Collectif Medz Bazar Strikes Chords and Conversation in Boston Debut

Collectif Medz Bazar performed in Somerville on March 18, 2019. Featured here (L-R): Sevana Tchakerian, Marius Pibarot, and Vahan Kerovpyan (Photo: Knar Bedian)

SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Mondays at ONCE Ballroom, a grungy performance space in the heart of Somerville, do not typically enjoy a full house, but on March 18, nearly 300 folks lined up in the cold an hour before showtime for the young, Paris-based band, Collectif Medz Bazar.

“I’ve put on shows before and they’ve gone badly,” said Pete Nersesian, one of the concert promoters, “but this exceeded all of my expectations.” In hindsight, the strong turnout makes a lot of sense. Collectif Medz Bazar, a band whose repertoire specializes in reinventing the folk sounds of Armenia and greater Anatolia, has a built-in audience in the Boston area, which is home to one of the oldest Armenian centers in the United States. Of the 280 concert-goers, nearly all were members of or had strong ties to the New England-based Armenian Diaspora.

“I couldn’t believe it, since at one point, I was worried if we’d reach our target. People were literally fighting for seats,” said Nersesian, referring to the wide age-range of concert-goers, many of whom demanded seating in a typically standing venue.

Nersesian is a member of a local group of progressive Armenian activists called Zoravik, responsible for organizing Collectif Medz Bazar’s debut concert in New England. Sevag Arzoumanian, one of Zoravik’s lead organizers, says he and others were eager to help Medz Bazar reach new audiences because they had long admired their progressive ethos. (The ticket sales for the Boston concert funded the band to continue touring in the US and participate in the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas.)

“It’s a women-led band which takes a ‘cultures without borders’ approach to music-making that really appeals to us,” Arzoumanian said. “Also, several of their original songs tackle social and economic issues and challenge political and cultural boundaries.” Arzoumanian made particular reference to the song “Our Homeland,” a charming, folksy arrangement with piercing French lyrics that criticize the tendency of Diasporans visiting Armenia to view it as a place for partying, yet turn a blind eye to corruption, injustice, and the overall livability of the country.

But for most concert attendees hailing from all over New England, the evening was about entertainment over politics. Andranik Tahmassian drove nearly two hours from Rhode Island to see the band play. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I had seen Sevana [the accordion player and singer] play solo in Providence. I like the way they play. I liked the Armenian songs.”

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In the realm of folk fusion, Medz Bazar is doing things differently. Members of the band often play multiple instruments in a single set, like for example, singer, accordion-player and percussionist Sevana Tchakerian (whose accordion, organizers said, broke right before the performance and was only fixed thanks to an emergency tutorial via Skype from a master luthier in Yerevan.) The band is also unique in their instrumentation, which is more common for jazz ensembles or Balkan music than traditional Armenian folk. Fiddle, upright double-bass and clarinet help create arrangements that are fresh and full, vibrant and evocative.

Like their instruments, Medz Bazar’s musicians are themselves a cluster of diversity—six young people with roots in France, Armenia, Turkey, and the US. Their repertoire reflects this multiculturalism. In addition to traditional Armenian folk songs, they also play songs from Turkey, popular French songs, jazz tunes, and a slew of spunky, tongue-in-cheek originals.

But the intersection of music and ethnicity is always complicated. While appealing to some, the band’s repertoire that evening in Boston left some new listeners confused.

Berge Ara Zobian, the owner of an art gallery in Providence who attended the show in Boston, said this eclecticism was what drew him to Medz Bazar to begin with. Zobian, like many Diasporans, is himself a vision of worldliness—originally from Aleppo, Syria, who grew up in Lebanon and came to the US as an adult. “I just love their talent, their instruments, their multiple languages, traditional songs and music, and their creativity. I love their choreography. I love their outfits and fashion.”

But the intersection of music and ethnicity is always complicated. While appealing to some, the band’s repertoire that evening in Boston left some new listeners confused. “I know it’s a group of young artists, and I don’t want to say anything bad about them, but when you go into an Armenian event, you expect something more Armenian,” emphasized Nora Adoorian, a resident of Burlington, Mass. who came to the United States in 1990 from Armenia. Adoorian was referencing the band’s singing in Turkish, which she felt was inappropriate, given the genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey continues to be denied by the modern Turkish state.

