a degree in elementary and special education. She enjoys teaching language arts to her students and takes great pride in instilling an appreciation for literature in her classroom. She is a former member of the New Jersey AYF “Arsen" Chapter and a member of both the Bergen County ARS and the Sts. Vartanantz Ladies’ Guild. She also dedicated many summers to AYF Camp Haiastan, which she says remains her favorite topic to write about.
Arev Dinkjian

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  1. Arev, this is so beautifully captured. Onnik has been the soundtrack to our experience as Armenians growing up on the East coast. I love it that he was able to share his voice and love and have that reflected back at him once more. Thank you for your voice and your willingness to share it!

  2. Arev, you brought tears to my eyes.

    I’ve known your Grandfather since I was a little boy, serving on the alter, as a “Momagal” (Candle Boy), at St. Illuminator’s and also singing along with one of his first recordings, “Hey Jan, Yerevan”, on a 78 RPM record.

    Your Grandfather has been and, is, an inspiration to us all. Even though he may not be performing on stage any longer (let’s see about that) that doesn’t mean we won’t stop singing his songs. Albeit, not quite as good.

  3. Arev, you have made so many people smile & cry the good tears. Some of us began our lives with hearing Onnik from the altar with Der Arsen Simoniantz who married our parents, christened all of us at St. Illuminators as we had no church in NJ until our parents all made it happen in 1958. Lo and behold, Onnik ended up in NJ as so many New Yorkers and blessed us with his voice from the altar at Sts Vartanantz. Then he began his popularity with the band as up until then, he taught us the old Armenian folk songs name of which he still sings. Koon Yeghir Balas still makes me cry as I think of our being the lucky ones growing up with this music. Onnik kept this music alive and we thank him from the bottom of our hearts

  4. For those of us who grew up going to Sts. Vartanantz at a certain time, Onnik Dinkjian’s voice will always be the sound of the Armenian church, and we are very lucky for that.

  5. We love you Onnik! Will never forget being your neighbor on the Armenian cruise and hopefully not keeping you awake all night long with mine and Karen Kehetian’s giggly and laughter! Olympics will NEVER be the same without you and Hachig!

  6. I First heard onnik perform on november 1 1980,as a twelve yearold.David Attarian,John Berberian And Ara Dinkjian were also performing. At 1 point onnik handed me his tambourine and while sitting beside ara,the first song i recall playing along was,Yegoor Yegoor Aghvor Aghchig. i have onnik and ara to thank to getting me started in my armenian music intrests. i have the video from that,as well many audio and video recordings of onnik performing. be it olympics,private parties,weddings,i got it all,u are a legend onnik!!!!

  7. As my sister, Sona Petrossian, so aptly stated, we grew up with Onnik, at church and at dances.
    I was an altar boy at St Vartanantz church from 1958-1965 and every Sunday was a concert quality Badearak,
    with Onnik as the Sargavag and Armen Babamian, the choir director. Those were the days.
    Onnik is an Armenian treasure.

  8. I had hoped this day would never come! THANK YOU ONNIK! We have been blessed. Enjoy your next adventures!

  9. Now that you’ve made me cry, I’ll 👏👏👏👏.
    Beautiful article that captured it all!
    Long life and many more blessings to you, Uncle Onnik!
    I’m so thankful I could be there for his, but not the final, Cafe 27!

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