The Day The Music Died: A tribute to Roger Krikorian
BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
WATERTOWN–When it came to Armenian music, Roger Krikorian was a singing troubadour whose fingers worked magic on the dumbag.
Few could entertain the way this artist could, move a crowd, mobilize an event, heighten its spirit and sweep an audience off its feet
His sudden death Aug. 10 left a tremendous void in an Armenian community he had enthralled over the past four decades.
It didn’t matter what side of the fence you were on, what organization you represented or what motive you had, Roger’s passion was clearly defined. He was the man with the golden hands and a voice to match.
A crowd estimated at 2,500 poured into St. James Church to pay their final respects as condolences arrived from every sector of the country. The wake took place in his church for obvious reasons. No funeral home in the city could have handled such a crowd, believed to be among the largest ever held in Watertown.
An entourage of 180 vehicles formed a procession to Mount Auburn Cemetery where he was laid to rest. A memorial meal followed at the Karoun Restaurant in Newton, home of many a Krikorian gig.
In attendance were the following clergy: Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian and Rev. Fr. Arsen Barsamian (St. James Church); Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian (St. Stephen’s Church); Rev. Fr. Gomidas Baghsarian (St. Vartanantz Church, Providence, RI); Very Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian (St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Church, Providence); Very Rev. Fr. Raphael Andonian (Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church, Belmont); Rev. Fr. Aram Stepanian (St. Asdvadzadzin Church, Whitinsville, and Rev. Fr. Vartan Kassabian, St. Gregory Church, North Andover).
He was the beloved husband of Diane (Knaian) Krikorian, who followed him throughout his distinguished career at many a musical interlude, and a devoted father to three sons, Michael, Greg and David.
Other survivors were his brother Charlie, who organized many a function at Cape Cod, and his sister and brother-in-law, Rosemary and Ohan Armoudian; brother-in-law Armen Knaian and his wife Anoush. He also left behind a gran’son, David Bright, and several nieces, nephews, cousins and friends, all of whom endeared themselves to this man.
“If Roger only knew how many friends would miss him, he may have lived forever,” said his brother. “His family was always an important part of his career and he got them involved every chance he had. He didn’t enjoy a lot of fanfare. His music spoke volumes.”
The line formed well outside the church as the throng slowly inched its way through the sanctuary. By his coffin rested his fabled dumbag and his songbook opened to two song pages, “Sari Seroon Yar” and “Eench Anem,” presumably two of his favorites.
Two displays of photographs showed Roger at another favorite pastime by fishing boats. We had planned a trip together some time in August that never materialized. He wanted to visit my camp in New Hampshire and try his luck with bass.
The night of his death, Roger was slated to perform at Club Biblos in Norwood, another popular haunt. The next day, he was to play a wedding in Providence with sidekick Onnik Dinkjian, followed by a Providence Church picnic Sunday at Camp Hayastan.
Playing three gigs a weekend was common fare for Roger, a housepainter by trade. His bionic presence was also seen over the July 4th weekend at Cape Cod when he played to a modest keftime crowd both Friday and Saturday nights, then appeared at Camp Hayastan again on Sunday for an AYF Alumni gathering.
Few were so closely attached as Onnik, his crooner friend. The two had complemented one another for 25 years.
“Roger made me a better singer, no doubt about it,” admitted Dinkjian. “It was a God-given talent. He never studied music but was a key component of every orchestra he played. A lot of it had to do with his personality. The combination of voice and percussion complimented his artistry. Not once did I ever hear a negative remark. Roger always had a meticulous disposition.”
In a time-honored profession, the two would appear every first Saturday in December in Providence for the past 24 years in what was called “Christmas With Onnik,” joined by fellow musicians Joe Kouyoumjian, Kenny Kalajian and Leon Janikian.
“I felt a little closer to Roger than the others,” added Dinkjian, “simply because many of the songs he sang were done phonetically that took a great deal of determination. He even composed a Persian song at keftime while practicing on stage and asked me to write some lyrics. If I ever record it, I’ll dedicate the song to Roger.”
An ordained deacon of the church, Onnik was so distraught at losing what he called “a musical son,” that he couldn’t put himself through the emotion of serving on the altar the day of the funeral. That he left to six priests and two deacons.
In all the years, they performed together, not once did they join forces inside a recording studio ’s a facet of Krikorian’s ingenuity that never came to pass.
“He enjoyed the stage more than the studio,” said Dinkjian. “Roger wasn’t subtle. He had a big-time, let-yourself-go style and filled it well.”
Onnik’s son Ara, another accomplished musician, heard about Roger’s death first while his dad was on a flight to Providence for a wedding. He telephoned entertainers Carnig Mikhitarian and Bruce Gigarjian who met the singer at the airport and broke the news to him at a nearby restaurant.
