John Berberian and the Rock East Ensemble

Band members                             Related acts

  line up 1 (1969)  

- Chet Amsterdam -- bass

- Souren Baronian -- clarinet, tenor sax, baritone sax

- Joe Beck -- lead guitar

- Ed Brandon -- rhythm guitar

- Bill LaVorgna -- drums, percussion

- Steve Pumilian -- goblet drums

- Bob Tashjian -- vocals, percussion



- John Berberian (solo efforts)

- Taksim (Souren Baronian)





Genre: psych

Rating: 3 stars ***

Title:  John Berberian and the Mid-Eastern Ensemble

Company: Verve Forecast

Catalog:  FTS 3073

Country/State: New York

Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+

Comments: --

Available: 1

Catalog ID: --

Price: $80.00



Best know for his proficiency on the Oud (an eight stringed mid eastern instrument), John Berberian has been releasing music since the early-1960s.   While attending  New York's Columbia University, Berberian made his professional musical debut playing the Oud in support of violinist Reuben Sarkisian.

While completing an MBA from Harvard, Berberian managed to find the time to become a staple on the Manhattan nightclub scene.  In 1964 he was signed to Bob Shad's New York-based Mainstream Records, where he recorded a pair of Middle Eastern-themed instrumental collections.  Those were followed by a pair of albums for George Goldner's Roulette and Jerry Schoenbaum's Verve Forecast.


- 1964's "Expressions East" (Mainstream catalog number S/6023)

- 1965's "Oud Artistry" (Mainstream catalog number S/6047)

- credited to the John Berberian Ensemble 1966's "Music of the Middle East" (Roulette catalog number R-25306)

- credited to Rosko (Mercer and the John Berberian Ensemble) 1968's "Music and Gibran (A Contemporary Interpretation)" (Verve Forecast catalog FTS-3044)


I'm guessing  none of Berberian's first four releases burned up the charts so it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Verve Forecast marketing put pressure of the artist to update his sound.  I found an interview Berberian did with Noah Schaffer for the Arts Fuze website where he talked about the album: Music Interview: John Berberian Brings his Oud Artistry to the Lowell Folk Festival - The Arts Fuse


The concept came from my producers at Verve at the time. I was really excited — it was a great transition. The title was a bit misleading — it was more jazz than rock — but we incorporated two or three rock musicians, including Joe Beck on guitar, who just wailed away with the oud. I think for its day it was a very progressive album and is thought of as remaining very current. I used Middle Eastern melodies, some of which I arranged myself, and we went over them with three rock musicians and four Armenian musicians. We came together one day and made an album. The entire LP was rehearsed and recorded in one day! It was very well received, but its success was short-lived because a few months after it came out the management at Verve changed hands, and they weren’t interested in pushing the material that had already come out. I think it would have been much bigger had the company stayed intact. It was licensed and came out as a CD in England … but now it’s out of print. The actual LPs sell for a pretty penny. 


Producers H.H. Cowen and Peter Spargo apparently hoped to emulate sitar player Ravi Shanker's breakthrough successes with counterculture audiences, turning Berberian and the Oud into the next "happening" sound.  Released in 1969, "John Berberian and the Mid-Eastern Ensemble" was definitely different ...  It's hard to accurately describe the collection but imagine something falling in the middle of international fusion, early world music and psychsploitation comes to mind.  Given that backdrop and the fact the collection was recorded in a single day without any real preparatory work, the end results are surprisingly impressive.  With the exception of the opener 'The Oud & the Fuzz' (one of two Berberian originals), nothing on the album is particularly rock oriented, or commercial.  True, all seven tracks incorporate Western rock orientation into the mix, but the predominant sound was routed in traditional Armenian music.  Clearly this one isn't going to appeal to everyone, but for the musically curious it's well worth a spin.


It probably would not pass PC muster in this day and age, but I've always liked the Sid Maurer cover art.  It's actually kind of funny when you note that Armenians are not Arabian.


"John Berberian and the Mid-Eastern Ensemble" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) The Oud & the Fuzz (instrumental)   (John Berberian) - 6:30   rating: **** stars

The title proved an apt description with Berberian trotting out his Oud over a surprisingly energetic rock/psychedelic arrangement.  A classic example of cultures colliding, the combination of jazz guitarist Joe Beck's fuzz guitar and Berberian's Oud generated quite a bit of heat.

2.) Tranquility  (traditional - arranged by John Berberian) - 6:40   rating: **** stars

Opening up with Chet Amsterdam's leisurely bass moves, 'Tranquility' slowed everything down, adding the jazzy edge Berberian previously mentioned.  There's a distinctive lysergic edge to this one ...

3.) Chem-OO-Chem (traditional - arranged by John Berberian) - 6:01   rating: **** stars

Featuring Bob Tashjian, 'Chem-OO-Chem' was the album's only vocal performance and the most traditional performance.  Sung in Armenian, I have absolutely no idea what it was all about, but the track certainly built up some steam.  David Crosby having a fever dream ...


(side 2)

1.)  Iron Maiden (instrumental) (traditional - arranged by John Berberian) - 3:54   rating: *** stars

Kicked along by Souren Baronian's sax work, the instrumental 'Iron Maiden' struck me as having a Canterbury-styled progressive vibe.  

2.) Flying Hye (instrumental) (traditional - arranged by John Berberian) - 6:06   rating: *** stars

Opening up with an extended Berberian solo, 'Flying Hye' initially showcased a raga feel, before Souren Baronian's clarinet gave the tune a distinctive Arabic flavor.  Easy to imagine a cobra slithering around to this soundtrack.

3.) 3/8 + 5/8 = 8/8 (instrumental) (traditional - arranged by John Berberian) - 5:16   rating: **** stars

The album's best mash-up of jazz and world music flavors ...

4.) The Magic Ground (instrumental)   (John Berberian - Souren Baronian) - 4:23   rating: *** stars

Opening up with some jazzy Joe Beck guitar, Berberian's Ode quickly took control of the steering wheel.