“We’re trying to make a point for so many things because of the genocide…I didn’t understand. I didn’t get it. So I was very frustrated and I just wanted to leave… I’m not that person. I’m not ready for this kind of a thing. Maybe one day, but I don’t know when that will be.”

Adoorian is not the first to voice this type of reaction. In April 2017, the band was asked not to perform at a scheduled event commemorating the Armenian Genocide in Arnouville, France because they refused to omit their Turkish repertoire from the performance. To Diasporan communities so focused on resisting assimilation, the setting of cultural boundaries—i.e. strict rules about what is or isn’t classifiable as Armenian—is important. So it’s easy to see how Collectif Medz Bazar, a band which appears to trapeze over those boundaries, can create such dissonance.

Mardik Merdinian, an Armenian from Istanbul for whom Turkish is a native tongue, has an altogether different perspective. He is also a member of the Zoravik collective and far from disparaging the decision to include Turkish songs, he espouses it. “I think from a perspective of reaching out to broader audiences, I like what they’re doing. I like the humor in the songs, and some of the criticism of the typical Diaspora. I also like the music itself, and the songs, especially the Turkish ones,”—referring to tunes from beloved Turkish troubadours like Mahsuni Sherif and Neshet Ertash—“They chose beautiful songs that will really touch your heart.” For someone like Merdinian, with a foot in both worlds, Medz Bazar is an encouraging example of coexistence.

“Accepting the fact that there are a lot of Armenians who have an emotional connection to an old song like ‘Üsküdar’a gider iken…’ or some other song that they may have heard played in their grandparents’ home at some point is not being a traitor to the cause of genocide recognition.”—Gonca Sönmez-Poole, Turkish filmmaker and concert attendee

Gonca Sönmez-Poole, a Turkish documentary filmmaker and longtime fan of the band, agrees. “Accepting the fact that there are a lot of Armenians who have an emotional connection to an old song like ‘Üsküdar’a gider iken…’ or some other song that they may have heard played in their grandparents’ home at some point is not being a traitor to the cause of genocide recognition.” Sönmez-Poole has dedicated her life to documenting the stories of Armenians through her project Neighbors in Memory and believes education plays a big factor in the Armenian community’s reactions to both her work and Medz Bazar. “I myself had to be educated in order to accept and speak about the truth of the Armenian Genocide, and so I recommend that all Armenians who react to Medz Bazar’s Turkish songs educate themselves about why this group may include Turkish songs in their repertoire.”

The activists at Zoravik stand by the idea that challenging traditional boundaries and “not sweeping the hard issues under the rug” is important. Medz Bazar, they say, “talks about the Armenian Genocide, they critique xenophobia and they denounce narrow minded nationalism. And they do so in a lively, dynamic, and catchy way with their music.” These types of groups bridge an important divide; between individuals with similar goals, but different tongues.

“So much of our history is about being labeled and dealt with bluntly as a mass, not individuals but a lump sum,” said Nersesian. “What I like about Collectif Medz Bazar’s approach is that they remind us that all cultures are individuals connected with lots of other individuals within and across cultures… Yes, this is a very rosy picture I am painting in a very complicated world, but ideals that are good for humanity are also good for us.”

Karine Vann

Karine Vann

Podcast Producer
Karine Vann is a former editor of the Armenian Weekly and host of the paper's monthly podcast. She is a musician who transitioned into journalism while living in the Caucasus for several years. Her bylines have appeared in Smithsonian.com, The New Food Economy, and a number of other publications. She can be reached at karine@armenianweekly.com.
Karine Vann

@karinevann

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26 Comments

  1. This was a great concert. Also, it was very good–and interesting–to see so many different sub-communities from New England at the same concert (and such a broad age range, too). It is interesting indeed that this group is what brought us all together…and on a Monday night! The fact that nearly 300 people showed up underlines the need for dynamic music performances (yes, ones that mix the old and the new, as well as different languages) in our community. I hope they will return to New England soon.

