By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Most bands and singers pay their dues in smoky nightclubs, bars and coffee shops. Harout honed his skills at Armenian engagement parties, baptisms, fairs and dinner dances, where one expects five to six hours of music (a DJ and a couple of singers) and an obscene amount of food. Fathers-of-the-bride in places as far away as France have typically shelled out a couple of thousand bucks for just an hour of Harout‘s time. For a lot of people, getting Harout to perform at their party is like getting the pope to bless their child. The actual number of couples he’s married off nearly every weekend for 24 years approaches the infinite.
”You know, I‘ve sung at my friends’ weddings, and their children‘s weddings, and then their children’s baptisms. That‘s three generations listening to my music. It makes me very proud.“
Sure, he’s played the Rose Bowl, the Shrine and the Palladium, too. But it‘s at all those banquet halls, whatever the occasion, where fans get the best sense of what Harout’s music is about. An amalgamation of contemporary, folk and patriotic musics, at times it may sound like flashy pop, but with an inescapable earthiness that seems to emanate from the very soul of his people. Harout interprets songs by fellow artists including Rouben Hakhverdian, Robert Amirkhanian, Arthur Meschian and others who write for him. But it‘s the centuries-old sacred and grandiose folk tunes about protecting the soil and fighting in the highlands -- ”Antranik Pasha,“ ”Sassouni Orore,“ ”Msho Aghchig“ -- that really get the blood stirring with nationalistic pride. The narratives are so rich that they become audible post cards for his listeners, many of whom have only seen pictures of the Mother Country.
Harout’s husky tenor has a softness that coos and quivers when he does the syrupy love songs with sweeping keyboards that sound as if they‘re aching along with him. He wants to feel your pain, and he makes sure you feel his. Many a couple has slow-danced to that familiar chorus from ”Dariner Antzan“ (”The Years Are Gone“). Even with the more hip-twitching stuff, Harout’s voice feels like Downy to your ears.
This is joyous music -- the resplendent and celebratory ”shish kebab“ anthems about wining and dining, boy-pursues-girl and, yes, more wedding talk are brick-heavy with percussion, and get your torso writhing shamelessly. Just a few beats of the tumpook (drum) and crowds spring to their feet to form a shoorch bar (circle dance with fancy footwork and linking the pinkies) and wave napkins in the air. Any gathering without the perennial favorites ”Al Ayloukhes“ (”Handkerchief“) or ”Armenian Hoghe“ would be as tastelessly incomplete as not having enough appetizers before the main course. More important, Harout‘s appeal is multigenerational. Yes, his records are blasted out of lowered Beemers cruising down Brand Boulevard in Glendale, though it’s not the kind of music solely dependent on fickle 14-year-olds. Attend any of his functions, and you‘re not sure whether it’s the parents who drag their kids or the kids who drag their parents. The only difference is that the older generation has him on dusty old cassettes.
Unfortunately, his musical contemporaries, who‘ve dumbed down an already bloated market, can’t be held in similar high esteem. ”It‘s garbage right now,“ he says with disdain. There are over 500,000 Armenians living in Southern California, and that means a lot of banquet halls and dinner dances. That means a lot of singers, too -- anyone with two or three thousand dollars can rent a studio and make a record. You also see more of them on TV -- what used to be a few hours of Armenian cable on weekends has now surged to two 24-hour channels featuring inept MTV-like videos of tough-looking, overweight mafiosi whipping out cell phones and posing in front of Benzes. (What better sign of prosperity to the folks back home?) And those lyrics they belch, so lazy and juvenile, a you’d find more depth in a nursery rhyme. Thanks to them, rabis (street thug) has become an actual musical category in some stores.
”You know, when a small community like ours is just beginning in a country as big as this, there‘s a real strong desire to stick together,“ says Harout. ”Years go by, people start making money, and we all drift apart. Economically, we’re doing well. But as a community, we‘ve turned into all these different groups -- Lebanese Armenians here, Iranian Armenians there . . . We’ve all been sectioned off. I‘m very opposed to that.“
Then there’s the question of what is authentically Armenian. Coming from a culture hell-bent on self-preservation, the music these days hardly sounds pure -- a techno beat here, flamenco guitar there and someone wailing in Arabic in the background make for a kind of homogenized ”international“ or ”world“ muck (and one that, within a larger music industry currently in heat with crossoverdom, is also often falsely categorized as ”Middle Eastern“). Armenian music shares many instruments with Arab and even African countries, yet its separate roots go back more than 2,000 years.