Byko: Philly musician from Lebanon finds that peace is cooler than rock 'n' roll

LIKE A MILLION other kids, he wanted to grab his guitar, head to California, and become a famous rock and roll star.

Unlike a million other kids, Peter Jambazian was born to Armenian parents in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1981, as a civil war raged around them. Before it was over, 250,000 were dead and a million had fled the city once known as the Paris of the Middle East.

His parents had sought a visa to come to the United States, but the immigration gates swung closed in 1983 after the American embassy in Beirut was bombed.

During his first decade of life, Jambazian - he calls himself Peter Jam to make it easier for others to say - knew nothing but war. A rocket could explode in his street, a bullet could come through his bedroom wall, said the now-35-year-old.

In the years since, the small, multi-ethnic country of Lebanon has been physically occupied - such as by Syria - or politically dominated, as today by the terrorist group Hezbollah, acting as Iran's surrogate.

Living amid the death, terror, and destruction eventually turned Peter Jam into a peace activist who landed in Philadelphia, but that came much later.

Still feeding the rock-star dream, Peter Jam tried to emigrate to the U.S. at 19. Lebanon told him he'd have to do military service first. He wound up with light duty guarding the Beirut airport.

Although he had finished only the ninth grade, Peter Jam was a voracious reader with innate musical ability. He practiced his guitar more than eight hours a day and read deeply about music and musical instruments. Although not a student there, the friendly and loquacious young man finagled music lessons from the dean of music at the University of Beirut.

In 1999, he launched his own band, Vibrations, that mostly covered classic rock 'n' roll hits. A little later, while still in the military, he landed a job with Beirut's biggest music shop, where he repaired high-end guitars - Fender, Gibson, Washburn - and got paid to sell instruments and teach guitar. He also had time to write songs and compose music.

His dream of being a rock star in America faded as his reputation as a musician in Lebanon grew.

He was happy, he told me in accented English (he also speaks Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic), and lacked only one thing - a companion dog. That was cured when he adopted a homeless yellow Labrador retriever he named Boogie.

"I was living the life. I was totally happy," he said, "but God had opened another path."

He was struck with cancer, something he doesn't mention in his bio, but was willing to talk about when I asked about the epiphany that launched him on the road to being a troubadour for peace.

"The purpose of life is to be happy," he said, "and happiness turns to joy when we share it."

The idea of sharing led to him to post what he calls his "peace song," titled "If You Want," on YouTube. He went to Europe and sang it in whatever venue he could, sometimes just in front of landmarks.

With Boogie and his VW, he did 18 countries in 26 days. The more he traveled, the more people he met, the more he became involved in global peace, environmentalism, human rights, animal rights.

Various groups have given him awards for his work, which gives him personal satisfaction, if not wealth. War pays better than peace.

An American activist, Nancie Rosenberg of Partners in Peace, saw his peace song on YouTube and invited him to perform at the International Day of Peace in Westminster, Md., in 2009. Rosenberg told me she finds him charismatic "with a deep-seated desire to help the world."

So when Peter Jam first set foot in America, it was not as a rocker but as a peacemaker.

A few years later, with the assistance of a nonprofit group called the Art Army, Peter Jam secured a specialized visa for "Artists With Extraordinary Abilities" that does not lead to citizenship.

Last year, nearly 20 years after he first dreamed of living in America, he arrived here as an "extraordinary" artist.

He lives in Center City and supports himself by playing his music, teaching guitar, piano, and music arranging, and giving motivational talks - sometimes for pay, sometimes not. He supplements his income by dog-walking. His beloved Boogie passed away a few years back.

Slim, dark-eyed, and bearded, Peter Jam devotes himself to spreading tolerance, peace, and joy through music and art.

He is preparing to apply for a green card that does lead to citizenship, because Peter Jam believes that he has found his new home.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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