Stoixeia apo ton bio kai tin politeia tou gnostou oudieri opos mas ta metaferei n kori tou roza (apo entheto diskou):
Notes by Rose Hagopian-Mozian-Alemsherian
My father, Melkon Alemsherian, was born in Izmir (Smyrna), Turkey on May 2, 1895 to Armenian parents, Garabed and Hripsime Alemsherian. His mother wanted him to take guitar lessons as a youngster but the closest thing they could find was an oud. So, quite by accident, this became his instrument. At seventeen he was to fulfil] his obligation in the Turkish army. His father could not afford to buy him out so he fled to Athens, Greece where he played in the taverns and coffee houses. Being from Izmir, he spoke and sang Greek fluently. In 1921 he left for America, traveling with his musician friend and colleague, Achilles Poulos. When he arrived in New York City, some Greek sailors he had met on the ship took him straight to a coffee house. Oud in hand, he played all night and finally arrived at his sister’s house the next morning, his pockets filled with money. His family was shocked to find him with so much money. Nobody was more shocked than Melkon. Little did he know that he would be able to work as a musician in America. Thus began his career as a cabaret performer. He took the stage name Marko Melkon. The Greeks swore he was Greek because of his authentic style. In 1923, his parents were forced to leave Turkey and fled to Greece. With the money Marko had saved, he paid their passage to America.
In 1928, Marko himself returned to Greece to find a bride. In Salonika, within a week, he met and married Azad Karnoogian, an Armenian girl from Izmir. His old friend Achilles Poulos served as the best man. The night before the wedding, when Marko saw his young bride crying, he thought it was because she was being forced to marry him. He left angry. Achilles tried to convince him that it wasn’t true, but the argument became heated and poor Achilles ended up with Marko’s oud on his head. Nevertheless, Marko and Azad were married the next day, but not before Achilles could repay Marko by hopping him on the head with the cross while standing before the alter. The couple settled in Watertown, Massachusetts where Marko operated a music and record shop on Mt. Auburn Avenue. They had two children, myself and my brother Garabed. During the depression, my father lost his business and we moved to New York City where he began playing in the clubs again. His popularity escalated in the forties with the release of a series of records made on the MeRe, Kaliphon and Metropolitan record labels. His first record, Oglan Oglan, was a hit throughout the country. By 1950, there was hardly an Armenian household without one of Marko’s records. His group included violinists Nishan Sedeflian or Nick Doneff, the famous kanun player Garbis Bakirgian, and a dumbek (middleeastern hand drum) player, usually one of the women dancers from the nightclub.
I remember one occasion when my father took me with him to a recording session. They wererecording Puskullu bela. Every time the engineer said that this would be the master recording, the poor woman playing the dumbek (middle eastern drum) would get nervous and lose the rhythm. They were all in the control room listening to the playback, so I picked up the dumbek and played along, not realizing that they could hear me. My father came out and I quickly put down the dumbek thinking he would be angry. Instead he said, “You play!” It was such a thrill to be part of his world. And for a young girl, I earned a fortune of $5.00 a side!
During the summer months, we would go to the Catskill Mountains where the hotels were packed with Armenian immigrants from all over the East Coast. Marko played at the Tannersville Bar, The Washington Irving Hotel and the Clinton Hotel. One year I remember when my father took my mother, aunt and me to the Tannersville Bar where he was going to play for the summer. When we arrived, another oud player was playing one of my father’s songs. After he finished, my father asked me what I thought of the oud player. “He’s not bad for an amateur,” I said. Marko laughed and was obviously moved by my admiration. I thought he was the only professional oud player in the world! His stage presence and ability to create what Armenians call “kef” (good times) were truly remarkable. He turned the act of “kef-making” into an art form and this, I think, was his greatest talent. There were probably more knowledgeable or technically proficient oud players, but none could create a party like Marko. I remember when the legendary blind oud player Udi Hrant arrived in New York from Istanbul. He came to our home for dinner and played for us afterwards. My aunt told Marko, “He plays beautifully doesn’t he?” Marko replied, “I don’t play that kind of music. I make people dance.” Nothing could have been more true. When it came to cabaret-style playing and having a good time, Marko was the undisputed king. He not only knew every fan by name but their favorite song as well. He knew just when to play what song and how to play it custom tailored to their taste. He made each person feel as if he were playing for them alone. No musician earned more tips (dollar bills are customarily thrown on the musicians) than Marko. He traveled to Boston where he played the opening of Club Zara and Club Khyam and was often gone for weeks at a time to Philadelphia, Chicago or Detroit, playing in their clubs and coffee houses.