  2. I will curse your forefathers no matter you are Turk or Armenian, any body to address
    historical Armenian Highlands as Eastern Anatolia is a traitor in his essence to Armenians

    • LOL uff relax. “folk sounds of Armenia and greater Anatolia”
      They mostly perform Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian music from the wider region from Thrace and Izmit to Van and Karabagh. No one is (mis/re)labeling the Armenian Highland and even if they do, curse their forefathers? UFFF

  3. This may seem a bit off topic, but I think it’s relevant:

    I have long wondered if Armenians in Hayastan would vacation and work in Azerbaijan just as they vacation and work in Turkey – assuming that Azerbaijan would let them in.

    If we Western Armenians (from the Armenian Highlands/eastern Turkey) are supposed to “forgive and forget” the Genocide of 1915-1923, should those in Hayastan forgive and forget what Azerbaijan has done to Armenians in terms of repression, destruction, massacres, and trying to retake Artsakh and commit genocide there?

    If Western Armenians are supposed to reconcile with Turkey, why doesn’t Armenia do so now and show us how it’s done? Go ahead.

    And why doesn’t Armenia reconcile with Azerbaijan over Artsakh? Go ahead.

    Double standards?

    • Adoorian’s points were very valid. Many of us went to the event, yes expecting a different genre of music, but for the first half an hour we heard 4 or 5 Turkish songs, it was very unpleasant. Hundreds of people poured to the event and many left so early, very disappointed. This event was way far from multiculturalism. And oh, Singers, terrible voices.

    • Did anyone say anything about “forgiving and forgetting” before, during, or after the show? Does the fact that some songs were performed in Turkish imply that the band has one particular message? Why do you assume that you know what that message is, furthermore?

      I do wish people in this community would take a minute to learn about the band and their songs and to contemplate their own reactions before making wide ranging assumptions that often veer into the realm of conspiracy theories.

      Also, if it bothers everyone so much that they sang a few songs in Turkish, what do you make of the fact that when speaking Armenian (that is, if you do speak Armenian) you regularly use Turkish loanwords that have seeped into your language?

  4. Why is the ARF (cloaked as Zoravik), Gulbenkian and the Armenian Weekly forcing this stuff on us? This is the second article in one week.

  5. The music they offer is quite interesting and lively. The socio-political messages is a part of our greater …whether you agree or not. I have a particular problem with the free use of the term “Anatolian”. Call me a Western Armenian, a diasporan or American Armenian…but do not refer to me or my ancestors as “Anatolians”. The Armenians are an indigenous people from their historic highlands. Using this term Anatolians creates the false assumption of this homogenous grouping of people who lived in harmony. The reality is that the Armenians were subjected to institutional discrimination for centuries that degenerated into overt oppression and genocide in the modern era. This term dilutes our historical presence on this homeland and the injustice of the theft of this land as a result of the genocide. It is Western Armenia and we are Armenians.

    • I read those other comments and recognize the confused/pacified mentality regarding our identity. You hit the nail on the head sir, bravo!

  6. Clearly it is full steam ahead for TARC whether grassroots Armenians want it or not. Let’s honor Justin McCarthy, Tal Buenos, Raul Contreras and Pamela Steiner this April, too.

  7. Kudos to Zoravik for making it possible for Collectif Medz Bazar to participate in SXSW in Austin, Texas and for bringing the band to Boston. I want to be challenged by new music and new ideas. Art that pushes the boundaries can entertain us and help us grow and remain vital.

  8. The show is misconceived because Armenians should not be wittingly and willingly promoting Turkish culture while the current Turkish government continues to defile and conceal all traces of Armenian culture even to the point of forbidding taking photos of Armenian ruins. It’s not an even playing field. So while it’s right for Turks to play Armenian music, it’s not okay for Armenians to play or promote or expose anyone to Turkish music, some of which was belly dancing music. How clueless is this generation who are forfeiting our cultural and political integrity in the name of so called diversity.

  9. Nobody here is advocating for forgiving and forgetting. What you saw here was people with a lot of commonalities in their past and present making something good come of that. That can be a cultural taboo, if you let it, if you’re into things like letting the mob tell you right from wrong.

    It was a pleasure to meet every one of the good-hearted, creative people in this band. Good human beings with a positive impact on the people around them, and that’s most of what I care about. I’ll support that every time.

