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Favorite track: Nezerimda Yena (The Horizon Again In My View).
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Sixteen discs made in eleven months have survived for more than a century with the name Kemany Minas Effendi on their labels. Lacking a surname - “kemany” and “effendi” are titles, making him “violinist Mr. Minas” - this great artist remained an enigma for many years. The identity of Minas has been ascertained from scraps of information in out-of-print Armenian books and newspapers, as well as oral history from Udi Richard Hagopian of California.
Minas Chaghatzbanian arrived at Ellis Island at the age of 26 on July 13, 1913. Destined for Providence, Rhode Island, he had left behind his his wife Varter in Malatia, Turkey.
Arshag Alboyadjian’s “History of the Armenians in Malatia” (published 1961 in Beirut) includes the first mention of Minas as a performer, only two months after arriving:
“The one united [Malatia club] picnic of Attleboro and Franklin [Massachusetts] was a singular and unforgettable affair for its type. In 1913 at the well-known farm belonging to the Urfatsis [Armenians from Urfa], that picnic took place, where more than 200 Malatia natives were present, from surrounding towns.
The lavishness of the specialty dishes and drinks of Malatia was beyond measure. The famous and prematurely-deceased violinist Minas Chaghatzbanian was there. The merry-making had neither measure nor bound. [Visiting geologist] Professor Mugerdich Vorperian [of Malatia] was also there, who in that period had come to America for the purpose of taking certain classes.
Professor Vorperian spoke, issuing a call to the Armenian community, to not remain in foreign lands, but return to the Homeland. The poor Professor himself returned and became a victim of the wolves and hyenas.
Doctor Garabed Yazmajian also spoke at that picnic, and issued a call to those present, that they should give vigor to the patriotic purposes adopted by the Society.
On the occasion of that picnic, a sum of nearly 900 dollars was collected, which was an amazing thing in those days, and could only have taken place thanks to the sacrifices of the natives of Malatia.”
By 1914 Minas was living in the Back Bay section of Boston and working at Bedros Boyajian’s Arevelyan Surjaran (Oriental Coffeehouse) in Boston first at 32 Tyler and then at 84-A Harrison Ave. A June 24, 1914 ad in the Armenian-language newspaper Azk (the Nation) read:
“We are informing the Armenian community of Boston and the vicinity that we have reopened our Armenian Coffeehouse, where food will also be served at certain times of the day. First-rate kebabs and choice dishes. The famous violinist Mr. Minas Chaghatzbanian will play choice Oriental pieces in the coffeehouse. Call the Chaghatzbanian band for weddings, picnics, and other celebrations. - Bedros Boyajian, proprietor.”
December 6, 1916, Kemany Minas made his first recordings for the Victor Company at the age of 29 or 30, both as a vocalist and a violin-playing accompanist to Diyarbekir-born singer Karekin Proodian along with two shadowy figures named Morene (kanun) and Hagop (oud). We guess that “Morene” is a misspelling of Zaven Yapchaian, a native of Kharpert, Turkey who made several solo recordings in the early 1940s. It is not out of the question that the oudist Hagop was James (Puzant) Nazaretian, known as Jimmy Nazareth, a native of Adana, Turkey, although according to his student Emmanuel Baghdayan, he didn’t start playing the oud until he was done with his US Navy service toward the end of 1919. Of the 12 sides recorded that day, Minas was soloist on six. On those six sides, he performed one folk song “Memo” and five gazels in makams Oushak, Hijaz, Huseyni, Sabah, and Rast.
By the time of those recordings, the Armenian genocide had been ongoing for over a year. Minas’s wife Varter may have already been killed. If Minas hadn’t read reports the fate of the Armenians of Malatia, the statement in Viscount Bryce’s Blue Book report to the British Parliament in October 1916, widely reprinted in the newspapers, was clear: “The same barbarities have been committed everywhere, and by this time travelers find nothing but thousands of Armenian corpses all along the roads in these provinces. A Moslem traveler, on his way from Malatia to Sivas, a nine hours journey, passed nothing but corpses of men and women. All the male Armenians of Malatia had been taken there and massacred; the women and children have all been converted to Islam.” The best Minas could have hoped for his wife was forced conversion or abduction.
Armenians in America were tormented. They hoped for the best, but their worst fears turned out most often to be true. Their loved ones and homes were gone. As Minas sang (in Turkish) in the 1916 piece “Chifte Telly Gazel,” “karibim, vatanim yok, vatanim yok” (I’m an exile, I have no homeland, no homeland).
