Born and raised in Syria, Armenian classical guitarist Sako Dermenjian has started a new life in Australia, pursuing his dream of becoming a world-class guitarist and teacher after relocating following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. He will be one of several migrant and refugee artists performing at the New Beginnings Festival in Spring at Darling Harbour on November 18.
Dermenjian’s grandmother gave him his first guitar when he was seven years old. “My parents’ taste in music drew me to guitar and let me be more passionate towards this instrument,” he told Limelight.
Guitarist Sako Dermenjian
Dermenjian studied in Damascus. “My great childhood teacher Mazen Al-Saleh was my only teacher from 2004 to 2011, then I was self-taught for five years,” he said. “John Williams, Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola and Tommy Emmanuel were my favourite guitarists of all time.”
Dermenjian left Syria at the age of 17, when war broke out in the country, becoming one of more than 1.5 million refugees to flee Syria since the start of the war. He eventually settled in Australia.
“When you go out of your house in Syria, you don’t know if you’ll come back,” Dermenjian told the ABC in an interview last year. “You’ll walk out and boom, you might see a dead person there. You have to have good luck.”
Moving to Wollongong was no doubt a relief. But while Dermenjian hoped to study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, his plans soon hit a snag. “One of the biggest challenges that faced me in Australia was trying to get into Sydney Conservatorium of Music because of my overseas qualifications,” he told Limelight.
Dermenjian instead enrolled in a Diploma of Music at TAFE Illawarra, studying with Michael Barkl. He threw himself into gigging, playing at the Sydney Summer Guitar School and a Nepal earthquake fund-raiser in Bulli, and was soon invited to perform for Lord Mayor of Wollongong Gordon Bradbery at the Wollongong Australia Day awards dinner.
In 2017 Dermenjian was accepted into a Bachelor of Performance in classical guitar at the Sydney Conservatorium. “This year is my first year at the Sydney Conservatorium and I am loving it!” he said. “I am studying with the international virtuoso Vladimir Gorbach, socialising, getting a lot of connections, and building my professional name.”
His next gig is the New Beginnings Festival this weekend, where he will join artists including writer and spoken word poet Hani Abdile, MC, performer and hip hop artist Kween G, and The Human Sound Project, which will debut a song created in collaboration with hundreds of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia.
“New Beginnings gives people from refugee and migrant backgrounds an opportunity to showcase the artistic talent and rich cultural heritage they bring to Australia. It’s a chance for newly arrived artists to develop their talent and get to know more about Australia’s creative sector,” said Carolina Triana, Arts & Culture Program Manager and festival producer at not-for-profit Settlement Services International. “Bringing people together to bond over the shared enjoyment of music, dance and other cultural expressions is also one of the ways we can fight stereotypes about newly arrived communities. Getting to know someone through their art makes us focus on their creativity and potential – labels like ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ are no longer relevant.”
Dermenjian’s musical tastes range widely – “Astor Piazzolla and Isaac Albéniz are my favourite composers,” he says – and he performs both Western classical music and Middle Eastern music.“In the New Beginnings Festival, I am playing with my friend Atif Badria – Master Arabic Percussionist,” Dermenjian said. “We are playing flamenco and contemporary melodies fusing with Middle Eastern beats.”
“I hope to become a world renowned guitarist one day,” he says, “and to enjoy my life with my beautiful instrument in my amazing new home: Australia!”
The New Beginnings Festival in Spring is at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour from 12pm to 7pm on November 18. This is a free event.