Raffi Joe (Wartanian) is quite the Renaissance man—a Fulbright research fellow, multi-platform writer, musician, actor, activist, and now a recording artist with his debut album, “Pushkin Street,” which features 11 original songs that he wrote himself. The “gypsy zest” style has been described as a fusion of Armenian, funk, folk, Greek, gypsy jazz, blues, Latin, and flamenco music.
“In writing an album that was honest, I simply wrote and recorded from a place of freedom and stylistic liberation,” Wartanian told the Armenian Weekly in an interview. “I aimed to write what felt honest and true. I did not set out to write a blues album or a rock album or a funk album. I set out to write a ‘me’ album.”
“My life and exposure to the arts has been a crossroads of traditions, values, and identities,” he explained. As a Baltimore native, Wartanian encountered the many musical styles of the city, including blues, jazz, bluegrass, soul, funk, and rock. During his childhood summers in Beirut, he came across Armenian, Greek, Arabic, and French music. Wartanian described his mother’s love for Armenian popular songs, and his father’s preference for classical music and the opera (in particular, the Anoush Opera) as having a profound effect on him. “I tend to associate places and people with musical genres in terms of how they were transmitted to me,” he said.
As a researcher and actor with Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, Wartanian lived in a house with one of the city’s top gypsy jazz guitarists, while working with a fellow actor deep in the Greek music scene. This experience, he said, “really expanded my musical palette.”
Each song in “Pushkin Street” is inspired by a different story in the singer’s life. “Millard County Jail” and “Gluten Free Blues” both reflect a bicycle ride Wartanian took to raise funds for cancer research, and were originally written as a wedding present to his friends. “Crowds in the Streets” ruminates on the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. “Stumped” was written while sitting on a stump in Baltimore’s Roosevelt Park one day after work. “Abraham Lincoln Log” is about overcoming the fear of dogs. The rest, he says, are love songs or philosophical songs.
The inspiration behind the album was the journey of assembling all of the melodies, chord progressions, and lyrics he had written over the course of many years, and persevering despite the obstacles. “Millard County Jail” is his grandmother’s favourite track off of the album. “She loves that song and would sing the melody to me throughout the gruelling recording process, insisting that I never give up,” Wartanian said.
Yerevan’s Pushkin Street is where he found a “thoroughfare of boundless musical imagination and progressive development.” After studying flamenco guitar in Seville, Spain, the musician travelled to Yerevan, where he performed live music at two clubs on Pushkin Street. “I felt incredibly welcomed and inspired by those two performances, and wanted to pay homage to that evening, to my Armenian roots, and to the masterful writer after whom the street is named,” he explained. Wartanian has since performed a dozen times in Armenia.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Wartanian began studying classical piano at the age of seven before moving on to guitar. He has never shied away from an opportunity at broadening his musical abilities, explaining that “some people have the ability to play one or a handful of genres and never get bored. Personally, I love trying to fuse these rich musical traditions together.” He is currently studying flamenco guitar and oud with teachers at the Komitas Conservatory of Music in Yerevan.
The old African proverb, “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together,” reminds Wartanian of the significant role his family, friends, and colleagues have played in this journey thus far, teaching him “a lot about the power of collaboration with producers, promoters, musicians, artists, business leaders, and great thinkers,” he said.
“Pushkin Street” is available for purchase on iTunes, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and other major online distributors.
For more information about “Raffi Joe” Wartanian, visit his website at http://raffijoemusic.com.