More common in the 19th and early 20th century than it is today, the gazel form is essentially a vocal taksim (structured improvisation), in which the singer employs a piece of poetry as a vehicle for vocal improvisation within a given mode, as in Arabic mawwals and Greek amanades. Successful performances demonstrate both emotional power and skill in delineating the framework of the mode. As a semi-professional Armenian musician from the backwaters of Eastern Anatolia, Minas was a deeply impressive vocalist. He profoundly understood the modes and delivered the verses he selected (often relating to exile) with emotional verve. Although clearly never classically trained, he likely sang in the Armenian church as a boy, when the Eastern modes were still being used to sing the liturgical services everywhere in Anatolia, each Ottoman maqam having an equivalent in the the Armenian liturgical modes.
Minas recorded again in November 1917 for Columbia Records in joint sessions with singer Garabet Merjanian (a native of Kayseri). Richard Hagopian, keeper of the Armenian-American community’s musical oral history, informs us that the brilliant violinist Harry Hasekian (a native of Marash) performed on “most of” the Kemany Minas sides, and certainly about nine sides appear to have Hasekian accompanying Minas. Among the other Minas’s other accompanists at the sessions were Thomas Takis, a Greek clarinet player (apparently a native of Smyrna) and Looder Hampartzoumian (also known as Luther Artinian), an Armenian native of Chomakhlou who played the saz, each of whom accompanied Minas on gazels.
Among the performances he recorded at those sessions was a re-recording of “Memo” (not issued until years later as the flip side of a Turkish-language disc by the Greek singer Marika Papagika), one sharki, “Seni Gordukje Titriyor Yuregim” (Upon Seeing You My Heart Trembles), an Istanbul classic with music by Roma violinist Bulbuli Salih and lyrics by Armenian singer Hanende Hadji Garabet, and seven kef songs - party-time dance numbers, delivered with a palpable smile. On “Sheker Oghlan” (I’m In Love With You, Sweet Boy), a popular song known throughout Anatolia, Minas ventures into the realm of the dirty joke, describing the intimacy between a boy and a girl for whom he burns. Minas was in great spirits (and probably full of liquid spirits) during the recordings. We can imagine it was these songs or ones like that that he played at the at the Massachusetts Malatia club picnic in 1913. Richard Hagopian has said Minas was a single man, a “bekyar martig” (bachelor) in Armenian. These lone working-class immigrants were known for their life of partying, gambling, hanging out at coffeehouses and restaurants, becoming friendly with belly dancers, and so on. Minas wasn’t born to suffer. He was born a ham. Armenians have often dealt with their sorrow through comedy. It is part of the national psyche.
His Columbia discs all sold well, but his most enduring hit was not a party song, It was his response to the ongoing genocide in the form of a song dating back at least to the 1850s, “Eghin Havasi.” Originally the lament of an Armenian woman whose husband had gone abroad as a migrant worker and never returned, sung in both Turkish and Armenian, it originated in the town of Egin (Agn in Armenian) in the province of Kharpert. It was Minas’s masterpiece and among the best-selling “ethnic” recordings in the U.S. in the 1910s-20s until Columbia deleted their Armenian and Turkish catalog, taking on new meaning for Armenians in America.
Its reimagining was derived from the 1894-1896 Armenian massacres ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid when the Bank Ottoman in Constantinople was seized by a group of Armenian revolutionaries under the leadership of “Papken Suni” (his nom de guerre), a native of Agn. In reprisal against the freedom-fighter’s native town, orders were given “to take the necessary action,” upon which the military engaged in a 48-hour massacre, in which upwards of 2,000 Armenians were killed, 980 of the 1,150 houses were torched, and “all were pillaged.” Armenians assembled in their church and “offered up special prayer owing to the great fear prevalent in their town,” but their religious plenipotentiary was “compelled by the authorities, under pain of death, to telegraph to the Patriarch that the Armenians were responsible for the outbreak there.” (Quotation from Vahakn Dadrian, Warrant For Genocide).
In the wake of the 1896 massacre of Agn, the lyrics were re-written: “Egin de veran olmush, bulbul eotmuyor” (Egin is in ruins, the nightingale doesn’t sing). Minas Chaghatzbanian was about 10 years old at the time and living in a city about 87 miles to the south. His performances includes those lyrics blended with the earlier emigration narrative: “benim yarim cevresine sarsinlar” (let them wrap me in my beloved’s shroud).
