Florida Folklife Program

Folk Heritage Awards Recipient: Joe Zeytoonian


Joe Zeytoonian, . Courtesy of Harmonic Motion. Photo by Sharon Swift..
Joe ZeytoonianCourtesy of Harmonic Motion. Photo by Sharon Swift.

Joe Zeytoonian (1946 - ) - 2000 Florida Folk Heritage Award

Joe Zeytoonian’s parents emigrated to the United States from Turkey as a result of the Armenian genocide that occurred during and immediately after World War I. The family joined other Armenians living in Watertown, Massachusetts, where Zeytoonian was born in 1946. Zeytoonian was raised in a family of musicians. His father, uncle and older brother played the oud, while another brother played percussion and both of his parents sang Armenian and Turkish songs. The oud is a fretless stringed ancestor of the lute and guitar, traditionally played in Armenia, Turkey, Greece and Arabia. His family was active in the Armenian Church and with the community Maratsi organization (a group composed of former residents of Marash, eastern Turkey). Within these two organizations, Zeytoonian was exposed to many excellent oud players. 

Zeytoonian’s father was not supportive of his interest in music, so as a child Zeytoonian secretly taught himself to play. His fathered feared that his son would want to become a professional musician and, in turn, would suffer financial hardships. Nevertheless, Zeytoonian’s mother encouraged her son’s musical interest. Zeytoonian began playing the instrument seriously at 14, and when he was 20, local Armenian bands began to hire him to play with them. He played with several groups in the Boston area while earning a degree in mathematics at Boston University and then working as a radar systems programmer.

In 1981 Zeytoonian left his job to pursue music professionally. Moving to New York, he performed regularly at various Middle Eastern clubs. In 1985 he moved to Margate, Florida, where he co-founded the Middle Eastern dance and music company, Harmonic Motion. With Harmonic Motion, Zeytoonian has performed numerous concerts at colleges, universities, arts centers, public schools, festivals and libraries in addition to working with various modern dance companies. He also has performed at the Festival of Greek Music in Thessalonika, Greece, and has taught classes and conducted workshops in California, Hawaii, New York and Florida. 

Zeytoonian is an authority on traditional music played on the oud, and has established himself as an innovative musician who has expanded the repertory for the instrument to include jazz, flamenco, and Indian music. The recipient of several awards and grants, such as the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs’ Individual Artist Fellowship in Folk Arts, Zeytoonian has also recorded several CDs. He is currently a favorite performer at events in Florida’s Middle Eastern communities.