The firebrand

The firebrand

If it has to do with Armenian Americans, Stepan Partamian is bound to say something that will push the hot buttons.

July 06, 2005|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

As first impressions go, you might think you wouldn’t want to meet up with Stepan Partamian in a dark alley — what with his barrel chest, shaved head and ZZ Top bush of a goatee.

But in reality, it isn’t the dark alley to be worried about. With Partamian, it’s the sunny sidewalk cafe, theater lobby, art gallery or, most particularly, the hot seat on one of his cable TV talk shows.

With him, it isn’t a fist-pounding you risk. But depending which side of the Armenian divide you stand on, you might be in for a tongue-lashing.

This night is no different. Dressed in dark suit and tie, Partamian stands at the lip of the stage of the Barnsdall Gallery Theater, high above the crush of Hollywood Boulevard’s Little Armenia. Though he looks every bit the urbane emcee, his instigator persona is still close at hand. He looks out into the auditorium — a room abundant with St. John suits and Prada shoes — and sees it is barely half full.


“Ah, you all are the true Armenians,” he says, doing a quick head count. “I guess that means that there are only 135 Armenians who live here in Southern California. And all of you are here tonight!”

For nearly two decades in Southern California, Partamian has been using various platforms to impart his message — one that has never strayed too far from boosting Armenian culture while chastising, some might say haranguing, those who discount or downplay it, who have traded in Armenian ways for more assimilated American notions.

It started modestly enough.

Partamian created the Glendale-based music company Garni in 1987 to package and promote Armenian artists who had low visibility in the mainstream. Since that time, he has become one of the region’s most prominent Armenian record producers and concert promoters — staging shows at venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and the Alex Theatre in Glendale, where more than a third of Los Angeles County’s estimated 300,000 Armenians live. It’s a significant perch, inasmuch as “the Alex has become more famous than Mt. Ararat to Armenians around the world,” Partamian will tell you.

Music has been just one path into safeguarding Armenian history and culture. So has his quarterly publication, Armenian Arts. And his two cable-access shows, which dip into such topics as language, religion and local politics. In his multiple enterprises, he has become a high-profile community firebrand.

So it goes this particular evening. After a “their loss” shrug for the no-shows, Partamian gets to the meat of the matter: The evening’s event will showcase classical guitarist Lakovos Kolanian, playing a series of Armenian folk pieces, and Winds of Passion, a quintet performing on duduks — small double-reed instruments made of apricot wood that are said to best express the Armenian soul.

“This music is ours. We haven’t let them grab it from us yet,” he says, pacing the stage. “You can take an instrument and adapt it to a culture, but it loses its authenticity — for my purposes this evening, I’ve asked the performers to present Armenian culture on their instruments.”

The same is true, he continues, with a people’s migrations; things get shed — or lost — along the way. “When people talk about ethnic identity, they so often talk about a melting pot. I prefer to think about ethnic identity as pieces of a mosaic. My stone is as bright as the stone next to me. We need to leave a legacy. We need to love to be a proud Armenian stone.”

Prodding his audience

Generally speaking, Partamian doesn’t believe in the light touch, or in metaphor or simile. They don’t really work for him.

He’d rather go the in-your-face route — everything from his surly-faced, finger-wagging rants on TV to the logo he dreamed up and embossed on T-shirts, stickers and other items: a triptych of his face in caricature, ears covered, mouth covered, eyes covered. “This to me is the Armenian community here in Los Angeles. They cannot hear, they cannot speak, they cannot see. Who is an Armenian? An Armenian is someone who sees with their eyes shut…. ”

The image has become not just his logo but his guiding force: “I want to stimulate their mental capacity. I want them to utilize their brains.”

Such talk creates a fuss, certainly friction: “He’s an unabashed, unrelenting guy,” says Maria Armoudian, producer and host of Four O’Clock Thursdays on KPFK (90.7 FM). “His observations are fresh and important … not always accurate … but they are always provocative. And he can be hilarious. Stepan does challenge the community. And he’s critical. But I don’t think it is because of a lack of love.”

The logo, like the concerts, like the cable shows, has been Partamian’s way to broach uncomfortable, sometimes taboo topics relating to Armenian culture — hyphenated identities, religion and politics — that, he says, keep Armenians from being unified. Both his shows, “Bari Luys” (Good Morning), which airs five mornings a week, and the late-night-Thursday “Tser Kardzike” (Your Opinion), have given him wide exposure.

“People say, ‘Stepan, you’re talking too openly — talking about these issues.’ I tell them: ‘They already know. You’re the one who is in denial.’ But we spend too much time thinking about being like other people instead of learning more about ourselves,” says Partamian. “We are slaves to the George Washingtons — too preoccupied with money. We need to understand our own contributions.”

“You talk about ‘Armenian identity,’ but we don’t have one. It’s about who we were, and where we came from. But what is being Armenian today?” says Peter Balwanian, producer of the Armenian Music Awards. Partamian, he says, is “jump-starting things. You know, like when someone’s flat-lining? He’s, like, putting the defibrillator on the chest.”

Indeed, some call him an Armenian Howard Stern. Others refer to him as the Armenian Bill Maher — or “Bill O’Reillian.”

