Udi Hrant Kenkulian, the blind master of the oud, is regarded as one of the greatest innovators of modern oud playing, and one of the most unique singers of this genre.
Born in 1901 near Istanbul, Hrant was declared blind four days after birth. Despite frequent treatments, his condition did not improve. In the Istanbul he studied with famous teachers including Kemani Agopos Ayvazyan, Dickran Katsakhian, and Udi Krikor Berberian.
Istanbul attracted so many top musicians that it was difficult for Hrant to find employment. And because Hrant was blind, no ensembles would accept him as a member. Consequently, he often played alone in cafes for little money. To supplement his income, he sold musical instruments. During the hard times, Hrant never gave up hope to have his eyesight restored, even traveling to Vienna for treatment. Unable to attract the attention of famous groups, Hrant's career seemed stagnant until he was noticed, while playing at the Yenikauh Cafι, by the famous musician and composer, Serif Icli. He was introduced by a mutual friend, Kanuni Ismail Sencalar, and soon after, Hrant was invited to play with their group. The exposure led to concerts on Ankara Radio.
The year 1950 marked a major turning point in Hrant’s life. A wealthy Greek-American, moved by Hrant’s talent, invited Hrant to the United States to see eye specialists. Unfortunately, doctors in New York were unable to correct Hrant’s condition and, ultimately, Hrant would remain blind for life. Meanwhile, friends approached Hrant about playing in the United States. At first he was reluctant. His main concern was that middle-eastern music be presented to American audiences in the same concert format as European classical music. He felt that Americans regarded middle-eastern music as inferior to western music.
With the understanding that concerts would be presented according to his ideals, Hrant agreed to perform. His friends, Hrant Nishanian, Melkon Ohanesian, Hovaness Chalikian, Manoog Boyajian and Peprouhi Asvarian, formed the Association of Putania which sponsored a series of concerts in New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Fresno. The repertoire consisted mostly of classical pieces of Ottomon composers; however, his improvisations (taksims) and original compositions were the tour de force for those who attended.
Hrant returned to Turkey, and became known as a soloist frequently performing on Istanbul Radio, and later devoted much of his time teaching young oudists and singers.
A special concert was arranged to take place in Yerevan in 1963, wherein Armenians in the homeland would hear Hrant for the first time. After the concert, the next day’s headlines read, "He came from Istanbul and conquered the Motherland where people received him with warmth. The sixty-five year old blind master sees with his heart and sings with his heart".
Udi Hrant died August 29 1978, and is buried at the Armenian cemetery in Sisli, Istanbul. He had the title "Udi" which denotes him as Master of the Oud". His oud playing and singing will live forever!.
Notes taken from Article written by: Harold G. Hagopian.