Boston concert honors Armenia-Ethipoia connection

Photo: Music of Armenia


The Armenian Mirror-Spectator – The Friends of Armenian Culture Society (FACS) will present a tribute concert to Ethiopian music icon Nerses Nalbandian, titled “The Emperor, the Nalbandians and the Dawn of Western Music in Ethiopia,” on Sunday, February 19, at 7 p.m. at the Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Theatre for the Arts in Watertown.

The concert will feature the Grammy-nominated Either/Orchestra, directed by Russ Gershon. The E/O will be joined by vocalists performing songs in four languages: Bruck Tesfaye of the Debo Band (Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia), Ronald Murphy (English), Serena Tchorbajian (Armenian) and Manolo Mairena (Spanish). The program will include music Nalbandian composed and arranged during his tenure as music director of the Haile Selassie National Theater (1956-74), as well as music by Nalbandian’s favorites, ranging from Armenian composers to Xavier Cugat and Ray Charles. All of this is interpreted though the jazz lens of the 10-piece E/O, winners of five Boston Music Awards and numerous placements in the Down Beat International Critics Poll.

The event also celebrates the release of the E/O’s CD, “Ethiopiques 32: Nalbandian the Ethiopian” (Buda Musique, Paris), for which the E/O has reconstructed and interpreted Nalbandian’s music in live and studio recordings made in Ethiopia, the US and Canada. The E/O’s previous Ethiopiques release, “Live in Addis,” (2005), was called “astonishing…monumental…the best live album of the year in any genre” by Paul Olsen,

Armenian scholar Dr. Boris Adjemian, the director of the AGBU Nubar Library in Paris, will deliver a short pre-concert talk.

Born in 1915 in Aintab, Ottoman Empire, Nerses Nalbandian settled in Aleppo, Syria after his family escaped the Armenian Genocide. He worked as a music teacher and choirmaster at the Armenian Apostolic Church in Syria, before moving to Ethiopia in 1938 at the invitation of his uncle, Kevork Nalbandian. The elder Nalbandian was a well-known musician in Ethiopia and the director of Arba Lijoch (Amharic for “40 children”) an imperial brass band comprised of 40 Armenian orphans. In 1924, future emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie adopted and brought the orphans to his country after he saw them performing in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter.

Over decades as a teacher and performer, Nalbandian rose to be appointed music director of the Haile Selassie Theater in 1956. His arrangements of Ethiopian music for Western instruments interpreted traditional and original Ethiopian melodies through an American style big band, laying the groundwork for the development of modern Ethiopian pop and jazz. The pioneers of this music have become internationally recognized in recent years, primarily through Ethiopiques and its curator, Francis Falceto, who considers a Nalbandian album a major missing element in the series — until now.

Nalbandian also composed the original anthem of the Organization of African States (later the African Union), which will be played in the February 19 concert. He received the very rare honor of being naturalized as an Ethiopian citizen by Haile Selassie.

In 2004, during their first visit to Ethiopia, the E/O was heard by Nalbandian’s adult children, who invited Gershon and the band to revive their father’s music for the theater orchestra. (The current theater orchestra has played some of the songs, leaving most untouched). The E/O returned in 2011 to perform full concerts of Nalbandian’s music at the National Theater and other venues. These concerts were recorded by top Ethiopian producer Abegasu Shiota, forming the core of Nalbandian the Ethiopian.

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