Harout Pamboukjian

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Harout is on the right

"The Armenian Wedding Singer"

Harout Pamboukjian also known as Left Harout born in 1950 in Yerevan. His mother was a singer, and he took up the guitar — he also plays the bouzouki and saz (stringed instruments), dhol (drums) and piano — in his early teens, later forming a band called Erebouni. “My mother had a beautiful voice,” he says, “And I heard all those old folk songs in my house at an early age.” His band went from village to village playing, surprisingly, covers of everything from Charles Aznavour to Deep Purple and Elvis, at weddings and universities.

Due to restrictions under the Soviet Union, Harout and most of his family left Soviet Armenia in 1975. After a year in Lebanon, he came to L.A. and took up residence in Hollywood.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there were only a few thousand Armenians in L.A., most of whom were centered in East Hollywood. There were two local cable programs on the weekend that featured news and music, and nearly all the businesses — Parseghian Records, Arka Photo, Panos Pastry, Carousel, King Arshag, etc. — were on Hollywood or Santa Monica boulevards.

Only two months after his arrival here, Harout put together a studio band and recorded his first album, Our Eyir Astvats (Where Were You, God? - in reference to the Armenian Genocide - written by Arthur Meschian) at the Quad Teck studio on Western and Sixth in Koreatown. He got on the nightclub circuit, doing his first gigs on Sundays at a Beverly Hills tennis club owned by an Armenian.

That first album, now considered a classic, barely resembles the trademark sound he’s become known for since then. Instead of the usual weepy duduk (a double-reed often called “the saddest instrument in the world”) or synths, you get clarinet, organ and a lot of bass. Listen closer and you’ll hear some funky wah-wah guitar too, though only a few of the songs are dance-oriented, certainly different from the material that later made him so popular at weddings.

Most bands and singers pay their dues in smoky nightclubs, bars and coffee shops. Harout honed his skills at Armenian engagement parties, baptisms, fairs and dinner dances, where one expects five to six hours of music (a DJ and a couple of singers) and an obscene amount of food. Fathers-of-the-bride in places as far away as France have typically shelled out a couple of thousand bucks for just an hour of Harout’s time.

He’s played the Rose Bowl, the Shrine and the Palladium, too. But it’s at all those banquet halls, whatever the occasion, where fans get the best sense of what Harout’s music is about. An amalgamation of contemporary, folk and patriotic musics, at times it may sound like flashy pop, but with an inescapable earthiness that seems to emanate from the very soul of his people. Harout interprets songs by fellow artists including Rouben Hakhverdian, Robert Amirkhanian, Arthur Meschian and others. It is important to note that he never received permission to use any of Arthur Meschian’s work (including the song Where Were You, God? which was written by Meschian when he was sixteen years old). But it’s the centuries-old sacred and grandiose folk tunes about protecting the soil and fighting in the highlands — "Antranik Pasha," "Sassouni Orore," "Msho Aghchig" — that really get the blood stirring with nationalistic pride.

Among Harout’s favorites is Nuné, who’s doing the modern thing and still keeping the tradition alive. But he's most fond of Rouben Hakhverdian, a "real troubadour" who has a wonderfully biting way of spouting Dylanesque ramblings like they’re the Gospel. His collaboration with Harout on the 1996 almost all-acoustic Yerke Nayev Aghotk Eh (Songs Are Also Prayers) is somber, intimate and filled with the kind of dirt-under-the-fingernails grit one must listen to, not dance to. Just two men with their guitars.

Harout has no family left in Armenia. He lives comfortably in North Hollywood with his son, Isay, and his wife, Rose, who does all the backup vocals on his records.

A year after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia that killed 25,000 people and left more than 500,000 homeless, hundreds of thousands of fans looking for some kind of temporary diversion from the devastation packed the Hrazdan stadium and Hamalir Demirchian Arena to hear 28 concerts by their favorite singer. Then–Minister of Culture Yuri Melik-Ohanjanian remarked these were the highest-attended performances in the history of Armenia.

Today, there are over 20 Harout albums and counting.