“I left a career in politics to open a music venue in Kensington Market”

“I left a career in politics to open a music venue in Kensington Market”

Shaunt Raffi co-owns Tapestry with his brother, Raz Tchakmak. They’re about to host their biggest performance yet

Shaunt standing in a hat and cardigan, holding a microphone
Photo by Kian Gannon

I grew up in a tight-knit Armenian community in Scarborough. My family was forced to leave Armenia because of the genocide that was carried out by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, but our home was always filled with Armenian music. We also frequented the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto, which would often host musicians from abroad. It was common for those performers to stay at our house or come over for dinner. I learned at a young age that countless works of art had been destroyed in the genocide, which Canada hadn’t officially recognized at the time. Every bit of what was left felt precious, and I worried that more would get lost because so few people knew about what had happened.

I began to see music as a way of expressing not only my culture but other cultures as well. I listened voraciously to a huge range of genres, including jazz, funk and alternative rock. My dad and brother also kept a lot of instruments around the house. I taught myself how to play the doumbek, an Arab percussion instrument, and started taking guitar lessons.

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When I started high school in the early 2000s, it became clear that my taste in music differed from that of my friends. Every time someone passed me the aux cord, I would try to share the obscure music I was captivated by. But, after a few minutes, someone would take over and play something more mainstream. I felt like I had to keep my passion for my music and my culture private. I could enjoy it, but not with other people.

Music was the thing I loved the most, but I couldn’t see a way to combine my art with my desire to help my community. So I enrolled in a political science degree at York University, thinking that a government career would allow me to represent Armenians. Canada recognized the Armenian genocide in 2006, but at the time the US government hadn’t yet acknowledged it. (It finally did in 2019.) The Turkish government still hasn’t to this day. So, when I turned 20, in 2013, I started interning for the Liberal government at Queen’s Park.

I served on executive committees, volunteered in elections and spent countless hours knocking on doors, canvassing for politicians. There was no room for creativity or individuality—I felt like I had to stick closely to the party’s messaging if I was going to build a career. I thought that, if I kept quiet and worked hard enough, I’d eventually get myself into a position where I could effect real change. But, without any artistic outlet, I felt isolated. The position took up all my energy, and by the time I graduated from university in 2015, I was burnt out.

Around that time, I learned about an organization called Birthright Armenia. It finds volunteer placements in Armenia for youth from the diaspora. After years of sacrificing everything for my career, something in my gut told me to try something different. Worst case, it would bolster my resumé. So I decided to take a break from work to visit my country of origin for the first time. I was placed with the Homeland Development Initiative Foundation, a non-profit focused on sustainable job creation in rural Armenian communities.

I’d spent my whole life worrying about how to preserve my culture—volunteering in the country was the first time I could experience it without feeling anxious about whether it would survive. It was clearly still thriving. I spoke the language, visited museums and music venues, and witnessed traditional crafting practices like rug-making, pottery and woodwork. I was mesmerized. In Canada, my impression of Armenia had been largely rooted in tragedy and resilience, so I was awed by the amount of unburdened beauty I found there. I realized that the country’s most valuable resource is its culture, and that wasn’t something I was going to be able to protect by playing politics.

When my two months of volunteering ended, I decided that I wasn’t going to return to Queen’s Park. I didn’t want to keep compromising my authentic self. I took a contract working with the foundation I’d been volunteering for, and I stayed in Armenia for another two years. When that ended, I returned to Toronto. I had no plan, which scared me, but I felt motivated to share everything I’d learned with people back home.

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While I’d been away, my brother, Raz Tchakmak, had opened a coffee shop and record store on Queen West called Antikka. I thought I’d help him for a while and then potentially return to Armenia. Neither of us knew much about business, but it was exciting to have a space in one of Toronto’s coolest neighbourhoods. We realized we could do anything we wanted with it, so we started hosting live music.

The rent was high, but we didn’t put much stock into what was commercially viable. We just wanted to be ourselves and allow other people to do the same. Lots of Toronto musicians primarily perform at weddings or corporate gigs, which limits what they can do. Antikka became a space where artists could experiment and explore. I started performing there too, as a DJ. I never imagined it would be possible to pull out old, obscure Armenian and Arab vinyl in front of an audience that appreciated it in downtown Toronto.

