The Electronic Dance Music Scene in Armenia is Booming
The growing scene in Armenia’s capital is a haven for techno and psytrance fans and marginalized groups
January 10, 2024 at 12:00 AM PT
Written by Guest Writer Tracy Chabala
When people think about international electronic music destinations, Western Europe often comes to mind, especially Berlin, Amsterdam, and Ibiza. But in lesser-known corners of the world, smaller countries with emerging economies are launching lauded electronic producers, clubs, and raves with strong sounds and inclusive communities.
One such country is Armenia.
Armenia's Emerging Electronic Dance Music Scene
Located in Western Asia, Armenia is a small landlocked nation that borders Iran to the south, Turkey to the West, Azerbaijan to the East, and Georgia to the North. In the capital city, Yerevan, you will find no shortage of electronic dance music excellence. The scene has been growing steadily over the past few decades in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, when the country endured great economic and infrastructural growing pains whilst transitioning from communism to a free market economy. These days, young, inspired Yerevantsis, as they are called in Armenian, are spearheading many flourishing and cutting-edge creative concepts, from restaurants and hookah lounges to arts organizations and communities, dance clubs, and raves.
I spent nine months in Yerevan in 2019, a lot has changed since, but I was hugely impressed by the emerging scene, and especially tickled to find a thriving psytrance scene filling local clubs with those signature aggressive basslines. Yerevan is the reason I got into techno. Back then, a club called Basement (which obviously pays homage to the famed club in New York) featured incredible house and techno DJs. One of my well-traveled French friends said it was one of the best clubs he’d ever been to with the best techno he’s ever heard. We’d hit up the club night after night, DJs from the area and other parts of the world spinning progressive house and deep techno. They’d often add Armenian instruments like the ancient duduk into the mix creating a mystical, otherworldly experience.
The History of Armenia and Resilience Through Art
It’s impossible to talk about the present Armenian dance scene without touching a bit on the country's past given how it informs the present. Armenian people, including the diaspora, still hurt from the 20th century genocide committed by Ottoman Turks, one that has yet to be acknowledged by Turkey’s leadership and the leadership of its close ally, Azerbaijan, which pours salt on their wounds. Just last year Azerbaijan’s dictator Ilham Aliyev ordered the shelling of Armenians living in the autonomous enclave of Artsakh, forcing them out of their indigenous homeland. This occurred after he created a months’ long blockade against ethnic Armeians living in Artsakh at the end of 2022, denying them food, water, and medicine. Humanitarian agencies around the world, including the International Criminal Court, declared it a genocide and ethnic cleansing. Despite all this, the Armenian people remain steadfast in their determination to not only survive but thrive as a culture.
The arts have always played a strong role in Armenian culture, a culture that dates back to 3,000 BCE. It’s therefore no surprise that its people channel much intergenerational trauma through the arts – including music – as is common amongst those who have wrestled with war, oppression, and economic collapse. Music and dance can both uplift and unite members of an oppressed community, as has been the case in the birth and evolution of electronic music both in the States and abroad.
Unfortunately, oppression against Armenians doesn’t solely come from outside the country. The electronic dance scene, which unites citizens and visitors of all backgrounds and walks of life, including queer individuals, hasn’t earned the approval of everyone in the country, especially law enforcement.
Armenia's Dance Destinations Overcomes Adversity
Just as the techno scene in Detroit was a haven for Black Americans seeking community and fighting for equality, and just as the Berlin scene exploded from people of marginalized sexual orientations and genders, so the scene in Armenia is a welcome respite from traditional judgment and conventional chokeholds. As an Armenian American, I know well how deeply many Armenians cherish “traditional” – perhaps the culture’s 1700-year connection with Christianity has something to do with it. Either way, within the country, LGTBQ+ people struggle for acceptance and safety, women struggle for equal rights and protection against domestic violence, and immigrants struggle for equal treatment by law enforcement. Just this past week, a young gay man committed suicide after being disowned by his family.
But the dance scene in Yerevan is decidedly inclusive and open. Within it, you’ll find LGTBQ+ people out and proud, women smoking freely whilst covered with tattoos and piercings. It’s the one place within the country where progressive, accepting people can mingle among like minded people in a supportive and safe environment. Having grown up in a conservative family, I found the environment transformative and healing.
Sadly, Basement no longer has its own dedicated physical space, but the club night still runs out of the larger and more mainstream club Paparazzi.
Another iconic techno destination in the city is Polygraf, an underground techno club which opened in 2019, aims to be more than just a place for dance: the founders want it to be a cultural and educational center within the city. In addition to bringing some of the best techno to Armenia’s capital, it also educates a new generation of DJs through mentorships and courses, ensuring the scene expands even more as it moves further into the 21st century.
