We met him at the TechCity Jam early this fall. The local jam session for tech workers who have music careers or hobbies on the side included everything from pop songs to electronica to incredible traditional Armenian music. We wanted to know who was playing in this award-winning band that came seemingly out of nowhere to the stage and played a brilliant set that would be inadequate to just call foot-tapping. Ara Topouzian, pictured right above, plays the qanun (kanoon), an Armenian 80-string harp that goes back to the 5th century and is still played today. The music sounds traditional, and yet it’s still extremely catchy.
“I’ve been playing music my entire life,” Topouzian says, “but I was not playing Armenian or Middle Eastern music until after college.”
Topouzian played with his Ara Topouzian Ensemble at Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House last year, featuring his band members Mark Gavoor, Jerry Gerjekian, and Tom Zakarian, seen in the video below.
Topouzian was the Artist in Residence for the City of Farmington Hills in 2015, and gave a TEDx talk on his music the same year. His band has won multiple awards, and he was a 2012 Kresge Fellow in Detroit.
Topouzian started out in journalism, but early on a mentor recommended he find a job in an industry where it wouldn’t be so challenging to find work. He started his own business doing mail order audio for a short period, which expanded to a rented office in Farmington Hills. He started playing music, and he says he was getting gigs.
From Record Label to Executive Director of the MVCA
“If people are going to hire me to play, I’d better record something,” Topouzian tells us of his first career shift. “I started a record label out of the same office.”
Topouzian joined the local chamber of commerce. “I enjoyed it,” he says, “and I got on the board.”
Eventually, he left to work for the City of Novi doing economic development and business attraction, then went to another Detroit suburb of Troy, and ran the chamber there. Topouzian ended up working with the Michigan Venture Capital Association, where he is Executive Director.
“My career has been spent working with entrepreneurs,” Topouzian says. “Music has always been a professional hobby on the side.”
But how did he end up in this music career on the side?
The Topouzian Ensemble’s “Side Hobby” In Award-Winning Armenian Music
“I grew up listening to Armenian music,” Topouzian tells us. “I enjoyed records in the house. As I got older watching other musicians play live, I said, ‘I want to be up there playing what they’re playing.'” Why the qanun? “It was an instrument no one else was playing,” he explains. “It was different and unique in the Detroit area.”
Topouzian says that the Michigan Venture Capital Association has been a positive move for his primary career, where he was announced as Executive Director in April of this year. He’s excited to see where entrepreneurship is going in Michigan and in Ann Arbor-Detroit, both recently named as up and coming tech hubs for startups by news outlets across the U.S. In November, Bloomberg named Ann Arbor the #3 tech hub in the U.S. In July of this year, Forbes re-stated its recent opinion that Detroit is a potential new startup hotbed.
“We’re excited for next year,” Topouzian says of his work with the MVCA. “There’s so much out there we could be doing.”
Resources for Michigan Entrepreneurs
The MVCA’s annual awards banquet was held at the Henry Ford in Dearborn on November 11th, because the MVCA recently moved from Ann Arbor to Novi. The organization not only hosts events for entrepreneurs in Michigan and funding banquets but curates resource guides for entrepreneurs, yearly research reports on the funding landscape in Michigan, and maps out venture capital funding across the state, an invaluable resource for startup founders and tech business owners.
If you would like to hear more samples of Topouzian’s music, you can visit his website. Topouzian also writes a blog about Armenian music and its rich history. We will be attending TechCity Jam again next year, hosted by Bank of Ann Arbor, and hope to see you there if you’re an Ann Arbor tech professional. Invitations are a bit under the radar but open to anyone in tech. If you play an instrument, you can also get on the set list.