Known as the blind master of the oud, or ud, the 12-string fretless lute, Udi Hrant (birth name: Hrant Kenkulian; his adopted nickname of Udi denotes his mastery) is a legendary figure of Middle Eastern music. Perhaps the instrument's greatest modern stylist as well as a vocalist of deep emotion, he is sometimes also known as "Hrant Emre" ("of the soul"). Hrant's yearning, mournful singing and stark improvisational expertise have drawn comparisons to major American roots figures such as Robert Johnson and Doc Watson. Also a violinist of stunning, expressive facility, Hrant composed songs that have become standards of Turkish music; his most famous piece, "Hastayim Yasiyorum" ("I Am Sick, Yet I Am Living"), has been recorded by scores of later artists.
Born near Istanbul in 1901, Hrant was declared blind four days after birth. In spite of numerous treatments, he was to remain blind but developed a musical ear of keen supremacy. An Armenian by birth, he first learned music by singing in church. His family escaped the massacres of Armenians by Turkish troops in 1915 by fleeing to the city of Konya, where young Hrant began oud lessons.
In 1918, Hrant's family returned to Istanbul, where he studied with several famous local teachers. When Hrant began performing, it was difficult to find employment. Known as the New York of the Mideast, the culturally thriving city was already home to many exceptional musicians, and, because he was blind, no ensembles would take him. To survive, Hrant was forced to take low-paying solo gigs in small cafés and to sell instruments out of his brother-in-law's tailor shop.
Just when things seemed hopeless, Hrant was discovered by noted musician/composer Serif Icli while playing at a café. This exposure lead to radio concerts and, in 1920, a recording contract with RCA Victor/His Master's Voice. (He would also record for the Balkan, Perfectaphone, Yildiz, Smyrnaphon, and Istanbul labels into the '50s.)
Udi Hrant's command of the art of the taksim -- lengthy improvisation based on a given set of scales or modes -- is his most glorious and influential contribution to Middle Eastern music. Hrant's prowess far exceeds the musical and technical levels of his day, and features fleet, ascending runs, left-hand pizzicato, and octave doubling (tuning of paired notes in octaves).
Hrant's reputation spread across the Mideast, leading to concerts in Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1950, despite his reservations about Americans' perceptions of Middle Eastern music, Hrant was persuaded to visit the U.S. for a series of concerts. He then returned to Turkey for radio work and to teach young musicians.
In 1977, a jubilee concert assembled some of Turkey's most renowned singers and musicians to honor Hrant's 60-year career. A victim of cancer, he died on August 29, 1978, five moths after his last performance.