In 2010, Ian Nagoski, founder of Baltimore-based Canary Records, came into possession of a box of vinyl passed on to him by Leo Sarkisian, the ethnomusicologist and radio host best known for his long tenure with Voice of America. Within this box collection, which included records procured by Sarkisian, who died in 2018 at the age of 97, as well as his father and uncle, Nagoski stumbled upon a mystery. It was a cracked record marked by an orange Columbia label with text written in English and Armenian that was attributed to a singer named Zabelle Panosian.
“Her voice is riveting,” says Nagoski, whose label focuses on early 20th-century recordings, via video call.
But when he turned to Google to find out more about the singer, he came up empty-handed. So, for several years, Nagoski and fellow enthusiasts and researchers, Michigan-based Harry Kezelian and L.A.-based Harout Arakelian, dug through genealogy sites, U.S. music publications and Armenian newspapers to piece together the story of a singer who toured far and wide, but whose recordings were scant.
The results, released earlier this year in the book and CD set “Zabelle Panosian: I Am a Servant of Your Voice” via Canary Records, reveal more than the singer’s biographical details. Nagoski and Arakelian will be giving presentations on Panosian’s life on October 14 at UCLA Bunche Hall and October 15 at AGBU Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Performing Arts Center in Pasadena. Nagoski will also do a solo presentation at 2220 Arts in Los Angeles on October 16.
“Gradually, it becomes clear that there’s a lot here, that there’s a lot to say, and that she’s connected to a larger story of Armenians in the U.S.,” says Nagoski of the team’s research.
They learned that Panosian was born in a small, ethnic Armenian town in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century and was still a teenager when, after multiple kidnapping attempts, she was sent to the United States. She married a successful photo engraver from her hometown who had immigrated to the U.S. years earlier and had a daughter before embarking on her singing career in the 1910s. While she gave concerts in various U.S. cities over the course of decades, and even toured outside the country, she recorded very little material. Amongst these recordings was her rendition of the Armenian song “Groung” — the song that introduced Nagoski to her work — released on Columbia Records in 1917.
“Groung” became her biggest hit and remained in print for over a decade. The lyrics, translated by Kezelian for the book, include the line, “Crane, don’t you have a bit of news from our country?” This reference was significant: As Panosian’s singing career was taking shape in the United States, the Armenian Genocide was unfolding in her native country.
The fact that she was performing during this time is also important. “These are opportunities for the community to come together,” says Arakelian of her concerts. “They didn’t have Armenian Twitter, so they would probably go to these big events where Zabelle was performing and share information or gather news and understand what’s going on back at home.”
At the same time, Panosian, perhaps like many in her audience, was part of a massive wave of immigration to the United States. “It’s the largest wave of immigration that the United States has ever seen, 1880 to 1920. Right about the time that Zabelle arrives, 1907,1908, it’s the peak of immigration in the entire of U.S. history,” says Nagoski.
Record labels at the time responded with the release of music from a diverse swath of ethnic groups now living in the United States. At the same time, there was also growing tension in the country surrounding immigration. “America is going through a period of profound anxiety and ambivalence about the changing demographic landscape, so she’s operating and functioning in that,” adds Nagoski.
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In a way, Panosian’s music represents the experience of Armenian Americans at a time when the situation in their homeland was dire and the U.S. was growing more hostile to new Americans. “She’s lost her homeland,” says Arakelian. “She’s there for the efforts of the new Armenia. We have an independent Armenian nation for two and a half years. She’s giving performances to help. Then that collapses again.”
Meanwhile, in 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act severely limited immigration for various ethnic groups, including Armenians. “All of a sudden, you’re being told that the borders are going to close and your family is not coming into this country,” Arakelian remarks. “Yet, they persevere.”
In recent years, interest in Panosian’s music has increased. In 2015, for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, Mary Kouyoumdjian incorporated Panosian’s work into her piece “Silent Cranes,” which was commissioned by Kronos Quartet. More recently, German composer Heiner Goebbels sampled Panosian in his work “A House of Call.”
This might just be the start of renewed interest not only in Panosian, but of other Armenian performers of her era. “Zabelle should not be forgotten,” says Arakelian. “Her contemporaries should not be forgotten. They really did something special in a trying time.”