A Conversation with Collectif Medz Bazar’s Sevana Tchakerian: Music that Transcends Borders

Katherine Berjikian
I met Sevana Tchakerian a couple times before I got the opportunity to interview her.
I had been in Armenia for a couple days and out of boredom I went with a couple friends to a fancy, kind of tourist café. Half way through the meal, Sevana and a person I never really caught the name of, sat down.  After a little while, kind of out of boredom, I stood up to make my round of kisses and leave. However, Sevana stopped me before I left, and insisted on talking to me about my outfit.
She told me I dressed like I was from Paris, and that she thought I was an Armenian from France, not America. The American in me took this as a complement and I thanked her and left. That night my friend told me that Sevana was kind of a rock star and was really nice. I believed them about the really nice part, but I wasn’t so sure about the rock star part. It just seemed unlikely that you would causally meet a rock star and that person would have several acquaintances with you. Armenia really couldn’t be that small.
It wasn’t till a couple weeks later that I found out that Sevana was part of a band called Collectif Medz Bazar. A band that I really liked in the States. Sevana was really a rock star.
It wasn’t till a week later that I found the courage to ask Sevana if I could interview her. She agreed right away, and we decided to meet up that afternoon in that same café. During that time, we talked about her involvement in the Collectif Medz Bazar, and her work in early music education and music therapy.
Before I go any further, I should quickly describe Collectif Medz Bazar, and their casual fame in the diaspora. While I wouldn’t describe Collectif Medz Bazar as famous, they do kind of hold a niche place in the Armenian hipster world. In the past couple years, they have flown around the world to perform for college age diasporan Armenians. While Armenian young people comprise the majority of their fans, the band itself is quite diverse.  Their members come from a variety of backgrounds, including French, Armenian, Turkish and American all of whom either grew up in France or moved there to study
According to Sevana, when the members of the band first met, they did not intend to create Collectif Medz Bazar. The Armenian members were lifelong friends, from their childhood. So they, at the very least had a familiar connection. However, the other members met later. Some of the Armenian members met the Turkish members in their university. From there, it seems, the creation of Collectif Medz Bazar was kind of one of life’s coincidences, Sevana told me.
“We decided to do one concert. One little jam session opening for a special event. We didn’t think that we were going to be a band. We just decided on one day, in 2012, to do our versions of five six traditional songs. So everyone one wrote a song that they liked in Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic, different languages…And we did this event, and it went very well. So we decided to see each other again and it started to become bigger and more serious. And it became semi-professional. We did not have that motivation at first.”
The band frequently focuses on themes regarding the Armenian community, but not always. For example, while the song Our Country relates about Armenians in the diaspora’s kind of blasé attitude when it comes to Armenia, and ‘Ariur Ar ‘Ariur, a song about Armenian diaspora youth losing their culture, the members of the group are not all Armenian. The band’s title is a reflection of this multi-ethnic Middle Eastern band. Medz means large in Armenian, Bazar referencing to Middle Eastern shopping areas, and the Collectif, French word for collective, is a way to combine all three of these cultures.
The band itself, which focuses on exploring its members’ various identities, is a kind of platform in which each ethnicity has their own voice. Sevana explained this in the interview.
“I think it was just to find a platform where everyone could bring their own favorite songs and their own culture because we are all from different cultures. Take me for example. My mom is from Iran and my dad is from Lebanon. So I also like Persian and Arabic songs. The Turks are from different regions. So they have their own traditions and cultural heritage. And we just wanted to create this platform where everyone brings their own thing, and we tried to make something global and give a voice to everyone. To collaborate and arrange the songs together.”
Many of the songs performed by Collectif Medz Bazar are written and performed in different languages. And some of the songs, like Dolama for example, a re-imagining of a traditional Turkish song, is sung entirely in Turkish. This is part of the uniqueness of Medz Bazar -  their desire to incorporate their members’ identities.
By listening to Collectif Medz Bazar’s album you get a brief glimpse of the Caucuses and the many different cultures that live there. This can be seen in a story Sevana told during the interview about one of the band’s Turkish members.
“For instance, we were having a conversation with one of the Turkish members a few months ago and they told me that before Medz Bazar they didn’t know anything about Armenian culture. And now, they say that I know a lot of songs because everyone sings together.”
