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.
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.
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.
”The real sound is lost,“ says Harout. ”If you‘re going to do something Armenian, do it right. Our music and poetry are so rich; there are songs written hundreds of years ago that are still untouched. Go and find them, take them and make them your own.“
There are always exceptions, though. Among Harout’s favorites is an up-and-coming singer by the name of Nune, who‘s doing the modern thing and still keeping the tradition alive. But he’s most fond of Rouben Hakhverdian, a ”real troubadour“ who has a wonderfully biting way of spouting Dylanesque ramblings like they‘re the Gospel. His collaboration with Harout on the 1996 almost all-acoustic Yerke Nayev Aghotk Eh (Songs Are Also Prayers) is somber, intimate and filled with the kind of dirt-under-the-fingernails grit one must listen to, not dance to. Just two men with their guitars.
Harout has no family left in Armenia. He lives comfortably in North Hollywood with his son, Isay, and his wife, Rose, who does all the backup vocals on his records. But the lifetime of gratitude Harout feels he owes to that country the size of Maryland always humbles him.
Now an independent republic, Armenia and its people have in recent years been reborn, somewhat. But there’s still no profitable market for music there. ”After more than 70 years of communism,“ he says, ”and all of a sudden you become independent — it‘s very difficult. And it’s going to take time for all the redevelopment that people keep talking about.“
He‘s optimistic, though. ”We’re a people who have seen so many difficult times. But unlike some of those other ancient civilizations, we‘re still here. We may be small, but at least we have schools, a religion, a country to go back to. I see our time here as temporary, really. One day, we’re all going back.“
Harout Pamboukjian‘s music can be found at all the Armenian music stores in the greater L.A. area, or visit www.parseghian records.com. Currently, he’s working on his 23rd album and gearing up for an October show at the Alex Theater in Glendale. Coming soon to a wedding or baptism near you.