The setting is the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, where the All-Stars are playing for the AYF Olympics Grand Ball. The band is just getting into the groove during the first of several sets to come. It’s just after 10 o’clock and the ballroom is mostly empty, although some impatient people have already taken to the dance floor.
To the far right where the parquet meets the carpeting a toddler is dancing in his own peculiar way, moving his torso by repeatedly bending his knees to the rhythm of the beat, sometimes turning or taking a step forward.
When the booming tenor voice of the band’s singer isn’t being broadcast through the microphone, he is slapping away on a tambourine and strolling the stage, as if to keep the other musicians on their toes. From his graying hair and slight wrinkles, which are barely noticeable when distracted by the robust energy he emits, one would guess he was in his early 60s, at the very most. He is, in fact, 83 years old.
He spots the little boy, squatting and standing as if he were a miniature weightlifter in training; he can’t get enough of the music. Moved, the singer comes down from the stage and joins the boy, and the two dance together to the surging polyphony of the dominant clarinet, oud, and dumbeg that fill the entire space.
“What a beautiful boy he is,” he affectionately tells the toddler’s proud parents at the end of the set. Their son had just met one of the most enduring, renowned interpreters of Armenian folk and dance music in the world who is increasingly in demand.
“I am so busy you have no idea,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Boynton Beach, Fla. “From right this very minute until next February I have about seven or eight different engagements—concerts and dinner dances. I am still very involved musically.”
It seems none of his fans can get enough of the music. He was unexpectedly honored during a concert he performed on Oct. 13 at Café 27 at St. Illuminator’s Church in New York, by being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. But it wasn’t the first appreciation award he’s ever received, and it won’t be the last.
Son of Dikranagerd
He was born Jean-Joseph Miliyan in Paris, France in 1929, the son of Garabed and Zorah from Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), who both escaped persecution during the genocide. He and his sister, two years his senior, were orphaned five years after his birth. Garabed died when Jean-Joseph was not yet one year old.
They were adopted by his godparents, Nishan and Oghida Dinkjian, who were also from Dikranagerd, and continued to live in Paris. Growing up he learned not only fluent French and Armenian, but also the melodious dialect of Armenians from Dikranagerd.
Nishan Dinkjian went to Paris from Aleppo and worked various menial jobs before he fell into the wholesale banana business. When fruit became scarce after the war started in 1939, he went into clothing sales to support his family.
Although Onnik’s schooling was in French, he attended Armenian school once a week.
“We didn’t have French school on Thursdays so my parents enrolled me in the Armenian school,” he said. “It was just a big room with an Armenian teacher and maybe a dozen students.”
His Armenian writing skills, especially, came in handy years later when he was serving in the U.S. Army.
“If it wasn’t for me writing Armenian letters to my parents, they would have been very unhappy because they couldn’t yet read and write English since we just came to America,” he said.
Onnik first began taking an interest in music when he went to St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in Paris for the first time at the age of 10. Every Sunday he would need to take two metro rides to get there. The sacred hymns of the liturgy sung by the choir and soloists aroused something within him that would change his life forever.
“I absolutely fell in love with the music,” he said. “This is what brought me into the Armenian Church, not necessarily as a religious person but as a lover of the Armenian music.”
As time passed the choirmaster, Baron Nishan Serkoian, allowed him to sing small parts on occasion. But Onnik found him to be intimidating, and he wasn’t alone.
“Serkoian ran that church with an iron fist,” he said. “Even the priest that was going to do the service was nervous. We had three resident priests, and each Sunday one of them would do the Mass. And that particular priest had to come to rehearsal to make sure he would sing in tune and so on. But that’s how he ran the church, and that’s how it should be run.”
Just before he and his family left France, Baron Serkoian permitted Onnik to sing one verse of “Der Voghormya” during what would be his last church service at St. Gregory’s.
“That was one of the highlights of my life,” he said. “I had a rash after that because I was sweating so much. To be able to sing in Paris in that beautiful church, where the sound was like heaven, the acoustics—you could just whisper and you could hear it.”
New York, Boston, California
At the age of 17, in July 1946, Onnik and his family moved to the United States, Nishan Dinkjian’s two sisters had settled. They had been separated during the genocide but desired to live in close proximity with one another. Onnik entered the U.S. with his given name, but would later change it legally to Onnik Dinkjian in honor of his adoptive parents.
One of Nishan Dinkjian’s sisters, Azniv Keuredgian, had been living in Bridgeport, Conn., where the family stayed for some time. His other sister, Makruhi Sarkisian, tragically died only two months before their arrival.
While Onnik was learning English, he could only find work doing manual labor. The family moved to New Jersey where his father opened a little dry cleaning store.
Later Onnik found a job working in the laboratory of a soap factory. They continued struggling along until finally opening a dry cleaning store in New York City.
“By now my father knew better English and was more experienced in the dry cleaning business. Many of his friends were in the dry cleaning business, too, so all were doing exactly the same thing. I worked in the store, meaning he opened and then I would send him home.”
In 1952, Onnik was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was initially stationed in Texas for nine months before being shipped to Germany. While on board a talent show was held and he sang a couple of songs, only to unexpectedly win first prize. In Germany he was assigned to the Winged Victory Chorus, a well-known group led by Joe Baris that performed a wide range of choral works, from composers as diverse as Puccini and Debussy to Rogers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin.
“For a year and a half in Germany all I did was travel from one city to another with some famous American stars, like Eddie Fischer and Danny Kaye, all because of the music, my singing.”
In 1953, the special services division to which Onnik was assigned was sent to the Netherlands to assist in the relief efforts for what became known as the North Sea flood, which claimed the lives of more than 1,800 people when a storm tide caused the dikes to break. The chorus performed several fundraising concerts for assistance. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands later awarded the chorus members for their efforts, and Onnik has cherished the plaque that was presented to him to this day.
When he returned from the army, Onnik opened his own dry cleaning store and married Araxie Mghsian from Lyon, France, whose roots were in Kharpert. They had two children, Anahid and Ara.
“She came to America two years after I did,” he said. “We met in church. I must admit she’s very beautiful, too.”
He left the dry cleaning business and started working for an Armenian former musician that had a rug store. He lasted there for a couple of years.
“That didn’t work out, but I learned enough from him because he was a very wise man,” Onnik said. “I learned how to be a talker and a salesman.”
He landed a position with a department store as a carpet salesman before eventually being assigned to the furniture department. He stayed with the company for 32 years. The position gave him the flexibility to pursue his true professional calling.
A musical career takes form
Onnik first attracted attention to his talent while serving as a deacon in St. Illuminator’s Cathedral in New York City (he was ordained there in the early 1960’s). He was asked to sing at Ladies’ Guild events and private functions, agreeing to accept compensation only for travel expenses to locations in New York and New Jersey.
“I loved to perform in front of people so I didn’t mind doing it for nothing,” he said. “That’s how my music career really got started.”
In 1948, he made his very first 78 rpm shellac recording with a bandleader named Batt Masian (whose actual name was Batmavian).
“He had heard me at one of the weddings the family attended. People would say, ‘Onnik sing a song,’ and this and that. He liked what he heard and we got together.”
In his 20s, Onnik frequented a dozen nightclubs where Armenians would go in New York. In those places only live Turkish music could be heard.
“We didn’t have any music from Armenia,” he said. “At that time it was George Mgrdichian for instance, and the Gomidas band. Before that I was very much influenced by the remaining old Armenians that came from Turkey, but they were all singing and playing Turkish music, and that was our grandparents’ music. It was only the newcomers that would play oud and violin, copied from the old Turkish influence.”
In 1951 Onnik was chosen to represent the Armenian Apostolic Church as a deacon in a Catholic service performed by Cardinal Gregory Peter XV Agagianian from Rome and Archbishop Richard James Cushing of Boston at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. Another service was held the following Sunday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. He considers the opportunity the most memorable experience of his musical career.
On two occasions Onnik met the famed Udi Hrant, who was widely considered one of the greatest oud players of the 20th century, especially known for his improvisational playing, or taksim. He met Hrant at a private party during the latter’s first visit to the U.S. from Turkey, where he was also performing.
“It was time to be introduced and someone said, ‘Oh by the way, Onnik sings a little bit.’ I remember very distinctly Hrant said, with his very raspy voice, ‘Pan me togh yerke as dghan‘ [‘Let this guy sing something’]. I can’t remember what I sang and then he said, ‘As dghan shad aghvor ge yerke‘ [‘This guy sings very well’].”
