From war-torn tumult to the classical stage

With tight jeans, shining jackets and long Afro hair jiggling in the air, Ara Malikian's appearance is nothing like what you would expect from a classical musician.
Huang Chengsi / Ti Gong

Spanish “rock violinist” Ara Malikian shows his expertise at a fans meeting in Shanghai to promote his upcoming concert next week.

With tight jeans, shining jackets and long Afro hair jiggling in the air, Ara Malikian’s appearance is nothing like what you would expect from a classical musician. But appearances can be deceptive and this is certainly the case here.

“I love classical music. It is a big part of my world, though I may not be part of the classical world,” says the 50-year-old Spanish violinist of Lebanese origin and Armenian descent.

Rather than quietly playing his music, Malikian cannot help dancing and approaching his audiences no matter whether he is performing at a friend’s house, a party or a concert hall. Though taking Paganini his idol, Malikian also cherishes David Bowie.

“Being on stage contributes to the happiest moments in my life. I desire to transmit and share my joy with people. For me, that is what music is all about,” says Malikian.

With his violin, Malikian will present his “Incredible Tour of Violin” concert at Shanghai Oriental Art Center on January 25, as part of his very first China tour. The program list ranges from classics like Vivaldi’s “Summer,” rock hits such as David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” to Malikian’s own compositions such as “El vals de kairo” that he made for his son. Malikian also promises something in Chinese as a gift for the local audience.

Born in Lebanon to an Armenian family, Malikian began studying the violin with his father at a very young age. His talent was recognized and nurtured despite the war that ravaged his homeland. He gave his first serious concert at 12 and obtained a scholarship from the German culture ministry to study at the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Hannover at 14. He later furthered his studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London with renowned professors such as Franco Gulli, Ruggiero Ricci, Ivry Gitlis and Herman Krebbers.

Malikian still treasures the violin passed down from his grandfather, which was a savior to the family. With this particular violin, his grandfather survived the slaughter of Armenians by faking himself as a violinist. The violin was also the limited source of joy for Malikian in air-raid shelters and took him to Germany away from the war.

“Life was much easier with music,” says Malikian. He still remembers clearly his first concert in Lebanon during a break in the war. Around 800 people came to the concert, looking forward to a better life even in war. From that moment, Malikian knew that he would never give up live performance.

With no family or friends in Germany and knowing little about the culture and language, Malikian surrendered himself to music in his first few years there. He practiced 12 hours a day and participated in various competitions as the only way to get connected with the community. 

He won the champion at the Mendelssohn violin competition in 1987 in Berlin and was honored Prize for Artistic Devotion and Achievement by the German Ministry of Culture in 1933.

“Of course, competition is not the best way to improve one’s music, since art is something personal, not for comparison,” says Malikian. “But thanks to the competitions, people started to know about me and get me playing in café, bars, weddings and concerts.”

Malikian also met musicians from different cultural backgrounds, which gradually opened up a new world to him. He started to explore more about his own Armenian roots as well as other cultures like those in the Middle East (Arab and Jewish), central Europe (gypsy and klezmer), Argentina (tango) and Spain (flamenco). He tried learning the parts that fascinated him and mixed them with his own creations.

“It was just for fun at first, yet gradually become an essential part of my life,” says Malikian. He took every chance to discover musicians and music from a different cultural background. He was also a big fan of China, and much interested about getting himself an erhu (Chinese fiddle) from this tour.

“It is more difficult to play since it only has two strings with the bow in between. But the sound is so fascinating,” says Malikian.

He has taken a lot of effort with composition in recent years, with inspirations from simple situations in life. For example, “El vals de kairo” was inspired from observing fetal movements of his son before birth.

“Most of my compositions have a story. Music makes me who I am, and it is also the way I interpret myself and the world,” he explains.

Performance details

Date: January 25, 7:30pm

Tickets: 80-580 yuan

Venue: Shanghai Oriental Art Center

Address: 425 Dingxiang Rd, Pudong New Area

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