Home / Local Music / The MidEast Beat Celebrates Poon Paregentan, Armenian Mardi Gras
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

The MidEast Beat Celebrates Poon Paregentan, Armenian Mardi Gras

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Whether it's called Mardi Gras or Carnival, the idea of a final blowout before the austere season of Lent has traveled widely across the world. In Armenia, the big party is called Poon Paregentan (literally, “Good Living”), and this weekend the Milwaukee celebration features the Wisconsin band MidEast Beat.

As its name suggests, MidEast Beat, though its members are Armenian Americans, draws from a repertoire with a scope that includes the entire Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East with songs of Armenian, Arabic, Assyrian and Greek origin. “Some of it is very similar, some different in beat, key and mode,” explains guitarist and vocalist Kai Kazarian. “Sometimes the lines get blurred in this part of the world and you will find a song [that was] recorded in Greek, Armenian, Arabic, and not know what the origin is. Think about an Armenian writing a song in English in this country. Is it Armenian? We have these conversations all the time.”

The sonic texture of the Middle East has found its way into music familiar from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin in the 1960s and '70s through the club music and rap of nowadays. While some contemporary performers with ties to the region have linked their ancient traditions to trance and electronica, the members of MidEast Beat are curators rather than innovators. Their music is not unlike the sound of a band in an Anatolian village a century ago, calling the community to dance.

Along with Kazarian, the band's core members include Jim Hardy, who carries the wailing, minor-key melodies on clarinet; Vahan Kamalian on oud, the pear-shaped string instrument with an otherworldly twang; and Michael Kamalian on dumbeg, a drum usually held between the knees and slapped like an Indian tabla.

“When we were in high school we used to get kicked out of the library for playing dumbeg on the tables,” Kazarian recalls. “All of us heard this music on old 78s at grandma and grandpa's house and then at picnics where other bands would be playing. Forget the written notes—can't find that. So we would sit down with grandpa and play records and transliterate the words into English letters.”

Milwaukee's Poon Paregentan Dance takes place at St. John the Baptist Armenian Apostolic Church on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. Admission is $30 and includes an 8 p.m. dinner with dessert and refreshments.
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