They would meet again in the Catskills, where they performed together for vacationers, but they were regrettably never featured on a record.
Onnik continued performing and recorded whenever an opportunity came knocking. He was approached by an Armenian oud player from Greece named Roupen Altiparmakian to cut some tracks of songs that he had written. Two of them, “New York, Boston, California” and the timeless “Eh Wallah,” are still well known.
“One of the most popular songs that we still do today is ‘Eh Wallah,’ and we never finish an evening without playing it,” Onnik said.
Another now rare but notable recording he appeared on was “The House of the Seven Uncles” led by oud player Kenny Boyajian, with whom Onnik would collaborate again on his second album. Yet despite those opportunities, Onnik was left unsatisfied, realizing all too well that something else needed to be heard by an American audience that was starved of fresh, authentic Armenian songs.
The legendary recordings
As bootleg recordings from Soviet Armenia made their way to the U.S. through Beirut and Aleppo, Onnik became increasingly oriented with modern and traditional folk songs. Interpretations by the celebrated robust tenors Hovhannes Badalyan and Rouben Matevosian, in particular, made a huge impression on him.
“They were my idols,” he said.
Onnik was looking for material to record, and after listening carefully to the numerous recordings he had at his disposal, he selected the songs that resonated with him the most. But his aim wasn’t to replicate the same sound he had fallen in love with.
“After I learned those songs, I started singing them with my own style,” he said. “Naturally if everybody sang exactly the same way as the original there wouldn’t be any reason to listen.”
What followed was the release of four extraordinary albums over a six-year timespan: “Onnik” (1972), “Onnik Encore” (1974), “Inner Feelings of Onnik” (1976), and “Just for You” (1978), all of which have become not only collectors items but true testaments to the rich tableau of Armenian song. Three of the four recordings feature his close collaborator, oud virtuoso John Berberian, a heavyweight legend in his own right.
“My father chose all of the songs that were recorded,” explained Onnik’s son Ara Dinkjian, a world-renowned composer and performer. ”The arrangements for the first two LPs were mostly worked out during the recording sessions, with contributions and ideas from everyone involved. I played dumbeg on those two records,” said Ara, who was 14 in 1972. “I did the arrangements for the last two records, on which I played guitar.”
Ara, who graduated from Hartt College of Music, is now considered one of the world’s top oudists. He is very popular in Greece, having recorded with national stars including folk singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki. His widely acclaimed albums with his instrumental band Night Ark and his own solo projects, notably “Peace on Earth” and “An Armenian in America,” clearly demonstrate his prowess as an exemplary musician on the world stage.
Most of the songs on “Onnik” were directly from Armenia and, most likely, were previously unheard by Armenian-American audiences. “Yerevan” is a song that is usually performed by large choirs or with grandiose arrangements, yet Onnik performs it with an elegant finesse that the melody requires. Others like “Khrovadz Ser” and “Sari Sirun Yar” had been popularized by the Tatoul Altounyan Song and Dance Ensemble. Onnik’s wide vocal range is put to the test with the beautiful ballads “Mayrus” and “Veradartsir.”
“I did my own interpretations, staying within the framework of the song itself, and that’s how I recorded them, naturally with our type of instrumentation, more Western Armenian instruments,” Onnik said. “So the song was the same, the flavor being somewhat different.”
The oud, which is usually at the fore of any ensemble inspired by the music of Anatolia and the Middle East, in traditional folk orchestras of Armenia is played as a rhythmic instrument, like a guitar, and is usually drowned out by a deluge of kanoons. On “Onnik,” there is a clever harmonic interplay between the kanoon, gorgeously played by Robert Marashlian (who also plays on the later albums), and Berberian’s oud. The result, which is evident on the opening track “Khrovadz Ser,” is simply a wonderful, delicate sound that provides the ideal backdrop for the vocalist.
Of the four classic LPs, “Onnik Encore” is the primal, perhaps most charismatic recording. The beat is heavy with the hard, thudding dumbeg while the themes and melodies are primarily carried by the accorgan, a kind of electric accordion that has the resonance of a cross between a Hammond B3 organ and a Theremin. It is Arthur Nersesian’s accorgan that provides that thick, soulful groove that makes the album so unique and the music danceable. And unlike the other three recordings, there is no presence of the kanoon, guitar, or wind instruments.
