‘My Heart Is Brazilian, but My Soul Is Armenian!’


Interview by Artsvi Bakhchinyan

YEREVAN — “It was beautiful: a smooth performance with very inspiring moments. All the result of preparation, an excellent orchestra, a great conductor, a gorgeous hall and an unparalleled feeling of representing Brazil at the home I’ve never been too — Armenia. And as a side note, the audience went crazy when, before the encore (an Armenian folk dance), still among echoes of bravo, I said, in Armenian, the following words: “I’m half Brazilian, half Armenian. My heart is Brazilian, but my soul is Armenian!”

This is what the young Brazilian- Armenian guitarist from New York, João Kouyoumdjian, wrote on his Facebook page after his concert with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra on December 14. It was organized by the Brazilian embassy in Yerevan and dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Brazil.

I first learned about Kouyoumdjian last year, when I was in New York. A friend gave me his photo which proudly announced his concert in the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Youtube videos and Facebook made the virtual acquaintance possible, until one day I saw this familiar name on one of the musical announcements of Yerevan and enjoyed his performance with our philharmonic orchestra conducted by Ruben Asatryan. The next day, at the home of a mutual friend, I ran the following interview with this young musician:

Artsvi Bakhchinyan (AB): João, yesterday you turned 29 and you had your first concert in Armenia. What are your feelings?

João Kouyoumdjian (JK): First of all, I feel very happy to be here in Armenia and I am also very content with yesterday’s concert. I think it was a marvelous thing to have a concert bridging Brazil and Armenia here in Yerevan, and I am glad I got support from the Brazilian embassy in Armenia, that they could invite me here to have this wonderful concert and to be a part of this great event.

AB: Was this your first performance with a symphonic orchestra?

J K: Yes! This trip has been meaningful in many ways. First, of course, for me, being half Armenian and half Brazilian; my family always tried to preserve the culture, even though I do not speak much Armenian, but there were always family gatherings, big lunches at my Armenian grandmother’s house, and I can feel a lot of things in common at my household and here in Yerevan. This is one thing on a personal side, but participating in this big event, representing Brazil at this anniversary of 20 years of diplomatic relations with Armenia, was a fantastic feeling as well and a great experience for me on the musical side. Even though I was very well trained to play the Vila- Lobos concerto and I actually did perform it quite often with piano arrangement, I never had the experience of performing it with orchestra. It was a quite different feeling to head an orchestra; there are many musical issues that come up when you have to deal with them. One of them is, as I said, the balance, but you also have sounds coming from different places on the stage and the attacks are different, so you have to be very sensitive there and obviously the conductor, the tempo, the gestures… Thus, it was a great icebreaker for me. I am happy I was prepared enough and able to come with a nice result at a beautiful event.

AB: How long have you played guitar?

JK: For about 15-16 years. It was a long journey. I started with electric guitar, and later on I switched to more popular styles, like bossa nova and other genres of popular music from Brazil, until I started to learn music scores and some pieces from Vila-Lobos.

AB: Tell us about your studies.
JK: First I studied in Brazil; my education is little bit all over the place. When I was 12, I studied in the conservatory at my birthplace, São José do Rio Preto, a town about five hours by car from São Paulo. There are more cowboys and farms, not a lot of intellectual activity or arts, but I had a really rich childhood and I am happy I grew up there. That’s where my great-grandparents had a chance to establish stores and to survive. It pretty much meant me to understand who I am. First I had private instruction. I studied with a great guitarist and composer from my town, Preto Moreno, whom I admire very much until now, and who with I recently collaborated in a concert in my hometown. I felt very emotional at this concert when he stepped onto the stage. I chose to do it as an anchor, as a surprise for everybody. After many years of practicing, going to São Paolo and then to New York, then traveling around the world and coming back to my hometown and performing with my first guitar teacher side by side — it was awesome. Later, in 2003–2006, I got my bachelor’s degree in music at the University of São Paolo and from 2007–2010 I studied at the Juilliard in New York City. Before finally moving to the United States, I had a very important classical guitar teacher, Paulo Martelli, who is still my mentor and whom I greatly admire not just because he is a great teacher, but because he is a phenomenal guitarist. He helped narrow down my choice to classical guitar and helped to perfect my skills in classical guitar playing.

