Local Artist Profiles
Nine profiles of local artists
(page 9 of 9)
By Rachel Premack // Photographs by Cybelle Codish
Ara Topouzian’s eyes are almost as black as the distinctive dark coffee of his grandparent’s ancestral home in Armenia. He casts them upward as he tries to pinpoint the captivating sound of the kanun, the 76-stringed laptop harp he’s strummed for countless audiences.
“It’s got a very wide range of a harp sound,” says Topouzian, a Detroit-born Armenian-American. “When I play with a band, I’m usually the first one that they look at because they’re like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that kind of instrument before.’ ”
Topouzian performs the kanun as both a solo and ensemble musician. For the past 22 years, his American Recording Productions company has made more than 30 recordings of Armenian and Middle Eastern music. Receiving one of only 12 Kresge Artist Fellowships for the Performing Arts in 2012 has allowed him to become a better ambassador for his beloved instrument.
One of his projects includes collaborating with rock and techno musicians to embellish their contemporary songs with the kanun’s exotic sound.
It’s a far cry from the instrument’s more humble roots in Armenian folk songs, which often focus on daily life. Such “village” music is traditionally “very simplistic,” Topouzian says, but still provides an interesting route to understanding the heritage of Armenia as a whole. During the Ottoman-implemented massacre of an estimated 1 million Armenians in the early 20th century, for example, many folk song lyrics were lost because they had never been formally recorded, unlike Armenian classical and church music.
What the massacre didn’t take erase, however, was the music itself. “What they didn’t take,” Topouzian says, “was our history.”
Topouzian’s goal is to promote that history among non-Armenians through the kanun. He says his ideal audience doesn’t have links to the mountainous Eastern European nation. This allows for a pure conversation about Armenian culture, he says.
Nevertheless, plucking the kanun’s strings still has a way of transporting Topouzian from the suburbs and his day job as president of the Troy Chamber of Commerce — and the impressive venues like Detroit Orchestra Hall where he’s been known to perform. He can often imagine his grandfather’s ancestral home, a place of towering stone monasteries and forests that cover the rugged, mountainous landscape.
“I can actually picture my grandparents and their parents and what it [might] have looked like,” Topouzian says. “They’re all laughing and dancing and hearing music. I picture that. In my small part, I’m helping try to preserve that.”