Most of the songs on “Onnik Encore,” aside from “Dele Yaman,” “Yerevani Sirun Aghchig” and “Inch Imanayi,” are no longer performed in Armenia. Some have lyrics that are laden with peculiar euphuisms of affection that seem unique to Armenia—notions of sacrificing for a would-be paramour, losing consciousness at the sight of a pretty woman, dying figuratively for one’s stature or the elusive jan. At first Onnik found that the linguistic challenges associated with the vernacular particular to Armenia were difficult to interpret. There was also the degradation in sound quality commonly associated with bootlegs to contend with.
“For many of the songs, due to the poor sound of those tapes or records, I couldn’t make out the Armenian pronunciation that well, and since there were no written lyrics, for hours on end I would listen and try to make sense of what they meant.”
Yet Onnik managed to portray such colloquialisms perfectly; “Yes Mi Sirun Aghchig Desa” and “Dele Yaman” are two perfect examples of this usage of felicitous language. So from the very start there is a prevailing mysterious, otherworldly mood mainly attributed to the accorgan and even the hypnotic, hard pulse of the dumbeg, while a recurring message of unattainable love is conveyed with a rudimentary, unsophisticated lyric. That integration is what makes this record so brilliant.
“Inner Feelings,” leaps out at the listener at the onset with its thrilling opening track “Zepyuri Nman,” as the duduk plays in the instrument’s lower register, accompanied by the dumbeg and oud. The record features deep, heart-wrenching ballads of yearning and personal tragedy—movingly conveyed especially in “Alakyaz” and “Ardasoonk“—along with endearing songs that are very much still popular today. Few modern Armenian pop stars can muster the feeling necessary to sing the enduring romantic tune “Chknagh Yeraz,” which often comes across as sounding mechanical by singers obsessed with demonstrating technique rather than soul. Onnik’s rendition employs an intense scope of grace and conviction that would intimidate any newbie contemporary. He also selected and wrote the Armenian lyrics for Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” translated as “Yete Heranas,” and Carlos Eleta Almaran’s “Historia de un Amor,” rendered as “Havada Sirelis,” both played with a sort of Latin-inspired arrangement. He even sings a verse from the French interpretation of the song (“Histoire d’un Amour” popularized by Dalida).
“Just for You” features more playful tunes than its preceding recording, such as “Madagh Hokut” (more sacrificial imagery), “Ambets Gorav,” and “Hokut Duna.” The melody for “Hampoure” is from “Bolero,” written by French composer Paul Durand. But Onnik’s interpretation was years in the making; when he and his wife were still newlyweds he wrote the Armenian lyrics while waiting for customers to arrive at the dry cleaning store.
Though the heart-wrenching ballad does appear, notably the poignant “Garod” and “Tu Gnum Es,” there is also a great rendition of the slow-tempo patriotic song “Hampere Hokis.” Berberian’s playing on this record is especially lovely.
Aside from “Inner Feelings” and “Just for You,” Ara Dinkjian also arranged the music on his father’s more recent recordings, including “The Many Sides of Onnik,” which features several songs sung in the Dikranagerd dialect. Arto Tuncboyaciyan, the dynamic leader of Armenian Navy Band and a member of Night Ark, is featured on percussion.
There is also an impassioned recent recording of selected sacred hymns from the Armenian liturgy written by Gomidas and Makar Yekmalian called “Havadamk,” on which Ara Dinkjian plays the organ. It eventually became a best-selling album of Armenian religious music.
“Of all the things I’ve done, ‘Havadamk‘ is the thing that I am most proud of, more than anything,” Onnik said.
“Havadamk” was performed live three times to receptive audiences, once in Michigan and twice in New Jersey, with short lectures given by musicologist Krikor Pidedjian.
The spectacular “Voice of Armenians” is a collection of songs from Onnik’s repertoire recorded live in Jerusalem in 2006 before an audience of a thousand. He considers the concert one of the highlights of his career. The music is dense with intricate layers of sound provided by Ara on oud and accompanied by an excellent ensemble—with Sokratis Sinopoulos performing the lyra, which has a similar tone as the kemancha, only richer; Tamer Pinarbasi on kanoon; Adi Rennert on keyboard; and Zohar Fresco on percussion. The version of “Garod,” a father and son duet that closes the album, is hauntingly beautiful. Both “Havadamk” and “Voice of Armenians” are quite simply Onnik’s masterpieces (available from the iTunes Store, CD Baby, or Amazon.com).
