An Introduction to the Oud with Ara Dinkjian
Ara Dinkjian settled into his seat in front of the camera, holding my gaze with unwavering intensity. Without breaking this gaze, he asked, “Can you Photoshop hair into the video?”
This is Ara Dinkjian: fiercely intelligent and extremely funny. An Armenian American musician, he has been here at the Folklife Festival playing an ancient Eastern stringed instrument called the oud.
“It is the grandfather of the guitar, and the father of the lute,” he explained. “As you move further west, you get the lute, and further west is the guitar.”
As you trace the evolution of oud to guitar, an important characteristic is frets: the lute and the guitar have frets to denote discrete tones, dividing the neck of the lute or guitar so each space represents a note, like a key on a piano. The oud, by contrast, does not have frets.
Just as the oud is not physically restricted by frets, traditional oud music is not melodically restricted by the Western twelve-tone scale.
“It is a melodic instrument, not a chordal one,” Dinkjian said. “It can play microtones.”
He demonstrated these microtones, which are notes that reside between the chromatic notes—the note between C and C-sharp, for example. Although I recognized the nuance of the microtone, my Western-trained ear just heard an “out-of-tune” note. By bringing his Armenian music to the United States, Dinkjian hopes to challenge the Western ideas of “right” and “wrong” sound.
Dinkjian continued to delve deeper into the history and technicalities of the scales and sounds, but I wanted to know how he discovered his love for the oud.
“My parents had an oud in their bedroom,” he laughed. “It was the one room in the house I was not allowed in, because of the delicate instrument. So of course, as a four-year-old, it was the only thing I wanted!”
From childhood curiosity, his love for the oud blossomed into a full-fledged passion.
“I do not always play the instrument when I am feeling good,” he told me. “I often play when I am feeling down. When you play, you put your arms around your instrument. You feel the vibrations in your chest, in your heart. It is comforting.”
On July Fourth, Dinkjian accompanied his father, renowned singer Onnik Dinkjan, as they performed traditional Armenian music in a one-time special performance at the Festival. Their ancestors came from a region of Armenia called Dikranagerd, although they were forced to flee in the early twentieth century. In America, Onnik Dinkjian tried to carry on the ancient traditions.
“My father kept his people’s music alive,” Dinkjian said.
The deep history of the Dinkjians’ culture and family made for a powerful performance.
Ara Dinkjian identifies as both a musician and a composer, and his music reflects the multiplicity of his background. Both the wisdom of his father’s family and the experiences he had growing up in the United States has helped him to create music that is both melodic and chordal, both Eastern and Western.
“The music is exactly what I am,” he said. “An Armenian in America.”
Abigail Hendrix is a video production intern at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a graduate of the University of Washington with a B.A. in medical anthropology and global health. Dave Walker recorded and mastered the audio.