Riding the folk-rock wave A new generation of Armenian musicians navigates conflict, creativity, and cultural preservation — Meduza

Riding the folk-rock wave A new generation of Armenian musicians navigates conflict, creativity, and cultural preservation — Meduza

Story by Arpine Hovhannisian for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

At the Tonelab studio in central Yerevan, a band of teenage musicians is in the recording booth. The heavy thump of drums reverberates through the studio, its deep, resonant tones pulsating with an energy that fills the room.

“The guys are very excited about recording their first song right before going to [serve their] two years of compulsory military service,” explains Narek Tovmasyan, the studio’s co-founder and the drummer from the Armenian progressive rock band Rozen Tal

Men in Armenia between 18 and 27 are subject to compulsory two-year military service. Having fought two wars with neighboring Azerbaijan since the 1990s, the threat of renewed fighting looms over the country constantly and especially since last September, when Baku’s forces recaptured Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, triggering an exodus of more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians from the region.

However, as the mood inside Tonelab reflects, the creative spirits of Armenia’s younger generation remain high. The studio, which will mark one year since its opening on April 6, has become a creative hub for many young musicians, hosting concerts, recording new music, and organizing charity events for displaced people from Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Rozen Tal at the Tonelab studio

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Narek, who’s 32 and works as a music teacher at a Yerevan school, says he has noticed a big difference between his students and musicians of his generation. “This [new] generation didn’t experience the post-Soviet aftermath as intensely as we did. They’ve been exposed to new literature and music. The songs they’re composing surpass anything we composed at their age,” he says with pride. 

Rozen Tal’s lead vocalist and guitarist Armen Yedigaryan agrees, adding that he dreams of seeing Armenian alternative music gain global popularity. “The new generation is fantastic. Armenian music is developing, and it’s so interesting where it will go.”

Taking a step 

Formed in 2015, Rozen Tal fought an uphill battle in its early years. According to Armen, the local music industry suffered from a lack of resources and professionals, particularly when it came to production. To make matters more difficult, the critical reception to the band’s music was rather discouraging.

Both Armen and Rozen Tal’s bassist, Harutin Asryan, are originally from Armenia’s second-biggest city, Gyumri. As aspiring young rock musicians with long hair and a unique sense of style, they met with skepticism and even physical resistance, with their street performances sometimes ending in fistfights. Today, they look back on these challenges and laugh, explaining the traditional tendency in Armenian society to label rock musicians as “non-Christian” and “immoral” — a view they attribute to a lack of familiarity with the genre. (According to the musicians, the situation is gradually improving as perceptions of rock music evolve.) 

Gyumri also positively influenced the band, as it happens to be the hometown of one of Armenia’s most famous rock groups, Bambir. Founded in the 1970s, Bambir has been active for more than 40 years and has spanned generations; the original band members’ sons are now part of the ensemble. The group’s members not only inspired but also mentored Rozen Tal, guiding the trio on their musical journey. 

The Armenian folk-rock band Tsayg rehearses with Rozen Tal at the Tonelab studio

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Similarly, Rozen Tal has taken up the mantle of mentoring the next generation of Armenian musicians, with Tonelab offering a creative space that has become a haven for many. 

Like the teenagers recording in the studio, Rozen Tal’s members also had to undergo compulsory military service at the start of their careers. In 2017, while Armen served in Nagorno-Karabakh, the band was invited to play at the Epic Rock Fest in the Armenian resort town of Tsaghkadzor. In what he describes as a “historic” decision, army leadership granted Armen leave to play the festival after receiving a letter from the Armenian Rock Association. “We drove 10 hours back and forth in two days, but being part of it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life,” Armen recalls, his eyes shining. 

The 2018 Velvet Revolution marked a turning point for the band. The anti-government protests, led by opposition politician Nikol Pashinyan, forced the resignation of then-Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan. Pashinyan and his Civil Contract party have been in power ever since.

The opposition protesters were predominantly students and young adults — and contemporary, alternative music also played a role. A song by the Armenian alternative metal band Vordan Karmir inspired the revolution’s most popular slogan, “Take a step, reject Serzh” (Qayl ara, Merzhir Serjin, in Armenian). Rock, jazz, and electronic music filled the blocked-off avenues and streets. One of the revolution’s key figures, DJ turned city councilor Eduard Aghajanyan, would later become an MP. 

The members of Rozen Tal believe the spirit of the Velvet Revolution instilled hope that the new government would support Armenia’s alternative music scene. Narek remembers the revolution’s first anniversary as a celebration characterized by new music, with up-and-coming folk, rock, and jazz bands taking center stage instead of older pop artists. “Alas, as we saw later, the movement didn’t last. That was the only year we were invited to play during such big events,” he laments. 

Nevertheless, the musicians say this period was crucial for expanding their audience. On the anniversary of the revolution, for example, Rozen Tal played a concert in a small town called Armavir, and some young people who initially came to make fun of the band got caught up in the moment and were dancing by the end of their set.

‘Real Armenian music’

“When a musician plays local music, the kind that’s unique and belongs to him, it makes everything more interesting,” says Sevada Hambarchyan, the lead singer of the indie-folk band Katil (the Armenian word for “drop”). 

Founded in 2017, Katil has become one of Armenia’s most successful alternative bands. Its most popular song, Kuzim, has surpassed three million views on YouTube. 