In an essay called “Gardens of Our City” written decades later by Hagop Asadourian (born in Chmaklou in 1903), a genocide survivor, rug merchant, writer, and amateur singer, described an Armenian picnic in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx:
“Gradually, the smoke of barbecued lamb would saturate the atmosphere and mix with the other smoke of burning memories! At that point, joining this mixture would be the sonorous voice of [tenor Armenag] Shah-Mouradian, singing ‘Hayasdan,’ pouring out of the throat of a ‘morning glory’ phonograph! You would then hear the ‘Groong’ (Crane) of Zabel Aram [Panosian], and especially a Turkish-language andouni (emigrant song) called ‘Egin Havasee,’ springing forth with sad fluctuations from the depths of kemanchist Minas’ soul:
Yar, seven years have passed since you left
All the trees you planted have given fruit
Those who went with you have returned home
Come back, my love, come quick, don’t be a stranger
Whoever invented exile, may he never see heaven…
Minas, a talented and wounded andouni (homeless one) himself, having just fallen out of his nest, how sadly would he mix his voice to the dolorous strings of his own violin! What a soulful rendition of that heartrending andouny. A song that was written, one felt, for this very group, to express this very condition of theirs. A song, mixed now with forgotten, distant sounds, echoing through the trees and bushes of Van Cortlandt with surges of grief. Only to bounce back in broken waves and then submerge into the hearts of …. Chomakhlou and Evereg, Kayseri and Sepastia, Gurin and Garin!”
-Hagop Asadourian, “Gardens of Our City”
Despite Asadourian’s professed antipathy toward Turkish music, he managed to quote from memory not only the lyrics that Minas actually recorded but another verse from the same folk song with the same theme.
Though the Armenians of Malatia were Armenian-speaking, every word sung or by Minas on his recordings is in Turkish, with the exception of the interjection “mayrig!” (mother!) in the first verse of “Eghin Havasi.”
Minas’s end came quick. Richard Hagopian has said that Kemany Minas was sick and came to Fresno, California for the climate. Alboyadjian’s book on Malatia lists Minas Chaghatzbanian among compatriots who died in Fresno. The March 22, 1918 issue of the Fresno-based Armenian-language newspaper Asbarez reported: “On March 14, in the Colfax Hospital, Minas Chaghatzbanian, 33, passed away from an illness of the lungs. The funeral took place out of Holy Trinity Church with Very Rev. Fr. Vartan officiating, and the body was placed in Ararat Cemetery.” Colfax death records have a “Minas Chagarchban” having died in Placer County at the age of 33 on March 14, 1918 four months after Kemany Minas recorded for Columbia.
1920s advertisements for Kemany Minas discs used the epithet “vaghamerig” (Armenian for “one who died too young”) or the Turkish, “merhum” (“the departed”). In 1947, S.M. Dzotsigian, a native of Agn and resident of San Francisco, in the section on Malatia in his encyclopedic work “Arevmdahye Ashkharh” (Western Armenian World) states: “The people of Malatia say that Violinist and Troubadour Minas is also from their city, although others give testimony as to his being from elsewhere. The popular dance-songs of this Troubadour Minas were recorded on phonograph discs.”
Minas’s Columbia discs remained in print for more than a decade after they were recorded and sold as well as any Turkish-language recordings did in the U.S. in the 1920s. Their influence was strongly felt on a generation of players who followed, particularly the Philadelphia kef groups including the Vosbikian and Arziv bands.
This is all we know.
released May 16, 2021
Tracks 1-5 recorded at Victor Records' New York City studio, December 6, 1916.
Tracks 6-18 recorded Feb 1917 at Columbia Graphophone's New York City studio
Kemany Minas - voice thoughout, violin on tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 14
Karekin Proodian - oud, track 1
Takis Zakas clarinetist, track 6
Tamboury Looder (Hampartzoumian) saz, track 7
Harry Hasekian is likely the violinist on tracks 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18
notes & translations by Harry Kezelian
transfers, restoration, and editing by Ian Nagoski except track 1 transferred by Harry Kezelian.
research by Harry Kezelian and Harout Arakelian
Many thanks to Christine Gabaly for her contribution in memory of her grandparents Setrak and Siranoush Aijian and to Diane Kupelian in memory of her grandparents Mary and Vahey Kupelian.