A Double Life: Ara Topouzian

Ara Topouzian

, Economic Development Director for the City of Novi, didn’t start his career in urban planning in quite the way you might expect. In fact, his whole career working with city governments and chambers of commerce began out of something different entirely: his other career as an Armenian musician and record producer.
Topouzian has been playing Armenian and Middle Eastern music for over 25 years now. He jokes that it is a “professional hobby,” but in fact there was a point in time in which it was actually his profession. He plays a unique instrument called a Kanun, a laptop harp with 76 strings.
He played music as a child in public school, though never of the Armenian or Middle Eastern variety. But he had always listened to this style of music growing up, and as he got older he would travel out of town to go watch and listen to live Armenian and Middle Eastern music played. “This was the only opportunity to see the rock stars of Armenian music,” he says. The popular musicians would typically only tour the east coast, occasionally making brief stops in the Detroit area, but “some of the stuff I really wanted to hear I had to travel for.”
As is the case with most innovators and creative types who find themselves wanting something that no one else was providing, Topouzian realized that if he wanted to hear this style of music, he was going to have to play it. He started playing percussion with a local band and soon transitioned out of that into something bigger. “I wanted to play concerts, festivals, workshops; not picnics,” he says. “I wanted to do the non-Armenian thing doing the Armenian thing.” Being a performer on a larger stage (so to speak) also allowed him to perform his Middle Eastern music to a larger audience, many of whom had not had a lot of previous exposure to this style.
For many years, music was Topouzian’s passion as well as his profession. After graduating college he decided to start his own business, a mail-order audiobook business that “didn’t do well.” When he decided he wanted to play music he also decided he would make an album. His first cassette did well, so he made a second. And a third. He was recording his own music as well as others and launched his own company, American Recording Productions. Soon he got a distributor who would carry his music in stores worldwide at a time when the record industry was still a behemoth; his music was available in mega-stores like Tower Records and Borders Books & Music. He has recorded and produced over 30 albums over the course of his music career.
The 1990s and early 2000s were prolific years for ARP. Then came Napster.
“It was getting tougher to make a living just [making music],” says Topouzian. “I was doing producing and recordings full time, and not playing full time.” He jokes that he felt like he should join a Chamber “even though I had nothing they wanted.” He joined the Farmington Hills Chamber of Commerce, got involved with the board, climbed his way up the ladder from program and events director to running the whole organization, and after eight years with Farmington Hills he made the move to Novi as the Economic Developer. (Prior to him taking the position, Novi hadn’t had an Economic Developer in a decade.)
In the past few years the City of Novi has attracted increasingly more international businesses (it’s even been called “Little Tokyo”) and has taken huge strides towards building up a strong retail presence, which Topouzian has certainly had a hand in over the last six years he has been there. Twleve Oaks Mall has expanded; the Novi Town Centre was reborn (after losing several “big box” businesses that like Comp USA and Borders); 12 Mile Crossing (aka Fountainwalk Plaza) overcame some awkward design challenges to become an entertainment hub; Hyatt is currently building a 126-room hotel adjacent to the Suburban Showplace Collection (which in turn is attracting increasingly more conventions and events, a veritable Cobo Hall of Oakland County); the land that once housed the Novi Expo Center is now being redeveloped; there is a huge focus on retention, workforce development and intelligent transit systems; housing permits are up and people are building once again. If it’s a culturally savvy and safe suburban utopia you seek, Novi is becoming the ideal place to be.
Through all this time, Topouzian has continued to play music. In his double life as a respected Armenian folk musician, he travels around the state in his free time playing folk festivals and various events; last year he was hand-picked to play a jazz-influenced concerto based on a Middle Eastern folk song with a 75-piece orchestra in Virginia. Of the dozens of recordings he has produced, some have even won awards. But the biggest award came just last year when he was one of the winners of the Kresge Artist Fellowship.
While he calls his music a professional hobby now, the people at the Kresge Foundation obviously consider it to be something more: in 2012, Topouzian was awarded the Kresge Artist Fellowship for Performing Arts which came with a $25,000 reward. “The recognition in itself is tremendous,” he says. “I didn’t think I would get it. It was a total surprise to me. Riding that wave has been a lot of fun!”
With the award money he plans to launch a few more projects, one which he is particularly excited about doing in April for Art X Detroit in Detroit’s Midtown – presenting the history of the Detroit Armenian music scene going back to the 1950s, examining what it was like here to play music in the nightclubs and who the musicians were at the time. He’ll also give a workshop on Armenian music and the instrument, and end it all with a concert. In the meantime Topouzian continues to lead his double life, juggling equally successful careers as an economic developer and a musician and bouncing from concerts to press conferences. 

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, project editor of Prosper and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at Eat It Detroit.