As Armenian Music Finds New Listeners, This LA Oud Player Is Keeping Its Traditions Alive
On an early Saturday afternoon in Glendale, musician Andrew Kzirian nimbly plucks the strings of his oud, its shimmering, nostalgic sound filling the air.
Through the instrument, Kzirian pays homage to a tradition of Armenian music, known as kef, that has been kept alive in the U.S. for generations following the 1915 genocide.
“With the kef tradition, it was Armenians who were in historic Western Armenia (current day Eastern Turkey) and they played these kinds of instruments,” he explained. “So, of course, when survivors, refugees, whoever came over, they brought these kinds of instruments.”
As new communities of Armenian immigrants formed across the U.S., this celebratory sound centered around instruments like the oud, doumbek (goblet drum) and kanoon, a string instrument similar to a zither, rousing people to the dance floor for weddings and social gatherings.
Now it's being embraced by younger musicians, like Kzirian’s students, who are bringing it into the spotlight once again. And Kzirian himself recently accompanied Armenian TikTok sensation Rosa Linn, on her appearance on The Late Late Show.
Antranig Kzirian — Attorney By Day, Oud Musician On The Side
An attorney by day, the Glendale-based musician has carved out a decades-long side career as oud player Antranig Kzirian, the Armenian name he was given upon his christening.
He’s a member of the band Viza, which has toured alongside Gogol Bordello and Serj Tankian. He has also played with Tankian, notably on the 2012 song “Ching Chime,” and Capital Cities, on “Tell Me How to Live,” from the band’s 2013 platinum-selling debut album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery.
In 2017, Kzirian released his own solo album, nOUD.
In the process, Kzirian, whose ancestors came to the U.S. in the early 20th century, has given a subtle nod to Armenian culture in music that’s resonated with listeners across the globe.
As a guitar-playing teen in Philadelphia, he became entranced by the oud and the tradition of kef music, studying videos and recordings from famed players as he practiced.
With friends and his brother, Kzirian formed a group, the Aravod Ensemble, playing a mix of traditional and modern Armenian music.
That’s when he first encountered controversy over his instrument of choice.
The sound is commonly associated with the Turkish style oud, which was also the style of the instrument frequently played by the ethnic minorities who lived under Ottoman Empire rule, like Armenians and Greeks.
“A lot of people who were in this non-kef background, they would come and see me playing the oud and they would say ‘what is this, you’re playing a Turkish instrument?'” he recalled.
A lot of people who were in this non-kef background, they would come and see me playing the oud and they would say ‘what is this, you’re playing a Turkish instrument?'
“I was completely taken aback. My whole life, I grew up with ‘the oud is Armenian, it’s sacred.’ My grandparents would talk about it. All the music I listened to was super oud-centric, so it was a shock to the system for them to disparage it.”
Generations of Armenian American oud players developed their own sounds and contributed to both U.S. and global culture. Here are some examples to learn more:
- Chick Ganimian accompanied jazz flute player Herbie Mann on the albums Impressions of the Middle East and The Wailing Dervishes.
- Middle Eastern Rock by John Berberian is a seminal world fusion record that blends Middle Eastern, psychedelic and jazz music.
- Ara Dinkjian's compositions include“Homecoming,” which has been recorded by multiple global artists as “Dinata” or “Dinata Dinata” and even made its way into the 2004 Athens Olympics.
For Armenians, the oud can be a complicated instrument. Its association with Turkey and the Ottoman Empire is hard to extricate and that, in turn, can be a reminder of the oppression that Armenians faced as ethnic minorities in their indigenous homeland, oppression that led to the Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s, the event that launched the first wave of Armenian immigration to the U.S., and the subsequent 1915 genocide.
While studying at Columbia during his graduate studies, Kzirian took a class where he learned about Armenian musicians and composers from the Ottoman Empire, like Udi Hrant Kenkulian, a blind oud player who survived the genocide and traveled to the U.S. on multiple occasions, where he recorded music and played concerts, passing down his knowledge to the acclaimed Armenian American oud players Richard Hagopian and Harry Minassian.