One of the things you notice when listening to Collectif Medz Bazar’s songs is that all the members sing regardless of the language. When I first listened to Medz Bazar, I thought it was because they all knew the same languages, and that all of their members were Armenian with some proficiency in Turkish. But in fact, this is not true. Their common language is French, not Armenian. During the interview, Sevana explained how this process works while writing and recording songs. “When we bring a song that’s a traditional song we explain the lyrics then we teach everyone how to sing it so that everyone can at least sing the choruses together. Everyone can sing on stage.”
Collectif Medz Bazar, however, appears to be currently focused on the Armenian diasporan community. One of their songs called Our Country (Notre  French), written and performed by Sevana, was released during the summer and targets the French-Armenian community’s attitude to present-day Armenia. The song is about the Armenians from the diaspora coming to Armenia to vacation for the summer and then returning to their original countries, all while ignoring the corruption in Armenia.
The songs include lines like ‘Our homeland is the best holiday resort!’ and ‘Diaspora, Armenia, together we can advance. Our homeland is worth much more than a holiday resort.’
While the song is for the Armenian community, it is sung in French. When I asked Sevana why she chose to write a political song about Armenia in French she responded, “I was kind of revolted living in France and knowing that no one cares really. The Armenian diaspora in France are like ‘ohh, the genocide blah blah blah.’ Hating Turks and just fighting for genocide. And they don’t really know what’s going on here. They think it’s just and old soviet country. They will go. People just come here for holidays…So that’s what I wanted to talk about. Because when I wrote that, I already made up my mind to come and live here in Armenia. And I’ve been coming back and forth living here. I wanted to give my point of view. People sometimes have this idea of an Armenia that is very limited. And why did I write it in French? Maybe because I wanted it to be for the French Armenian people.”
While the band has existed for many years, and was gaining considerable fame abroad, one of the things that launched them to their current notoriety was the 2014 Tsovits Tsov (Sea to Sea) competition. This was an international eventin which contestants from all around the world participated. The Tsovits Tsov competition had a YouTube channel where they showed music videos of bands performing songs in Armenian. Medz Bazar performed with their song Ariur Ar ‘Ariur, which is about the Armenian diaspora losing its culture. While they did not win, they did get to the finals. This meant that they performed in Moscow with several other Armenian diasporan bands.
Today, the members of the band are spread out around the world. For example, Sevana lives in Armenia and another member of the band lives in Portugal. While the members of the band are spread out, this has not stopped them from writing and performing songs. Right now the band is working on its second album which will include their first song written in Turkish and English. The band will perform in Los Angeles on April 2 [2016] at USC.
While the band has gained success internationally, and is currently attracting a broader fan base, Sevana has stayed in Armenia. True to the criticisms in her song Our Country, Sevana came to Armenia and has tried to make her small but important contribution to the country.
While in France, Sevana was running a music school specialized in pre-school music education. When she came to Armenia, she discovered that there is very little focus on music education in the Armenian pre-schools. Thus, she decided to co-create an NGO that focuses on early development music education.
“I came here two years ago and did some research. I understood that there is nothing like that. No curriculum, and no schools, and the teachers don’t know anything about pre-school education and music therapy. Music therapy is very sporadic here and very vague,” Sevana told me.
Sevana then contacted the Children of Armenia Fund and started a pilot program to educate teachers in Armenia about early music education and therapy. Her goal was to not only work with the children in the villages, but to also educate teachers on how to teach this specific curriculum so that they can continue early music education after she left. To reach this goal, Sevana helped create the Tsap-Tsapik Music Education foundation, an NGO that is trying to educate teachers on how teach music education and music therapy.
When I asked her about the condition of the schools and the future of the school system in Armenia, Sevana said that she was optimistic, but that support in this regard would mostly come from the diasporan community, and not from the current Armenian education system. She stated that NGOs and initiatives like Ayb School could spearhead the future of the Armenian education system. However, if there is a fault with the education system in Armenia, it is not the children who are the problem.
“I really like working here. I think the kids here, compared to France, are much more focused, and are much more respectful and eager to learn. So it’s more productive working with kids here.”

"Hetq," March 25, 2016 (http://hetq.am/eng/news/66727/a-conversation-with-collectif-medz-bazars-sevana-tchakerian-music-that-transcends-borders.html/)

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