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Homegrown Plus: Onnik & Ara Dinkjian: Armenian Song

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) We’re continuing the series with a concert and oral history with Armenian American musicians Onnik and Ara Dinkjian.

Five men on stage, one singing and the others with musical instruments.

Onnik and Ara Dinkjian with Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun), Engin Gunaydin (percussion), and Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet), performing at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

Onnik Dinkjian, 89 years old at the time of this 2018 concert, remains America’s most renowned Armenian folk and liturgical singer. He has recorded Armenian folk songs from the villages of Anatolia in Eastern Turkey, especially in the unique dialect from his ancestral city of Diyarbekir, known as Dikranagerd to Armenians. Dinkjian is among the last few hundred people who speak this endangered dialect and wants to record as many songs in this language as possible to preserve and disseminate them. Onnik performs with his son, Ara Dinkjian, who continues the family tradition in Armenian music as a talented instrumentalist and composer. Ara plays the oud, or Middle Eastern lute, in this concert. Together, father and son collaborated on a special album bringing together songs in the dialect of Anatolia, Diyarbekiri Hokin (Mira Records, 2015). Onnik performs two songs with lyrics that he wrote that can be found on this album in this concert. In “Mamis” (My Mother), he recalls his mother’s lullaby (at about 10 minutes into the video). “Vay Babo” (Oh Daddy), is a story told from the point of view of a small boy on bath day — explained further in the oral history video below (at about 23 minutes into the concert video). Both of these are set to traditional tunes. 

Here is the concert video. Keep reading to learn more about it. For this concert, Onnik and Ara are joined by an ensemble of outstanding instrumentalists: Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun), Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet), Pablo Vergara (keyboard), Engin Gunaydin (percussion). Don’t worry if you do not understand the language, these performers are so expressive that you will understand the emotions if not the words. Before the concert is over, I think you will find that Onnik Dinkjian has convinced you that music keeps you young.

Onnik Dinkjian was born Jean-Joseph Miliyan in Paris, France in 1929, to parents from Dikranagerd who were refugees from the Armenian genocide that occurred during World War I when Turkey was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Those Armenians who were fortunate to escape, like the Miliayn family, settled in many different parts of the world. Armenians no longer lived in Anatolia. So the songs and musical traditions that the Dinkjian family has helped to preserve are among the remaining cultural treasures of the diaspora and of international importance.

A man singing into a microphone.

Onnik Dinkjian singing at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

Onnik Dinkjian’s father died when he was an infant and his mother died when he was five. He was raised by his godparents who were also from Dikranagerd and he grew up speaking the dialect of that city. He found comfort and happiness in singing, initially in the Armenian Church of Paris. Not long after arriving in America with his family as a teenager in the late 1940s, he began performing at secular events as well as in religious services. At about this time he also changed his name in honor of his adoptive parents, using their surname. His fame as a great interpreter of Armenian song has brought him to concert halls throughout Europe, The United States, and South America. Dinkjian has composed many songs in addition to the examples in this concert, some of which are sung in his native dialect. In 2010 he traveled to Diyarbakır (Dikranagerd) with his son, Ara, to perform for Turkish audiences. This trip was included in a 2014 documentary film, Garod (Longing), by filmmakers Onur Günay and Burcu Yildiz, which tells the story of this father and son collaboration to preserve Armenian music and the culture and dialect of Dikranagerd.

A man playing a stringed instrument.

Ara Dinkjian playing the oud at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick, 2018.

Ara Dinkjian, inherited his father’s love and passion for Armenian music. He plays both western and eastern instruments including piano, guitar, dumbeg (drum) and clarinet. In 1980, he graduated from the Hartt College of Music, earning the country’s first and only special degree in the instrument for which he has become most well-known, the oud or Middle Eastern lute. For over forty years, he served as organist in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Throughout his musical life, Ara has continued to develop his highly personal compositional style which blends his eastern and western roots. In 1985, to help realize these compositions and musical concepts, Ara formed his highly acclaimed instrumental quartet, Night Ark. Night Ark’s recordings and concert tours were highly influential for musicians and music lovers throughout the world because they demonstrated how music can be progressive and creative while still retaining the dignity and soul of one’s culture. Ara performed at the Library of Congress with the group Zulal in 2015 and the webcast of that event is at the link (see the resources list at the end of this article for the oral history and Library of Congress YouTube links related to this event).

At the end of this concert you will hear Onnik sing two beautiful songs that may be very old. They were collected and preserved by the great Armenian ethnomusicologist, composer, and priest, Soghomon Soghomonian, known after his ordination as Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). “Dle Yaman” is an ancient love song (you will find it at about 50 minutes into the video). It is sung from the point of view of a young man longing for a lost love. After the genocide, the song came to have a different meaning for Armenians, expressing the longing for their homeland and all that was lost. It is deeply sad, and yet it also is an expression of what it means to be Armenian. It is, after all, this longing that drives the need to preserve Armenian culture, to connect with each other, and to tell their stories. After “Dle Yaman,” Onnik sings a much happier song to end the concert, ”Hoy Nazan,” a dance song with lyrics that can be varied to suit the occasion.

In the 1930s, collector Sidney Robertson Cowell collected songs from several ethnic groups in California for the Library of Congress, some of them refugees from World War I. In 1939 she recorded Ruben J. Baboyan, who is thought to have been a refugee from Turkey. Two of the songs he sang were “Dle Yaman” (spelled “Del le Yaman” by the collector) and an American version of ”Hoy Nazan” (spelled “Hoy Nazanem” by the collector). Baboyan’s a capella renditions of the tunes are simpler than those sung by Dinkjian, but recognizable.

In this next video, Onnik and Ara are interviewed by Carolyn Rapkevian, the Assistant Director for Education and Museum Programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, assisting here using another of her areas of expertise, the Armenian diaspora. The Dinkjians talk about their effort to preserve songs in the dialect of Anatolia, including their journey to perform in Anatolia to the people who live there today. Although Armenian is no longer spoken, they were well received. They were also surprised to find that some of the Armenian tunes were still in use, sung with lyrics in other languages.

Resources

Ara Dinkjian and Zulal: Traditional Armenian Music and Song, Library of Congress, 2015 (video). Also on Library of Congress YouTube.

Ara Dinkjian and Zulal Oral History, Library of Congress, 2015 (video). Also on Library of Congress YouTube.

“Armenian American Song,” in The Library of Congress Presents the Songs of America.

Armenian songs and music collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939 (list of audio recordings, photographs of performers and instruments, drawings of instruments, and manuscripts) presented in California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties (Library of Congress).

Onnik Dinkjian: The Soul of Dikranagerd:  Armenian music and song from New Jersey (video), also on Library of Congress YouTube.

 Oral History with Ara, Onnik Dinkjian, and Carolyn Rapkievian (video). Also on Library of Congress YouTube.

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