Kuzim is a folk song from Hamshen, a historical Armenian settlement located on the Black Sea coast of present-day northeastern Turkey. The Hemshin people living there today are the descendants of Armenians who gradually converted to Sunni Islam after the Ottomans conquered the region in the late 15th century. Katil’s rendition revived not only the folk song itself but also the Hemshin people’s Armenian dialect. 

“As our Kuzim song went viral on YouTube, people recorded their kids singing and sent it to our Facebook page. It was heartwarming, showing we’re preserving cultural heritage and making it trendy,” Sevada says.

Curious about the bands mentioned in this story? The Beet made you a playlist. Listen on Spotify or YouTube Music.

The band’s mission echoes the work of renowned Armenian musicologist Komitas, who elevated the collection, classification, and study of traditional music to an academic level in the late 19th and early 20th century. A pioneer of ethnomusicology, Komitas traveled to remote villages where foreign musical influences were scarce, ensuring the collection and preservation of local music in its authentic form. 

Armenian music suffered under the Soviet Union’s oppressive policies. In the 1920s and 1930s, nation-building efforts in the Soviet republics aimed to develop cultures that were “national in form and socialist in content.” According to musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker, this shifted attention from rural to urban, as the authorities sidelined real folk music and attempted to create national musical cultures modeled on the musical nationalism of 19th-century Russia.

“Soviet Armenians didn’t even know what Armenian music was anymore because whatever was shown on the TV was part of Soviet propaganda,” says Grigor Davtyan, Katil’s percussionist.

Today, however, there is a rising demand for authentic Armenian music. According to Katil’s members, this has proven especially true in times of conflict with Azerbaijan. “It’s not easy to play concerts in a country at war. Our audience really cares about the situation in the country, and when there’s a war, you can’t just play music and pretend nothing is happening,” says woodwinds player Grigor Kartashyan

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

In this context, the band members see promoting Armenian music at home as a means of protecting not just their cultural heritage but also their country. “Our short-term goal is to make real, pure Armenian music heard, recognized, and loved in Armenia and then work towards its international recognition,” Grigor adds. 

From Armenia to the Universe 

Eliza Baghdiyan and Lusine Mlke-Galstyan founded Tiezerk Band in 2015. Though the duo are still in their twenties, they are already touring Europe and bringing Armenian culture to foreign audiences. Their most recent achievement is receiving the best music award at KITfest (an inclusive theater festival in Germany) for the music they wrote for a performance by the Armenian contemporary dance company Mihr Theater.

Tiezerk Band was born out of the musical laboratory at the Mkhitar Sebastatsi Educational Complex, a Yerevan school known for its innovative teaching methods. Eliza and Lusine gradually began playing shows outside of school, and the warm welcome they received from audiences in local bars and pubs encouraged them to concentrate on the band. “Tiezerk was never a business project because of our need to communicate with the world, so we found our audience easily,” Eliza says. 

Lusine and Eliza don’t limit themselves to a single genre. Their repertoire includes covers of folk songs, as well as original compositions. Tiezerk Band was recently invited to contribute to Armenian Public Radio’s Golden Fund, a digitized audio collection of around 100,000 recordings. To their delight, the head of Armenian Public Radio granted Eliza and Lusine total creative freedom, accepting songs about topics ranging from social injustice to heartbreak without any pushback. “Fortunately, they were so open to new music and they recorded our songs without even giving any instructions, which was both pleasant and surprising for us,” Lusine says.

Even the global pandemic lockdown in 2020 couldn’t keep Tiezerk from bringing Armenian music to the wider world. From the comfort of their homes, Eliza and Lusine initiated a cultural exchange and began teaching remotely as part of a Swiss project called Choir Online. This cooperation paved the way for their first international concert in Zurich in August 2021, marking the first time Armenian artists participated in Switzerland’s largest art festival, the Zucker Theater Spektakel.

“We spent 10 minutes explaining how to pronounce the word Tiezerk,” Lusine recalls, adding that they were happy to teach at least one Armenian word to their international fans. (Tiezerk means “universe,” in Armenian)

“It’s fantastic how music unites people,” Eliza chimes in. “People really could feel what we were singing about without understanding a word. It’s an incredible thing.”

Egor Kirillov for The Beet

After performing in Zurich, Tiezerk would go on to play concerts in Poland and the United States, experiences that cemented their belief in the universal power of music. “Art is the only thing that doesn’t have any boundaries; it’s not bound to any language or anything else,” Lusine underscores. “Music especially unites everyone. I think people are so similar; we all feel the same feelings.”

Like the members of Katil and Rozen Tal, Lusine and Eliza are keenly aware of Armenia’s shifting political and social landscape. In moments of crisis, they grapple with their dual roles as artists and active citizens. So, for their next project, the band members plan to collect songs from Nagorno-Karabakh to preserve the region’s cultural heritage following the expulsion of its Armenian population. 

“Amid constant military conflicts, we need to find meaning in our artistic endeavors,” Lusine says. “Previously, our music revolved around our personal narratives. Now, in light of the 2020 war and its aftermath, it’s taking on a broader perspective.”

The “We Are Our Songs” project aims to capture people’s emotions about the exodus and adaptations to the post-war reality. As such, the band members plan to travel to the villages and towns across Armenia where refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have resettled. “As artists living in times of injustice, we want to tell stories of the victims through our music,” Lusine says.

Story by Arpine Hovhannisian for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

Read More