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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Thanks to Joe Zeytoonian for showing me a new way to tell the Armenian story

My father bought an old upright piano when I was five or six years old. He couldn’t play and never tried to learn, but he encouraged me to try.

To his delight and mine, it didn’t take long before I could hunt and peck my way through my favorite nursery-rhyme tunes. By Christmas, I had Jingle Bells pretty much nailed, although some of the jingle got a bit jangled.

Joe Zeytoonian and Myriam Eli at St. John's
The result so encouraged my parents that they bought a new piano as a present for my seventh birthday. I took lessons well into my teens but I never really learned to read music.

For years, I was proud that I could play so well by ear that most people didn’t know I was musically illiterate. I even faked my way through middle-school band.  Best of all, my father seemed pleased that I could play the melodies from his Armenian recordings.

What else mattered?

Actually, it all mattered when I began to think about pursuing music seriously. It was clear that I’d have to start over and work incredibly hard just to learn the basics that I’d skimmed over. By then, I was already on my way to mastering the simpler ABCs of English, so it was much easier to commit to working with words. 

I have no regrets about my career choice, but I still love music so much that I occasionally experience wistful what-ifs while listening to friends who not only have real talent but who dedicated themselves to developing it.

Joe Zeytoonian, for instance.

Joe and I didn’t know each other growing up but we experienced parallel childhoods as first-generation American sons of Armenian Genocide survivors. My father was a dry cleaner, his was a cobbler. Mine sang Armenian and Turkish songs while playing 78-rpm phonograph records. His father sang Armenian and Turkish songs while playing the oud.

“That music really pulled me in,” Joe says. “It became part of me.”

The growing affinity alarmed Joe’s father, who worried that teaching his youngest son to play might set him on a path to becoming a professional musician. In his old-world view, that wasn’t a sufficiently high aspiration.

As a result, Joe didn’t start playing the oud until his mid-teens. He figured it out on his own. I don’t play the oud but I know enough to be awed by the idea. An oud is a lute without frets. Imagine a piano without keys and you’ll get an idea of the challenge this presents. 

When I sat down at my piano keyboard, I at least had a one-in-thirteen chance of hitting the right note every time. But like the human voice, the oud’s is infinitely variable.

An oudist doesn’t just play notes, he shapes them and expresses himself through them. As a result, the oud is hauntingly evocative—an instrument peculiarly suited to a people whose music conveys a long, rich but often painful history.

Joe played with local bands at Armenian dances while earning a mathematics degree at Boston University. For years, he worked days as a computer programmer while playing his music at night and on weekends. He was in his mid-thirties when he made the life-changing decision to commit to music full time.

In 1981, Joe moved to Margate, Florida with his life-and-music partner Myriam Eli. Together they formed the Harmonic Motion Music and Dance Theater. Myriam is an exceptionally versatile dancer who also plays percussion instruments. Joe sings as well as plays the oud.

Often joined by other performers, they showcase an array of musical styles from different  cultures. They’ve recorded and performed with many top Near and Middle Eastern musicians, as well as mainstream artists such as Shakira and Gloria Estefan. It adds up to a long resume, matched by an impressive list of honors.

I’ve always enjoyed their performances, so I was particularly excited as well as a bit surprised when Joe called a few weeks ago and invited me to participate in an event on Miami Beach.

Joe read my memoir and was struck by similarities in our experiences. He asked me to read a few selections during a music-and-dance program at St. John’s United Methodist Church. The church wanted to expose its community to Armenian culture while acknowledging the 100-year remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.

I was intrigued when Joe suggested I speak in three segments interspersed with music and dance. I’m used to working solo, and I was unsure whether I’d be intruding on the program. But Joe assured me the arrangement would work well, and I trusted him.

He was right, of course.

The program called Hye Doun (Armenian Home) drew a mostly non-Armenian crowd from throughout South Florida. Joe and Myriam were joined by Iranian-American musician Reza Filsoofi and vocalist Alique Mazmanian. You can see a sample by clicking here.

The reaction of the audience and our hosts from St. John’s was truly rewarding. Several people said they’d known little about Armenians or the Genocide but came away feeling strongly about the Armenian experience and thanked us for enlightening them.

I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I’m thankful to Joe and Myriam for giving me the chance to try something different: telling the Armenian story in a collaborative effort of words and music. It would be fascinating to explore more ways to do that.

I also came away with a deeper appreciation of their artistry after getting an up-close look at the discipline and effort behind the music. Clearly, I had the easy part, which made me at least a bit less wistful about my abandoned piano.