Young Diasporan Armenians Keeping Culture Alive One Song at a Time

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By Taleen Babayan

TORONTO — Ten bold, black letters of the Armenian alphabet are etched across Razmik Tchakmakian’s left upper arm, the letters comprising a powerful word that has been central to the plight of Armenians and significant to our endurance as a people. Veradznoont: rebirth. Above it rests a symbol of Armenian survival, Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial, with a flame emerging from the steel slabs.

Though born thousands of miles away from the monument and his homeland, Tchakmakian and his two childhood friends, Sevag Titizian and Sevag Haroutunian’s submerged patriotism is not only skin-deep, but entrenched in their hearts. So much so that these former Armenian school classmates decided to parlay their individual passion for music and become part of an Armenian band to continue the musical traditions of our culturally rich past.

Pyunik, which means “phoenix” in Armenian, pays homage to the lineage of talented Armenian musicians and singers who have helped sustain the unique melodies and compositions of Armenian musical traditions.

“It was kind of like a young band rising out of the ashes of those artists before us,” said Tchakmakian.

Playing everything from covers of Harout Pamboukjian’s patriotic tunes to Tata’s crowd pleasers, Pyunik seeks to entertain and enliven the spirit of Armenian “kef,” no matter what the occasion.

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Formed in 2006 by Haroutunian, the group had its beginnings at St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Toronto, under the auspices of Fr. Meghrig Parikian, where the group would practice in the church’s hall. Although the group has shifted its members over time, it has found a successful harmony among its current members, who have all been musically inclined since childhood.

While Haroutunian, 25, Titizian, 25, and Tchakmakian, 23 brought a range of talents to the band, each grew up with an appreciation and emphasis placed on music and the arts in their households.

Playing the violin at the age of 9, Haroutunian switched to piano when his older brother brought a keyboard home one day. He soon began taking private lessons with teachers who were experienced in jazz, classical music and the Divine Liturgy.

Veering more towards percussion, Tchakmakian started playing the drums at 10 and picked up the dhol and dumbeg over the years. Titizian, who is on vocals for Pyunik, also plays the piano and drums.

The band members’ musical influences also show diversity, which add to their originality as a group.

As a vocalist, Titizian has been heavily influenced by singers as diverse as Paul Baghdadlian, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Frank Sinatra.

“Armenian music has been a big influence in my life,” said Tchakmakian, who cites Harout Pamboukjian and Rouben Hakhverdyan as singers who have inspired him. “But rock music and classic rock have also played a significant role.”

Haroutunian’s musical interests also span genres and include French-Armenian favorite Charles Aznavour, Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook and the American heavy metal band Metallica.

“They all paint different colors in my palette which allows for interpretation and usage of elements from each type of genre,” said Haroutunian.

“Armenian music is close to my heart,” said Haroutunian, who sang in the ARS Armenian School of Toronto’s school choir and church choir. “And we believe that young people around our age need to listen and dance to more Armenian tunes.”

Tchakmakian echoes Haroutunian’s words and though he has played in rock music bands, he says Armenian music, “is our own and the younger generation has to carry it on.”

Pyunik, which has steadily been making a name for itself over the years, has performed at a plethora of Armenian events both in Canada and in the US, including the AYF Olympics in Chicago, Montreal’s Kermese and Toronto’s Winterfest. Their most recent performance was on the Armenian Heritage Cruise earlier this year, which displayed their talents to a wider audience.

“Performing on the cruise was great,” said Tchakmakian. “There’s a cultural aspect that people may not have access to in their own communities.”

“It was a different dynamic to perform for people from all over the world,” said Titizian. “The vibe was great and it was nice to see everyone having a great time.”

The band would like to continue performing, writing more of their own music and eventually putting out an album. In the meantime, they are focused on their professions and their own independent projects, in which the childhood friends support each other’s creative endeavors, such as Titizian’s recently released Du Im Sern Es, a contemporary Armenian song with an energetic dance beat. Haroutunian composed the musical arrangements and Tchakmakian makes a cameo in the music video, which was shot on location in downtown Toronto. The song, written by Titizian, has already reached over 10,000 hits on YouTube. Tchakmakian’s YouTube channel, “Chaks Drums,” in which he covers popular songs, has already had more than 7,000 views in its short history.

“We are all children of a great community and an even greater culture who have lots to offer to the world,” said Haroutunian.

Their devotion to Armenian music brought them together. The commitment to their culture will keep them connected for years to come.

“All of us have the same passion of being Armenian and supporting Armenian causes,” said Titizian. “We are trying to keep our culture alive. If we don’t do it who will?”

 

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