By Daron Halajian
The Hamazkayin Theatre came to life with eclectic sounds and vibrant colours on Friday, Oct. 21, as hundreds gathered at the Armenian Youth Centre to witness a unique fusion of the music of two distinct nations—the Dominican Republic and Armenia.
The “Armenia Meets Dominicana” was part of the “Armenia Meets” project, the brainchild of dentist-turned-musician Ara Arakelyan, who relocated to Canada from Armenia in 2013.
Arakelyan was first inspired by Cuban music when he was studying in Yerevan. Since moving to Canada, he has fully embraced Toronto’s multiculturalism, allowing his artistic vision to come to life. “Canada gives the perfect opportunity to embrace other cultures. Music is a reflection of our lives,” he says.
Before coming to Canada, he was active in the Yerevan jazz scene, playing at Malkhas Jazz Club, the Gamerayin State Musical Theater, and Philharmonic Hall.
Arakelyan began studying piano at the Sayat Nova Music School in Yerevan at age five. After studying piano for eight years, he transitioned into the saxophone and classical guitar. He holds a master’s degree in classical music from Yerevan State University and graduated from the Erepuni State Medical University with a dentistry degree. In Canada, he further pursued his education in jazz saxophone at Humber College and York University.
On Oct. 21, Arakelyan delighted the crowd with his jazz recompositions of Komitas Vartabed’s traditional melodies and newer takes on some of Aram Khachaturian’s, such as “Lezghinka” and “Lullaby.” The performance took place just a day before the 87th anniversary of Komitas’ passing. Often regarded as the father of Armenian folk music, it was especially unique for the crowd to hear such a modern interpretation of Komitas’ tunes the Armenian people have grown to cherish so dearly.
“I have done recompositions often. I wanted to impact and share Armenian music with others,” Arakelyan explains about his vision. “So, I asked myself: How can I take Armenian music to people of other nationalities?”
Arakelyan has previously collaborated with artists of other nationalities to perform shows such as “Armenia Meets Cuba” in Feb. 2019, also held at the Armenian Youth Centre. Arakelyan took Cuban melodies and presented them through the traditional Armenian duduk in addition to cross-fusing the songs unique to each culture. He has also played at the Beaches Jazz Festival, TD Jazz Festival, and In Future Jazz Fest at Ontario Place.
During the “Armenia Meets Dominican” show, the crowd was enchanted by Seyran Ghazaryan and Jivan Stepanian on duduk, shvi, and zurna; Madiana Torosyan on kanon; Jonathan Amador on bass; Sandor Schwisberg on piano; Joaquin Nunez Hidalgo on percussions; and Junior Santos on drums. Arakelyan met the artists from working and playing together on other projects and at different venues in and around Toronto.
Throughout the show, live-painter Tamara Harutyunyan also delighted the audience with her beautiful brush strokes and electrifying colors. After graduating from the Panos Terlemezian Yerevan State College of Fine Arts and completing her Master’s degree there, Tamara continued her studies in St. Petersburg. In 2003, she moved to Toronto, where she studied graphic and 3-D design and has lived here ever since.
“We’ve been [incorporating live painting] in our concerts for some time. The first time was during a charity concert for an Armenian girl with a rare disease, and the proceeds from two paintings were donated to pay for the girl’s treatment,” Arakelyan says. The spirit of giving was alive and well on Friday, too, as half of the proceeds from the show were donated to Yerevan’s “Zinvori Tun” Homeland Defenders’ Rehabilitation Centre. Tamara’s paintings were also auctioned for the Centre, which provides high-quality care to Armenian veterans free of charge.
Arakelyan strives to continue his mission to present Armenian music to other cultures. He says his “weapon” to do so is jazz. During the show, Arakelyan interchangeably played keys, tenor saxophone, and soprano saxophone. His versatility, endurance, and creativity as a musician are apparent in his ability to lead multi-instrumental jazz sets and truly engage his audience.
As a dental technician by trade and a musician by passion, Arakelyan continues to inspire many through his talents. He currently teaches music to students as young as four and as old as the mid-60s. Arakelyan also conducts jazz band programs where his students gain practical experience playing and performing in real-life settings.
Arakelyan’s love for music is perhaps most evident in how he describes his dedication to his students and the stage. “It’s my passion. I teach up to seven days a week, and I love it. I also love performing and presenting this music to a wider audience, so it’s safe to say I don’t miss dentistry much.”