Garen Yegparian, a founding member of the Burbank Armenian National Committee, says riling people up is necessary. “There’s been this sort of truncated discourse” in the community. It’s not as if things are swept under the carpet, he says; rather, “there is no carpet. There’s just dust there. And he’s mixing it up.”

Intense with disarming, smiling eyes, Partamian is proud of the fights he inspires between husbands and wives and across-the-hedge neighbors, and that he has men climbing out of their La-Z-Boys in the middle of the night to drive down to the studio to give him a piece of their mind.

“I love to make people angry. ‘Why is he saying this?’ ‘Why is he doing that?’ I love it,” he giggles as he looks over a menu at a popular Armenian restaurant on Glendale’s main drag, Brand Boulevard, a week or so after the Barnsdall concert. Partamian can barely get through the listing of appetizers before a half-dozen people stop by the table.

Once the interruptions recede, he immediately begins to point out things that irritate him. “See this dish? That’s not really Armenian. It’s Persian. And the music playing now is Arabic. It has a nice move and grooves, but it’s not Armenian,” he complains. “It’s hard to know where to start.”

So Partamian has set himself on a path to piece together a history that the Armenian diaspora can learn from and be proud of.

It’s been a challenge, he says. “Because of the genocide, diaspora Armenians tend to want to be someone or something else. We live in other cultures without protecting or valuing what we have. The elderly feel it’s a shame to talk about it. The younger generation doesn’t want to know. What’s the psychological damage being passed on from generation to generation?”

Immeasurable, he figures. And yet for all his pride in heritage and place, his own ambivalence about traveling “home” exposes a weak spot, one that his critics frequently seize upon: ” ‘What do you know about Armenia? You’ve never been!’ ” He’s always had an answer: “My feeling was, up until recently, I don’t need to see Armenia, to see the homeland, to understand what being an Armenian is.”

But now that’s changed: He only just announced to equally stunned friends and audiences that he would be traveling to Armenia, to some abstract place he’s only understood as home.

Building from a vacuum

For Partamian, trying to construct something as intangible as identity has had its challenges: There’s the distance, the vacuum and a painful history.

One of his ongoing projects has been his website, a memorial to the 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1918. But his most ambitious endeavor is to record the entire Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, arranged by the Armenian monk and musicologist Komitas to be played in its 80-minute entirety for the first time on duduk, which he would like to complete by year’s end to mark the 90th anniversary of the genocide. “But for that I need a lot of George Washingtons — $30,000, to be exact. I’ve got about 50 minutes done. Somehow it will all come together.”

All this reaching back is in many ways Partamian’s way to dress an old wound: that disconnected history. “I always say I’m a product of 1915, even though I was born in 1962.”

Partamian was born and raised in Lebanon. Lured by an aunt who had relocated to the States, his family landed in Glendale when he was 18. So far from everything familiar, Partamian longed for some connection to his heritage and went looking for music. “It was the late ’80s,” he recalls, “when CDs were becoming the thing, and I couldn’t find much of anything Armenian.”

His obsessive collecting eventually turned into a brisk mail-order business, and that into a storefront, which became an after-hours hangout, a place to talk politics, history. In time, he parlayed that into a multipronged business producing and releasing works by emerging Armenian musicians, amassing a roster that blurred the lines of classical, pop, folk — and that also helped to deepen the cultural portrait.

For all his passion and cultural boosterism, there are some within the Armenian community who would rather see the plug pulled on him. For so long, Partamian’s role has been “irritant trigger,” says Yegparian, that “I can empathize with the approach. I’m guilty of it. But the downside is that people do get hung up on the irritation. So he may not get to the conclusion. He might be the person to raise the issue, but he might not be the person who is going to resolve it.”

“Some people think that I bash people,” Partamian says on a recent evening, stepping out of his red jeep to make a quick cameo appearance at a reading at the Abril Bookstore in Glendale. “It’s a way to get their attention.” It’s just one of the many stops he’ll make this evening before he heads to the studio. He makes a point to go to four or five events a night, “just to grab the essence,” he says.

He squeezes in. The store is clogged with people, and, again, everyone has a word for Partamian. “Every morning I watch,” says Hrachia Froundijian. “He says, ‘Good morning!’ But it really means darkness! I fight with my wife all the time about him … all the time, but I keep watching.”

Some of those gathered have moved away from the small table where author Markar Melkonian inscribes his book to ask Partamian about his upcoming trip to Armenia. And since telling his viewers he’s going, he’s been inundated with offers — places to stay, tour guides, even a ride to the airport. The kindness has surprised him.

But really, what people want to know is, Why the change of heart? Why now?

“When I thought about it more, I realized I have an answer for everything. But one thing I don’t have an answer for is life in Armenia.”

He talks of maybe doing a stage show on his return. “Make everyone pay $20 to hear about my travels and my impressions.”

As for what he’s after? Well, it’s an elusive thing. “Some people think I’m going there to find pride in my culture,” he says. “I have it already. But for the last five years, I realized, I’ve stopped [developing] my identity to find out the identity of this community.

“I don’t want to call it a soul-finding experience. But it is about finding who you are. Why they — Armenians in Armenia — are richer in some ways. I’m going to try to find the things to lock those two identities together.”