Zabelle (sometimes Zabella) Panosian was born in Bardizag (present-day Bahçecik, Turkey) on June 7, 1891. She emigrated to the U.S. in April 1896 and married the photo-engraver Aram Sarkis Panosian, 12 years her senior. She lived in Brookline, Mass., from 1908 until at least 1920. During that time, she sang with the Boston Opera Company. (In 1918, she recorded "Charmant Oiseux" - "Charming Birds" - from Felicien David's La Perle du Bresil, the only song she recorded in any language other than Armenian and which had been recorded by, among others, Luisa Tetrazzini in 1911, who had also sung with the short-lived Boston Opera Company.)
In April, 1917, she recorded five songs in Columbia’s studios in the Woolworth building on Broadway and was given the exceptional luxury of recording as many as seven takes during her recording sessions. It was common practice to record no more than three takes of any given performance by immigrant musicians, and the vast majority of recordings for Columbia's E (ethnic) series were made in one or two takes.
We do not know whether she had any relationship with her peer Torcom Bezazian, who began recording for Columbia with success in February, 1915 and released nearly 80 performances on Columbia, Victor, and Edison labels before his recording career ended in 1921. We do know that she was close to the great singer Amenag Chah-Mouradian, having toured with him in the late 10s in benefit of the Near East Relief Campaign. (There is photographic evidence of an appearance by the two of them in Syracuse, NY.) Chah-Mouradian himself made a string of iconic discs at Columbia’s studios starting in May, 1917.
In 1870, there were fewer than 70 Armenians in the United States. About 100,000 arrived in the U.S. following the Hamidean massacres between 1894 and 1914. Between the onset on WWI and the passing of the Johnson-Reed act (which restricted immigration, allowing only 100 Armenian a year to enter the U.S. until 1952), another 30,000 Armenian arrived. Of those in the U.S., in the mid-10s, most came to the shattering realization that not only was there no longer any home to go to, but that everyone they had left behind was likely dead, as a million Armenians had been slaughtered. Meanwhile, the U.S. formally declared war with Germany on April 6, 1917, and the Ottoman Empire, having sided with Germany, formally severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. on April, 20th.
It was that same month that Zabelle Panosian recorded her first sides, including her masterpiece, Groung. I first heard it about a decade ago on a broken copy of the disc and worked for days, obsessively, to restore it, ultimately publishing it on my compilation To What Strange Place in 2011. Tens of thousands of people have heard it since then, and, as a direct result, it was arranged for strings and played by the Kronos Quartet in both New York and Yerevan a couple of years ago. Even so, little of Zabelle has been paid attention to.
“Groung” was the first of her recordings to be released and far and away her best-seller. Columbia kept it in print through numerous pressings until 1931 when they stopped selling Armenian-language material. It spoke directly to the dilemma of Armenians in the U.S., stranded by the chaos back home. The words are:
“Crane, where are you coming from? I am servant of your voice. Crane, have you not news from our country? Hasten not to your flock, you will arrive soon enough! ”
Presented here are five of the six songs she recorded in April, 1917. (The remaining title “Kilikia,” was apparently issued as the B-side of some, but not all, copies of her performance of “Mi Lar Pibool,” the following year.) Also presented are alternate takes of “Groung” and its flip side, which were apparently scheduled for release as relatively expensive 12” discs. 12” copies have not surfaced, if they were ever issued. Instead, we find the performance was issued on 10” discs, nearly identical in appearance to the other take, at a faster speed in order to cram the longer duration on to the sides. (This is the only instance of the practice that I have ever encountered in my 20 years of collecting and studying 78rpm discs; I would be interested to hear of any other examples of this practice.) We have presented these amazing performances at their correct speed. All were given only light restoration and are presented from very good copies of the original discs, recorded almost a decade before the invention of microphones for the benefit of those interested.
She returned to the studio, probably just a few weeks after her April session and recorded one more piece – “Tzain Dour Ov Dzovag,” also presented here – to round out her releases. She recorded only four more sides in June the following year. They did not sell as well.
In 1920, Zabelle Panosian applied for a passport at age 29, to visit France to study (likely with the great patriarch of Armenian music, Komitas Vadarpet, who composed or arranged at least four of the songs presented here; Harout Arakelian has found a Variety notice stating that she organized a concert at Salle Pleyel in Paris in June, 1922), to Italy to see her brother, and to England and Egypt to “locate lost relatives.” Robert Karayan has noticed that she was profiled, in photo only, in an edition of “Hai Guine” (Armenian Woman), the first feminist bi-monthly journal of Istanbul, founded, published, and edited by Hayganouche Mark from 1919-33. Panosian and her daughter returned through Ellis Island two and a half years later on Jan. 23, 1924, from the port of Cherbourg, France, to her husband at 520 E. 183rd St. in Manhattan. A few years later, she made another trip with her daughter Adiena (or Adrina).
She and her husband had three children. None of them had children themselves, and all of them are dead. Zabelle Panosian died in 1986. Her career was long forgotten. We have, at this point, five photographs of her.
In memory and admiration, 100 years later.
ADDENDUM: Harry Kezelian has just turned up a huge amount of material on Zabelle Panosian (including two new photos - one here: ovenk.com/zabel-aram/)
, starting with his having noticed a bio for her in a 1940 issue of the Armenian language Daroni Ardziv magazine, in which it is made clear that she used the stage name Zabel Aram. From that, he found a bunch of stuff, including her teacher's name (we still need to get the spelling right), and a mind-blowing reference in Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy's book Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis, stating that Zabelle performed at a 1919 banquet at the Copley Hotel in Boston in honor of a delegation from then-independent Armenia including its Prime Minister Kachaznouni, Calvin Coolidge, Alice Stone Blackwell, and General Antranik. Holding the flag of the Armenian Republic, Zabelle sang "Groong" "to thunderous applause." Photo-documentation apparently exists.
We also now know from Alice Navsargian's Book Armenian Women of the Stage that Zabelle was a huge star in Europe, having toured from London, Manchester, Paris, Greece, Egypt, Geneva, Rome, and Milan, where she received the "Serata in Honore" award at Opera La Scala, among others, and that she had a repertoire that included Schubert, Monteverdi, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, and Rossini. And we know for sure that she met Komitas in Paris in 1920 and wrote about the experience in an article in Veradznoud.
So! There must be a lot of documentation about her life and work scattered around archives in Europe as well as in Boston. And! the question is now open - did she record more while she was there under her stage name? Are there more Zabelle Aram/Panosian records? We shall see.
I am humbled and excited.