This past week, I stumbled upon a page called Vokee on Instagram, which prompted me to view the video they had linked on their account. Upon watching this video, I found myself completely blown away at the work they were doing and needed to get in touch with them.
The masterminds behind the whole operation are Raz and Shaunt Tchakmak, two Armenian brothers who are making shock waves in the Toronto culture scene through their eclectic businesses, and now the equally original, Vokee.
The journey began in December 2017 when Raz, a fan of stopping by record stores and coffee shops in succession, decided to fuse the two components under one roof. With Shaunt now onboard, the concept came to life. And thus, Antikka Café and Records, the brothers’ first business venture, was born. Located in Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood in 2017, the shop has become a staple for the community. Operating to the beat of their own drum, Antikka has become a crucial part of the art scene in Toronto, attracting Armenians and non-Armenians alike to revel in authentic Armenian coffee prepared the traditional way, stellar live music, fresh baklava, cocktails, a diverse record collection and more.
Once the ball began rolling for Antikka, naturally new ideas began to flow, like The Oud & the Fuzz, the first ever Armenian cocktail bar and live music venue. Inspired by the song of the same name by first-generation Armenian oud player from New York City John Berberian, the brothers felt energized by the never-before-done mixing of traditional Armenian music and elements of psychedelic rock and jazz. Similarly, this is what they have done with The Oud & the Fuzz: a congruous merging of the new and the old.
“If you walk into the Oud, at any given night of the week, you might see an Indian tabla player, followed by an Iraqi singer, followed by an Algerian mandolin player,” says Shaunt. (“Followed by an Armenian drag show!” chimes in Raz.) “Yeah, exactly! And you know what? We’ve just found there to be so much harmony between these cultures. More so than we would have ever thought or believed.”
Everything was set. The carefully calculated vision was there. However, about a week before the grand opening, the whole world went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with it, the hard launch of The Oud & the Fuzz came to a halt. Eventually, they were able to set the business in motion, but it wasn’t without its challenges.
“Running a business during this time is like having your business put into a pressure cooker. Some of the difficulties you may face over the course of 15 years are suddenly experienced over the course of two,” says Shaunt. “It was very hard but there was a lot of opportunity in that. We were able to institutionalize ourselves in the city because community members saw firsthand how willing we were to go through all the difficulties that presented themselves to make sure the space is real and that it survives. I think the fact that we are Armenian and resilience is bred into us was something we were able to fall back on.”
Noticing the feedback they were receiving, Raz and Shaunt decided to do something about it. What happened was Vokee, an online cultural platform that echoes the sentiment of both Antikka and The Oud & the Fuzz. It is a “series of episodes encompassing the various aspects of music, culture and art, while simultaneously breaking the barriers that exist between them.”
“Our partner from Vokee, Haig, a professional animator who has worked with many prominent studios in Hollywood, is someone we met through Antikka. He is somebody from day one that took notice of what we were doing,” recalls Shaunt. “I was getting really into deejaying at the same time, and I had a show at a local radio station. Broadcasting and having what we do exist beyond just the physical spaces that we had created was something that became increasingly important to us. We saw value in being able to share what we were doing online and being able to reach more people. Seeing the magic that was being created in the spaces made us want to capture it all. We wanted to put it in a bottle and share it with more people. During the pandemic, Haig made the decision to no longer use his skills in the service industry. He wanted to be working on projects that he was invested in.”
When the three came together, Raz and Shaunt’s vision along with Haig’s technical, production, and animation prowess paved the way for Vokee. That initial conversation took place about 15 months ago, and Vokee is truly beginning to evolve.
“We put out the promotion video, and we’re beginning to roll out content. We are also releasing the first episode of curated jam sessions between musicians that play at our venues in different bands,” explains Raz. “They have never played together before, and in some cases, have never even met each other.”
“We see a lot of synergy between these people so we bring them together into this room and facilitate these completely improvised jam sessions,” says Shaunt. “So the episode will be us planning for the jam session, as well as the session itself, and an interview afterwards.”
“Vokee, in our minds, is going to be a cultural platform and a financially viable business. I think people look at art —in any capacity — as ‘fun’ or a ‘hobby.’ As much as it is those things, this is still our livelihood,” clarifies Raz. “Vokee is a way for people who haven’t been to our spaces in Toronto to connect to it.”
That kind of safe space was initially created in person, and is now making its way online. Through it all, however, both Raz and Shaunt have never forgotten their roots. And it shows. Whether it be through serving Armenian food or Armenian-themed cocktails, their work is an homage to their culture – whether it be consciously or unconsciously.
