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 orSanta Monica boulevards, but he truly got his start at a popular night club in Pasadena called Sayat Nova.
Only two months after his arrival in L.A., Harout put together a studio band and recorded his first album, “Our Eyir Astvats” (Where Were You, God?), in reference to theArmenian Genocide at the Quad Teck studio on Western and Sixth in Koreatown. He later 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 has 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. Only a few of the songs on the first album are dance-oriented, certainly different from the material that later made him popular at weddings.
While most bands and singers paid 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. This made him popular and branded him the nickname The Armenian Wedding Singer. 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 at the Rose Bowl, the Shrine and the Palladium. 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. 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 his fans blood stirring with nationalistic pride.
Among Harout’s favorites is Nuné, who’s doing been using modern music and still keeping the tradition alive. 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.
A year after the 1988 Spitak Earthquake 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 Harout. Then–Minister of Culture Yuri Melik-Ohanjanianremarked these were the highest-attended performances in the history of Armenia.