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Onnik Dinkjian: Descendant of Armenians from Tigranakert and Custodian of Armenian Musical Heritage

Onnik Dinkjian: Descendant of Armenians from Tigranakert and Custodian of Armenian Musical Heritage

«This is Diyarbakir, this is real me! This is my language! I feel I am connected to it from head to toe» – says Onnik Dinkjian while recording his last album and his kind, silver-haired face radiates childish excitement.

Diyarbakir, Tigranakert in Armenian, is the city of Onnik's ancestors, which is located in Western Armenia.  He was not born there and did not live there just like his son virtuoso oud player Ara Dinkjian.  But the work and life of father and son is intricately aligned with this land and Armenian roots. Onnik Dinkjian's name is known neither to Armenians in Armenia and in Russia, nor in the post soviet area but his contribution to the Armenian musical heritage is well worth for his name to be famous not only in Western Diaspora.   

Onnik Dinkjian, Jean-Joseph Miliyan by birth was born in Paris, in 1929, in a family of refugees from Tigranakert.  He changed his name, when after his parents’ death he was adopted by godparents Dinkjians, who were from Tigranakert too. 

The child grew up in Paris and attended Armenian St. Gregory church every Saturday.  Probably his musical career begins here, from the moment of acquaintance with the Armenian sharakans (pious chansonnette, canon).

Sharakans made such a strong impression on the child, that every Saturday he got walked a long distance all alone, stood and just listened to music: «My day would not have been complete if I did not go and listen to sharakans - says Onnik – while all the children wanted to become baseball players like Babe Ruth, I said that I wanted to be Shahmuradyan (famous opera singer of 19th century), because we had the record of his performance «Hayastan» and it was my childhood dream».   

Knowing the boy's passion for music, Onnik's father makes an arrangement with Mr. Nishan Serkoyan, the church choir master, to allow him to sing at least a small part from sharakans.  This happens two weeks before his family leaves France.  Choirmaster Mr. Nishan Serkoyan, a hard-edged person, told his father: «You did the right thing».  Years later the opportunity to sing a small part of sharakans in his last service at St. Gregory church will remain one of the strongest impressions in Onnik's life. Soon the family moved to the United States.  

In 1946 seventeen-year-old Onnik steps into the American land.  

He and his family earned their daily bread by physical labor but the Armenian Church in America also remained an important part in Onnik's life:  before long he began to serve in the St. Vartan Cathedral in New York as a deacon.  The church management actively sent Onnik to sing at the Armenian events in New York and New Jersey, paying only the trip expenses.  

«Мy father Onnik sings, because he loves to sing. The fact that his songs had a success and were very much in evidence continues to surprise him pleasantly» - Ara Dinkjian.

In Onnik's younger years (1940-1950's) Armenians in New York were attending a large amount of nightclubs, but there one could hear only live Turkish music: «We did not have music from Armenia. (...) I was in thrall to old, preserved Armenians from Turkey, but they all sang and played Turkish music; the music of our grandparents. Only the newly arrived emigrants being under the influence of old Turkey, played on such instruments as oud and violin».

It was at that time that Onnik Dinkjian realized that the American-Armenian audience was suffering a heavily shortage on real Armenian music.  The fate introduced him with virtuoso oud players, such as Hrant, Kenny Boyadjian, and Ruben Altiparmakyan.  With the latter he recorded a song that became a hit, called «New-York, Boston, California».

In the middle of the 20th century there was practically no cultural exchange between the Western Armenian community and Soviet Armenians.  The records of the Soviet Armenian performers illegally penetrated into the American continent through Beirut and Aleppo.  Owing to these records Onnik Dinkjian became more and more obsessed with modern and traditional folk songs with the interpretation of such famous tenors as Hovhannes Badalyan and Ruben Matevosyan.  «They were my idols» - he says.

Fascinated by the music from the far-off Armenian SSR, Onnik sorted out numerous materials and created   beautiful interpretations of Armenian melodies, using unique Western Armenian musical instruments.  According to him, back then it was hard for him to understand the texts of songs in Eastern Armenian language as the records were illegal and, consequently of low quality: «...Since there were no written texts, I had to listen to the songs for hours and try to understand what they meant».

However, he managed to perform the songs Yes Mi Sirun Aghchig Desa and Dle Yaman in local Armenian language perfectly well. «After I learnt these songs I started to sing them in my own style.  Naturally if you sing them in the same original way, there is no point of listening to them» - says Onnik.

Hence the Western Armenian communities were granted with an opportunity to get familiar with the Soviet Armenian music sung by Onnik in an elegant, delicate manner.    

There is and will be Armenian music in Diaspora: within six years Onnik Dinkjian releases four albums: Onnik (1972), Onnik Encore (1976), Just For You (1978), which one might say, became part of the Armenian music heritage.  In the three of four recordings Onnik is accompanied by the legendary oud virtuoso John Berberyan. Ara Dinkjian, Onnik's son also took part in recording the albums by playing dumbek (percussion music instrument).  In 1972 he was only 14 years old.  Nowadays Ara Dinkjian is considered to be one of the top oud players in the world. «I grew up in a house, where Onnik Dinkjian was the head of the family, music was what I listened to every day in my life» - says Ara, when answering to the question why he chose the music as a profession. 

The love for Armenian sharakans also left its mark.  At a more mature age, in 2009 Onnik releases an album called Havadamk (Belief) on which he said: «Of all the things I have done, Havadamk is what I am most proud of».

Onnik Dinkjian not only did not forget his native Tigranakert dialect, but he also used it in every possible way.  His albums definitely contained songs in native dialect (e.g. the album The Many Sides of Onnik, where multi-instrumentalist Arto Tunchboyajyan performed as percussion player).  In 2014 his album Diyarbekiri Hokin («The Soul of Diyarbakir») was released.  The album represents the local folk of Diyarbakir Armenians accompanied by virtuoso musicians, including his son Ara Dinkjian (video below). Many people consider this album the best one in his career.  In October, 2015 these songs and other folk songs were performed on the stage of Istanbul.  The local audience greeted Onnik with thunderous ovations; everyone sang and danced under the Armenian folk music. 

«I have a feeling that my father has made an absolutely unique contribution to the Armenian culture, - says Ara, - his records travel all around the world.  His style and repertoire continue to have an impact not only on the next generation, Armenians all over the world, but also on other cultures.  All this happened naturally, in an unpredictable manner».




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