Armenian music is rich in history, tradition and genre. It can be liturgical music. It can be classical music in both the Western sense or in a traditional Armenian style. And it most certainly can be folk music—Eastern or Western with traditional instrumentation or modern keyboards, guitars and drums. For those of us children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of survivors who migrated to America after the Genocide, Armenian music is rooted in the music those amazing people brought with them. It was the village music that sometimes overlapped with Kurdish, Greek, and, yes, even Turkish music. It has always been our music. Generations of musicians have preserved, perpetuated and evolved this music. Sometimes it is called kef music, others might call it “deghatsi” music and picnic music. To generations of AYFers, it is the soundtrack of dances, parties, the Olympics, and, without too much exaggeration, of our lives.
Musicians often worry about this “deghatsi,” Western Armenian, kef music. Will it last? Will it fade away? Who will take it over? Will they make it better while preserving the core of what makes it so special, that je ne sais quoi that gets into our hearts and souls and ties us to our culture in the most visceral way. I believe it is in my very genetic code, and I know I am not alone in thinking this way.
Well, it does my heart good to report there is nothing to worry about. There is a cadre of young musicians that are equally enticed by and devoted to this music. They are quite talented, versatile and entrepreneurial. They love our music and want to play. They want to entertain and share their gifts and talent. Two of these musicians—Alek Surenian and Sam Sjostedt—just formed a band called Armadi Tsayn, and they are touring Armenia the next two weeks. They recently recorded and released a single, “Artsakh Aghves.” Surenian and Sjostedt are also part of the Norkef Ensemble, which is performing at the upcoming AYF Olympics in Worcester.
I had the virtual pleasure of interviewing the founders of Armadi Tsayn before the start of their tour in Armenia on June 28. As a bonus, I have also included comments from their teachers and mentors.
A.W.: How did you two decide to form this group and why the name Armadi Tsayn?
Alek Surenian and Sam Sjostedt: It started as a pretty vague idea. Once we started having a couple performance opportunities offered to us, we wanted to have a name that would fit what we were doing the best we could. The chemistry between us felt unique, and more like friends playing music than anything else.
We wanted to think of a unique name, and something that connected us to our Armenian identity. Armadi Tsayn, translated to “Sounds/Voice of the Roots” seemed to fit quite well when thinking about what to name the project. We’re always talking about our roots and where we come from, so this name seemed to be a manifestation of that idea.
A.W.: Is it just the two of you?
A.S.: No, most of the time we perform with other musicians and friends. We are always open to bringing in new people and change our sound depending on who enters. For instance, we’ve done most of our performances with Rebecca MacInnes, a Berklee graduate and violinist. She will be accompanying us during our tour in Armenia, as well as Datev Gevorkian on oud and Beck Sjostedt on guitar.
A.W.: How did you meet and decide to collaborate?
S.S.: We met via a connection through the AYF internship. It was friends of friends that brought us together. Once Alek moved to Massachusetts for work, we decided to start working together and bounce ideas and compositions off each other until we found things that really started to work.
A.W.: How did you create, book and otherwise arrange this awesome tour of Armenia?
S.S.: Once things picked up and we established this project more concretely, the idea to perform in Armenia was shared as a possible opportunity for the future. It became reality when Alek’s friend Garin Bedian reached out to us to propose a tour in Syunik province where we would bring the sounds of the Armenian Diaspora to our homeland and breathe new energy into a region which has been combating border incursions and acts of aggression by Azerbaijan. Bedian, originally from Chicago, now lives in Meghri and has been working with us to book venues, contact locals and arrange for shows throughout the country.
AW: What is the tour schedule?
A.S. and S.S.: We will start our tour in Kapan, Lijk and Meghri in Syunik and make our way north to perform in Gyumri and Yerevan.
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A.W.: How are you planning to document this tour?
A.S. and S.S.: We definitely aim to share our travels through the country on social media and encourage locals and diasporan alike to attend our shows.
A.W.: Tell me about the recent single “Artsakh Aghves”…
A.S.: It was a composition that Sam wrote only a few months ago, while reflecting on a lot of the events and tragedy of the war and its effects on the Armenian population as whole. It has a bit of a jumpy and bouncy nature to the song structure, which kind of made me think of the way a fox would hop.
It was composed by Sam, and Mal [Barsamian] and I gave our own flare to it once it was pretty much laid out in full. It was a pretty quick process, going from the brain and then into the studio with it. Usually compositions tend to lay around for months before anything actually happens, but this one just felt right to get it out while the piece was still new and entertaining for us.