Playing The Oud
Like stuffed grape leaves and charms meant to ward off the evil eye, the oud is part of many peoples’ heritage. The instrument took hold throughout the Middle East and adjacent regions, the specifics of its size and tuning varying from culture to culture. It’s an ancestor of the lute, which in turn begat the guitar. Despite a visual similarity, though, the oud greatly differs from the guitar.
The oud is fretless, like a violin. Historically, an eagle feather was used as a pick— known as a risha, muzrab or mizrab depending on the player’s tradition— but, today, those have fallen out of use. “These are basically cable ties from Home Depot,” Kzirian says of his plectrum. “You shape it and sand it to your player preference.”
The oud that Kzirian played when we met was made in Turkey in the 1970s and restored in recent years by Viken Najarian, an Anaheim-based oud-maker known internationally for developing the electric oud.
Najarian learned the craft from his grandfather, who had been a renowned oud maker in Beirut before moving to the U.S. at the age of 80. “Where my grandfather learned is kind of a mystery,” said Najarian, noting that his grandfather headed to Lebanon during the 1915 genocide.
“The interesting thing about the Armenian experience is that Armenians were known, historically, as master composers, master oud players, especially in the Ottoman period, and that’s a very interesting part of our history as Armenians,” Kzirian said.
The interesting thing is that Armenians were known, historically, as master composers, master oud players, especially in the Ottoman period
“Due to the genocide and the stigma of that historical experience and all the suffering that occurred, that part of our history and achievements as a people is — not disregarded — but ignored or obfuscated a little bit, which is understandable because of the pain of what happened.”
The Oud In The U.S.
An exception, though, was in the U.S., where kef music and the oud took center stage. “The people who came here, that brought the music with them, escaped from Turkey and came here and brought that music with them and it’s been passed on,” Najarian said.
“Whereas, that didn’t happen in the Arabic countries. You don’t have kef style bands in Lebanon or Syria. It happened here. They brought that music with them and it carried on generation after generation.”
Music and the development of Armenian American communities go hand-in-hand. In the early 20th century, recent immigrants from the Ottoman Empire formed bands, played community events and nightclubs.
Some, particularly those in eastern U.S. cities, would go on to record as well. An example is Marko Melkon, who was based in New York and recorded both as a solo artist and sideman between the 1920s and 1950s. (His work has been released in recent years by Canary Records.)
Subsequent generations of oud players developed their own sounds and contributed to the greater patchwork of both American and global culture. (See Go Deeper above for more info.)
In recent years, the oud has been making a comeback. “I see a little bit of a youth movement. A lot of my customers are young, whereas it used to be more older people,” said Najarian, who estimates that about 20% of his customers are Armenians based in the U.S.
“I see it all over the place. I see it on the East Coast. I see it out here. I think there’s a lot of interest with young people and the oud.”
This coincides with a general growing interest in Armenian culture following the 2020 invasion of Artsakh and the country's struggles afterwards.
A few days after our meeting in Glendale, Kzirian played his oud on The Late Late Show, accompanying singer Rosa Linn, whose song “Snap” was Armenia’s Eurovision entry this year before becoming a TikTok hit, in a performance that incorporated traditional Armenian instruments and costumes.
“I love my country and I want to use every opportunity to share my culture and bring awareness to what is happening back home,” said Linn in a statement.
“I choose not to speak about politics, but it excites me to think that I have a platform that can trigger people’s interest in my homeland by just visually showing them something authentic to Armenia. If 5% of the people who watched my performance went and read about my country and what’s happening there at this moment — I see that as a huge win.”
For years, Kzirian has been teaching oud to students of varying ages and he too has seen growing interest amongst younger people. On the night before our final interview, he had performed a duet with a 16-year-old oud student at her recital.
“There's definitely this movement happening, which is amazing,” he said. “That's what I want. That's what all the older players wanted when I was a kid.”
Kzirian points out how important it has been for Armenians to maintain a connection to their heritage and says that the oud is a “quintessential vessel” to do just that.
“Armenian culture and music is not a monolith. It’s much more of a mosaic,” he said. “It’s very complicated because of our history and the oud is one of the very thick, strong, resilient pillars holding up that foundation.”