By Aram Arkun
WATERTOWN — Armenians have lived throughout the world and participated in many different cultures both in the past and present. A powerful example of this was proffered by the Friends of Armenian Culture Society (FACS) in an entertaining and informative evening on Sunday, February 19 at the Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Theatre for the Arts in Watertown. After a brief historical talk by Dr. Boris Adjemian, director of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU)’s Nubar Library in Paris, the Grammy-nominated Either/Orchestra, together with a number of g:est vocalists, performed a concert honoring Ethiopian-Armenian music legend Nerses Nalbandian. The concert was fully sold-out.
Born in Aintab in 1915, Nalbandian moved to Ethiopia from Aleppo in 1938, invited by his uncle Kevork who preceded him. Aside from serving as choirmaster of St. Kevork Armenian Church in Addis Ababa, Nerses formed a choir at the Nazareth School, taught at various other schools, and was music director of the Haile Selassie National Theater. Nerses composed Africa, the first anthem of the organization of African States (now the African Union).
Nerses Nalbandian’s son Harout and his wife, daughters, cousins, niece and nephew were present at the concert, having traveled from Toronto, Montreal and Ohio to Boston for the occasion. Nerses’s other son, Vartkes, and wife Mary live in Ethiopia and could not be present.
During the program, Harout Nalbandian explained that a series of happy coincidences led to the materialization of this concert. FACS member Dr. Armineh Mirzabegian was in Washington DC for the Armenian Genocide centennial and had taken a taxi. As she made small talk with the driver, she found out he was Ethiopian, and he in turn learned that she was Armenian. He spoke about the Armenian musical influence in Ethiopia. Mirzabegian later investigated further. She learned about the Nalbandian family, and that a big band, the Either/Orchestra, performs Nalbandian’s work in Boston. In other words, a fortuitously made connection led to this unique concert.
As the evening began, Mirzabegian introduced Adjemian, editor-in-chief of the bilingual academic journal Etudes armeniennes contemporaines, who had published a book in 2013 titled La fanfare du negus: les Armeniens en Ethiopie (19e-20e siècles) [The Royal Brass Band: Armenians in Ethiopia (19-20th Centuries)]. Adjemian spoke not about Nalbandian but about how the latter’s success story as a musician was part of the greater success story of Armenians in Ethiopia.
At the end of the 19th century, prior to the Armenian Genocide, a new wave of immigration of Armenians to Ethiopia took place, so that prior to World War I, according to Adjemian, there were approximately 200 Armenians living in the country. Yet Armenians were one of the four main groups of foreigners living in the country even then (along with Greeks, Indians and the so-called Arabs, mainly from Yemen or Aden). After the Genocide, the number of Armenians increased to approximately 1,200 at its zenith. The Armenians remained as one of the main groups of foreigners in Ethiopia. After the Ethiopian revolution in 1974, the majority of the Armenians left the country gradually but a small group remained, and even today they maintain institutions like a club and small school.
The Armenians were deeply integrated into Ethiopian society. The brass band of Regent Ras Tafari (1916-1930, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie) was created in 1924 with 40 Armenian orphans, ages 12-18, who were originally living in Jerusalem. The AGBU had created an orphanage there after the Genocide. When Tafari was crown prince of Ethiopia he visited Jerusalem and saw the boys. Adjemian said that he decided to bring them to Ethiopia, take care of them and ask them to become the official brass band of the crown prince. This was the first time that the Ethiopian government had official music.
Kevork Nalbandian, the uncle of Nerses, was the director of this band. Kevork was asked to write a national anthem for Ethiopia, which the 40 orphan survivors of the Genocide played.
Tafari wanted to make Ethiopia a modern state while fighting against colonialism and imperialism. Yet, Adjemian said, he chose Armenian boys who were completely inexperienced and had a strange repertoire. They played songs not suitable for the official ceremonies at which they performed.
For example, during the visit of an Italian envoy in 1927, they played Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March. Though some consider this an honest error, Adjemian finds that this may have been a deliberate effort to deliver a message to the Italians, who were hostile to Ethiopia and preparing to attack it. Furthermore, Adjemian said, “The creation of this Ethiopian brass band can be considered a political decision.”
The Ethiopian and Armenian churches were very close to each other from medieval times. A 14th-century Ethiopian saint ended his life in Armenia, and in Jerusalem relations between the two churches was continuous. In the Ottoman period, the Armenian Patriarchate acted as a protector of the Ethiopians.
