By Taleen Babayan
When Raffi Wartanian had to decide on his next step post-college, the choice was clear for the Johns Hopkins graduate: He wanted to spend a year in Armenia as a Fulbright research fellow focusing on the role of volunteerism and the arts in the development of Armenia’s civil society.
“Music is a means to explore this subject,” said Wartanian, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, who completed his Fulbright in July. “Performance, be it theatrical, musical, literary or academic, builds communities and spreads ideas.”
It was in fact an earlier visit to Armenia that inspired his debut album, PUSHKIN STREET. While there, he had the unexpected opportunity to perform live music in Yerevan on the street named after the famed Russian writer, which Wartanian describes as “a thoroughfare of music, culture, and exquisite cuisine.”
The experience further sparked Wartanian’s musical desires and he spent the next six months recording, mixing and mastering the album, although the “seedlings of certain songs took root years before.” Once he structured the songs through lyrics, chords and melodies, he worked with friends and collaborators in Baltimore to record bass, drums, and keys.
Wartanian’s vision and hard work culminated in an eclectic and unique sound, filled with rich and distinct musical compositions, a reflection of the diverse musical roots instilled in him by his family members from a young age.
His mother, brother, sister and father each played a significant role in shaping his musical tastes – while his brother and sister exposed him to the more contemporary genres of music — The Beatles, Yo La Tango, Guns N Roses and Paco Pena — his parents influenced the more traditional musical elements that are evident in PUSHKIN STREET. Wartanian’s mother played Greek rembetika music, classic rock, and Armenian folk songs for him, and his father, once a student at Etchmiadzin, had a deep affection for Armenian liturgical music from the orthodox badarak, as well as the Anoush Opera. Tying that in with his own interests certainly laid the groundwork for a creative and fresh music style he would nurture over the years.
“Most of my upbringing was spent in Baltimore – a land of the blues, folk, bluegrass, rap, punk rock, and funk – and Beirut – a land of the ancient musics of the orient,” said Wartanian. “I would say all of these influences make an appearance, sometimes in subtle ways, and that each song has its own character both musically and lyrically.”
The diversity of his musical upbringing is evident in each of the songs on his album. “Pelican Sunset” is a love song; “Electronic Flirtation” is a statement on the digitization of romance. Each song has a meaning behind it and is reflective of Wartanian’s experiences over the past few years. “Millard County Jail” and “Gluten Free Blues”, for example, were written as wedding gifts for friends with whom he bicycled across America on a cancer fundraiser ride. The songs, “have got some stories from the road and the sense of excitement that comes with bicycling 80 miles per day. “
During his Fulbright year, which began in August 2012, Wartanian had the opportunity to perform his music throughout Armenia. From clubs to village schools to community centers, Wartanian embraced the audiences that came with each venue that “wouldn’t otherwise have access to singer-songwriter-troubador types.”
The broad ranging environments also provided Wartanian with experiences he otherwise wouldn’t have seen if his music hadn’t led the way. He preferred the small, isolated communities in Armenia, like the villages of Tanzatap (population 60) and Shvanidzor (population 390).
“It’s super interesting to bring something new into a remote village and see the reaction music evokes,” said Wartanian. “Walking down unpaved roads into run down schools where I hear students, teachers, and researchers share stories of local economic and social woes has been painful and enlightening, compelling me to give 110% to each and every performance.”
Aside from taking the time to perform, Wartanian continued to improve his technique by studying the oud and flamenco guitar with masterful teachers from Yerevan’s Komitas Conservatory of Music.
“Growing as a musician under their guidance has been humbling and grown my hunger to continue improving as a player.”
Living in Armenia also thrust him further into the music and arts scene and allowed him to collaborate with other artists and musicians, including Arik Grigoryan, a flutist from the Bambir; Alexy Yeghiakian, from Los Angeles; and Syrian-born Sarkis Atamian and Harch Macoushian. He also worked with filmmaker Oksana Mirzoyan on a music video for the track, “Electronic Flirtation”, and Anahid Yahjian on an experimental music film.
Wartanian played his music outside of his homeland as well, most recently in Prague and Beirut. His performances in Beirut touched him on an even more personal level when he played at the opening of the formerly abandoned mansion of his great-grandfather Mardiros Baloumian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Once occupied by militias during Lebanon’s civil war, a British painter discovered the space, contacted the new property owner, and they agreed to hold an exhibition along with a lecture by the painter’s father, a retired judge, now pursuing a doctorate from Oxford University about a British explorer who witnessed the genocide.
“I performed at the opening as the nearest descendent of Mardiros,” said Wartanian, who was the invited the following day to perform at Badguér, an Armenian cultural center in Bourj Hammoud.
“Both of these events were simply special on many levels, particularly at my great-grandfather’s home where his old typewriter, photographs, and other mementos were on display,” said Wartanian. “He was a man who was never supposed to exist, a man who died three years before I was born, yet like many others that night, I could feel his presence.”
Although Wartanian has received plenty of training and experience over the years – he’s studied classical piano since the age of eight and took lessons at the Peabody Conservatory while in college – he continues to strive to become an even better musician and performer.
“Playing and learning music is like a climbing a glorious mountain that has no summit,” he said. “I constantly strive to improve and develop my technique, the stylistic pallet from which I draw, and learn new songs I find beautiful.”
Music also serves as an avenue for Wartanian to express himself and to question and explore the environment and world around him. As an inhabitant of Armenia for a year, he was able to see his homeland through a different lens and convey that to others through his art.
“I have witnessed first-hand environmental degradation, vote rigging, xenophobia, homophobia, hopelessness, egotism, and more alongside inspiring activism, civic engagement, and optimism for the future,” said Wartanian. “I’m not saying these issues or dynamics do not exist in other countries in the world – they absolutely do. But, sometimes the nature of living in a diaspora, specifically through distance, mitigates the severity of these issues. So at this stage I am driven by shining a light on some of these issues through performance, songwriting, and collaborations, and I am driven, on the more technical side, to get better.”
Although Wartanian recently returned to the Baltimore-DC Metropolitan Area and is working on his second album, his memories and experiences in Armenia as a Fulbright remain with him.
“Beyond music, this grant has presented opportunities to work with some incredible movers and shakers working for environmental, economic, electoral, media, and social reform. Their dedication and efforts have simply been an inspiration.”
Photo: Wartanian with Vahan the blind village elder in May 2013