  10. How many “creative projects” such as these — including those that involve cuisine and kumbaya people exchanges are funded by organizations that themselves receive money from invested governmental groups on the USA and Turkey? Many. Have you asked yourselves why? Why focus on building friendship and goodwill on the condition that the genocide and great dispossession not be discussed? If success is achieved there will be no need for reparation and restitution if the Armenians have been neutralized. Gulbenkian partly finds this musical group. Right on their website it says that Gulbenkian finds programs that promote Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. From where is Gulbenkian getting its direction? If the band wants to critique Armenian tourists who spend money in Hayastan to promote the economy there and choose not to do activism work, why not also sing about Turks who still demonize Armenians and attack Hayastantsi tourists who decide to go to Antalya on the Turkish coast?

    • Did you attend the show or meet/talk with the musicians? Doesn’t sound like it.

      Also, it is Zoravik (an organization with NO MONEY) that brought them to the US. It had absolutely nothing to do with the US/Turkish governments.

  11. I would like to see the so-called Reconciliationists concentrate their efforts on reforming the majority of 80 million Turks in Turkey who have been raised to despise and persecute Armenians rather than to concentrate on persuading a peaceful victim group to embrace Turks and a “common culture” — much of which is originally Armenian.

    • You’re the one calling them “reconciliationists”… No one from Zoravik has used that label to define either the group itself or Medz Bazar!

  12. Say, I have an idea:
    Let’s have an Azeri band play at the next Armenian dance either in Los Angeles or NYC.
    They could play and sing “ancient” Azeri tunes from Karabagh which they settled “millennia ago.”
    The dance could be held by either American-born Armenians or Hayastantsis.
    The latter obviously know Azeris a lot better.
    The admission price would be quite steep because you’d have to fly a band over from Azerbaijan if you wanted really quality “ancient” Azeri music.
    Come on, it’s all for “arts” sake and maybe Azeris and Turks would show up and we’d all do “ancient” Azeri Karabagh line dances together.
    What do you all think?
    You could also have a slide show of that ancient Armenian cemetery in Nakhichevan that the Azeri refurbished several years ago.

  13. Yeah, we should be good “Christians” and forgive them because we are certain the big guy in the sky will put them in a boiling cauldron and the little demons would stab them with sharp-tipped tridents.
    Armenians who want to forgive Turkey and the Turks have no such right–legally or morally.
    It’s not they who were slain.
    It’s not they who were raped and plundered.
    It’s not they who died of starvation and thirst, the Turkish bayonet, and the searing heat of the Syrian Desert.
    It’s not they who lost their parents and relatives.
    It’s not they who became orphans in the Middle East and elsewhere.
    It’s not they who begged for bread in foreign and poor countries (the Arab World).
    It’s not they who had to start from zero with no friends or network.
    It’s not they who, despite numerous challenges, survived and raised Armenian families.

    Where do these “reconcialiatonist” get the nerve to forgive anyone? There’s a descriptive phrase for them: “Toulamort Vasags”.

  14. Also, “ARF (cloaked as Zoravik)” couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m sure I’m not the only one that got a little chuckle out of that. Zoravik came about partly in response to the lack of a mechanism in traditional community structures to pursue activism that doesn’t fit the old mold. It involves people of diverse community affiliations and backgrounds. Come join one of our conversations sometime and see—there’s always room for more voices at the table.

  15. Joe, I knew my dad better than you, whoever you are, and know very well he’d take exception to having his name used as a posthumous lever in some political opinion debate. Have the courage and respect to make your own points and not prop up the dead to do so.

  16. Collectif Medz Bazar is a “genre-bending, women-led ensemble comprised of 6 musicians who sing and play urban diaspora music inspired by folk music from Armenia, Turkey and Iran, Caucasian Rabiz, rhythms from Thrace, Venezuelan sounds, hip-hop, jazz and bluegrass.” From day one, this was announced on the event page by Zoravik and that the group plays “urban diasporan music.” Whether Armenian or Turkish, this group is promoting unique art & music to the community. There was so much energy at the concert, about 280 people showed up on a Monday Night. It was an amazing show. Hope to see them again in the USA soon! :)

  17. When initiatives such as these serve the interests of the mainstream (See how progressive we are? Armenians and Turks….together!), their authors are not being “daring,” or “pioneering,” or “avant garde.” Sell-outs who get backing by reconciliationists, yes.

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