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.”
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.”