(b. Izmir 1895, d. New York 1963)
Marko Melkon was a very prolific Armenian oud player and singer who made his career in the United States, based out of New York. He made numerous recordings, mostly in Turkish and Greek, over the course of his career. Marko was born as Melkon Alemsherian in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey). Marko is often compared with his contemporary Udi Hrant. While Hrant was considered “the greatest oud player of all time” by many in the Armenian community, others will counter that while Hrant was renowned for his taksims and classical style, Marko Melkon was actually better at playing dance and “kef” music. Marko himself would have agreed with this analysis; after Udi Hrant played for him and his family during a visit to his home, Marko remarked privately to a relative “I don’t play that kind of music. I make people dance.”
Melkon was born in Smyrna in the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1895. As a teenager, his mother wanted him to learn the guitar but all they could find was an oud, so he learned that instead. Smyrna at the turn of the century was a very cosmopolitan place, with a majority non-Muslim population, most of them Greek, and a large European and American expat community. So it is unsuprising that Melkon’s mother liked guitar music. Being from Smyrna, Melkon spoke and sang fluent Greek (in addition to Armenian and Turkish). So when the Turkish army started drafting Christians for the first time in history in 1912, Melkon fled to Athens where he began his music career. In 1921 he immigrated to New York with his musician friend Achilles Poulos, also originally from Turkey. He was initially suprised to find that he could make a musical career in America, but he was very successful playing in the Greek cafes and nightclubs of Manhattan, performing for the Armenian, Greek, and other immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. He took the Greek-sounding stage name of Marko Melkon, rendered in Greek as “Markos Melkon.” Marko made only a few recordings in the 1920s (at least under his own name). In 1937 he made a recording of the popular song “Oghlan, Oghlan” for RCA-Victor. This record was a hit across the country in the Armenian and Greek communities. Marko began to tour to other cities to play in their Armenian and Greek coffehouses and restaurants. He made many, many, more 78 rpm recordings although they were generally recorded for the ethnically-owned Me-Re, Kaliphon, Metropolitan, and Balkan family of labels. Nevertheless, his “Oghlan” (which he also recorded in a second, slower version) became an enduring classic in the Armenian community and one of the most popular kef recordings of all time. He made one LP in 1957 entitled “Hi-Fi in Asia Minor”, which featured him playing a few numbers from each style he was familiar with: Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Arabic. This LP includes the only known commercial recordings of him singing (briefly) in Armenian on “Im Chinari Yar” and on the Turkish number “Finjohn” which he performs in the Armenian language. The rest of his recorded output was sung in Turkish and Greek. Despite a heart attack in 1952 which caused him to quit performing for a year and to cut out smoking and drinking for good, Marko played in the nightclubs of New York’s Greektown on 8th Avenue in Manhattan until he died at his home in Astoria, Queens, in 1963.
OGLAN, OGLAN – MARKO MELKON (1937)
(“Oghlan” literally means “boy”, but it was used to refer to any young man, and often used in a context where we would use “guy” in modern English. It’s a love song where the girl repeatedly describes the boy as a “hovarda” which was explained to me as “a gambler, a drinker, a womanizer” and admonishes him not to “make comments about the ladies passing by” his storefront. In this recording, the main part of the song is followed by a segueway into an old Armenian melody which pops up in other songs.)
For more of Marko’s music, check out these CDs available from Traditional Crossroads: