Vicki Erickson

Feb 012012
 
Certificate of Scholarship is awarded to Artoor Minas, a Whittier Law School law student.

John Bilezikjian presents the award to Artoor Minas.

WHITTIER, CA – Whittier Law School law student Artoor Minas is on a quest. Actually, he is pursuing two dreams. At the same time he is preparing for a demanding law career, he dreams of introducing an ancient Middle Eastern musical instrument, the oud, to as many people around the world as possible. The John Bilezikjian Foundation is helping to make his vision a reality with a grant allowing him to study with celebrated world musician oudist John Bilezikjian.

Minas’ love of Middle Eastern music had been nurtured from a young age at home.

“My parents were from Iran and I grew up with this type of music in the household,” said Minas.

But, his musical passion was inspired during a sojourn in Hungary. “I saw a Moroccan group where the oud was played in their concerts. I was able to go to their shows regularly because they were based in Budapest.”

Upon his return to the United States, Minas enrolled at Whittier University to study law, which required he devote many hours in the library. Even so, the demands of his course work did not extinguish his musical interests and he occasionally wandered into the library’s music section.

His browsings revealed the instrument’s history reaching back more than 2,000 years. An eleven-stringed, fretless Persian instrument, the oud is played with an eagle’s feather. It is the precursor of the lute, guitar and other western stringed instruments, having been brought back to Europe by returning crusaders. Oud makers spend hundreds of hours creating the exquisite gourd shaped instrument out of meticulously shaped exotic wood.

The library also offered recordings, including some by John Bilezikjian, an artist to whom the young enthusiast found himself increasingly drawn.

I was exploring the world music section in the public library and I found John Bilezikjian’s ‘Music of the Armenian Diaspora’ CD,” Minas recalled. “I checked it out immediately because it looked so interesting and that’s how I found John – inadvertently, accidently, by fate, whatever you want to call it – by going through the library and checking out CDs.”

He called the number on the back of the CD and was surprised when Bilezikjian answered the phone. As he recalls, they connected immediately through their shared Armenian heritage and love of the oud. Once he learned Bilezikjian lived in Southern California, they transformed from phone acquaintances to student and teacher.

Artoor Minas playing the oud

Artoor Minas

Minas was astonished that this man was willing to work with a beginner as Bilezikjian, a musician of worldwide reputation, has performed worldwide, on concert tours and with orchestras such as the Boston Pops, as featured soloist. He has recorded sound tracks for more than eighty films, including “Prince of Egypt”, “Spy Game”, “Siriana”, “Must Love Dogs”, “Schindler’s List” and “Beowulf”.

As Minas’ appreciation of the music has deepened, so also has his connection to his Persian Armenian heritage. Each lesson begins with a background of the songs to be learned: where they are from and the history behind them.

My parents are immigrants. I’m first generation here. My parents are descendants of the Armenian genocide. They fled to Iran but the Iranian revolution of 1979 forced them to come here. So I connect with this background.”

His musical studies have reinforced his desire to specialize in immigration law.

Minas hopes to carry on Bilezikjian’s quest to make the oud as well known and appreciated as classical instruments such as the violin. In fact, Bilezikjian’s first instrument was the violin, but he, too, fell passionately, deeply in love with the beauty of the oud.

I hope to introduce it as much as I can to the world. John has done that in an amazing way, such as by bringing it to the concert level. I would like to do the same,” said Minas. “I would like to do it with my own style, with my own identity. I want to do this with a group of musicians that I know are interested in different types of instruments and, I hope, present it in a new and unique way.”

The John Bilezikjian Foundation is a non-profit organization created to honor the lifetime achievements of John Bilezikjian in music and education, and to support those striving to continue his legacy. For more information, please call 1-855-OUDDIST (683-3478) or visit the website at JohnBilezikjianFoundation.com.

NOTE: An earlier article regarding this grant mistakenly reported that Minas attended the law school at Chapman University instead of Whittier Law School. The article was titled “Chapman University Law Student Receives Armenian Music Scholarship”.

