By Tom Vartabedian
After 30 years, the Armenian Relief Society of Eastern USA (ARS EUSA) Lowell “Lousintak” chapter continues to be a time-honored tradition at the Lowell Folk Festival.
After 30 years, the ARS Lowell “Lousintak” chapter continues to be a time-honored tradition at the Lowell Folk Festival.
The chapter continues to maintain a strong and venerable presence with a delectable menu of food and charismatic personalities, drawing throngs of people to its humble surroundings.
But it’s what’s inside that counts—a couple generations of workers representing a cross-section of the church and community.
“It’s a way for us to come together and cultivate our heritage with Armenia’s best cuisine,” says Sossy Jeknavorian, festival chairwoman. “The American public cannot say no to our offerings and find it a special treat each and every year.”
The staple product is a losh kebab, complemented by lahmejun, spinach pie, and assorted pastries. At the height of the lunch hour, a continuous line never seems to dwindle as people wait up to 20 minutes to satisfy their palate.
Proceeds go toward supporting their club, providing camperships to Camp Haiastan, and scholarships to college students.
It’s been that way over three decades as children of many original workers have perpetuated the task. Call it a true labor of love.
The one year Lowell ARS decided to take a hiatus from it all proved disappointing to the crowd. Where was the ARS booth and were they permanently gone from the festival? Through popular demand, back they came with an even more voracious appetite to serve.
Being mingled with a United Nations league of food vendors can be a refreshing element to our culture. On one side are the Cambodians. On another, we have the Polish. Multiply this by 6 different settings throughout Lowell and some 100,000 weekend patrons, and you have quite the cultural scenario.
The ARS also participates in a similar but smaller festival at Bedford High School each year with a more limited menu. And there’s always music in the air with an Armenian band getting invited every other year.
This being an off-year, I decided to break away from the grill for a couple hours and meander toward other attractions. It was a hot day so I ventured toward a shaded area that hugged the Merrimack River. There I found a plethora of craftsmen exercising their skills.
Ten minutes into my walk, I stumbled across a booth containing ouds and bouzoukis made by luthier Chris Pantazelos, who owns a workshop in this city. He had several samples on display.
I looked up to see a dear friend in the mix. Now, I’ve always had the greatest respect for Leo Derderian as both an Armenian colleague and as a musician. There he was, instrument in hand, and no audience before him, except pedestrian traffic.
Occasionally, a by-stander would stop to listen, intrigued by the sound. It didn’t matter to Leo if he were regaling a crowd of 500 on stage or off secluded to one corner singing and playing what he does best—the love of Armenian music. In reality, the man was entertaining himself.
His virtuoso continued to shine. He mixed the usual kef with classical Armenian, which I found rather engaging. To the average American public, nobody knew the difference.
Dressed in his favorite cap and fishing t-shirt, Leo was his old self, playing to his heart’s content, while nearby, hundreds were listening to Chinese opera. Another venue packed the grounds with hillbilly music. Few takers were seen at the oud booth.
That draws another conclusion. Passion and privilege are often inducements for the more accomplished musicians like Leo. Many will donate their services to perpetuate their talents. They will take the extra step to cuddle their art.
Last year, the festival brought on Johnny Berberian and Mal Barsamian as two Armenian headliners and both of them were honorable ambassadors to our cause. In years past, we’ve had Rich Berberian and Richard Hagopian, who crossed the country to perform.
The Armenians have always been a respected group in the city of Lowell, coming here after the genocide to work the manufacturing mills and set their own precedence in the arena or business and education. Much of it was mentioned in my book, The Armenians of Merrimack Valley, which included coverage of the ARS and its role in the Folk Festival.
Whether it’s been food or music, we as Armenians have made a most indelible case for ourselves in the American public. We’ve let ourselves be heard and digested, not just in Lowell, but other communities throughout the Diaspora.
As the world turns, let us continue to be part of its axis and continue to open newer and better inroads toward our ultimate prosperity.