A.W.: Are you planning more recordings?
A.S. and S.S.: We’re definitely planning to continue releasing music. Hopefully one or two more singles, and then a full EP release. Whatever feels right to do. After we get back from Armenia, we will spend the rest of our time this summer writing and recording, aiming for some late summer/early fall releases for new music.
A.W.: You guys recently did a concert in Cambridge. Tell us about that…
A.S. and S.S.: It was extremely successful! We hosted it at the Lilypad and had two other local groups from our area, Souq El-Jum3a and The Cypress, also play with us. It was so cool for all of us to see such an insane turn out for this style of music, and people enjoying all aspects of the concert.
A.W.: Alek, how did you get into playing the dumbek?
A.S.: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in a household where music was common, as both my parents played music in their youth. My dad was a drummer, and my mom played the piano. Some of my earliest memories hearing the dumbek was listening to kef music at local events like AYF Midwest Junior Olympics and the madagh picnics in Racine, WI. However, kef music isn’t as popular in the midwest compared to the east coast. When I eventually started going to AYF events east like Camp Haiastan and Junior Seminar during my early teenage years, I was exposed to the music more which got me curious in giving the dumbek a try. I first got one when I was very little to mess around with and decided to revisit it. I began taking lessons in Chicago from Mid East Beat multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Hardy. He set the foundation for me— teaching the basic time signatures and importance of keeping tempo. From there, I took the knowledge he gave me and refined my skills further while also seeking out any events I could play at, particularly with my close family-friend Datev Gevorkian—a fantastic young oud player from Bedford, MA. Over the past few years, we’ve established ourselves as a kef duo playing at many AYF events and recently brought on good friends like Sam and clarinetist Michael Kamalian to create the Norkef Ensemble.
A.W.: What role did your time at Camp Haiastan play in your musical development?
A.S.: Camp Haiastan played a tremendous role because it provided opportunities for me to sit in with amazing musicians like Mal Barsamian, John Berberian, Ron Tuntunjian and Bruce Gigarjian, who would regularly come to perform kef music at the Saturday night dances while I was working as a counselor. It was very much a “learning by doing” atmosphere because they taught me how to play different songs, develop my musicianship and explore the nuances of playing in a full band—all while performing live. I owe a lot to them because they were always supportive and welcoming when I would ask to join. It’s an honor to have them as mentors and continue to play with them today.
A.W.: What is your day job?
A.S.: I’m a footwear designer and majored in product design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I became interested in footwear design because I wanted to combine my passions for sport and art into a career path and have worked at various brands such as Wolverine Worldwide, Timberland, Puma and Clarks.
A.W.: Might music ever become your primary work?
A.S.: No, I don’t see it as something that I would pursue full-time. My career in footwear design is something I worked very hard towards, and I plan to go down this career path for the rest of my life. However, I aim to continue my hobby of playing music outside of my day job as it is a form of escape and therapy for me. It’s a great pleasure to invest in this passion by improving my musical skills, sharing it with good friends, and getting the opportunity to perform at events and explore this new project with Armadi Tsayn.
A.W.: As a designer, can we assume you do the graphics for Armadi Tsayn?
A.S.: So far, yes. I’ve designed a handful of things like the cover art for our new single. The beautiful thing about music is that it’s a multi-faceted art-form where the visual and sonic collide. Having passions for both art and music, it’s really fun to combine and explore both mediums. I regularly work on graphic and apparel design projects outside of my professional work through my own brand as.am or with the AYF.
A.W.: Sam, where are you currently studying?
S.S.: I’m an undergraduate at Berklee College of Music. I study film score and plan on taking a second major in performance as well.
A.W.: What is your primary or first instrument?
S.S.: My primary instrument is the oud now. When I was around 10 to 13 years old, I mainly played drums, and then moved to guitar. I ended up playing mostly in punk, hardcore and rock bands for most of my high school years and even a bit after high school. Once I took up oud though, everything musically seemed to change, and the change was definitely for the better.
A.W.: You have a relatively well-known, if not, famous dad? Can you provide some background information and how he influenced you?