As the 8th Avenue middle-eastern club scene in New York became more and more popular, Marko’s audience began to include Americans. The best-known clubs - Port Said, Britania, Egyptian Gardens and the Grecian Palace Cafe - were frequented by celebrities such as Leonard Bernstem, Melvin Douglas, Ann Sheridan, and Dave Brubeck. In 1950, Egyptian Gardens had a cover charge of $3.50 - fifty cents more than the Copacabana! The owner was a timid man so Marko would often leap off the stage to greet and scat guests. My mother worked as a milliner during the day. Father enjoyed fishing and would often go straight to Sheepshead Bay at 4:00 am from his club date. He loved to cook and was an extraordinary chef, specializing in fish dishes he learned to make in Greece. His days were free since his cabaret life started at around 10:00 at night. He liked to go to vaudeville and could hardly wait for me to come home from school to accompany him.
In 1960, the movie Never on a Sunday came out. Both my mother and father loved this movie because it reminded them of the people they knew in Athens. Marko was thrilled when the American orchestra leader Don Costa asked him to play the oud on the recording of the title song. He even joined the Musicians Union Local 802 to do the gig. In 1957, my husband Roger Mozian, a jazz trumpeter and producer, recorded my father’s only long-play album for Decca records: Hi-Fi in Asia Minor. It was a big success and presented Marko singing in Armenian, Greek and Turkish. Previously, Roger had written a piece called Asia Minor for Dance Band and Oud. They recorded it together but it was never released. (It is included here for the first time, track 21). They had to build special walls around Marko at the recording session because he said he couldn’t hear his oud with all of the instruments playing!
My father was a consummate entertainer, performing even when off-stage, but music was truly his first love. In an interview with Nick Kenny, he said that he felt that the oud was like his mistress. It responded coldly if ignored. When he suffered a heart attack in 1952, his doctors insisted he stop working for at least a year. It was the hardest year for him and for the entire family as well. He desperately needed the applause and attention he was used to from his fans. During his year of recuperation, he simply did not know what to do with himself, and we didn’t know what to do with him either! At times he could be temperamental and his frustration was felt by all of us. Though at first he tried to keep busy gardening and doing odd jobs around the house, Marko was simply not cut out for such a family life. His mood swings were extreme and his sharp sarcasm was sometimes hurting to those close to him. He used to say, “Nobody understands me. Well, maybe Rosig understands me a little.”
Marko managed the year but had to change his lifestyle completely. He cut out drinking and smoking entirely for the rest of his life. His heart, however, was weakened and he suffered a series of small heart attacks for the next eleven years. He resumed playing in the clubs but usually only on the weekends. His heart finally gave out in 1963 while he was at home in Astoria, Queens. I am thankful that his recordings have survived. In compiling this collection, many memories have been recalled. I can see Nishan Sedeflian, the violinist, with his cigarette forever dangling from the corner of his mouth … and my earliest memories are of my father playing taksims (improvisations). I remember how he would announce that his daughter was going to dance and how the music would stop cold if a stranger or young man dared to dance with me. I would like to thank Harold Hagopian for encouraging me to be a part of this project and Direct Cultural Access, Inc. for its generous financial assistance granted to restore and reissue these recordings.
New York City, April 1996
Tracks on the CD
- Yandim Yandirn (Metropolitan 2006B) NS 2. Oglan Oglan (Me-Re 4003A) 3. Allan gel (Kaliphon 724A) ND 4. Ekinim harmonim yok(Kaliphon 72411) ND 5. Hicaz Taksim (Kaliphon 702A) 6. 0 asil g6zleri (Kaliphon 713B) 7. Gideceksin gurbet ele (Kaliphon 714A) ND 8. (~ifte Telli (Me-Re 4003B) NS 9. Atnan arap kizi (Balkan 4004A) GB, AZ 10. Oglan yalanlar diizme (Me-Re 4001A) 11. Nazli kadin (Me-Re 400 IB) 12. (~apkin ~apkin (Me-Re 4002A) 13. Haninn Oyunu (Me-Re 400211) NS 14. Huzzarn Taksirn (Kaliphon 700B) 15. Memun oldurn bir gijzele (Balkan 4004B) GB, AZ 16. BahQelerde ben gezerim (Kaliphon 70 1 A) ND 17. I-'dskdllij bela (Kaliphon 700A) ND 18. Kadifeden kesesi (Kaliphon 713A) 19. Bu gece gamlarda kalsak (Metropolitan 2007B) 20. Seviyorum ayip midir? (Metropolitan (2005B) 21. Asia Minor (Roger Mozian Band)
Musicians: NS= Nishan Sedefjian, violin; ND= Nick Doneff, violin; GB= Garbis Bakirgian, kanun; AZ= Alexis Zervas, violin