On November 26, 2005 Ara Dinkjian finished what is now considered a historic concert in Jerusalem to conclude the annual Oud Festival there. Reflecting back on his performance and crowd reaction, the humble Mr. Dinkjian simply said, "I had a good night". Little did he know that the concert was actually being recorded by the live sound engineer on duty at the theater, Uri Barak. A couple days later as the New Jersey born musician and composer was getting ready to head back home to the States, he received an audio copy of the concert. Upon first listen, he could not believe the sonic quality of the recording and called up some local musician friends in NYC to review the contents. They all agreed, Ara finally had something a studio album could never record. Magic. "An Armenian in America: Live from Jerusalem" thus goes down as being one of the more celebrated accidental world music albums ever released.
Just a tad under 50 years old now, Ara Dinkjian name evokes different meanings to different people. To some, he is singer "Onnik's kid" who made his professional debut at 5 years old at the 1964 New York City World's Fair playing on the dumbeg with the likes of oud icons Johnny Berberian and the now deceased George Mgrdichian. It was that Ara Dinkjian who would be thrust into the world of music while gladly accompanying his father's band on the guitar, dumbeg or any other instrument that the ensemble needed- all before he turned 18. To others, Ara is a pioneer in the area of ethno jazz with the formation of his group Night Ark in 1986, which introduced listeners to a new blend of Anatolian roots music fused with jazz. Members included now-famous Arto Tuncboyaciyan on the percussion as well as pianist/composer Armen Donelian. And still to others, Ara Dinkjian is simply known as the man who composed the multi-platinum record selling song "Dinata", by Greek diva Eleftheria Arvanitaki. "Dinata" remains one of the most popular Greek songs of all time and was chosen as one of the closing songs at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Here is a clip of "Dinata" on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H_qi2y7_xo Arto is providing the wacky voice and drums, and Ara is on the cumbus.
"An Armenian in America" consists of 12 tracks, an equal mix of reinterpretations of old Night Ark tunes, or brand new compositions. This time, however, he performs on the instrument which is probably closest to his soul in the oud. While Ara has shown recorded flashes of his mastery of the instrument in Night Ark recordings or with other artists, those familiar with his extremely rare appearances on the oud can attest that it is indeed something special. Through both the Night Ark and guest artist performances, Ara has always believed in a collaborative concept of making the instrument blend into a total mosaic of a song. Thus, the prior recordings have always taken on the shape of restrain, with the instrument merely acting as color in his musical paintings. Yet, others who have heard about "underground cassettes" of the oud recordings of Ara unplugged at NYC functions or the Oud Festival in Greece a few years back have never been able to get their hands on a commercially available copy of what many feel Ara does best, play the oud. This is why "An Armenian" is so thrilling for some of us, who have either studied or admired the oud in the hands of a master on record. On the CD under review, Dinkjian keeps the ensemble lean with monster Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco and keyboard player Adi Rennert. Indeed both Fresco and Rennert both acknowledge that performing onstage with Dinkjian in Jerusalem's Confederate House in front of a sold crowd was indeed special due to their love and respect of Ara's music.
That love and respect of Mr. Dinkjian's music is not just from Adi and Zohar. Rather, it can be displayed all over Greece, Turkey, and Israel. In each of these countries, Ara's songs are played on the radio daily with songs such as "Homecoming", "Offering", and others instantly recognizable in their native language. Indeed, in the case of "Homecoming", the lyrics have been written to that tune in over 13 known languages, including the smash "Dinata" in Greece. Understanding the roots of the power of Dinkjian's compositions, as opposed to just his oud playing, are key.
Mr. Dinkjian enrolled at The Hartt School, a specialized performing arts college in Hartford, CT and was offered a scholarship to attend at the age of 18. While others flashed Chopin Etudes or Sonatas by Beethoven, Ara walked in and performed on the oud, eventually creating a curriculum and graduating with the only "oud degree" in the country at the time. After graduation, Dinkjian and some of his friends went to Switzerland to see if they could make it as musicians. Coincidentally, the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival was about to take place and the quartet of Brian McGlaughlin, Sid Clark, David Dyson, and Ara were hanging around the hotels and bars where some of the participants were. They picked up their instruments and started playing impromptu and become a modest hit within the informal music circles. One night, a waiter mentioned that the organizer of the Jazz Festival was having a party and that this may be a good time to mix and mingle. And so, Ara and his band crashed Claude Nobs party and while there saw musical legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Betty Carter, and Rick Wakeman (among others). Their jaws dropped, and then they got bold. Then, as Ara would recount, "I did something I never had done up until then, and never have done since". He went up to Claude Nobs and said, "If you don't have us play as an opening act, YOU would be missing out on something special". Nobs looked at Ara and motioned to have him thrown out. Between that moment and when someone was actually starting to make their way toward the group, Nobs had agreed to have the Nyima Ensemble open for Tito Puente. They were stunned and thankful. Their performance went very well and their fusion of world and jazz music rocked the crowd. After they were finished, they could see and hear the now-notorious spat between Claude Nobs and Tito Puente over the use of Puente's name as only being introduced as the "Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble". Tito was pissed, and Claude's response was "if you don't want to play, we will bring the boys back on, they just brought the house down!". Tito eventually went on and also did a stellar job. However, at that moment, Ara knew that he had something special at the age of 22 with his new formed band. Here is the roster of the Jazz Festival.
After the guys came back to NYC, the Nyiama Ensemble started to play in and around the city. The bond Ara felt with his closest friend and guitarist, African American Sid Clark was unmistakable on stage. Sid seemingly picked up every nuance Ara threw at him and his ability to harmonize on the spot was incredible. Yet, the momentum slowed down one day when Ara got a call from Sid saying he was in the hospital. As Ara recounted, "He said it was nothing that big, and that he should be out soon. The next day, his mom calls me and says Sid is dead. I stopped playing music for at least a year as my closest friend was no longer with us." With the Nyima Ensemble secondary in Ara's thoughts, the momentum of the Montreux experience came to a total halt.
After Ara picked up the pieces from Sid's death, he attended a rehearsal called by another talented musician named Suren Baronian in New York City. It was around 1984 and the guy playing on the congas had lived in the city for a year or two just in from Istanbul, Turkey. Once Suren started the piece, Ara and the percussionist looked at each other and said "whoa". It was at that point, that Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Ara Dinkjian both knew a special musical chemistry had just been formed.
KEY TRACKS: "Offering", "The Long Goodbye"- Listen at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/aradinkjian
Next Time: Part 2- Night Ark/Greece
Raffi Meneshian 2007. All Rights Reserved.