While growing up in Boston's Armenian community, Joe Zeytoonian learned to play the oud, a Middle Eastern guitar-like instrument. An oud master, he also specializes in doumbek, a chalice-shaped drum played with the hands. Joe regularly performs in South Florida and beyond, and has recorded with Latin pop stars Gloria Estefan and Shakira. He was awarded the 2000 Florida Folk Heritage Award, the state's highest honor for traditional artists.
The following interview with Joe was conducted by HistoryMiami in 2013.
Where were you born? Where did your parents come from? I was born in the Boston area to Armenian parents who emigrated from Turkey. My father entered Ellis Island in 1917, and my mother in 1916. Both came from the city of Marash, which suffered enormous casualties during the ethnic cleansing of the genocide. Both of my parents had relatives in Boston. As with most immigrants, they went to a place where there was support. They met in their early twenties through a compatriot organization whose purpose was to support orphanages in Aleppo, Syria and Beirut, Lebanon.
How did you come to be in Miami? I moved to Miami from New York in 1985 primarily to be closer to family, and shortly thereafter continued music pursuits with a slightly different focus from my New York experiences. I was essentially a "sideman" in New York supporting singers in medium and large musical ensembles. I began to take a more "upfront" role when I moved here greatly expanding my singing and Arabic repertoire.
What traditions do you practice? I continue to practice traditions from my Armenian-Turkish background that include Armenian folk and bard music, as well as Turkish folk and classical Ottoman music. I have a close affinity for Arabic classical music, particularly from Egypt. The Sephardic tradition in Jewish musical culture is also a pursuit since much of the material can be traced to Turkish, Greek and Armenian melodies.
How did you learn these traditions? My first musical exposure was from my father and mother who were amateur singers and players. My brothers Karnig and Nerses also played in young bands for the community in a variety of ways. That foundation, from a philosophical point of view, pointed me to my first oud teacher, Robert Raphalian, a maestro of the instrument. After leaving full-time work at one of MIT's special laboratories, I concentrated on music exclusively and continued study in Arabic, Greek and Sephardic traditions.
What is an oud? The oud is an eleven-stringed (double courses tuned in unison and a single bass string) lute without frets. It requires the same technique as members of the violin family. An unfretted instrument is necessary to play the microtones required of the music.
Tell us about the history of your family tradition. Can you tell us more about your family’s influence on your musical development? Much of my parent's singing drew from folk traditions of the Anatolian plateau of central Turkey. Although they had little knowledge of the theory of Turkish classical music, they could sing anything in the art song repertoire. My father insisted that I play and sing from the very beginning. Otherwise, according to his rationale, the two would never quite match seamlessly. Since the oud is such a vocal instrument, I considered this the best single piece of advice I have ever received. Music was always present in my formative years. Thanks again to my parents, my connection to all music from that huge region of the Middle East and North Africa remains a constant in my life.
What do you enjoy about practicing the tradition? When I hear reissued recordings of the old masters, I feel glued to them in a way that makes continuity possible and extrapolation of the art form easy. In my contemplative musical moments, time ceases to exist.