The Wedding Singer 

Wednesday, Jun 21 2000

A year after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia that killed 25,000 people and left more than 500,000 homeless, hundreds of thousands of survivors looking for some kind of temporary diversion from the devastation packed the Hrazdan stadium and Hamalir Demirchian Arena to hear 28 concerts by their favorite singer. Then--Minister of Culture Yuri Melik-Ohanjanian was so impressed by the turnout that he promised he would mark this in the national encyclopedia, once the country got back on its feet, as the highest-attended performance in the history of Armenia.

Harout Pamboukjian wanted to make an even bigger impact, though. For him, this was payback time. After almost 15 years, he had arrived back on his country’s doorstep not as a guest, not as a star who made his riches in America, but as the native son whose music, he felt, belonged to the people who gave birth to him.

Armenia is and seemingly has always been a place rebounding from one economic and political upheaval after another -- so who has time for music? Yet Harout‘s records still make it into every Armenian home, largely by way of the usual piracy and bootlegging, of course. And in Los Angeles, he’s crafted the local scene for so long he‘s almost become his own category in all the Armenian music stores. Just mention his first name, because anyone from Uruguay to Uzbekistan who’s ever heard ”Dariner Antzan“ will know exactly who you‘re talking about.

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The man’s been around. The face -- a forest of black hair, hairline down to the bridge of his nose, heavy beard -- has appeared on 22 albums. And he‘s considered a giant alongside pillars of Armenian music, singers like Hovannes Badalian and Rouben Matevosian. Harout’s is a career that started in a former communist country and flourished in what‘s now the largest Armenian diaspora in the world -- Los Angeles.

Born in 1950 in the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, Harout grew up listening to the country’s popular singers of the day, like Badalian, Matevosian and Ofelia Hampar-tsoumian. His mother was a singer, and he took up the guitar -- he also plays the bouzouki and saz (stringed instruments), dhol (drums) and piano -- in his early teens, later forming a band called Erebouni. ”My mother had a beautiful voice,“ he says, his hands gesturing wildly as if they want to do all the talking. ”And I heard all those old folk songs in my house at an early age.“ His band went from village to village playing, surprisingly, covers of everything from Charles Aznavour to Deep Purple and Elvis, at weddings and universities (”That, in a way, was my schooling“).

But to actually make music a career in a country under Soviet rule was nearly impossible. As with most every source of information, the government filtered all the music on radio and TV, so people usually waited years to see or hear anything new from their favorite artists. ”Whatever I‘ve done here, I’m positive I wouldn‘t have been able to do back home,“ he says. ”There was no freedom to express yourself, in the arts or anything else. Your chances were few and far between. It was all about control, control, control.“ Harout and most of his family left in 1975. After a year in Lebanon, he came to L.A. and took up residence in Hollywood.

In the late ’70s and early ‘80s, there were only a few thousand Armenians in L.A., most of whom were centered in East Hollywood. There were two local cable programs on the weekend that featured news and music, and nearly all the businesses -- Parseghian Records, Arka Photo, Panos Pastry, Carousel, King Arshag, etc. -- were on Hollywood or Santa Monica boulevards. Life was simpler then, Harout recalls, and the scarcity of other singers in town left the roads wide open for him to make his mark.

Only two months after his arrival here, Harout put together a studio band and recorded his first album, Our Eyir Astvats (Where Were You, God?) at the Quad Teck studio on Western and Sixth in Koreatown. He got on the nightclub circuit, doing his first gigs on Sundays at a Beverly Hills tennis club owned by an Armenian. His audiences, however, didn’t take too kindly to his approach.

”When I first started singing here, people laughed at me. I think I was a little too advanced. These people were used to listening to Armenian music with old classical instruments. But I thought, ‘This is a jazz and rock & roll country,’ so I came with my guitar, drums and synthesizer. They thought I was crazy. It took time for their ears to get accustomed to it.“ That first album, now considered a classic, barely resembles the trademark sound he‘s become known for since then. Instead of the usual weepy duduk (a double-reed often called ”the saddest instrument in the world“) or synths, you get clarinet, organ and a lot of bass. Listen closer and you’ll hear some funky wah-wah guitar too, though only a few of the songs are dance-oriented, certainly different from the material that later made him so popular at weddings.

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