Shaunt hosting an event
Photo by Ishkhan Ghazarian

For all Antikka’s upsides, it was a challenging business to run. It was a small space, which meant that we didn’t have many tickets to sell. It was difficult to turn a profit. So, in 2020, we closed Antikka and bought a larger, more affordable space in Kensington Market that we could run as a bar. We named it after a song by an Armenian American musician named John Berberian: “The Oud and the Fuzz.”

Our grand opening was planned for March 2020. When the first lockdown hit, everything we’d worked toward came to a complete halt. Businesses were closing all around us, and the Oud was ineligible for any Covid-related subsidies because we didn’t have past income. We would’ve shuttered if it weren’t for our back patio. It had double the capacity of our indoor space, so there was enough room for a band to perform. In the summer, we became one of the only functioning music venues in the city. That put us on the map. A lot of talented artists started approaching us because they couldn’t tour or perform their usual gigs. We took on a lot of debt, but we survived. Being able to hear those musicians play in such an intimate setting made it all worthwhile.

The problem was that I wanted the Oud to be a proper music venue, when really it had become a restaurant that sometimes had live music. We’d developed a food program as a way to respond to pandemic losses, and eventually we had an Armenian menu that we sold almost every night. Raz and I had never run a restaurant before, but fortunately we had Karine Khachakjian, the chef and owner of Karine’s, on our team. The food and alcohol was making the business feasible, but in order to raise our standards as a restaurant, I couldn’t put as much effort into curating music. In the end, I wasn’t happy compromising on that.

In 2022, we heard that the Poetry Cafe on Augusta Street was for sale. It was built to be a music venue, so it was perfect. My brother and I signed the lease in August and decided to run it as only a music venue, without relying on serving food. The plan was to continue running the Oud and the Fuzz for about a year to pay off some of our Covid-related debt. Then we’d dedicate all of our resources to the new venue, which we named Tapestry.

Musicians playing at Tapestry, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience
Photo by Ishkhan Ghazarian

I knew from the beginning that Tapestry was the closest I’d come to my dream business, but owning a music venue in Toronto is a tricky thing. Attendance at live shows was declining even before the pandemic, and the financial hit from lockdowns in 2020 was more than many venues could handle. Established spots like Holy Oak Café, the Silver Dollar Room and the Orbit Room have all closed their doors, and corporations like Live Nation are buying up more and more space in Toronto. Small, independent venues play an essential part in developing new talent—without accessible places to play, no one can get a start in this industry. If the only way for a musician or band to succeed is to cater to mainstream or corporate expectations, we’ll lose all the diversity that makes Toronto’s music scene exciting.

Many of the independent musicians I felt passionate about booking weren’t able to promote themselves or draw in massive audiences. I realized that, in order to stay afloat, I’d have to get flexible. I started hosting more mainstream shows and renting out the space for corporate and private events. I came up with the idea for Tapestry Jams as a way to make sure I stayed true to my vision. The concept was to invite four artists to improvise together. They would represent a diverse array of cultures, genres and musical styles, and no one would know who was performing until the night of.

For the first one, in November 2022, I sold most of the tickets by sending out personalized emails. I had the musicians set up in the centre of the room, facing one another, while the audience watched from all around them. That November, it was Abbas Jan, an Indian tabla player; Racha Moukalled, a Lebanese Canadian vibraphone player; Rashad Walter, an African American guitar player; and Hiro Tanaka, a Japanese Canadian upright bass player. It was incredible. The audience was captivated, and I got a lot of positive feedback on the concept.

A photo of the Tapestry Jam, with musicians in the centre of the room
Photo by Kian Gannon

Since then, I’ve held 11 more jams. It’s the most uncompromising work I’ve ever done. I get to showcase music from around the world to an audience that is completely open-minded. For a belated celebration of the jam’s one-year anniversary, on February 25, I’ve decided to rent out a bigger space. It’ll take place at 918 Bathurst Street, which will allow us to double the audience capacity and host six musicians instead of four. It’s the biggest event I’ve ever hosted, so it’s definitely a risk.

If the anniversary event goes well, I’ll keep hosting it on that scale while continuing to curate smaller performances at Tapestry. If it doesn’t work out this time, I’ll try something else. Every iteration of our business has helped us support Toronto’s music scene and prove that it’s alive and thriving. These days, I hear people walk by Tapestry and tell their friends, Oh yeah, this is that Armenian joint. Embedding my identity into the fabric of the city’s music scene has always been at the heart of my mission, and it’s resonated with so many artists who use their craft to share their own cultures. If I can help those musicians grow their audiences, I’ll know my work has been a success.