Hrant Kenkulian (1901–1978), usually referred to as Udi Hrant ("ud-player Hrant") or sometimes as Hrant Emre ("Hrant of the soul") was an ud player of Turkish classical music, and a key transitional figure in its transformation into a contemporary popular music. He was an ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey who spent most of his life in Turkey and wrote most of his lyrics in Turkish. He went to the United States of America to have his blindness treated, and performed while there.
Born near Istanbul, he was declared blind four days after his birth. Several attempts (including by doctors in Vienna) failed to restore his eyesight, which prevented him from playing in ensembles. He made a modest living playing in cafes, giving music lessons, and selling instruments. There is some question about when he first recorded; he claimed to have made a record at nineteen years old, but his earliest known recordings would appear to be from no earlier than 1927, since they used an electronic microphone.
He slowly but steadily gained more fame as a musician. Some of his Turkish recordings were released internationally as early as the 1930s, first on RCA Victor, and later on such labels as Balkan (New York), Perfectaphone and Yıldız (probably, according to Hagopian, a single company, address unknown), and Istanbul (Los Angeles). Composer Şeirf Içli introduced him to Kanuni Ismail Şençalar, in whose group he played for a while, leading to opportunities to perform on Ankara Radio. In 1950, a wealthy Greek American brought him to America for another (unsuccessful) attempt at restoring his eyesight. The trip, however, led to a series of concerts in New York City, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Fresno, California, playing both Turkish classical music and his own compositions. This tour apparently increased his prestige at home: he began to perform frequently on Istanbul Radio, first as a soloist and later with a chorus he formed. It also recorded in U.S. recording sessions for Smyrnaphon and Oriental Moods. The former, according to Hagopian, are marred by his being "paired… with inferior musicians". The latter were a deluxe set, believed to be the first ever inclusion of an ud with a violin and piano in a chamber music setting, issued in an elaborately packaged set with English language titles given to the songs. The recording included both Hrant's originals and classic songs by Kanuni Artaki, Bimen Şen, and others. During his trips to the U.S., he conducted master classes with young Armenian-American ud players such as Richard Hagopian, John Berberian, and Harry Minassian.
His recordings for Balkan, (with Şükrü Tunar on clarinet, Ahmet Yatman on kanun, and Ali Kocadine on drum, are notable for the fact that although they were recorded in Turkey, with a mix of Turkish and Armenian musicians, they include lyrics in Armenian; he also made other records with Turkish lyrics with the same line-up. His original songs written in Armenian include "Parov Yegar Siroon Yar", "Siroon Aghchig", "Anoosh Yaren Heratsa", "Khrjit", and "Srdis Vra Kar Me Ga".
He toured internationally again in 1963, playing in Paris, Beirut, Greece, the United States, and Yerevan, then the capital of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. He recorded again in the U.S. at this time, but according to Hagopian the recordings are "inferior... for small labels and record producers eager to capitalise on the 'belly-dance craze'".
His last performance was in Istanbul in April 1978, at which time he was already suffering from the cancer that killed him on 29th August of that year.
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