Sevana Tchakerian, in the background, and other musicians and students cheer on a young performer.

Sevana Tchakerian Is Fighting Back With Her Only Weapon: Music

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YEREVAN — For repatriate Armenian folk singer and musician Sevana Tchakerian, as soon as the war broke out in Artsakh, she knew all of her plans would change. The Paris-born musical artist and leading member of the avant-garde folk group Collectif Medz Bazar has been living in Armenia since 2015. She was visiting her family in Paris when Covid-19 broke out, and made the best of her time there this past spring and summer by creating an entertaining cooking-and-music video series on social media with her mother Alenoush, titled “Agh oo Hats – Doone Gats” (Salt and Bread – Stay at Home). When restrictions were lifted, Sevana was overjoyed to return to Armenia. But scarcely after her return, the war broke out.

Four years ago, Tchakerian helped a group of friends, including executive director Anna Mikaelian, to open a music and arts center in Yerevan called Nexus Center for the Arts. (https://www.nexuscenterarts.com/ )

Young musicians performing at the Nexus Center

She worked there for a year and a half creating curriculum for preschool and elementary school kids. When her performance and touring schedule increased, she had less time to teach and she stepped out of her role at the Nexus Center. But upon her recent return to Armenia, she began setting up shop again at the Center and planning for new programs. Then Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh, and thousands of refugees from the region – mainly women and children – began pouring into Yerevan.

“I told Anna, the director, we have to do something,” Tchakerian says. “What can we do? Should we record music, should we write music? Ok, maybe we should open up the doors of the school and have music and arts workshops.”

Workshops, that is, for the thousands of Artsakh kids now in taking refuge in Yerevan, deprived of education and certainly of any kind of arts and music education. Sevana went Live on Facebook as she herself says, “in a very spontaneous way” to announce the initiative. In her message, which was posted in both Armenian and English, and directed at her worldwide following in addition to friends in Yerevan, she stated that “we are not able to go and fight, but our weapon that we have here with us is music and art.” She further issued a call to musicians living in Yerevan willing to volunteer for this special effort, and asked for donations from the Diaspora to help run the instantly-expanded program.

Sevana Tchakerian and a young student

The result was the rapidly organized “Nexus for Artsakh” program, which has Tchakerian as co-director along with Mikaelian, who still runs the Nexus Center on a daily basis. The idea of the program, as Tchakerian says, is that “there is a war on the front lines, there are attacks on the civilian population, there is a war in the media, online. But we have to take care of the people who are now in Armenia who are temporarily displaced, and what we can do best, personally, is music education, art education, and kind of bring a sense of normality to these kids’ lives. Because they grew up in war – they live in a war zone, you know? So what can we do to take their minds off a little bit?”

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She continues, “at the same time we want to bring musical and artistic relief to everyone, but we also know that there are lot of musician kids, who are musically gifted, who had a musical education, who were playing instruments — we keep on meeting them, and they are … everything stopped for them. They don’t have anything. They don’t have, of course, their instruments. So we’re thinking of, how can we keep on giving them an education and make them evolve and use also their voices to transmit certain messages.”

Sevana Tchakerian performing

Her initial idea of hosting workshops at the Nexus Center building in Yerevan was almost immediately modified. Most of the displaced Karabakh refugees are living in hotels and church-run shelters that have opened their doors. “We realized … a lot of hotels told us, it’s difficult for us to bring them to your center, can you come and meet them in our hotels, shelters?”

The needs were immediate and the work started right away.

“So starting from the day that we announced this initiative, the next day we started meeting kids, I think we met like 30 kids, and then another 30, and then another 50, we went to different places – church organizations were sheltering kids; hotels were completely booked with families from Artsakh. So for a week we did that, and then I got called by the region of Tavush,” Tchakerian said.

Sevana Tchakerian and young students

She was informed by representatives of the Tavush regional government that her music programming was needed not only in Yerevan but also in the provinces. She took her music program on the road: “So with a team of musicians, psychologists and artists, we went to Dilijan and then I kept on going to other places, went to Vanadzor, went to Goris, and in Goris there are thousands of kids. So far I think we’ve worked with 1,500 kids.”