“Ara felt so bad,” Dinkjian said. “He lost a brother. You can’t describe that feeling when you’re part of a musician’s family.”
Onnik did sing at the Providence wedding that night, though with a great deal of remorse in his heart. A number of other engagemen’s that had previously been booked by Krikorian will be dedicated in his memory.
At a Haverhill church picnic Aug. 19, eight musicians performed a memorial tribute to their friend, led by Jason Naroian, a prot?g? with obvious talents as a singing dumbag player. He will fill the gap at one AYF Olympics dance in New Jersey this Labor Day Weekend. One other engagement will be assumed by Jim Kzirian of the Aravod Ensemble.
As a further tribute to Roger, an empty chair will appear on the Olympics stage ’s one that would have been filled by the artist ’s along with his dumbag which was entrusted to popular oudist Johnny Berberian.
Like Onnik, Berberian was another close friend to Krikorian. The two played nearly every Olympics over the past quarter century, a number of ASA kef weekends at the Cape, along with countless other dances and weddings across the country.
Although it was music that brought them together, the two were also joined socially. They would jam together by a pool or over a barbeque pit, talk shop until they burst, and did two concerts together in South America.
Berberian held his contemporary in high esteem.
“As a musician at the drum, Roger was rock solid,” said Berberian. “He was always on the beat with a forceful hand. Sometimes, he didn’t even need an amplifier and was very consistent with his rhythm.”
In 25 years together, Berberian couldn’t recall one missed engagement, much less a tardiness with his colleague. Roger answered every call with diligence as if it were his mission. The show always went on, through sickness and in health, good days and bad.
There was always his trademark smile as the line danced before him, often with the wink of an eye and a casual nod. Come break time, his hand was always extended. He could sing in four languages and exercised that ability to escape the mundane.
“I can’t think of any musician who could match Roger’s versatility,” said Berberian. “His passion was the play ’s not the pay. He never questioned money.”
At a North Andover AYF dance earlier this year, the chapter was short on funds and booked his band. Roger agreed to pay for gratis, much like he did on other occasions where there was a tight budget.
“The AYF was special to him because he had come through the ran’s and always held a special place for that organization,” added Berberian.
In his youthful prime, Krikorian was a competitive basketball player for both Watertown High School where he attended and the local “Gaidzag” Chapter. You would often find him on the sidelines cheering on his son when he played. Michael Krikorian was a chip off his father’s block when it came to basketball.
For the first time in years, a full-page ad was taken in the AYF Olympic Book with photos of six musicians, including Krikorian’s. That page will now be dedicated in Roger’s memory.
Berberian also drew attention to the Providence picnic that Sunday. The show went on, despite Roger’s absence, and it was laced with momen’s of grief.
“Needless to say, we weren’t very enthusiastic that day without Roger,” said Berberian. “When we stopped playing, it brought some sort of melancholy to all of us. Roger would have wanted to make the music the best he could.”
Vahe Der Manualian, a one-time veteran dumbag player for the New England Ararats, recalled how Krikorian was his inspiration in many ways, even to the present.
“He loved my dumbag so much, we would exchange instrumen’s on occasion,” said Der Manualian. “I’d keep my dumbag in the car and he’d tell me to go get it at a picnic and we’d play together. My heart’s not into it any more. Roger was the only one who called me up to play. It was a privilege to perform with such a professional.”
Krikorian was born in Somerville, son of the late Mary and Sauren (Cy) Krikorian, and graduated from both Watertown High School and UMass-Boston, before operating his own painting business and dabbling in real estate.
When Roger was 4 years old, his father took him to meet another great dumbag player (Gary Alexanian) for lessons. Alexanian told Roger’s father that music lessons were useless. The boy didn’t need any, born with a natural gift and innate ability.
“Everything else will come naturally,” the father was told, and Roger was on his way before he even started school.
Buddy Sarkisian, another great dumbag player, took Krikorian under his wing and asked the 10-year-old to play at a very large concert in Lowell. The two would often collaborate on many a playing job. But nobody had greater tenure with Roger than oud virtuoso Joe Kouyoumjian. They were together for 35 years.
“I remember calling Roger up once to play at an International Folk Festival at Tufts University sponsored by our Armenian Club and he was so ecstatic,” said John Baronian. “Roger played his heart out that day.”
But what should be remembered at this time is what someone once said about dying young. What they said was this: “It isn’t the quantity of life ’s the number of years ’s that matters, but rather the quality. How that life was lived.”
Roger Krikorian lived his 56 years exceptionally well, doing what he loved best and savoring his life as an entertainer personified. People around him may have cautioned Krikorian to slow down, take it easy, pursue a more deliberate lifestyle.
Not an easy task when you’re from the old school. Picture what a 78 rpm recording might sound at a 33 speed and you get the picture.
Roger kept spinning his genius at his own pace ’s and anything less would have caused the momentum to sputter.