Bringing the Sounds of the Diaspora Home

Armadi Tsayn in Lijk (Photo: Garin Bedian)

I was grateful and fortunate to participate in a music tour this summer spanning across various cities and villages in Armenia with Armadi Tsayn, a contemporary folk ensemble recreating the sounds heard throughout the Armenian highlands, as well as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The goal of this tour, which was originally proposed by my good friend Garin Bedian, would be to bring the sounds of the Armenian Diaspora to our homeland and breathe new energy into a region (specifically Syunik) which has been combating border incursions and acts of aggression by Azerbaijan. Given this tour would be the first of its kind, we were eager and excited to begin this journey. The months leading up to our trip were spent rehearsing and discussing logistics (tour schedule and venues). 

My bandmates included Datev Gevorkian (oud), Sam Sjostedt (oud), Rebecca MacInnes (violin) and Beck Sjostedt (guitar). I play the dumbeg. A handful of us had been to Armenia before, but this was a first for others. Our group’s setlist included traditional kef music, contemporary folk covers and original compositions with the goal of providing a breadth of various styles and sounds from Western Armenia, the diaspora and other MENA countries. The journey took place over a two-week period, traveling first through Syunik and then returning to Yerevan.

Our journey started bright and early in Yerevan on Tuesday, June 28. We packed our gear and set off to our first tour stop in Kapan. As we began our five-hour journey with a towering Mt. Ararat in view, we drove through the rolling hills of the provinces of Ararat and Vayots Dzor to the mountainous roads of Syunik. Having not visited Armenia since 2017, the landscapes reminded me how breathtaking and gorgeous our nation is. As we began to climb through the mountains, we stopped at Datev Monastery to explore and take in the view. As we entered Kapan, we drove past the municipal airport next to the occupied border of Artsakh and noticed Azeri flags hoisted along the mountain ranges. This scene was a grim reminder of the current situation in the region and why Artsakh’s importance was so integral.

This was my first time in Kapan, the provincial capital of Syunik built on the slopes of Mount Khustup along the Voghji River. The city is extremely narrow and long due to the geography. After settling into a Soviet-era hotel, we drove to the cultural center at the local hrabarag and played our first set—a strong start for our band. The locals were intrigued by how different our music sounded. Despite this, they enjoyed our performance. 

Armadi Tsayn performs in Kapan (Video credit: Areg Grigorian)

The following day, we drove an hour southwest to Lijk—a village in the Meghri municipality near the border of Nakhichevan. This was the most authentic version of Armenia you could see and experience. The town is a reminder of what life is like outside of the major cities, where agricultural work and farming are the dominant sources of income. It’s a simple and modest environment where the locals work hard to get by. Our trip to Lijk was the most humbling moment for us all and reminded us why we came to Armenia in the first place. 

We arrived late in the morning and introduced ourselves to the village head before stepping into the town hall to prepare for the evening gig. After rehearsals and sound checks, we went on an excursion to the nearby waterfalls. We walked through a forest canyon as sunlight pierced through the leaves onto us. When we arrived at the waterfalls and took in the view, a few members from our group got into the water to cool off. It reminded me of the forests of Dilijan. 

Datev at the Lijk Waterfalls (Photo: Alek Surenian)

After our excursion, we drove to a house that’s undergoing renovations; Garin told us the plan is for him to move in once renovations are complete. Garin repatriated to Armenia in 2020 from Chicago—our hometown. Since repatriating, he has made an active effort to improve and support villages and cities in Syunik. After living in Meghri for the past year, he will be moving to Lijk soon. We met some of the builders he’s employed who were busy preparing an authentic khorovadz dinner for us. We sat at a table with a full spread of meat, salads, grilled vegetables and lavash. We enjoyed each other’s company and toasted to new friends. It was one of the best meals I’ve had. Seriously, I’ve never had pork that good before! 

Alek Surenian presents a gift to the village head of Lijk (Photo: Garin Bedian)

Satiated, we headed back to the town hall to perform. As locals began to convene, a company of soldiers from the nearby army base also arrived to attend the show. Most of these soldiers were young men between the ages of 18 to 20. I met with the captain and thanked him and his men for coming to listen to us. The performance that followed from our group was arguably the most memorable. The hall was a packed house as locals clapped and cheered for us from one song to the next. The energy felt great, and everyone enjoyed the music. After concluding our performance, an elderly woman approached our group and said, “The walls of this hall have missed the sound of music,” as the space hadn’t been used since 2015. That moment was a defining memory of the trip and justified why this music tour mattered. We provided something positive to an area which continues to face hardship and difficulty during this unprecedented geopolitical time in our nation’s history. We then congregated with various members of the community for a short coffee hour and presented a gift to the village head with our gratitude for their kindness and hospitality. The community unanimously expressed that we were always welcome back in the future. We ended that night traveling back to Kapan, tired but very proud of our achievements.