AB: Do you like Federico Garcia Lorca?

JK: Yes, I do! I know he has some poems about the guitar.

AB: Guitar as an instrument is not a frequent guest on our concert halls. For us, it was not just a nice discovery to find another talented compa- triot, but our philharmonic orchestra also had a nice experience to have a guitar in its program as a solo instrument. How do you appreciate this combination of guitar and classical music?

JK: Guitar is an instrument that works by itself mostly, so we have a big repertoire of solo, classi- cal guitar without any type of accompaniment. We do have some chamber music, but works for guitar and symphonic music have been more fre- quently composed and performed only recently. A guitar has a couple of issues to work together with an orchestra, because it does not have much volume as any other orchestra instrument or the piano. So the combination gets a little tricky when you think about the balance, for instance, but nowadays with decent amplification you can easily solve those issues and have good performances of guitar and orchestra. I think that it works very well, and the orchestral musicians said it was also a good experience for them to be able to play with guitar and to control their instruments, to play in a soft and quiet way as much as possible to balance with guitar and obtain good results.

AB: Is there a specific Brazilian guitar tradition or style?

JK: Yes, if you think about guitar in general, you have, for instance, the bossa nova movement in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. After bossa nova, it seems the guitar just boomed in Brazil way out of proportion for that time, and it is the major, most implemented instrument of bossa nova, and perhaps the most implemented instrument of Brazilian music. If you think about samba, for instance, more traditional samba pre-bossa nova, guitar is also the instrument you can just pick up and play or sing. We also have a very strong tradition in classical guitar playing, if you think, for instance, about Abreu brothers, who had a mete- oric career in the sixties too; they performed with great artists and major orchestras and recorded for major labels. Then, a couple of years later you had the Assad brothers, who are up until today considered to be perhaps the most well-regarded classical guitar duo in the world. There is a lot of guitar playing either popular or classical in Brazil, and I am happy to be a part of this tradition and to bring a little bit of it here to Armenia. Actually, Vila-Lobos is the most prominent Brazilian classical composer of all times, and he himself has a great output of works for classic guitar, often using folkloric material in any of his works and any instrumentations for guitar. Thus, we not only have excellent major performers, but also fantastic composers for classical guitar.

Komitas. How much do you know about Armenian music? Yesterday the audience was very happy when you performed a small Armenian piece.

JK: Armenian music is a territory I started to explore. I do not know much about it. I always wanted to connect to my Armenian side and also perform Armenian music, but I could never find nicely arranged scores for classical guitar until after graduation from Julliard School in 2010. After learning the traditional classical guitar masterpieces and the milestone repertoire of classical guitar, you start to disconnect from the reality of being student and connect to the reality of searching for an artistic identity. Since I am half Armenian, I started exploring Armenian music immediately, so I kept looking at the Internet trying to find a book of Armenian pieces for guitar.

