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Taking a Look Back: Armenians Making Music

Armenians are passionate about their music – all kinds: solo instrumentalists and vocalists, symphonies, bands, and choirs; sacred, classical folk, patriotic, political, rock, heavy metal, and opera with its touch of theater. Project SAVE Archives’ photo-donor files hold examples of a wide variety of musical experiences – these files are the source of our calendar photographs.

When selecting photos for our calendars, we aim for a long range of time periods from as early as possible. In this calendar, the earliest photo is from 1908.

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This photo depicts the Euphrates College Orchestra (Yeprad College Nvakakhoomp), Kharpert. The pho

to was taken in Historic Armenia, Ottoman Empire, 1908. The photographer is unknown.

Although setting numbers on the face of the original photograph is not acceptable practice today, numbering has made it possible to connect names with faces- all but five (6, 9, 17, 19 and 20) are matched with names on the reverse side of the original photograph. The conductor, #14 at right, is Edward F. Carey, a preacher with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and a teacher of violin at Yepard College. The photo donor’s father, Bedros Terzian, holds his violin in the second row, 3rd from left.

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One of the more recent photos from this calendar depicts an Armenian children’s choir celebrating the new year. The handwritten caption on the back of this photo reads; “The children’s choir is welcoming The New Year (personified by one of the costumed players) with bells and cymbals.” The photo was taken in Nor Sebastia, Yerevan, Soviet Armenia, c. 1980s Photograph by B. Boghossian. Courtesy of Oscan Ketchian and the Pan Sebastia Rehabilitation Union, New York

There are many instruments Armenians play that are uniquely Armenian. One of those instruments is the duduk, which is made of apricot wood. Other instruments that Armenians have mastered originated among their Middle Eastern neighbors. The kemancheh (kamancha) is a stringed gourd played upright on the knee with a bow. It is an ancient Persian instrument, as are the very Middle Eastern melon-shaped oud (ud), its cousin the mandolin, the tarr (tar) and the kanoon, which is similar to the zither.


Sarkis Arakelyan, master craftsman of folk-music instruments, is pictured in his workshop in Soviet Armenia, c. 1930s. Signs on the wall in Armenian and Russian speak of Arakelyan’s artadramas (workshop), his traditional artisanal techniques, and the services he provides. Courtesy of Jack Torosian. Translation by Aram Ohanian, Yerevan, Armenia. Photograph by S. Soloviev.


In the image to the right, (dated 1932), a large group of mandolin students have gathered with their teacher Miss Serpouhi. She is seated in the center of the group. The students attended the private Sahagian School of St. Kevork Armenian Apostolic Church in Samatia, a suburb of Istanbul where many Armenians lived. The photo donor’s brother Shavarsh stands in back on the right side.


Here, the Vosbikian Continental Band of Philadelphia is photographed while each member holds their instrument, c. late 1950s. Front l-r: Steve Ajdaharian, piano; Albert Santerian and Joe Vosbikian, dumbeg; Sam Vosbikian, oud. Back l-r: Mike Vosbikian, saxophone; Jirair Hovnanian, vocal; and Jim Vosbikian, clarinet and vocal.

The Vosbikian Band was very popular throughout the Armenian communities of the United States, especially on the East Coast, starting in the ‘Big Band’ era of the 1940s. They developed an American-Armenian style by combining traditional Armenian folk/urban sounds and rhythms with those of American jazz and popular music—music to dance to. They played mostly western Armenian music, but also some Arabic, Jewish, and Turkish, thus the ‘Continental’ in their name. They played for other ethnic communities—lots of Assyrian weddings—and also for VIPs. When the US State Department was honoring the Shah of Iran, there was no Persian band available, so the Vosbikians were invited to entertain the Shah and his entourage at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Courtesy of Eleanor Der Parseghian Caroglanian, and Joseph Vosbikian.


Pictured on the right is dramatic contralto soloist Madame Rose Zulalian. In this photo, she performs at a Hampartzoum Berberian concert in Boston, probably at John Hancock Hall, c. early 1950s; photo by Marty Hartutunian.

“We practiced at St. James [Armenian Apostolic Church] Hall in Watertown,” the phoro donor remembers Rose Zulalian as a “Very warm people-person who mixed with the youth and always encouraged us. She even wanted all the lights on when she sang so that she could ‘see her people.'” Adrina continued, By the way, we heard that

Madame’s dress, all gold threads, weighed 50 pounds!” (Photo donor Adrina Tutunjian)


Here, Madame Rose Zulalian sings for the crowd at the Armenian Day War Bond Rally. She is accompanied by Parouhi Adamian (Boyajian) at the piano. Photographer unknown. Worcester City Hall, c. 1942. Courtesy of Torkom and Parouhi Adamian Boyajian

Another iconic musician is Maestro Andranik Aroustamian. In addition to playing the kemancheh, Aroustamian was also a composer and arranger. His portait was taken in 1982 by Studio Mario, Astoria, New York. Courtesy of Andranik Aroustamian.


In 1918, Aroustamian was born in Russia into a musical family originally from Iran. His family returned to Iran in 1937 when the Soviet Union deported those without citizenship. Andranik continued his classical music training in Iran, and concertized. In 1946 he and other family members accepted Soviet Armenia’s invitation to return to the homeland. As he tells it, it was 25 years of torturous living hounded by the KGB. In 1971 he took advantage of a new arrangement orchestrated by the United Nations that allowed Soviet citizens with immediate family into the west to emigrate. Andranik joined his brother in the United States and is credited with establishing the kemacheh as a classical instrument for the concert stage.

Every culture has its music, a special language that moves us and speaks to us whether we are the players or the listeners. For Armenians, as with most people, music is everywhere – celebrating life’s happenings, defining place, expressing emotion and mood, mimicking our motions, and sometimes, just keeping us company.

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In the photo above, French Armenian Legionaaires take a break by making music in the field; c. 1920; location and photographer unidentified. Diran Patapanian, father of the photo donor, holds a demitse cup and his clarinet. His best friend Shahin Hachadoorian stands at right. Courtesy of Ed Patapanian.

Music is one of the most basic cultural expressions that truly defines the spirit of a people. The sound of Armenian music… play on!