Armadi Tsayn performs in Lijk (Video credit: Areg Grigorian)

Armadi Tsayn at the Lijk Town Hall (Photo: Garin Bedian)

Our third day in Syunik was spent packing up for the journey back to Yerevan with a stop in Goris for our final performance in the region. The final show was arranged rather quickly, as we had originally planned to perform in Meghri, which logistically turned out to be impossible. The planning was in collaboration with AYF Australia, which was running a Youth Corps program in the region. We arrived at the agoump to greet the Australians and rehearse. During down time, I walked around nearby and found a cemetery under construction for soldiers who died in the 2020 Artsakh War. It was once again a moment of reflection about the reality of our homeland’s current state and the amount of work that needs to be done to protect our nation. 

A park in Goris near the agoump (Photo: Alek Surenian)

We arranged a show at the hrabarag for the children and locals. During our outdoor performance, I took in the gorgeous scenery of Goris. The mountains in the distance were beautiful, and the city was very clean and well-maintained. If you ever go to Syunik, visit Goris. We rounded out our performances in Syunik with a successful final show and spent the evening driving back to Yerevan. 

Armadi Tsayn performs in Goris (Video credit: Garin Bedian)

Our final two shows were in Yerevan, one at the Yerevan Conservatory and the other at a bar called Bak75. Both were a success, with many diasporans and locals alike attending. Between performances, we explored the city, arranged some excursions and enjoyed the night life.

Armadi Tsayn performs at Bak75 (Video credit: Arpi Khatchaturian)

Armadi Tsayn performs at the Yerevan Conservatory (Video credit: Sona Gevorkian)

Since my return back to Boston, I have been reflecting on our trip and thinking about the Armenian people. An Armenian is strong but broken, bitter but hopeful, proud but wary. Being Armenian is complex and unique, as our people have endured and continue to face intergenerational trauma from one սերունդ to the next. Given the uncertainty of where our nation is headed, each Armenian should take the initiative to make Armenia the best version of itself. We should all make an effort to be the difference we perpetuate and strive for, because there are many performative elements within our community that don’t garner any concrete change. If you really want to make a difference, then you should work for it. Going to a protest and posting on social media is one thing, but directly visiting communities and using your skills to improve the situation speaks volumes. Our band set out to the homeland with that in mind in order to make a difference through the power of music.

I’m grateful I was part of this unique experience with good friends and achieved the goal we set out to do. On behalf of the group, we sincerely thank Garin Bedian for all his help organizing and community members in Kapan, Lijk, Goris and Yerevan for their support and cooperation. We hope this tour will inspire other musical groups in the diaspora to perform in the homeland and enliven our people who continue to endure tremendous difficulties. Go to Armenia. Go to Artsakh. Go to your homeland.

As I conclude my thoughts on this trip, I have invited my bandmates to share their brief comments about their experiences.

Armadi Tsayn at the Yerevan Conservatory (Photo: Sona Gevorkian)

“It was definitely a unique experience, and I think we all learned a lot on what it means to be a band and how to perform for many different audiences at many different functions. It was great to see smiles on people’s faces when they heard our music. Especially in the villages where live music is rarely played.” — Datev Gevorkian

“Touring Armenia was truly one of the most beautiful things I have done in my life. Being able to go to villages like Lijk and perform is one of those events that feels so special; it almost changes your life forever. To see the appreciation and enjoyment of people in the country and to be able to have shared something so special and close to us with them not only bridges the gap between us as diasporans and locals, but binds us together as human beings on a fundamental level. Especially after being generations away from the country where my great grandparents resided, it’s so important for us to share with them our experiences as a culture, just as they do with us.” — Sam Sjostedt 

“The tour was amazing. The locals’ generosity and hospitality really touched me. Everyone seemed to like the music, both familiar tunes and new, so overall it was a great experience, and I am grateful to have been a part of it.” — Beck Sjostedt

Alek Surenian

Alek Surenian

Alek Surenian is originally from Chicago and currently resides in the Boston area. He’s an active member of the AYF Eastern Region on a local and regional level; serving on the Public Relations Council designing graphics for AYF-ER social media platforms. He graduated in 2019 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in Product Design and professionally works as a footwear designer.

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