S.S.: When I was born, my dad was signed to A&M Records with his band at the time—Ape Hangers (he was a big motorcycle guy growing up). He had a huge song in the movie “Empire Records,” and that’s what most people know him from. It’s weird to this day that people I meet will fan out over that song and him as a musician. Now, he plays in the Boston-based band Muck and the Mires. His influence on me is honestly bigger than probably any. He introduced me to a lot of cool stuff when I was growing up, from KISS’ “Alive!” to Echo & The Bunnymen’s “Ocean Rain.” These albums had a major influence on me musically, especially hearing them at such a young age. I always had cool music around me growing up.
A.W.: When did you become interested in Armenian music?
S.S.: I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents growing up, especially during summers when my parents would work. They introduced the whole concept of Armenian culture to me. My great aunt shared Armenian music with me, which I found mesmerizing…artists like Artie Barsamian and Udi Hrant. I would see videos as I got older of Richard Hagopian playing the oud and just be absolutely enthralled. As I got older and researched liturgical and folk music, I was really able to get a grasp on the beauty of the music as a whole, rather than something that I just sort of did because it was in my culture. I’m truly fascinated by it and always crave more.
A.W.: The great John Berberian is your oud teacher. Please talk about his influence on your music.
S.S.: Yes, I started playing the oud with John. It started with weekly lessons at his house, but it was one of those things where I went home and played for maybe four to five hours a day, if not more. I have a small studio at my parents’ house, and I would be locked in there for hours on end, listening to different players and just trying to build my ear for the music as I played. John really encouraged me to take it seriously and gave me so much knowledge and a plethora of really cool music that inspired me to attend music school. At Berklee, my oud teacher is Simon Shaheen, who I’ve grown quite close to and share a similar bond with as a teacher and friend. These are two of the most incredible players there are, and I’m forever grateful to be able to spend my time learning from them.
A.W.: I understand you also play the duduk and Mher Mnatsakanyan is your teacher.
S.S.: I started playing duduk during the pandemic. It was one of those things that I bought out of boredom. A friend of mine, Ann Lucas, connected me with Mher, who taught me how to play from the ground up. It was so cool, as I’ve never played a wind instrument before, to fully immerse myself in that side of music. Mher is also the king of duduk. He is just the real deal. I’ve also been lucky enough to study with his father Manvel, who is also an absolutely unbelievable player.
Mal Barsamian played clarinet on “Artsakh Aghves.” As usual, he did an excellent job and added a lot to the recording. I talked to Mal about Sam and Alek’s tour in Armenia. Mal related, “I remember when we used to play at the Camp, and Alek used to join us. I thought he had potential back then. I have not known Sam for as long, but I am very impressed by his playing both on oud, duduk, bass and guitar. It is a great thing they are touring Armenia. I cannot wait to hear all about their experience when they return. I really liked the song ‘Artsakh Aghves’ that Sam wrote and was honored they asked me to play clarinet on the album.”
I also talked to John Berberian to get his perspective on Alek and Sam. He said, “Sam has been my student for two and a half years. His passion for learning was great, and he couldn’t get enough of it. I am so excited for Alek, Sam, Datev, and Rebecca to tour Armenia and get the flavor of our people in the homeland and in turn sharing our music with them.”
Mher Mnatsakanyan is from Armenia. The master duduk player was equally complimentary of the duo and their tour. “These two young individuals are very talented and incredibly enthusiastic. They will do whatever needs to be done to improve and master their knowledge of our music. I once had the chance to play with Alek and Sam. I was very impressed with their eagerness and desire to play our folk music in both Eastern and Western styles.”
Alek’s dad Ara is a good friend. He told me he is very excited about his son’s new project and tour in Armenia. “First, I have known Garin Bedian since he was born and so proud of his move to Meghri. This tour is his idea to bring Armenian American culture and AYF members to parts of Armenia that are not regularly exposed to the diaspora considering the very real possibility that some or all of this region could be lost in the very near future. Second, Datev is my godson and has grown to be an incredibly gifted musician. To see him and Alek start playing together at a young age in the AYF Olympics hotel lobby year after year to now touring Armenia is an incredibly proud moment for me. Finally, I can’t say enough about Alek’s perseverance. He showed an affinity for percussion at a young age. I recall purchasing his first dumbek and sharing with him all my Armenian kef music CDs. He would practice for hours. As he grew older, it became his personal mission to carry on this incredible musical tradition. He is now taking what he learned at home in Chicago to the homeland and sharing it with communities that may have never heard anything like this.”
It’s clear after connecting with Alek and Sam that “our music” is in good hands. Wishing them the best on their exciting tour in the homeland!