Aug 192011
 
John Bilezikjian and the Halehs in 1963

Early 1963 photo of John Bilezikjian’s first band, The Halehs. The young band was performing at Milliken Junior High School in Van Nuys, CA. From the left, John Belezikjian on the oud, his brother Edward Bilezikjian on clarinet and Michael Tolegian on dumbeg.

1963. Four boys stepped on the Milliken Junior High School stage in Van Nuys, California and took their positions, shyly grinning at their friends scattered about the auditorium. John Bilezikjian, set his strange looking instrument firmly on his lap, nodded at his buddies, and the music began.

2011. The music continues

It began as the dream of a 10-year-old Valley boy when he created his first band, The Halehs. The boy never looked back and for nearly 50 years, John Bilezikjian has set his unique instrument, the oud, on his lap and entertained audiences worldwide – on stage, cabaret, in concert halls, recordings and movie soundtracks.

Bilezikijian chuckles as he recalls his early days.

In 1963, at St. James Armenian Church in Los Angeles we were so happy and excited that we were hired to perform. We each earned $8.00 plus a Shish Kebab Dinner.”

He never lost that early thrill, the excitement in the moment before his fingers settled on the strings of his instrument. An ancient folk instrument of the Middle East, the oud’s Persian roots reach back 2,000 years.

Bilezikijian has taken the instrument beyond its traditional audience and repertoire into areas as disparate as music of the Sephardim and Russia. He has transcribed and performed classical European pieces whose writers had never even heard of the oud.  He has also ventured into the other end of the musical spectrum by performing with Little Richard, Robert Palmer and Leonard Cohen.

Filmgoers have been listening to him for years. Blackhawk Down, Must Love Dogs, Beowulf, The Mummy, Hidalgo, Aladdin, and Schindler’s List are just a few of the soundtracks to which he has contributed.

John Bilezikjian in concert 2011On August 21, 2011, John Bilezikjian will be performing in concert at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center.  In celebration of the 50 years he has dedicated to music, the concert will include friends with whom he has performed over the years, including members of his first band, the Halehs, formed when he was 10 years old.

For information on the upcoming concert, please visit FriendsOfJohnBilezikjian.com or call 1-855-OUD-DIST (1-855-683-3478).

Jul 222011
 

Even during their studies with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles probably had no idea an instrument called an oud existed. On the other hand, oudist John Bilezikjian had no idea who they were.

“When I first started out, I had no idea who The Beatles were, or Simon and Garfunkel. Then one day I heard ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and I started crying. I asked my wife, ‘what is that song?’ and I couldn’t believe she had the record and played it for me. My whole life until then had been classical music and Turkish 78s.”

The Halehs 1965

In this 1965 photo of The Halehs, John Bilezikjian was 15 years old. This photo was taken at St. James Armenian Church in Los Angeles where the group had been hired to perform for a dance in the church hall. Each young musician earned $8.00 and a shish kebab dinner for their efforts. From left: John Bilezikjian on oud, Ray Mangigian on tenor saxophone, Edward Bilezikjian (John’s brother) on clarinet, Michael Tolegian on dumbeg, and Don Hagopian on tambourine.

Bilezikjian had grown up in the San Fernando Valley in a large family with strong traditions in music and its Armenian heritage. His musical life began at age five with violin lessons from his father, Andrew, himself a classical violinist. During these early years, the boy listened to 78 RPM recordings brought from Turkey. In particular, he was fascinated by the sound of the oud, an ancient Persian instrument popular on the old albums.

“What instrument is that?” he asked his mother.

She brought out his grandfather’s oud and placed it on the boy’s lap. As he experimented with its 11 strings, he was unaware of its roots that reach back 2,500 years. He didn’t care that it was the forerunner to the lute or that it had no frets. He just wanted to play the wonderful sounds he heard on the scratchy albums and in his home every weekend.

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