My Life So Far
Souren Baronian with J.P. Harpignies
ISBN: 978-1-469906-81-2 • $ 14.95
The Magic Carpet Ride is the autobiography of a man who has been on a highly unusual musical and life odyssey for the last 80 plus years. Born in East Harlem in 1930 to Armenian parents who had fled the genocide, Souren Baronian grew up surrounded by traditional Armenian and Middle Eastern and Balkan music at home and got swept up in the golden age of jazz all around him, awed by Lester Young and Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker and company that he snuck into the 52nd Street clubs to see.
After his return from being in the army in Korea (a wild episode), he began intensive studies with several master teachers, especially the legendary Lennie Tristano on the jazz side and the no less remarkable Turkish clarinetist Safet Gundeger on the Middle Eastern side, and Souren eventually grew into a master musician in both idioms and later produced perhaps the earliest and later, with his band Taksim, the most accomplished, authentic, organic “fusion” of these genres.
Over the decades he has performed with all sorts of musical luminaries live and on countless records, has played thousands of gigs in every possible setting imaginable on several continents, from fancy ballrooms to smoky clubs, dives to chateaus, formal concerts backed by symphony orchestras to jamming on street corners. He has traveled extensively including to some extremely remote places, and met all sorts of people.
His story will of course be of great interest to those with an interest in jazz and/or Middle Eastern and Balkan music and the history of their trajectories in the U.S., as well as to anyone interested in descriptions of life in New York neighborhoods and the socio-cultural changes in the city over the decades in the last 80 years, or those interested in exotic travel stories, but beyond those fascinating topics, this book will appeal to anyone who admires a zest for life, because there is unlikely to be anyone on this planet as filled with joie de vivre and as positive an attitude as Souren Baronian, a spiritual cousin to Zorba the Greek. This man is still as vigorous and as productive in his 80s as he was decades ago, and he keeps evolving musically. He may be the best role model for the fully lived life. His example is infectious, and his story is deliciously entertaining.
Souren Baronian, born in 1930 in New York City of Armenian parentage, grew up in Spanish Harlem surrounded by music, especially the sounds of Middle Eastern music, jazz and Latin genres. Barely a teenager, he would sneak into the jazz clubs on 52nd Street and listen to Bird and Diz and the other great musicians of the day. His greatest early inspiration was the “Prez,” Lester Young. He later studied for many years with the legendary jazz teacher Lennie Tristano and was at the same time mentored on the G-clarinet by the extraordinary Turkish master Safet Gundeger, who was then playing in the 8th Avenue clubs in “Greek Town” during the heyday of New York’s Middle Eastern music scene in the 1950s, another of Souren’s main haunts. He would soon be playing in all those clubs himself. Souren is solidly rooted in both Middle Eastern/Balkan idioms and jazz, and may have been the first to create a “fusion” of these two genres in the late 1950s, long before “world music” swept the globe. His subsequent work with his group Taksim from the mid 1970s to the present represents the most sophisticated, compelling, authentic synthesis of these two musical universes to date.
He has performed and recorded with countless renowned musicians, including, to mention only a tiny handful: “Cannonball” Adderley, Phil Woods, Joe Beck, Paul Motian, Don Cherry, Paul Winter and Carla Bley on the jazz side; and Oudi Hrant, Mustafa Kandirali, Kadri Sencalar, and Tasos Halkias on the “Mediterranean” side of the equation. A multi-instrumentalist reed player and percussionist and master teacher, his main wind instruments are the G-Clarinet and the Soprano Sax and many traditional flutes, including especially the duduk and kaval. He is especially sought after as a percussion teacher, and he has taught many musicians how to play the dumbek and the tambourine at music camps and privately. Souren is going stronger than ever in his 80s, traveling much of the year to play and teach in the U.S. and in Europe in a wide range of settings, and continues doing gigs with his trio Transition and with the current incarnation of Taksim.
J.P. Harpignies, a Brooklyn, NY-based editor, writer, conference organizer, consultant, and environmental activist, is the author of three books: Political Ecosystems, Double Helix Hubris, and most recently, Delusions of Normality, as well as the editor of the collection, Visionary Plant Consciousness, and associate editor of: Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions, both part of the Bioneers book series. A former program director at the New York Open Center and founder of the Eco-Metropolis conference in New York City, he is the associate producer of the annual Bioneers Conference. JP also taught t’ai chi chuan in Brooklyn, NY, for nearly 25 years. He has known Souren Baronian since 1975.