“That was never the plan,” says Raz, regarding the Armenian themes of their businesses. “It’s part of who we are, so through anything that we do, it naturally seeps out. Growing up, we went to Armenian school in Toronto and we are very tied to our culture. No matter what project we decide to take on, whether it be Antikka, the Oud, or Vokee…any project that we do after, us being Armenian will always be a part of it.”
“What we found very quickly, there were definitely Armenian elements to it but it wasn’t as strong as it is today. And to an extent, the intention was definitely to appeal to the masses. But what we realized very quickly was that one’s ability to reach the masses has everything to do with you being yourself,” says Shaunt. “We are Armenian and if we tried to deny that in any shape or form, if we tried to create a business that wasn’t Armenian, it wouldn’t be honest…it simply wouldn’t be true. My relationship with being Armenian and my relationship with the culture was through this lens of what being Armenian is. When I lived in Armenia, I was able to break that down and recognize that being Armenian is a part of my daily life. It’s not something that I choose; it’s not something that I can never not be. It was a surrender to that idea.”
Despite the brothers honoring their own heritage through the café and the bar, many other ethnic groups have connected with their vision. Because of Toronto’s diverse nature, the supporters of the businesses are equally as diverse. To Raz and Shaunt, this has a great deal to do with the similar journeys we have faced. The struggles we have faced are similar to those of communities that understand the underlying pain and generational trauma that sticks with us throughout the course of our lives. And the popular idea remains: the struggle was set to song, an idea the brothers conceptualized.
“We’ll have an Indian duo playing tabla and guitar, and we’ll hear these melodies and rhythms that remind us of home. We feel a sense of comfort with these sounds. Same with jazz, hip-hop, and funk,” voices Shaunt. “When you listen to these genres, you recognize that this music has come from struggle and as Armenians, we understand struggle. There’s a lot more connection there than we ever thought and as soon as we were exposed to that, we just wanted to explore more of it.”
And that same struggle eventually became the genesis of beauty. Nevertheless, there will always be people who underestimate the multitude of possibilities that exist within the art world. Though their intentions usually come from a good place, the days of art not being a “stable job” are over, as evidenced by Raz and Shaunt. At the end of the day, this is an unfair expectation to set, especially on the younger generation who, in this day and age, commonly have the resources to make art and still possess a regular income. Creators like Raz and Shaunt are creating the spaces necessary to support young Armenian artists.
“As Armenians, we are very quick to talk about what we had in the past. We’re very quick to touch on the prominent musicians, artists, and poets that we had, whether it be Sayat Nova or Daniel Varoujan, but we’re not quick to talk about the people that we have now. The only way for that to get established is if more Armenians pick up an instrument or a pen and dive into that world more,” observes Raz. “We need more of that. Being Armenian, you get bombarded with so much culture and history that dates back thousands of years that needs to be preserved but has to be taken forward as well. We need to start thinking more progressively as a people and be accepting of more radical ideas because that is the only way to push our culture forward.”
“For me, it’s important to recognize where you’ve come from in order to recognize how to move forward. In our culture, frowning upon creative jobs is pretty common. But you have to ask yourself: why is that the case? In a lot of ways, any humans, any people that come from struggle…when you’ve come so close to losing it all, you’re going to want — instinctively, as a human being — to create as much safety and security as possible to avoid being in that situation again. It’s a natural response to any sort of struggle and it’s important to recognize that we’re not in that state as a people anymore. It’s okay to heal and to do things that are different,” notes Shaunt. “Armenians come from a long line of artists and we have it in us and we must tap into that. If you look at art in general, the art that people love the most, it comes from people who have struggled a lot. When you have the ability to see pain, to a certain degree, I think that you have the same ability to see beauty to that same degree. As people who understand struggle, I feel that we have a responsibility to also show how much we understand beauty and not be scared of that.”
Ultimately, the work the brothers are doing is amazing for our community. Armenian-owned businesses and cultural platforms make a powerful difference for us as Armenians, as they allow us to marvel in the beauty of what we had and what we are creating. Supporting the work our modern-day artists are doing will pave the way to the next artistic masters and intellectuals that we will one day regard as illustrious.
“Up until the very young, current generation of Armenians, pursuing something creative was actually really difficult because you were literally worried about your immediate safety. I think we are at a point where we don’t have to, but I think what young Armenians need to realize is that they don’t need to feel guilty for not being in that mindset,” concludes Shaunt. “Don’t be guilty for pursuing what you love because your parents couldn’t. Make that struggle mean something. Let the fact that your parents couldn’t do it be the reason why you do it, not why you don’t. At the end of the day, all the older generation wants for the younger generation is for them to be happy and for them to do what they love.”