#RespectHarout. Harout Pamboukjian, The People’s Artist
BY JOSEPH KAZAZIAN
Unity, strength and tolerance were the pillars Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution.” The common thread was echoed all over the world, as we witnessed what is likely to be one of the few instances of a successful, bloodless, and legal exchange of power. Hundreds of thousands in Armenia marched with open hands to oppose a corrupt regime, and won by respecting one another. In light of the positive political developments in Armenia, the Armenian-American community of Los Angeles gathered to celebrate our collective victory, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Armenia. The victory party was organized at Glendale City Hall.
What was to be an unprecedented event for our community, where no one person or entity was to take credit, we unfortunately witnessed a very ugly, disrespectful and vile chain of events. Luckily, only the few of us backstage and even fewer in the front rows witnessed such vulgarity. Yes, one of our greatest moments as a nation was tarnished by egotistical forces. This directly stood in opposition to what the “Velvet Revolution” was all about: peace, love, non-violence, and unity. Here, it became about reprisals, associating people with the regime, and shaming people who had only one job to do that night: entertain.
The evening started without a hitch. There had been arrangements for close to twenty performers and speakers to take the stage to show their love and passion for our victorious community. Thereafter, “artists” began to show up unannounced, as the ultimate PR stunt for most of them. However, one person was requested and resoundingly agreed to come. Harout Pamboukjian was the universally agreed upon artist to close out the evening. That became a problem for a fringe group of people who made it chaotic for everyone working on these Stand with Armenia events in Los Angeles since the movement began in Armenia. What we then witnessed was a heart-wrenching, sorry display of self-serving defiance.
Harout, as he was finishing his song, was visibly shaken up. Behind the scenes, people attempted to yank the microphone, lower the volume, shut off the lights, and engage in hostile behavior. As this was going on backstage, people turned their backs as he was singing. Children coaxed by self-serving adults jumped on stage to obstruct Harout and block the audience from seeing him.
Harout made a brief statement in Armenian. “Are you finished? We are all here to perform and party. Please leave this area.” He then left the stage. I found out later that he was so distraught, he was inconsolable. People were running backstage and asking why he was so emotional.
The crux of the issue is as follows. Harout Pamboukjian sang at the Republican Party of Armenia’s rally in Yerevan. He then bowed to the audience members, which included then President Serzh Sargsyan. Some in our community took that to mean that he was bowing to the regime, because the president had honored him. What people don’t know was that when Harout was recognized as an “Honored Artist of the Republic of Armenia,” he remarked “I don’t need this piece of paper [from Serzh Sargsyan] to know that I am loved by the people.”
If you don’t know Harout, he practically bows to everyone. He bows to two-year-old kids on their Christening day. He kisses and hugs anyone who shows him an ounce of respect. He takes selfies with teens as he is singing. He jumps into the audience and dances with whomever is willing to do so. Every year, he travels to the most remote parts of the diaspora, from Australia and Sweden, to France, Canada, Lebanon, and Syria. His uniting abilities and God-given talent has received universal acclaim in communities across the world. Simply put, no other artist has been so entrenched and so active in Armenian life.
Harout Pamboukjian left Soviet Armenia for political reasons, and, after a brief stop in Lebanon, made his way to the United States. When Harout arrived in Lebanon, the bloody civil war, which lasted for nearly twenty years, was in its infancy. Some of us die-hard Harout fans have the original cassettes, records, and 8-tracks of his performances in Lebanon for the Armenian community. The twang of his golden guitar strings still echoes through Armenian households all over the world, even 40 years later.
When this 300,000 strong Armenian community of Los Angeles was established on the narrow streets of Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s, Harout was among its first residents and entertainers. He sang at weddings, baptisms, and birthdays, not to mention the fact that he held a number of free concerts for Armenian organizations. He made each fleeting moment of our community memorable and truly immortal. The 1980s were the golden era of Harout’s vast contributions to Armenian music. He took traditional Armenian songs and modernized them for an entire generation. Many, many artists began to emulate his style. He was the first Armenian Rock star, who inspired the likes of System of a Down.
In Soviet Armenia, Harout’s records were considered contraband. Singing about our revolutionaries from past generations, and his overt passion in longing for Armenia’s freedom was dangerous to the Soviets. Nevertheless, the people still listened to and loved his music. As the sun waned on the soviet empire, and perestroika began to open the eyes of the people, Harout’s songs were finally becoming accessible. Then, an unthinkable chain of events occurred.
1988 was a painful, yet inspiring, year for the Armenian nation. The Artsakh liberation movement had just began. Thousands of Armenians fled Azerbaijan, because the authorities in Baku were organizing pogroms against the Armenians. A devastating earthquake also rocked the cities of Northern Armenia, killing 25,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands without shelter. In the midst of all of this, Harout picked up his equipment and flew across the world, to a country still under Soviet rule, and brought new hope to an entire generation. He left fourteen years before in sorrow, only to come back and inspire.
Thereafter, he played back to back sold out shows, both at Hrazdan and Hamalir Stadiums, two of Armenia’s largest public venues. Thousands of Armenians were in attendance each time. Every penny of the proceeds went to Armenians who were suffering. It is a little known fact that he even left all of his and his band mates’ instruments and equipment behind in Armenia; thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, which is still used today. Many musicians I know today, who are considered big names in our community, later used them to perform.
Harout still continues to perform and entertain today, in his late sixties. He still performs at weddings and at community events. He even performed a sold-out show in Armenia, well after any controversy surrounding him came to light.
Harout was Harout when he was fleeing Soviet Armenia because of his political beliefs. Harout was Harout when Levon Ter-Petrosyan was President. Harout was Harout when Robert Kocharyan was President. Harout was Harout when Serzh was President. Harout is Harout now that Nikol Pashinyan is Prime Minister. For the millions of Armenians around the world, Harout will always be Harout. Harout Pamboukjian is in fact the People’s Artist.
Link: #RespectHarout. Harout Pamboukjian, The People’s Artist