Vahe H. Apelian
Some time ago, on YouTube, I came across songs by Armen Guirag. Some of the songs were “viewed” a few times. Others had no views. I became reflective. Artists, such as Armen Guirag, entertain us with their songs, uplift our spirits and make our lives more pleasurable and then, much like old warriors, fade away. In its unmistakable forward march, time brings with it new norms, attitudes and likes and new artists come for a new generation who in turn experiences the same cycle of life. One more thing, I used the word tenor in its generic sense. I am not a connoisseur of voices.
Along with Armen Guirag, two other tenors, Ara Guiragossian and Kevork Gagossian have remained etched in my memory and I listen to them also, every now and then.
ARA GUIRAGOSSIAN. I have not met him in person. He remains in my mind as a tall and robust man. I have attended his performance on stage with my parents. He also used to sing in “Sayat Nova” restaurant in Beirut. Recently I translated Boghos Shahmelikian’s book that narrates Diaspora Armenian pop music. In it Boghos notes that Ara Guiragossian was the first to record an album of Armenian revolutionary songs. But he never caught the people’s fancy as a singer of such songs. I guess his voice was too trained, too structured for opera than for such songs on popular stage.
Recently I came across the following comments on YouTube that best summarizes Ara Guiragossian as a singer of revolutionary songs and also validates my memory of hearing him in the “Sayat Nova” restaurant. These two comments read as follows:
“When I was a young kid my parents used to take the family to Sayat Nova restaurant in Beirut Lebanon where Ara used to sing. Great memories” (Harout Hamassian).
“Once my mum went to a record shop to buy the disc of "Antranig" sung by Levon Katerdjian. There was a man in the shop, whom my mother didn't recognize. The shopkeeper tried to persuade my mother to buy Ara Guiragossian's version of that song, but mother said that she didn't like Ara's voice very much. Once she said this, she noticed that the man got emotional & hid his face in his hands. My mother then realized that the man was Ara Guiragossian. She felt very ashamed & bought both records.” (arayvaz6).
In vain, I searched for Ara Guiragossian’s biography on the Internet search engines. I do not know when and where he was born and when and where did he pass away. But surely his memory and his singing linger on. He can be heard on YouTube.
KEVORK GAGOSSIAN. I knew Alex Mnagian as a famous accordion player. Again, thanks to Boghos Shahmelikian I found out that he was more than a famous accordion player and that he was an artist of the highest caliber and has had his input in the artistic life in Lebanon be it as an Armenian and as Lebanese through his association with the famous Rahbani brothers.
Mnagian brothers had a music store next to Sourp (Saint) Nshan Church and it's one-time namesake school I attended. The neighborhood was an Armenian hub. Next, to the Mnagian’s store, my friend Garbis Baghdassarian’s brother Zareh, had a bookstore. One that very stretch of the street my classmate Haroutiun Hadsagortzian’s father had a barber shop. There was also a gun store whose owner married one of my classmates in Sourp Nshan. We lived a short walking distance from the church and that neighborhood was a hangout for us boys. Alex was a short and stocky guy. Another short and stocky young man would be in the store every now and then. His name was Kevork Gagossian. The community was shocked to hear that he passed away after his concert in Cairo at the age of 27.
I pieced together the following about Kevork Gagossian from an article penned by Hagop Mardirossian that appeared in Hairenik Weekly on July 17, 2014, forty-five years after his untimely death as a testament of the enduring legacy of this gifted but short-lived young man.
Kevork Gagossian was born on July 9, 1942, and passed away in Cairo, Egypt on November 25, 1969, a day after his concert. After finishing his studies in the Lebanese Conservatory, he had continued his studies in Italy. He had not yet produced any recording letting his friends know that a singer’s voice matures after the age of 35 and that he is yet too young to record for posterity. After his untimely death, his friends produced a record from the recordings of his concerts. He was deemed to be an unusually gifted bass tenor. His teachers, friends, and classmates from Lebanon, Italy, England and Japan mourned his death. His Japanese colleague Takao Okamura held a memorial concert in Beirut and ended his repertoire by signing in Armenian “I heard a sweet voice” (Ես Լսեցի Մի ԱՆուշ Զայն) dedicating it in memory of Kevork Gagossian.
Kevork Gagossian can be heard on YouTube.
ARMEN GUIGAG My parents had forged a friendship with him during his stay in Hotel Lux, the inn my father ran in Beirut. For many and many years, every Sunday morning my father would play his recording of Armenian Holy Mass, which is regarded one of the best rendition of the Holy Mass by a singer. For all, I recall he was from Latin America. My mother introduced him to her friend Rahel Chilinguirian and they got married and moved to the United States. In late 1960’s my mother visited her relatives in the United States and spent time with Armen and Rahel Guirag. I often wondered what happened to him.
A few years ago I read the following about Armen Guirag in an article the late Tom Vartabedian wrote in Armenian Weekly titled “Three Tenors Strike A Different Tune” (March 24, 2009).
“He (Armen Guirag) was Armenian and ran a record shop in New York City that doubled as his home. He would sell his music in front and sleep out back with a tiny refrigerator, table, and a couple chairs.
Armen Guirag lived from hand to mouth and was in no hurry to move his records. He once told me that everyone he sold was like “selling a child.” But did he ever have a voice, and became the greatest Armenian tenor of his generation back in the 1950’s.
He was recognized as a classic concert and opera singer, produced a number of recordings, and performed near and far, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall that gained rave reviews in the New York papers.
I met him during the tail end of his career when he gradually began to mellow and lived like a recluse. The last concert I attended of his was a pity.
He appeared in Boston, well into his 70s by now, and sang like he never sang before. His voice carried to the very last row of seats as people were on their feet applauding his every note.
And then, the unsuspected occurred. The record he had spinning in the background got stuck while the audience sat mortified. Even before lip-syncing became popular, Armen Guirag appeared well before his time.
He dashed off stage humiliated, never to appear again. Last I heard, he died in that little record store with hardly a whisper from the scores who embraced his music.”
Surely, it is a sad ending for such a talented singer. I hear his singing every now and then and find his voice unusually clear, crisp. It is said that the Armenian community does not appreciate its artists the way it should. I often wonder if our artists are victims of our gene pool. This may be true because we are unusually rich in talents be it singers or players of different classical instruments for the community to support all, the way it should.
We surely owe them a debt of gratitude for enriching our lives.