YEREVAN—The Armenian capital played host to two festivals of a very different nature last weekend. On Saryan Street, visitors in the tens of thousands attended the third annual “Yerevan Wine Days,” while in the natural gorge below, the city’s alternative crowd moved to computer-generated rhythms at the first ever Urvakan electronic dance music (EDM) festival.
Saryan Street was temporarily pedestrianized on a 650m (2100 ft) stretch between the Pushkin and Sayat Nova intersections. Booths with winery logos, barbecue grills and wine boxes lined the curb. Visitors who purchased the 600 AMD ($12) ‘wine pass’ which included a glass and a coupon book could sample from 200 varieties. The coupons entitled guests to a free glass of wine from participating vendors as well as 20 percent discounts on street food.
Outdoor grills filled the air with the enticing smell of Armenia’s signature barbecue: khorovats. The sound of music coming from stages set up on opposing sides of the venue provided a festive mood. Live performances by the likes of Chicago-born jazz trumpeter Gapo, competed with the sounds of folkloric dance troupes and local rock bands on other stages.
The South Caucasus is generally accepted to be the cradle of wine. However, Soviet collectivization did much to ravage the country’s distinctive wine-making tradition by destroying native grape varieties. The appearance of world-class wine brands over the past decade has done much to revive interest in wine.
Saryan Street, once a quiet out-of-the-way alley, owes much of its recent gentrification to the revival of Armenian wine culture. The neighborhood is now home to at least seven wine bars, anchored by several trendy restaurants, clubs and eateries. While the festival took up a much more significant chunk of the street than previous years, crowds numbering in the tens of thousands filled the space to the brim.
An older German couple, who had just arrived in Yerevan for their first visit, expressed their amazement at the sophistication of Armenian wine, commenting “This is a far-cry from Rhineland wine!”
Freely mingling with wine vendors and Yerevantsis were Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, wife Anna Hakobyan, his Deputy, Ararat Mirzoyan, as well as various ministers and members of Parliament from all three parties.
Just below in the Hrazdan Gorge, party-goers cut from a different cloth flocked to the Children’s Railway, a Soviet-era amusement park which includes a working miniature railway line, for the Urvakan electronic music festival.
The gathering, which promised to be the first international festival exploring contemporary culture and new musical forms, took place across venues scattered on the tracks of Yerevan’s Children’s Railway.
The name “Urvakan,” which means ‘ghost’ in Armenian reflects the organizers’ vision of revitalizing ‘dead‘ and abandoned spaces across Yerevan by turning them into venues for cultural and artistic expression. For them, this event is only the first step.
The festival lineup featured over 100 DJs and musicians from Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, the US, Germany, Estonia, Italy and even Uzbekistan, spread across four stages respectively named Kayaran (station), Tunnel, Wagon and Dambaran (Mausoleum). Other festival locations included the Mirzoyan Library and the Philharmonic Hall.
Heavy rains on Saturday could not dampen spirits. Ravers from all across Armenia and Eastern Europe flocked to the stages in the thousands. Their neon-colored vintage attire covered in ponchos, raincoats and even plastic bags created an amusing scene as concert-goers danced to the experimental beats. Yelena Balabanova, a 20-something EDM enthusiast from Saint-Petersburg, told the Armenian Weekly that she was in Yerevan that weekend to witness Yerevan’s burgeoning EDM scene for herself before it became too popular. “The rain won’t stop me,” she said.
The South Caucasus is quickly gaining international recognition for its distinctive electronic music sound. The Georgian capital of Tbilisi is famous for its underground clubs and outdoor EDM festivals and regularly gets touted as “the Next Berlin.” But Yerevan is quickly catching up.
In recent years, the city’s abandoned factories, once the pride of Soviet manufacturing, have become regular hosts for raves and alternative music festivals. Like in neighboring Georgia, much of the energy of this subculture stems from the liberating desire for young people to blow off steam in an environment characterized by constant uncertainty.
In this context, Urvakan signifies a coming of age for Yerevan’s young but increasingly confident rave scene. However, organizers say they want to go beyond electronica, encouraging visitors to explore other forms of artistic expression. In between the stages, party-goers were browsing through the Mirzoyan Library’s impressive archive of Soviet-era photographs depicting the everyday life of a forgotten socialist utopia. Creases and corners along with the space had been turned into a live exhibit for experimental, interactive art.
With these pair of festivals exploring the country’s native wine and electronic music cultures, Yerevan is well on its way to international recognition as a must-visit destination.