Yeraz Brings Together Armenian Artists For a Cause

In Armenian, yeraz means “dream.” It’s a fitting title for the first compilation from Los Angeles-based record label and artist management company Critique. Yeraz is a ten-track album, out digitally on February 19 and on vinyl in May, that brings together Armenian and Armenian-American artists with contributions ranging from theremin player Armen Ra to indie electronic producer Melineh. It’s a stylistically varied collection, but one that’s united in a cause. All net profits from the album will benefit Kooyrigs, an Armenian, intersectional feminist-led coalition that’s been providing humanitarian relief on the ground in Armenia and the neighboring, ethnic Armenian enclave of Artsakh during a critical time. 

For 44 days last fall, Artsakh, known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh, was under fire. In late September, Azerbaijan launched an attack, leading to an all-out war, with Armenia coming to the defense of Artsakh, which is not internationally recognized as an independent nation. In the midst of this, ethnic Armenians and allies came together in an unprecedented way, leveraging social media to bring awareness to a situation that was getting very little news coverage while also raising funds for humanitarian relief and holding protests in cities across the globe. 

Karine Eurdekian, who founded Kooyrigs in 2018, had just moved from Michigan to New York when the war began and was coordinating relief efforts with the team in Armenia. In Los Angeles, Zach Asdourian, who founded Critique, was working with GL4M, an artist who had released the single “Lusavor” to benefit Armenian relief organizations. One of these was Kooyrigs, which prompted Asdourian to reach out to Eurdekian on Instagram. 

Eurdekian says that she and Asdourian bonded over the “cultural consciousness” of each other’s content. They began working on collaborations, which led to Yeraz. Eurdekian describes the project as similar to swapping bracelets at a rave. “It’s just sharing our talents, sharing our creativity with one another and creating impact,” she says. 

Yeraz is, in part, a means to spread awareness in communities that may not have heard about the events of last fall. “We’re trying to really expand the outreach and expanding into the music community is natural, because the underground music scene is just an accepting community,” says Eurdekian. “It’s an empathetic community, and it’s one that I’ve grown up in and Zach’s grown up in and hundreds of people in Armenia are currently growing up in.” 

Meanwhile, Asdourian had heard San Francisco-based DJ and producer Lara Sarkissian drop “Lusavor” in one of her sets online. “It was honestly a dream come true to see this contemporary Armenian artist including my artist’s single in her mix, so I got in touch with her and we began talking,” he recalls. 

Sarkissian came in as a creative director for Yeraz. She says that the compilation presented a “good opportunity” to connect artists in the U.S. and those in Armenia. Sarkissian has played in Armenia, where she got to know local artists like Melineh. 

“It’s something very new, but something very present and the vibe is very active,” says Melineh by phone from Yerevan, the country’s capital city, of Armenia’s electronic music scene. 

Melineh is a Yerevan-based electronic music producer who contributed to Yeraz.

For the country in general, though, times have been difficult in the aftermath of the war. “The damage is huge and the traces are everywhere,” she says, adding that locals are trying to help in whatever ways they can. Artists, in particular, are doing what they can to help relief efforts, she says. 

On the surface, the war may have appeared as part of a long territorial struggle between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, standing in Azerbaijan’s corner was Turkey, who continues to deny the genocide of Armenians that took place a little more than a century ago. For those in the diaspora, the war was a reminder of historic trauma and a real fear that what’s left of Armenian’s indigenous homeland would be lost. 

“I was disgusted and horrified and shocked,” says L.A.-based Armen Ra of the news from Artsakh last fall. “It’s still like a pain in my chest. It’s primal. It hurts my soul.” But, Ra adds, “out of these horrors comes so much love and attention.” He says, “I try to focus on the people who are helping.” 

For Yeraz, Ra contributed his version of “Crane,” from the Armenian composer Komitas. It’s a poignant contribution; Ra opened his debut album with the same song as a means of pointing to the “core” of his musical influences. It’s also significant in light of the Armenian experience. Komitas was an ethnomusicologist who worked to preserve Armenian musical heritage and was one of the intellectuals arrested at the start of the Armenian Genocide.

Armen Ra contributed his rendition of “Crane” to Yeraz.

For Natalee Miller, who provided the cover art for Yeraz, helping became her focus during the war. An illustrator who has made posters for bands like Khruangbin, Miller draws inspiration from her own Armenian heritage and has an Armenian following online. “I just felt like they had given me so much, it was like an obligation,” says the artist, who is based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “It was now my time to give back and and the only way that I can do that is to make art.” 

Asdourian surmises that the combination of the war and our reliance on online communication through the COVID-19 pandemic led to a “strong sense of solidarity and unity.” The war might not have made the nightly news in many cities, but if you’re an Armenian on Twitter or Instagram, it was probably dominating your timeline. “We were already on our phones so much that we were so much more prepared to get in touch with each other,” he says. 

Plus, it unified Armenians who had been working for social justice in their own communities. “It brought together a lot of Armenians who’ve been creating an intersectional language already between Armenian movements and causes and other people’s movements,” says Sarkissian.  

While the war has ended, the work to aid those impacted by it continues. Kooyrigs has several initiatives on the ground, the most recent of which, “Project Mayreeg,” helps pregnant people from Artsakh. 

