Ara Topouzian is quick to say he loves music and performing, but his performances also preserve traditional Armenian folk music.
“I want to pass it along. Our music stopped in 1915 — no more folk songs, art, authors were produced. The history of Armenians stopped with the genocide,” he said. “It survived not because of tape recorders or records, but in people — in their heats and souls. They escaped with that. It’s important. It means the music survived another 100 years.”
Topouzian plays the kanun, a 76-string Middle Eastern laptop harp, and will be performing Friday at the Phoenix Theaters Laurel Park Place in Livonia before two showings of “The Promise,” a film set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire when more than one million Armenians were massacred. Directed by Terry George, who also directed “Hotel Rwanda,” the film stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
The film showings and concerts by Topouzian are being hosted by the Armenian National Committee of Michigan. Both of the concert/film showings are sold out.
“We were displaced. It was an attempt to drive us to extinction. Music is history to me. It tells a story,” he said. “Anytime I perform or lecture on music, my part is to preserve Armenian culture and educate others on our history. And equally important, I love the music.”
A Farmington Hills resident, Topouzian works full time heading the Troy Chamber of Commerce and formerly worked for the Farmington Chamber of Commerce. Topouzian took up the kanun, which he describes as the grandfather to the piano, after he graduated from high school.
“The kanun dates to the fifth century — it’s still played today. I had always played music since I was a child, but not Armenian or Middle Eastern music,” Topouzian said. “I grew up in a very Armenian home — both my parents are Armenian. They never forced it on me. There was music in the house and records.”
So growing up, Topouzian said he was exposed to traditional Armenian music and would attend events in the Armenian community. “I loved the exotic sound of the music compared to western music,” he said. “In essence, you’re bending notes, sort of in-between the notes typically heard in western music. It’s a different rhythm and sounds.”
Over the years, Topouzian has performed concerts, at festivals and private events across the country, made several recordings and did work on shows for PBS. That includes work on a documentary about the history of Armenian music in Detroit. Topouzian has received numerous awards, including a 2012 Kresge Artist Fellowship through the Kresge Foundation.
The Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million people were systematically killed by the Ottoman Empire, isn’t a particularly well-known chapter in history. Along with preserving the culture of Armenians, Topouzian is hoping the mainstream film will reach more people.
“What they didn’t take was our musical history,” Topouzian said. “This film is very important to the Armenian people, but it is equally important for the non-Armenian community to watch and embrace it. Through this movie, audiences will have a chance to learn more about the Armenian genocide.”
It’s a tragedy that forced Armenians to flee their homes and many ended up in the Detroit area.
“We are all here due to the genocide. I’m in Michigan because of it. Parts of my family escaped. Many Armenians came to Detroit because Henry Ford was offering work at $5 a day,” Topouzian said.