Oud advice from Ara Dinkjian

The renowned Armenian-American oud player and composer returns to Israel to perform two shows at the Elma Arts Complex in Zichron Ya’akov.

Armenian-American oud player Ara Dinkjian (photo credit: KENDALL MESSICK)
Armenian-American oud player Ara Dinkjian
(photo credit: KENDALL MESSICK)
Ara Dinkjian is no stranger to these shores. The 58-year-old Armenian American oud player became known to Israeli music fans in the 1980s, as a member of highly successful jazz-inflected ethnic music pop group Night Ark. One of the group’s tracks,“Picture,” became an enduring favorite here while another, “Homecoming,” was used as the theme tune for hit 1990s satirical TV show Hahamishia Hakamerit (The Chamber Quintet).
Dinkjian has performed here, both with Night Ark and as the stellar frontman of a glittering array of local artists, on quite a few occasions and is due back here to give two shows at the Elma Arts Complex in Zichron Ya’akov this weekend (April 1-2, 10 p.m. and 9 p.m. respectively). The oud player will be joined on stage by Turkish- born kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi, as well as internationally acclaimed percussionist Zohar Fresco, bassist Gilad Efrat and veteran jazz-inclined piano player Adi Renert. Dinkjian has performed with all the above before, so it should be a snug fit.
“It’s always a great joy to come to Israel,” he says. “They seem to like what I do in Israel,” he adds with a touch of modesty. “I have performed at the Oud Festival [run by Confederation House in Jerusalem] I think four times. It’s amazing, you do something in one part of the world and sometimes you don’t know how it affects other parts of the world.”
Today, Dinkjian is best known for his oud playing, but when he was just a tiny tot he was given to musical exploits of a more percussive nature. It is, says the American, just a matter of going with the natural flow.
“Those of us who have music inside of us, we all start by banging on tables and things until our parents can’t take it anymore and they get us a bongo or a little drum. I was no different.”
In Dinkjian’s case one might add that any childhood musical tendencies he may have displayed were sure to be encouraged by his father, renowned singer of Armenian folk and liturgical music Onnik Dinkjian.
Dinkjian is still happily at it at the age of 87, and performed with his son at the 2006 Oud Festival. The concert also spawned an album called Voice of Armenians.
Once he discovered the fun he could have with producing rhythmic sounds there was no stopping the youngster.
“It started with a little hand drum, and then virtually any instrument I could get my hands on I tried to find sound,” says Dinkjian. That childhood wonderment is still alive and pulsating. “I am still looking for new sounds like that,” he declares. “The more you know the more you realize you don’t know,” he adds sagely. “I’m desperately trying to learn as much as I can.”
That has been the man’s quest from the word go.
“I grew up in a house where music was as common as food and everything else,” he notes. There was also a musical object of desire lurking in his parents’ bedroom to which the young Dinkjian was inexorably drawn.
“As a very young child, three, four, five years old, I was forbidden from going into their bedroom because my father’s oud was there. It didn’t have a case and an oud is a very delicate instrument. Well, you know simple psychology, if you tell a child they can touch anything in the house except this, it was of course the only thing I wanted to touch.”
To this day, Dinkjian wonders if there may have been a dash of reverse psychology in there, to push the kid further down his evolving musical path. If it was, he put it to good use in his own paternal role.
“Later on when I myself became a father I’d tell my children don’t you dare do your homework,” he laughs. “I learned my lesson.”
Dinkjian Sr. eventually found out that his son had honed in on the off-limits instrument.
“My father came home early one day and he found me sitting on the floor of his bedroom with the oud,” recalls Dinkjian. “He was about to be angry but then he heard I could actually play a melody or two.”
And that was that.
Dinkjian grew up with the music his father performed and is deeply rooted in Armenian fare, but is also very much the product of his own generation, and the rock and pop music of the Sixties and Seventies, with more than a modicum of Western classical music thrown in for good measure.
While Dinkjian feeds off all those sources, and more, for him playing music is a fundamental part of who he is, and of the universal need to plug into the rhythms, textures and colors of artistic sonic endeavor regardless of the genre.
“As much as I am very conscious of my historical background and history, and want to know it and respect and have that part of my musical personality, there’s something larger than that, which is basic humanity,” he observes. “What I mean by that is music is obviously something we all relate to, as human beings.”
That given, Dinkjian spreads his aural net as far and wide as he possibly can. “I try to listen to virtually every type of music, be it the aborigines, pop music or even the birds singing outside. There is really something to be learned from every sound, even if it’s something you don’t want to sound like. I’m really a student of all sounds and music, and I try to take those sounds that I admire and, somehow, adapt them to my playing whether they traditionally belong to the oud or not.”
Taking such an open approach to traditional music can tend to land one in hot water in certain quarters.
“I have had some heated discussions with puritans, but the question is what is pure? There is nothing that is pure. Time moves on. We are not museum pieces, we’re living it. We must move forward or, otherwise, we’re dead. There’s nothing pure.”
Pure or not, Dinkjian maintains a constant search for a crystallized, pared-down form of sound.
“Now, in my relatively older age, I am looking for that one note that’s the right note.”
Presumably, the audiences at the Elma Arts Complex will find quite a few right notes emanating from Dinkjian’s oud this weekend.
For tickets and more information: (04) 630- 0123 and tickets@elmaarts.com.