Music is the Language of the Soul

Raffi Wartanian: Critical Distance

(Photo: Anastasia Italyanskaya)

When you encounter a musician like Raffi Wartanian, you are immediately reminded of the talented Armenian musicians that exist throughout the diaspora and the importance of supporting them in their art. His latest project provides the listener with a greater insight into his soul and musical prowess and provides a pleasurable experience for both Armenian and non-Armenian audiences alike. 

Everything about Wartanian’s talent is unique and his voice speaks loudly in the world of art and culture. To begin with, he is a first generation Armenian-American who hails from Baltimore, MD, where Armenian immigrants rank in the top five ethnicities to inhabit this state. His parents were born in Lebanon, and his grandparents are from Historic Armenia. Secondly, this gifted musician is also a prolific writer in poetry, non-fiction and screenwriting. Finally, he has the ability to weave his passion for social justice into his music creating a palatable flavor to his compositions. This is a true renaissance artist.

A multi-dimensional artist, he is clearly proficient on the acoustic guitar, but in recent years he has adopted a new love for the oud (a Middle Eastern lute).

Wartanian is about to release a new album entitled Critical Distance, and he is seeking the help of the community through a crowdfunding campaign in order to cover expenses. These original compositions highlight his ability to perform on different stringed instruments such as mandolin, acoustic guitar and oud. This is his first release since Pushkin Street, an album of 11 original songs. By contrast, Critical Distance is an instrumental-only album, 40 minutes in total length and each song leaves you with the feeling of wanting more. 

The entire process of creating this album was unique and rewarding to Wartanian; I was fascinated to hear his process. 

These songs were not initially created with the intention of releasing them as an album. The organic creation of sound bites turned into compositions that channeled his inner feelings while going through some challenging times in his life. These songs created “distance” (hence part of the title of the album) between his challenges, gave him a better vantage point of his feelings and created a healing power. Giving him the proper perspectives allowed him the ability to reflect and push onward. “Music is a powerful way to deal with what you may be going through in life,” said Wartanian. “It is empowering to be able to reflect on something and arrive to a healthy place from those challenges.” 

The album title has a second meaning. Wartanian utilizes several different musical styles on this album, and it occurred to him that it represents a sum total of his many travels. Whether it was where his parents or grandparents lived or the countries he had visited, this album reflects the “critical distance” traveled and the music he discovered during those journeys.  

Each song can be described as very distinct vignette composition. Each track provides the listener a glimpse into his soul.  At first, I thought my favorite song was Appalachatolia which explores a combination of bluegrass and Middle Eastern tones/rhythms. This song begins in a 7/8 time signature that will be familiar to Armenians. He smoothly transitions between this rhythm and bluegrass, keeping you engaged throughout the piece. As I listened to the other tracks, I became conflicted about my favorite song as each piece provides a unique song flavor that is enjoyable to the ear. 

This album tested Wartanian’s technical limits as a musician, almost like a form of exercise. “Each piece has a story behind it,” he said. Critical Distance is different from past work that he has composed and released. When I asked how he arrived to these songs, Wartanian commented, “I followed the music.” Working on this album was a teaching moment for him as an artist; he tells me this experience will stay with him for future composition projects. 

Wartanian is dedicated to his craft and wants to make sure he provides enough effort to make Critical Distance a true success. His work is like a live entity, and he feels he owes it to his work to fully support its life into the public. This dedication is evident in a story he shared about getting married (overseas) this past summer. While he was on his honeymoon, he brought his guitar and practiced the songs, knowing that only five days after he returned home, he would need to go into the recording studio. 

During our conversation, I learned about Wartanian’s passion for the oud and Armenian music. While he was in Lebanon visiting his grandmother, he was working in a refugee resettlement center and one of the Kurdish refugees (from Iraq) played the oud. This prompted Wartanian to record him, and it stirred up enough interest in his conscience to concentrate on becoming more connected to the ancient instrument. Eventually his travels would lead him to Armenia where he took additional lessons and learned Armenian folk melodies. From Armenia to New York City, Wartanian also studied with composer/oudist Ara Dinkjian, who was instrumental in providing Raffi with the knowledge and encouragement to perform. Strong hints of Wartanian’s oud playing can be heard on Critical Distance, and it is his hope to compose more songs specifically on the oud in future releases. 

Wartanian strongly feels that the preservation of Armenian music is a collective undertaking. No one person owns the responsibility, and different artists preserve it in different ways. Critical Distance incorporates methodologies he has studied within Armenian music and are represented on several tracks. “The traditions we learned and grew up with need to be used to innovate and find new frontiers to explore. That’s what Armenian music offers with my CD—ornamentations that I can use in different musical styles.”

Critical Distance also includes well-known percussionist M.B. Gordy who has performed with musical acts ranging from the Doobie Brothers to Frank Zappa. Jake K. Leckie on bass provides the subtle notes that help connect Wartanian’s songs together. 

This is a worthwhile project to support, and doing so will solidify the release of Wartanian’s latest work. It’s not too late to contribute to his crowdfunding campaign. For more information, visit his official website.

Ara Topouzian

Ara Topouzian

Ara Topouzian is an Armenian-American musician whose proficiency at the Kanun (Middle Eastern harp) has made him a nationally-recognized artist.

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