To say Sako Dermenjian was always going to be a guitarist is an understatement. Born and raised in Syria, Sako displayed prodigious talent in classical guitar from the time his grandmother gave him his first guitar aged six. By eleven, he was half-way through his instruction with celebrated classical guitar teacher, Mazen Al-Saleh, in Damascus. By fifteen, he was teaching after school at the Higher Institute of Music, Syria’s main music conservatorium. At twenty, Sako had given a TED Talk about his music. But the road to becoming the Yamaha-endorsed artist he is today hasn’t always been an easy one.
Leaving Syria in 2014 with his family, who are of Armenian descent, when war erupted meant Sako had to complete his final year of high school during his short passage through Lebanon en route to Australia.
“I had mixed feelings when we arrived in Australia. We didn’t know anyone here, but we were happy to be in such a beautiful country. Instead of beaches being five hours away, we now lived five minutes from glorious beaches,” said Dermenijian.
Newly settled in Wollongong, it seemed for a moment that his musical dreams had stalled. However, Sako persevered and began a TAFE qualification as a pathway to university where in a fortunate development one of his teachers, Dr Michael Barker, was a Con alumnus.
On completion of his diploma, encouraged by Dr Barker, Sako applied for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. At his audition he played the music of acclaimed guitarist, Dr Vladimir Gorbach, both as an admirer of his music and knowing he taught at the Conservatorium.
“The audition lasted a minute,” laughs Dermenjian. “That was it.”
When he was accepted, he was delighted to be taught by Gorbach and set about absorbing as much as he could from him. “I knew how unique it was to play like that and I wanted him to teach me more.”
Dermenjian describes Gorbach as having masterful technique and a virtuoso spirit.
Dermenjian’s interest in a range of musical styles didn’t daunt Gorbach, either. The two built a working relationship based on a mutual respect for each other’s guitar skills. Determined to continue developing those skills, Sako applied to do his masters at the beginning of 2021 and put more time into his original music.
“When I came to Australia, I met most of my best friends through music,” says Dermenjian. “Just playing together was how we became friends, so collaboration became really important to me. Classical guitar is usually solo, but I like to also perform with other musicians and bands.”
However, the costs of postgraduate study were daunting to a musician in an income freeze; prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, Dermenjian had a successful performing career, playing three to four gigs per week at festivals, professional sporting events and appearing on radio and in theatres around Australia.
After being accepted to complete his Masters, Sako learnt that he was able to apply for, and was awarded, the Greta Davis Equity Scholarship: “I am so grateful to Greta for the opportunity. It’s great there are people out there who value music and want to help others tell their stories through music.”
Established in 2021, the Greta Davis Equity Scholarship for Musically Talented Students isfor students studying performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (the Con) who can demonstrate disadvantage.
Greta Davis says fate brought the scholarship, open to any instrumentalist, to a classical guitarist. A retired IT professional, her thoughts about music were influenced by her time in Armidale in the early 1970s where she worked with statistician and classical guitarist, Associate Professor Vic Bofinger.
A life-long love of music led Davis to establish two scholarships as gifts in her will. One is a travelling scholarship for a woodwind musician to study overseas. The other is for an asylum seeker, refugee, or First Nations student.
“It is not easy to meet the Con’s high admission standards and refugees and First Nations people have so many more challenges to overcome. It takes a lot of work to be really good at music and I wanted to recognise and assist people that have achieved that in difficult circumstances,” said Ms Davis.
Dermenjian’s studies also helped with reframing his role in music, mentally transitioning himself from classical guitarist to musician, and growing musically broader and more collaborative.
Drawing from Armenian, Spanish, Middle Eastern and a touch of Flamenco influence, Sako explains how each piece of music he plays reflects various experiences in his life. He plucks the strings a little differently, the oeuvre shifting and morphing to express his style and emotions.
Every time I play my guitar, it takes me from one reality into another. I reflect on my past, my present and my future and it shows me that six strings can really change the world.