By Taleen Babayan
ASBURY PARK, N.J.—Hundreds of Armenians will once again flock to the Jersey Shore’s historic Asbury Park to spend a weekend full of camaraderie and tradition during “Return to Asbury.”
Now in its fourth year, this unique event has gained immense popularity and draws Armenians from the East and West Coasts for a weekend of socializing on the beach, dancing to traditional Armenian kef music, and participating in tavloo and volleyball games.
“Return to Asbury,” hosted by the New York Armenian Students’ Association and Florida Armenians, has ushered in a new generation of Armenians, emulating those before them who gathered there in Asbury Park in the mid-20th century, when the city’s summers were full of Armenian hotels and nightly “kef” concerts. One of the highlights of those summer weekends was the Vosbikian Band, who will play at the historic Asbury Park Convention Hall after a 50-year hiatus in a special one night-only performance.
“I have many fond memories of Asbury Park during the 1960’s and 70’s,” said band member Steve Vosbikian. “During the summer months, the hotels would swell with Armenians from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and no matter where you turned there was an Armenian scene going on.”
Although the Asbury summers had diminished by the end of the 1970’s, the idea of bringing a new generation of Armenians together to this significant spot in Armenian-American history was conceived by Robin Barone four years ago.
“I am humbled by how the community has rallied around the vision and its growth over the years,” said Barone. “I am overjoyed when I am told that an individual loves to attend to be Armenian among other Armenians.”
This year’s “Return to Asbury,” in the capable hands of Arsine Kaloustian and Taniel Koushakjian, promises traditional events as well as exciting new ones. A happy hour at the beachfront Watermark will kick off the weekend, followed by a day of fun and games on the 7th Avenue beach and a night of dancing at the historic Asbury Park Convention Hall featuring the Artsakh Band and the Vosbikian Band.
“This year’s Return to Asbury has particular meaning for me as we have all seen our communities band together recently as we continue to commemorate the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide,” said Kaloustian, chair of Return to Asbury. “We have all drawn closer to our culture this year and Asbury Park plays such a big role in that culture, having brought countless Armenians to the Jersey Shore since the 1930’s. It is a beacon of so much of what makes us proud to be Armenian—tradition, music, food, family, and the sheer joy that comes from just being around each other.”
“Return to Asbury is a time honored tradition spanning four generations of Armenian culture in America,” said Koushakjian, founder of Florida Armenians. “Many East Coast Armenians grew up hearing about Asbury Kef, and, like me, didn’t realize the impact it had on our community. I’m honored to help keep ‘Return to Asbury’ going and make this year’s kef better than ever.”
This article originally appeared in the Armenian Weekly and is republished with the expressed written consent of the author.
By Taleen Babayan
Hundreds of Armenians will gather on the New Jersey shore for the annual “Return to Asbury” weekend, which will be held from August 8-10 in an effort to usher in a new generation of Armenians to Asbury Park, New Jersey.
In its third year, “Return to Asbury” continues to expand its scope and will feature exciting activities including a social at the Watermark Lounge on the boardwalk, a tavloo tournament, and a day at the beach with games and giveaways, and will culminate in a “Kef Party” at the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, featuring live Armenian music by Kevork Artinian and the Michael Gostanian Ensemble. The weekend wraps up with a poolside brunch featuring New Jersey’s own DJ Shant.
“Asbury is lightning in a bottle,” said Arsine Kaloustian, an event planner from Florida who holds positions in several Armenian organizations and is spearheading this year’s weekend in an attempt to encourage Armenians to be active in their culture. “The same excitement our parents and grandparents felt still exists there.”
In its heyday, Asbury Park attracted thousands of Armenians from the 1930’s-1970’s who stayed at one of the many Armenian-run hotels by the boardwalk, including the Van Hotel, Hye Hotel, Lincoln Hotel, and Roosevelt Hye Hotel, among others. Participants spent their days on the beach and their evenings at the dances and “hookups” listening to traditional live Armenian folk music and spending time with one another.
Kaloustian, whose grandparents and father traveled to these events every summer from Manhattan, was motivated to continue the “Return to Asbury” tradition when she saw other Armenian weekends on the East Coast fade away, including “Kef Time Hartford” and “Cape Cod Kef.” She has taken the reigns from Robin Barone, who initially re-launched the event with the sponsorship of the New York Armenian Students Association.
“When I first pitched the idea, I never imagined that it would have developed such a following as it did,” said Barone, a Philadelphia native who vacations in Asbury Park. “I was not alone in wanting to connect back to the atmosphere and camaraderie of Armenian events from the past, which were warm, welcoming, and full of joy.”
One of the highlights of “Return to Asbury” will be the performance of traditional live Armenian music, which will be featured heavily during the weekend, from a jam session by the Berkeley pool to the more formal “Kef Party” on Saturday evening.
“Armenian music is a key element of our heritage and culture,” said Philadelphia-based singer Kevork Artinian, who will perform at the “Kef Party,” combining modern beats with the melodies and songs of Armenian musical history. “Every opportunity to hear and enjoy our music helps to keep the Armenian spirit alive.”
Participating musicians include those with memories of the original weekends as well as a new generation that is keeping traditional Armenian music alive by learning to play the music of our ancestors.
“It will be inspiring to see Armenians of all ages coming together to celebrate our music and culture,” said Sage Kevorkian McBride, a classical violinist and concertmaster of the Miami Music Project and the Florida Youth Orchestra. “Nothing makes me happier than being able to create and share music with others, especially fellow Armenians.”
New Jersey-based musician Chris Marashlian, who will be joining the Michael Gostanian Ensemble, was an avid participant in the original Asbury Park weekends and reflects fondly on the influential historic event.
“I grew up and lived through this era, which has since vanished over time, yet which is something that continues to motivate me to this day,” said Marashlian. “The most recent ‘Return to Asbury’ events have been inspirational, as both a remembrance of days gone by, as well as of many more great memories yet to come, where our great music and heritage all comes together each summer at the Jersey shore.”
“This is a legacy, and we all have a responsibility to preserve it and pass it on,” said Kaloustian. “Come be a part of the past, revel in the present, and hand it down to the future.”
“Return to Asbury” will take place from Friday, August 8th through Sunday, August 10th in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The event is sponsored by the New York Armenian Students Association. Event planning is provided by Arsine Kaloustian for Florida Armenians, LLC. All event proceeds will benefit Camp Haiastan, Camp Nubar, and St. Vartan Camp. For more information and to order tickets, please click here.
This article originally appeared in the Armenian Weekly and is reproduced with the expressed written consent of the author.