After many days of research, in a very obscure Greek or Russian (I am not quite sure) web site I found a book, by a certain Kolanian, of Armenian traditional dances transcribed for classical guitar. I said to myself: “This is just perfect, I am going to buy it.” By that time, I was invited to give a con- cert for a couple of weeks for the Armenian club in São Paulo, that’s why I was even more driven to find fine material to perform. Sadly, the book came in just one or two days before the concert, so there was no way to prepare the dances. After that concert, I had more time to look at the pieces. I was just very, very impressed not only with the content of Armenian music, but with the craft of the arrangement itself by Iakovos Kolanian, a Greek-Armenian guitarist. I picked three Armenian dances to perform: Noubar- Noubar, Yaman yar and Nazeli bar. It is funny how things unfold at a certain time because one or two months after, when I was starting to play those pieces, there was an opportunity to apply for a concert in New York City at the Carnegie Hall, promoted by an Armenian organization, the Armenian Prelacy. They organize one concert at the Carnegie Hall, featuring one or two Armenian-born artists, like myself, and one of the requirements was. of course, that one or two pieces from the program should be from Armenian composers. And I was right there per- forming Kolanian’s works. When I remember it, it sounds so providential, because I think that the deadline had passed, but anyway I called desper- ately to the Armenian Prelacy and I said that I really want to submit my materials, if it is still pos- sible. I rushed to record a video and get all the paperwork done, and I was accepted. It was one of the great joys in my career. First, it was my first concert at Carnegie Hall; second, performing Armenian music and performing the sonata by Bach, that I was preparing my entire life, and other major works for classical guitar. A lot of good stuff happened afterwards (just fast forwarding a little bit); today, I am represented by a world music management, an agency run by Raffi Meneshian. Then I found out that Raffi was also producing and managing Iakovos Kolanian. And it does not stop there. When I started to work with Raffi as my producer and manager, he put Iakovos and me in touch directly, and now I am about to go to Greece to record my first CD with Kolanian in his private studio. So suddenly everything in one point fits in your career, and even after that I got an invitation to come here through the Brazilian embassy.

AB: Tell us about your Armenian roots.

JK: My grandfather’s family was all killed dur- ing the Genocide when he supposedly was 3 years old. So, we do not know the real surname of our family. As an orphan Aris, his name, was adopted by the Kouyumjian family, Ohannes and Zartar. Zartar and Aris came to Brazil before Ohannes and in Marseille, France, the surname became Kouyoumdjian. Aris passed in 1989. My grandmother’s family, Darakjian, came all together from Albistan and then from Aleppo. Sarkis and Arustiek, my grandmother’s parents came to Brazil in 1926. Parouhi Darakjian Kouyoumdjian, 92 years, is still alive with good health apart from arthritis.

AB: What about your parents? Are they artists also?

J K: We always joke about it, as we do not know about the ancestors of my paternal side. Who knows? Maybe there were great musicians among them. Actually, my grandfather, Aris Kouyoumdjian, used to play violin just for fun. Perhaps I inherited some of his musicality. As about my parents, they are physicians. My father, João Aris Kouyoumdjian, is active in Armenian life of São José do Rio Preto, and organizes vari- ous gatherings. My mother, Nivia Canile do Valle Kouyoumdjian, is Brazilian, but pretty much Armenian at heart. She embraced the culture very generously and she is very passionate about it. She told me that when I got here, she could not even sleep because of excitement, remembering when she came here with my father about 30 years ago, when it was still Soviet Union here, she felt very emotional and felt even more emotional now that I am here.

AB: What have you seen so far in Armenia?

JK: I have not seen much. My routine until today was to go from the hotel to the opera and from the opera to the hotel for rehearsals and all the concert preparation. I am an artist who is very focused on major engagements like this. Even though I am very excited to go out and see and connect to as many Armenians as pos- sible and learn a little bit the language. It just started today!

AB: So, we hope that you will soon have your first CD recorded along with Armenian music and we would like to regularly enjoy your performances in our concert halls.

JK: Well, I hope to be back. I hope I can reach my goal of being here at last once a year, luckily with a couple of good engagements here in Armenia. I liked here already, the facts that Armenians were so kind to me and I had a beau- tiful concert yesterday; the opera is fantastic, the food is great. I am sure there are many things I will love and will certainly miss when I am back to New York City. Another goal of mine is study- ing Armenian to be a more proficient in the lan- guage and be able to connect more with my Armenian side.

AB (in Portuguese): Obrigado!

JK (in Armenian): Shnorhagaloutyoun!