The techno is dark and hard at Polygraf, as is its ambience. You’ll experience the same kind of door policy you might at clubs like Berghain – there’s no guarantee you’ll get in. The club is small, and, like many raves in the underground techno scene, you are not allowed to take videos or pictures. As a result, a random tourist hoping to experience the city’s nightlife may not necessarily get into the club (and, as a result, may leave a bad review on Trip Advisor). But veteran techno ravers are sure to understand it’s just a club trying to keep the vibe right for the local dance community whilst also trying to keep them safe - especially queer individuals. And this is not due to paranoia.
In April 2023, the club was violently raided by Yerevan SWAT teams, and all attendees, including staff and DJs were arrested and taken to the police station. People were beaten and many endured homophobic, sexist, and racist slurs in the process. After the raid, the club was shut down by authorities. In the aftermath, Polygraf started an online petition to get the club legally opened, and, thankfully, it succeeded and reopened after just one week, citing the shutdown as illegal. The authorities were searching the attendees’ pockets for illegal drugs as well.
These are inevitable and painful growing pains of social change. Despite the raid and temporary closure, the founders still continue to put Yerevan on the map as an electronic dance destination by recruiting international DJs. The venue also hosts the Princess Diaries, a “pink party” celebrating people of all sexualities and genders, which is both revolutionary and risky in a country like Armenia given its entrenched homophobia. Recent Princess Diary events have featured Berlin-based Dossaf, US-based DJ Empress, Iran’s Nesa Azadikah, and UK’s Blasha & Allatt. Polygraf’s Resident DJs include Yerevan’s York Hamza, Yhil, Is, T_st, mveq, and hessless. Other rising stars in Yerevan include Tøtal and Nancy Movs, both who appeared on Yerevan’s first Boiler Room in 2019.
Another spot where you’ll find outstanding techno is at The Øffice. Located in an old Soviet printing house building, the large space is an inclusive cultural and artistic hub that facilitates collaboration among a community of progressive artists. It is a place for painters, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and DJs, and hosts some of the city’s best techno events throughout the year. Recent events featured Detroit techno legend DJ Stingray 313, and Serbian techno powerhouse Tijana T.
Beyond the Clubs: Psytrance Festivals and Alternative Venues
In addition to the flourishing techno scene, Yerevan is home to a longtime thriving psytrance scene. The psytrance community is embraced by and somewhat fused with the local yoga scene, which is spearheaded by yogis who have trained in India. A hub for this community is yoga studio Namaste. Members of this scene host many full moon parties on the outskirts of Yerevan complete with deep meditations facilitated by the city’s yogis, along with music from the city’s most beloved psytrance DJs. Here you’ll find music pumping through the entire night, alongside talented fire dancers.
While I was in Armenia, I attended Ahoora at Lake Sevan. Organized by the Persian Global Community, the Ahoora psytrance festival has taken place in locations throughout the world, including Mexico, Turkey, and India.
Also taking place at Lake Sevan is The Nayama Festival, a new festival founded in 2021, which takes place yearly in September. The festival’s aim is to continue cultivating the psytrance community in the country as well as boost dance tourism to Armenia and support local psytrance artists’s ascension onto the international stage. Like Polygraf, the festival offers workshops, networking, and other opportunities for budding producers and DJs. Lake Sevan is an idyllic location for a psytrance rave among tall trees and a massive, calm lake. There’s something special about Lake Sevan - you feel so far removed from the chaos and calamity of the rest of the world and can enjoy the expansiveness of the lake along with the music - and any substance you might wish to partake in.
The founders of the Namaya festival are resident DJs at Calumet, a fixture in the Yerevan electronic scene. Billed an “ethnic lounge”, Calumet is a cozy, chill club catering to locals and internationals alike, a place where you can hear psytrance, psychill, psybient, and organic house every night. The casual interior is decorated with colorful Indian tapestries, adding to the authentic and unpretentious vibe. Calumet’s roots grow stronger every year in the face of so many other dance venues opening and closing.
I’ve always enjoyed my time out in smaller cities, just as much if not more than large ones. Barcelona is awesome, sure, so is Amsterdam, but the electronic scene still in Yerevan is intimate and tight-knit, adding an authentic dimension of community that’s tough to beat in larger locales. Still, in its nascent days, artists and clubs are liable to keep growing and to keep attracting talent from all over the world.
“I found Yerevan to be a very memorable city for electronic music, not only as an Armenian-American, but also as a club scene connoisseur,” said Realize, a much-loved Los Angeles techno producer and DJ, who recently visited Armenia. “There are two proper electronic music clubs tucked away in a predominantly conservative, monoethnic country which fortunately provide the youth a liberating space to dance and connect with other like-minded individuals. And whatever the city's scenes lack in size, they more than make up for it in passion, depth, and quality.”
Tracy Chabala is a freelance journalist and personal essayist from Los Angeles covering music, culture, food, and mental health. She is also a techno producer and DJ obsessed with polyrhythms, K-Hand, Robert Hood, and the Hungarian minor scale. As a writer and storyteller, she loves manipulating her voice to incorporate processed vocals as drum hits, stabs, textures, and spoken word into her productions. She is also a fusion belly dancer and darbuka player.