The need is great and varied. With thousands of kids displaced, they aren’t even able to go to school and get a basic education, let alone stay involved in the arts. Yet it is often art and music that is most needed in times like this. Everything is done according to the kids’ needs, and the programming is extremely flexible.

Said Tchakerian, “There are kids that we see a couple of times, some we just visited one time, it really depends on what they want. There are some kids that we [originally] met in a big group of kids, and then they started coming [to the Nexus Center]. Because just recently [toward the end of October], we got funding to have daily classes at Nexus. So now we’re trying to understand and get organized and pay for transportation for individual kids who really want to play music, their [Nexus’] doors are opened and we want to do daily education.” She adds, “You have to know that a lot of these kids also don’t go to school – I don’t know, I’ve read some crazy statistics, like 30,000 kids have lost their right to education. I mean, it’s just too complicated right now to readjust.” As for funding? “Everything is free for the kids. Very quickly we had people who started donating, thankfully. We have a group of individuals in the diaspora, even non-Armenians who are donating, thankfully. And we have a little fundraiser. Obviously for us, the priority for every Armenian is to donate to the Armenia Fund, but if there are people who have donated to the Armenia Fund and they have a little more money, they want to give more for kids, and arts and music, they can give it to us, they can give it to our fundraiser.”

So, what does Nexus for Artsakh programming look like? “For the musical parts, we’ve done a couple of things. We go to meet with a group of kids. We sing, we bring musical instruments, we teach them songs, it’s very interactive. We do musical games, we do preschool music education, like ear training. Percussion ensemble, we do trash can ensemble with the bigger ones, teenagers. And kind of arranging Armenian folk songs.”

This experience has also revealed a ton of native talent.

“For instance, there is a kid, there is a 17-year-old girl from Stepanakert, Dina, who wrote a song about it, and she sang it for us, and we said ‘You know what, let’s record it, we will arrange it, we will produce it for you at the center, and we will also do a music video.’ Because it comes from her heart, she’s speaking about her reality, and it’s a very beautiful song, and we want to help, and we want to raise her voice. So, this is what we’re currently working on. We finished the audio recording, and I think today they’re going to shoot the music video,” she said.

Young Dina was not the only young person they met with blooming talent: “There are some kids we met who are very good musicians so we are getting instruments and sending them to them,” Sevana said, and continued, “There are some teenagers from Artsakh who are musically very talented, and they’ve been helping us, like as assistants. And so we’re providing them guitar lessons, so they can also then lead workshops and have an instrument to accompany themselves.”

Recently, a group of new arrivals at the center have filled Tchakerian with hope. They are 15 music students from Artsakh who had met up 2 days prior, and practiced a new song only 20 minutes before Sevana captured their moving, talented performance on film, accompanied by guitar played by a teenage girl from among the group.

“We want to train these teens,” she says, “so they also go and play for the kids. They are all students from the Music College of Stepanakert, though some of them enrolled this year and didn’t get to study yet,” she said.

When asked if music helps children deal with trauma, she replied, “For sure. You see, you feel, a difference. These kids, like I told you, their daily life is the war. Very often they have their fathers, their brothers, their sons, husbands, boyfriends, in the front lines. Friends, of course. And so, we act as psychologists, we are very careful, we cannot just show up and play. Sometimes they are not in the mood to play. They want to do like, origami. The kids want to draw. So we always have other stuff with us. Even though we’re professional musicians we also have other options. But very often, even if their parents, moms, are like ‘We don’t feel like it’s the mood now to play music,’ what happens is that we will start playing and there are some kids and then, gamats gamats (slowly slowly), they gather and they join and at the end they say thank you so much, this was great. You know, it’s just a change and you know how music is soothing for everyone…And I think it’s just a little breath of fresh air during their days because they have literally nothing to do in these hotels. Except checking the news and be worried.”

Tchakerian sighs, and our interview draws to a close. She is clearly worried, but the talented kids give her hope, as they should to all Armenians. “They are our next generation,” I say. Tchakerian concurs.

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