After 1632, the Ethiopian king expelled all European missionaries, Adjemian said, and closed his country to European influences for 150 years. However, in this period, Armenians travelled freely and wrote accounts of what they saw. Adjemian exclaimed: “Armenians were not considered strictly as foreigners but were seen as coreligionists.”
In the 20th century, even before 1924, there were many Armenians serving in the court. All the jewelers of the court were Armenian. This was very significant, said Adjemian, because in addition to jewelry they made the royal crown, which allowed Ethiopia not to symbolically be subject to Europe. As well, all the photographers of the court were Armenians — and they all were Boyadjians. Tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths and maids served at the court. Many Armenians had close ties with the Ethiopian aristocracy, and some had Ethiopian godfathers or godmothers among the aristocracy, including the empress herself.
Armenians also became civil servants, interpreters of almost all the big embassies, and were involved in professions new for Ethiopia, like shoemaking. In 1930, there were 30 shoemakers in Addis Ababa, of whom 25 were Armenians and 5 Greeks. Armenians worked as drivers, lawyers, doctors, mechanics, veterinarians, teachers and musicians.
Avedis Terzian, born in 1904 and died in July 2000, gave Adjemian information on Armenian “heroes” who had close relations with the Ethiopian king. All his stories indicated to him that Armenians were not like other foreigners, but were close to the Ethiopian people.
Between 1936 and 1941, when the Italians invaded Ethiopia, they were aware of the special status of the Armenians and tried to take advantage of them. Only some Armenians collaborated, but many were involved in the resistance against the Italians and fought together with the Ethiopian patriots. Adjemian said that they created clandestine newspapers for the resistance.
Several hundred Ethiopian aristocratic leaders were exiled to the south by the Italians, but most were allowed eventually to return. Only 30 were kept in exile. These 30 were called “dangerous” and “irreducible” Ethiopian chiefs, and among them were 10 Armenians. These Armenians had already become Ethiopianized. So when Nerses Nalbandian came, concluded Adjemian, this was the context that allowed his own integration into Ethiopian society.
As Adjemian concluded his talk, the members of the Either/Orchestra took their seats in the background, and played Nerses Nalbandian’s tune Amara Rumba, with which he used to open shows at the Haile Selassie National Theater. It was transcribed by the artistic director of the band, saxophonist Russ Gershon.
Gershon founded the Either/orchestra in 1985, and has played or performed with the Four Tops, Cab Calloway, Alan Dawson, and many others. He teaches music history at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. He got interested in Ethiopian music almost 30 years ago. He and his band began performing arrangements of this music in 1997, and traveled to Ethiopia to perform Nalbandian’s music in 2004 and 2011.
The Either/Orchestra then played three diverse songs which represented various musical influences on Nerses: Komitas’ Kele Kele, Xavier Cugat’s Habanera from the 1930s, and Ray Charles’ Unchain My Heart. Serena Alexandra Tchorbajian, a sophomore at Harvard University, joined the band to sing Kele Kele in Armenian.
Manolo Mairena, an experienced composer, singer and percussionist, performed Habanera with the band, while Ronald Murphy, vocalist, actor, producer and entrepreneur, sang Unchain My Heart with a true bass voice, together with vocalists Jenna Markard and Susan Barnaby.
Many other Nalbandian songs were then performed. Gershon provided the necessary background and commentary for each song, and periodically presented the various performers to the audience, which responded in every instance with great applause. He explained that Nalbandian used the various modes (pentatonic or five note scales) of Ethiopian traditional music, combined with various influences, especially Latin rhythms.
Bruck Tesfaye, a dynamic Ethiopian-born artist and lead singer of the Boston-based Ethiopian Debo Band, joined the band to sing in his native Amharic on many songs. He has recorded two full-length albums and an EP with Debo Band. Harout Nalbandian joined the band briefly in one number, Adarech Arada, to play the electric guitar.
Among the members of the Either/Orchestra are Tom Halter and Dan Rosenthal on trumpets, Joel Yennior on trombone, Mark Zaleski, Russ Gershon and Charlie Kohlhase on woodwinds, Gilson Schachnik on piano, Rick McLaughlin on bass, Jacques Smith, Jr. on drums, and Vicente Lebon on congas and percussion.
The band’s CD, “Ethiopiques 32: Nalbandian the Ethiopian” (Buda Musique, Paris), which will contain much of the music performed at the concert, should be out in the spring. It is being curated by Francis Falceto, an expert on Ethiopian music. For more information on the Either/Orchestra and its CDs, see http://either-orchestra.org/.