Armenian Grammy winner Arto Tunçboyacıyan on performing in Bengaluru and music beyond borders

Grammy Award-winning musician Arto Tunçboyacıyan reflects on music and what it can accomplish beyond the obvious, ahead of his performance at the Mahindra Percussion Festival in Bengaluru

Published - March 16, 2023 01:25 pm IST

Arto Tunçboyacıyan

Arto Tunçboyacıyan | Photo Credit: Andranik Taylor

“What do you play?” asks Arto Tunçboyacıyan, the Grammy award-winning percussionist on a WhatsApp call from Istanbul. This is a first. I am now the subject. I fumble, and sheepishly admit that I play some terrible guitar and also sing at times. He approves, and goes on to say that I would then know what it is like to be creative. This sets the tone for an endearing conversation that flows effortlessly, in spite of a shaky network and halting English, the latter for which this legendary musician is unnecessarily apologetic. Surely, one of those conversations that leave a sense of warmth, long after it’s over. 

This weekend, Arto, self-taught percussionist, multi-instrumentalist and composer known globally for his Grammy-winning collaboration with American Jazz legend Chet Baker, and other international stars like Paul Winter, Marc Johnson and Turkish singer Sezen Aksu, comes to India for the first time, with a solo act for the Mahindra Percussion Festival in Bengaluru. The 66-year-old Armenian, who grew up in Turkey, calls himself an ‘avant-garde folk’ musician. Ask him what that means and he says, “Folk is who I am, and avant-garde is imagining for tomorrow, without losing my identity.”   

Arto Tunçboyacıyan

Arto Tunçboyacıyan | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The story of how he discovered the musician in him is a rather funny one. Growing up, situations at home were not always conducive. Tunçboyacıyan grew up as part of the minority Armenian community in ‘60s Istanbul to a shoemaker of Armenian-Anatolian descent. Playing ball or working odd jobs characterised most of his childhood, he says. His older brother, Onno Ohannes Tunçboyaciyan, was a musician. “In the ‘60s, there were these matinées, for the young ones who could not get into nightclubs. My brother used to take me there. My eyes were always on the stage. On one such day, I was playing with a broken drum that belonged to one of the bands. All of a sudden, the frontrunner of that band pushed me to the stage and I had to play. I got paid, and was asked to come the next day,” he says, pausing to reminisce with a chuckle. “I was looking at everything as an instrument, anything that makes a sound.” 

Decades into realising his calling, the musician is now an exponent of not just percussion (his favourite sets are the two he created by hand), but many other instruments like the duduk, sazebo and bular. Each instrument has its own space in his life, says Arto. He remembers fondly that his hand-made drum set was often a conversation starter when he moved to the US, in 1981 and the English language was yet to become a friend.   

Though many have spoken of how his Armenian roots inspire his music, his take is different, “I am not exactly a cultural person. I would say that I have cultural seasoning, but with an individual imagination.” He approaches life and music with this thought. “I am a human being and my seasoning is Armenian.” He says that his roots don’t inspire him, and quickly adds, “You have to listen to me patiently. I am not inspired because I am what the Armenian sound is. What inspires me are other cultures, and the sounds created there.” 

And rightly so, Arto is someone who believes that there are no brackets or borders when it comes to music. The same philosophy is applied in life. So, does the fact that there are no rules make it easier to evolve as a musician? “Music doesn’t belong to any individual or nationality. Why don’t we use creativity in a healthy way, without giving directions to others?” he asks. To that end, his music is ever evolving, mainly because he believes that there is no reason to be stuck in the past even if it comprises a large part of his identity. The future is just as important.    

As for what he has in store for Bengaluru, he has only one thing to say: “Surprises, surprises…both for the audience and me.” 

The Mahindra Percussion Festival, in association with The Hindu Group, is co-sponsored by Carlsberg Soda, and is promoted and produced by Hyperlink Brand Solutions .Tickets for the festival are available on

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