The current widespread appreciation for African music—whether in the form of lovingly curated reissues or present-day bands, ranging from Tinariwen and Konono No. 1 to the Blk Jks and Vampire Weekend—is hardly an unprecedented phenomenon. Crazes for exotic music have been periodically sweeping the States for as long as there have been record companies. In the early 60s belly-dancing music had its turn, which gave an Armenian-American oud player named John Berberian
the chance to make the leap from playing nightclubs to selling tens of thousands of records. The oud is a pear-shaped fretless Middle Eastern lute that's been around for centuries, and for most of his career Berberian has stuck to traditional Armenian tunes. But on a series of LPs
for Mainstream, Roulette, and Verve in the mid- to late 60s, Berberian placed the oud in relatively modern settings that featured melodramatic strings, jazz bass, and—on 1969's Middle Eastern Rock
—some smoking fuzz-tone guitar by Joe Beck.
Berberian, 68, stopped recording more than 30 years ago, but he's never quit performing.These days he sells CDs of his old records through his Web site and mostly appears at cultural events like the Armenian Youth Olympics, which hosted his two most recent Chicago appearances, in 1998 and 2004. This week he's playing two concerts with local keyboardist and percussionist Kraig Kuchukian at the Old Town School of Folk Music, one as part of their World Music Wednesdays series and another on Thursday that starts at the field-trip-friendly hour of 10:30 AM. Berberian will also teach a workshop on various oud styles and the Turkish improvisational method known as taksim at 6 PM Thursday.