Beyond its goal to raise funds for Kooyrigs, Yeraz also serves to amplify the voices of Armenian artists, both in the country and diasporic communities. “I want our non-Armenian people to learn that there is so much more to our history than pain and suffering,” says Asdourian. 

“Hopefully, this will catch interest for people to start supporting Armenian artists and see what they’re up to, what new sounds they’re creating,” says Sarkissian. “I think that’s also really important, to support these artists and look into other Armenian electronic artists.” 

Order Yeraz now via Bandcamp.

Lara Sarkissian Uses Electronic Music to Highlight Her Armenian Heritage

Lara Sarkissian at Matosavank Monastery, Armenia. Photo Credit: Margos Margossian

“I always wanted to push Armenian sounds,” says Lara Sarkissian. “I always thought of the future and how I could push Armenian sounds into the future in very experimental and untraditional ways and how that can fit within this electronic music and electronic dance music.”

Sarkissian is a San Francisco-based producer, composer and DJ, as well has one-half of the duo behind the party series and record label Club Chai. In her work, she likes to manipulate the sounds of traditional Armenian instruments, like the duduk, a woodwind made of apricot wood, and incorporate them into electronic music productions. In late October, “Fortress in the Clouds,” an intense techno track, appeared on SOS Music Vol. 1, a compilation from L.A.-based label SOS Music to benefit Transgender Law Center, Downtown Women’s Center and Women’s Refugee Commission.

“It’s interesting to experiment with these old and ancient sounds and have your take on it,” says Sarkissian. “It’s like having a conversation with it in your own way.”

On November 26, her soundscape for “Thresholds,” a collaboration with video artist Jemma Woolmore commissioned by the Institute for Sound and Music Berlin for the ISM Hexadome, will be released on vinyl. “I was really inspired by the concepts behind aural architecture. I used a lot of field recordings in Armenian churches and monasteries,” says Sarkissian of the project. “I really love how Armenian monasteries are built in a certain way to house certain kinds of sounds, like the choir with the voice and how it bounces to the ceiling and back, kind of like you’re speaking to God and the powers above.”

That inspiration suited the ISM Hexadome, a 360-degree audio-visual installation that exhibited in Berlin, Montreal and San Francisco, as well as MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, where the recording for the release stems. “I looked at this dome structure for ISM as, in parallel, like a monastery. I thought that it would be really cool to take these samples, like these Armenian environmental sounds or these sounds that I recorded in Armenian monasteries and at my church in San Francisco, and use it in this space and create a whole contemporary electronic score around that.”

Sarkissian started out as a drummer in high school. In college, at UC Berkeley, she gravitated towards film and was making her own experimental shorts. Then she took a sound design class while studying abroad in Copenhagen and was impressed with how sound could tell a story. “I think that’s when I put the camera down and became more focused on sound and storytelling,” she says. “That’s when I started teaching myself Ableton.” She began producing her own tracks and making edits while also learning how to DJ. 

She was inspired by artists of different ethnic backgrounds who were incorporating their culture into electronic music. “I’m Armenian, but I’m living in diaspora. There’s another kind of Armenian culture that exists here,” Sarkissian explains. “A part of that means being in dialogue and being around other cultures and other diasporas and learning about each other’s struggles and oppression and building solidarity and coalition from that way. I did see that there is a way that you can do that with music and I really enjoyed that.”

In 2016, she and collaborator 8ullentina launched Club Chai as a monthly event series. They started with warehouse parties bringing together San Francisco and Oakland-based artists, with an emphasis on women-identified, non-binary, LGBTQ and POC artists. Through Club Chai, they built up an international network of artists and began touring in the U.K. “I think that a lot of artists and music in general stays within our Bay Area bubble,” says Sarkissian. “Our goal is to connect that with our global audience and people who are doing similar work in other places.” 

In August, Club Chai landed a residency on the popular, global online radio station NTS, where you can now hear them monthly. For the October show, Sarkissian focused primarily on Armenian music to call attention to a mounting human rights crisis. On September 27, Artsakh, an ethnic Armenian region in the South Caucuses known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh, was attacked by Azerbaijan. That led to a six-week battle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic where civilian areas of Artsakh were shelled and tens of thousands of people were displaced. An agreement brokered by Russia brought the fighting to a halt, but it also transferred part of this indigenous Armenian land back into the hands of Azerbaijan, leading to further displacement of people and a growing concern for the future of Armenian cultural landmarks in the region.

For Sarkissian, who has taught in both Armenia and Artsakh, this hit close to home. “I think that I was, personally, in a really frustrated place,” says Sarkissian. She wanted to let the music community know what was happening, but wasn’t sure of how to do that. “Obviously, music brings people together and understanding stories of other people’s culture through sound is a huge thing,” she says.

The set included multiple generations of Armenian artists, as well as non-Armenian music. “I wanted to channel grief and solace and have this place where we’re allowed to sit in sadness,” she explains.

Sarkissian says that this devastating time for Armenians has shown how important it is to have artists and scholars, “people who are creating this intersectional language,” bring the ongoing conflict into the light. In the long run, she says, “I think that kind of language is what’s going to help us link with other communities.”

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