Despite his fame as an entertainer for large crowds, mostly dance venues, Onnik does not give as many concerts as he would like and certainly should.
“I personally appreciate the concert because you can perform,” he said. “At a big dance if you make a mistake, it’s not noticeable because everybody is having a good time. That has its place, naturally, because you entertain a lot of people. But at concerts there’s no other distractions, and if the song is nice you can convey the message.”
“My father Onnik sings because he loves to sing,” Ara said. “The fact that his singing has reached generations of people continues to be a pleasant surprise for him.”
Collaborating with John Berberian
Onnik’s tight partnership with John Berberian began 43 years ago, just 10 years after he began to play the oud professionally. Onnik was a featured vocalist on several of Berberian’s magnificent recordings—”A Mid Eastern Odyssey,” “Echoes of Armenia,” and “The Dance Album.” Two tracks in particular from “Odyssey” have long become standards of Onnik’s repertoire: the bittersweet folk song “Mayrig” and “Bardezum,” yet another prime example of Onnik’s vocal versatility.
“Onnik is a world-class performer,” Berberian said, who not only played on the classic recordings of the 70s but was also the recording engineer on the latter two albums and was a co-arranger of “Onnik.”
“It was a combination of both John Berberian and myself as to how to arrange and make it interesting enough without losing the meaning of the song itself,” Onnik said.
Indeed, it is a rare occasion to ever see the two of them not appear on stage together, having toured for so many years across the United States and abroad.
“My most memorable musical experience with Onnik was in 1975 during our first South American concert tour where we performed in three countries with musicians from Montevideo, Uruguay,” Berberian said.
“In 43 years, Onnik and I must have performed well over 1,000 times, and for both of us, each event was joyfully anticipated. Although he is my colleague in music, he is also my dear friend.”
Love for the Olympic spirit
Days after the Dinkjians’ arrival in the U.S., a cousin asked Nishan Dinkjian if he could take Onnik on a trip to Hartford where an event with Armenian youth was going to take place. It would be Onnik’s very first experience at an AYF Olympics.
Five years later he began singing at the Olympics social events. By his estimation, he has never missed a year as a member of the “All-Stars” ensemble that performs during the Grand Ball that always takes place on Sunday evening.
“And this last one in Boston was very successful,” he said. “One of the best Olympics that they ever had.”
He is more passionate about the events, especially the Opening Ceremonies that take place at the track, when the AYF chapter members participating in the games parade before the fans in the stands. For him, each ceremony he watches is like the first one he ever saw, way back in 1946. He sits extremely focused in the stands, camera in hand, waiting for the right moment to take a snapshot.
“I get goose pimples, I get the feeling of being the proudest Armenian that has ever lived, witnessing the kids with their own flags, with smiles and pride,” he said.
This year his own grandchildren participated, Kyle and Arev, who ran in the opening women’s hurdles event.
“To me the Olympics is not when I sing Sunday night, it’s being present at the opening ceremonies.”
Onnik has several performing engagements already scheduled for 2013 in various locations. He and Ara also intend to make another recording of folk songs from Dikranagerd, sung exclusively in the native dialect.
“There might be another chance for us to do another concert in Jerusalem for the Armenian school,” he said.
He and Ara have also been thinking about remastering the classic recordings from the 70s and making them available in digital format, but they have yet to secure the financing for that costly endeavor. All four recordings certainly warrant a reissue, not only for the sake of posterity but also to introduce future generations to modern-era Armenian songs that are in danger of being completely forgotten.
“I feel that my father contributed an absolutely unique legacy to Armenian culture,” Ara said. “His recordings traveled throughout the world. His style and repertoire continue to be copied by subsequent generations, not only by Armenian-Americans and Armenians around the world, but also by other cultures. And he accomplished this without intending to.”
Despite having sung about Armenia for decades, he has never performed in Yerevan.
“If I’m invited I would, but it would have to be with my type of musicians,” he said. “I don’t know how it would be received.”
Although he has thought of retiring, Onnik simply can’t stop performing and really has no intention to. Not that anyone particularly objects.
“I’m very busy, so thank God. As long as I’m healthy I will be doing this forever.”