A Toronto Armenian experience: Two brothers help others find their identity

By Sebouh Arakelian 

Emotionally distant. This is a great way to describe my Armenian friends and classmates growing up and, quite honestly, until today. I was pulled out of Armenian day school after the first grade. This left me as a bit of a local vagabond when it came to the community ties my parents tried so hard to establish. I started second grade in my local city public school, and from there forward, I saw less and less of those friends I found in nursery and first.

The immersion into American culture began; the learning of the Armenian language ended. Some years later, a husky Sebouh at ten years old squeezes into a chair intended for a 7- or 8-year-old in Saturday school. I was quite literally affixed to the classroom to catch up on learning Armenian due to the abrupt end of my formal education. Needless to say, I was uncomfortable with my lack of knowledge among children much younger than me, and I was pulled from class shortly thereafter.

Future encounters with members of the first-grade class that I had left behind were few and far between. Sometimes at a random Armenian dance or New Year’s Eve extravaganza, I would hear, “Hey, look. It’s Sebouh. Where have you been?” Regretfully, I did not form such a tight bond with that group.

In my teens, I joined Homenetmen and the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) in Watertown, Massachusetts; that helped. I was back! I had lived five miles away from where all my peers grew up. I dropped back in, but it just wasn’t the same. My Armenian was not as strong as theirs, and I didn’t have the friendship history, but I moved through the ranks of Homenetmen in tandem with some of them, tried reading the language, and am proud of the conversational Armenian skills I possess today.

Lately, I have been trying to be more aware of who God guides me toward; I want to be conscious of those ships that pass by because, well–as a 40-year-old married man with a child, time is precious. I would much rather hold onto and cultivate a relationship with someone now where it makes the most sense. I am finding my identity today. I am finding my identity always. People, these days, seem to be continuously exploring theirs.

Enter Razmik Tchakmakian (the last name is plastered in my mind from when we originally met at AYF Camp Haiastan in Franklin, Massachusetts). He goes by Raz now, but back then, he was a shy 10-year-old camper, and I was his counselor in a new setting. During my recent visit to Toronto, Razmik vividly recalled, “At camp, you really made me feel at home because I was the only one attending from Toronto.” I remember him as an innocent and well-mannered little boy. This little boy has grown to become a creator aimed at preserving and furthering the Armenian cause.

I joined Razmik at The Oud & the Fuzz to share in his company and sip on a drink. The last time I saw him was back in 2015 when we crossed paths in Yerevan minutes before System of a Down mesmerized an electrified audience on the rainy eve of the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. That historic concert lives forever in our collective souls. Those brief moments with Raz left a lasting impression on me, and I started to follow his work on social media from afar. I was motivated to get to know him on a deeper level; his artful nature had left me intrigued.

Years later, we meet again, and it’s like we never parted ways. It felt more authentic than when I see friends here at home in my own community. I can just be me, no pretext–no weight of who I was, just who I am today. I express my gratitude for this to Razmik.

Raz has a vibrant yet calm demeanor. He gently makes his way to the bar to fix me a drink. While sipping on his handcrafted beverage—Armenian apricot juice, brandy, lemon juice topped with a fresh lemon rind—he inquired, “Are you involved in the Armenian community now?” I explained how I had been in my past and how frankly now with a focus on a small family and enduring my fair share of challenges, I hardly find the time. I mentioned that I started coaching my son at Homenetmen soccer practice this winter—baby steps. Razmik’s mission to share the “Armenian experience” takes a certain vision. I guess this is why I respect what he has been able to create as a young Armenian businessman. He is creating. He is not afraid to be himself, and this inspires me in a way I have yet to fully understand.

At his restaurant, you glance at the décor, and it seems so familiar. It is authentic yet subtle enough to pique others’ interest. Affixed to the walls is a smattering of some Armenian and other popular vinyl (paying homage to their humble beginnings of the combination record store and café, Antikka). All this opposes a beautiful Oud hung in the parlor–signifying some of the traditional Armenian vibes that fill the space on a nightly basis.

As Raz mentally prepares for the upcoming weekend, we discuss a range of topics, from being a restauranteur and entrepreneur to a member of the Greater Toronto Armenian community. He mentioned getting some support from community members but would certainly welcome more. His day typically starts just after noon. After a long winter, he has a positive outlook on the busy spring and summer ahead. Recounting the challenges faced at The Oud & the Fuzz, especially during the pandemic, he is grateful to be where they are now. Having survived those turbulent times, he and his brother Shaunt Raffi, find themselves stronger and better off for it. Their endurance is a symbol of our collective Armenian history and inherent ability to sustain.

The second night in a row, we meet at Tapestry, their latest space that inspires creative expression. A warm embrace immediately tugs at me, along with an overwhelming feeling of family and brotherhood. At Tapestry (a former jazz club), Raz and Shaunt added their personal touches with a new mural and a shortened, more intimate bar to make sufficient space on the dance floor. Tonight, they hosted guest DJs, a trio of talent cutting tracks of what I recognized to be tribal beats for all to enjoy until 2 a.m.

Earlier that evening, with a gentle smile, I mentioned to Razmik, “You’re like the brother I never had.” This, my last evening spent with Razmik, our collective presence and affiliation seemed to have subconsciously blended into a tapestry of their own.

This evening was therapeutic for me. It demonstrated Armenians’ innate ability to create. We, as an Armenian collective, must always honour our roots and find inspiration to create due to the sad and destructive reality we often find ourselves in. Creating a vision and a space for all to share equally is not an easy task. Building relationships and finding a sense of belonging is not an easy road to travel. Razmik and Shaunt Raffi are paving the way and creating a reason for people of various backgrounds to realize the importance of their creative expression. Exemplified by the artistry that passes through the doors of these spaces they create; they are tapping into a sea of talent available and giving them a voice. Whether they know it or not, they are helping people find their identity. They even inspired a middle-aged man in Boston to write this article.

Thank you, brothers Shaunt and Razmik. See you again soon!