Back in February, Rekwired got a chance to sit down and have a long and interesting talk with talented musician, screenwriter and actor Raffi Joe, who has recently released his debut album Pushkin Street and will be celebrating the CD release party today, March 30, in Yerevan’s Music Factory. A fusion of gypsy jazz, rock, funk, Balkan, Armenian and sometimes even Greek folk – his music is best described by a genre name of his own invention – Gypsy Zest.
“The melodies and lyrics of Pushkin Street tell intimately absurd and absurdly intimate stories, demand justice for a fractured world, and sound like tunes one could dance or sing or drive or cook or swim or shower to”, is stated on Raffi Joe’s official website, and we couldn’t agree more.
Before you dive into reading the interview, we suggest you stream Pushkin Street in its fullest below and enjoy this unique combination of genres and styles while Raffi unveils the album backstory and everything that made this record happen, along with his creative plans for future and much more.
Rekwired: Many people in Armenia haven’t heard about you yet. Introduce yourself, and tell us how and when and where it all started.
Raffi Joe: My name is Raffi Joe Wartanian – Joe’s my middle name, I use that for the artist name. I’ve been in Armenia since August, this is my third time here. I was here in 2007 for three months as a Birthright Armenia volunteer. I came back in 2012 for one week on vacation and now I’m here for the third time since August. I’m here on a research grant, it’s called The Fullbright Research Fellowship, and that’s what gave me the opportunity to come to Armenia. Before I came, I had embarked on creating my first album. I was living in Baltimore where I’m born and I didn’t know that I would wind up in Armenia when the album would be finished, but this opportunity came, I did not want to miss it. I’ve been yearning to come back to Armenia and so here I am.
I’ve been surrounded and exposed to a lot of different styles of music throughout my life for a number of reasons: my aunt is a classical pianist, my mom sort of studied piano but not too much, my dad loves Anoush opera but isn’t very musically inclined and my older brother and older sister they both studied piano and they both studied guitar before I started with piano at the age of 8, and then the guitar at the age of 12. My brother was always obsessed with The Beatles, Nirvana, and he would play with his friends. His friends created this band called Yeasayer, they’re a very popular band, but back then they all played together, so music was always a part of their social dynamic. My sister loved Guns N’ Roses and she loved flamenco guitar. And so all these things were very important for me. My mom was always listening to Greek music, Arabic music, Armenian music and rock music. We went to Lebanon almost every summer, and there I saw a lot of this music, too. In Lebanon they listen to a lot of Greek music, Arabic music, Armenian music, the western music, the eastern, the oud and all these things. And then when I was in highschool I really got into rock, when I was in college I really got into funk, jazz, blues and then I started to get into gypsy jazz, and then from gypsy jazz I really started to get into flamenco and Greek music, again. When I was living in San Francisco in 2009, I was living with a really good gypsy jazz guitarist and that really got me into gypsy jazz. I wanted to find a gypsy jazz school in Europe. I couldn’t, but I found flamenco schools. So that’s sort of what got me more connected to flamenco music.
Rekwired: Are you planning to stay in Yerevan for good?
RJ: It’s hard to say. The job I have now, it will last until the early summer. I really want Armenia to be a part of my life for the rest of my life. Right now it’s hard for me to say whether I’ll be able to remain here. I want to, but even if I can’t over the next two or three years, my plan is to regularly return here, and as much as possible – continue to do the things I’m doing here, such as giving concerts.
Rekwired: What other activities are you doing in Armenia – aside from volunteering, research, concerts. What exactly interests you in Armenia?
RJ: I am teaching a screenwriting class at the TUMO center, that’s a 6-month process, it’s been like one week on, three weeks off, but now we’re meeting every week. I’m trying to gather data about volunteerism in Armenia, so I’m developing a survey for that. I’ve done these sort of lecture/concerts around Armenia – in Dilijan, Kapan, Ejmiatsin and few other places. I’ve given a presentation about education in the US, recreational marijuana, laws in the US and same-sex marriage laws in the US, and then I perform original music after that. And without lecturing I’ve also gone to Shnough most recently, Chinchin, Talin and some other places just for performing. One time we went skiing to Tsaghkadzor and it was awesome. In April I’m going to go to Prague for a seminar for our Fellowship and I’m going to present about civic engagement in Armenia. I want to talk to them about Occupy Mashtots Park that happened last February as an example of civic participation creating the kind of change that the people wanted as an opposing force to the interests of business, oligarchs, etc. Besides that, I’ve helped some different projects here and there, mostly editing documents.. I’m also taking oud lessons and flamenco guitar lessons. Those are some of the things I’m also doing besides music.
Rekwired: What would you say, how does living and working in Armenia differ from living and working in the US, music-wise? Is it harder to play for Armenian audience and to engage them?
RJ: I have to say I find that the audiences in Armenia are a lot more supportive and a lot more encouraging, and that’s really a pleasure coming from my perspective. It was a little bit easier for me in the US, in Baltimore, for example, because I’m from Baltimore and I know a lot of musicians, but now it’s just getting easier and easier here. There, I was living with my family and I was making more money because, you know, that’s the US. So in those ways that was easier, but I have found that the audiences are a lot more supportive here, the promoters and the clubs are a lot more supportive. And playing outside of the capital is really exciting, – and that’s not something I was doing a lot in the US, I wasn’t trying to play outside of my city. Here I want to play in Shnough, in Chinchin, as the more deprived the village, the more I want to play there, because I’ve learned that they don’t get to have performances of, for example, someone like me who tries to play original music. They don’t get that as much, so if I can do a small part in providing a service that is different for them and not something they would typically see, I love that. And I’ve found that the kids love it! You know, after I perform they all want to take pictures, they want to talk, they’re so excited, and it’s not like that in the US. Because it’s a different life: here, you go to the village and you travel centuries, like you’re going to a very different place, a very different lifestyle and mentality; in the US, when you travel to a different city, to a different village or whatever, you know, even though there’s still poverty in the US it’s still a very developed country and they’re just so much more diverse and there’s so much more access. So being able to come here and share what I can share is very gratifying.
Rekwired: Do you have a constant band or a line-up to play here?
RJ: I’m working on that. I found a bass player, which is great news, he’s really great. Confirmed with the drummer yesterday. So now we just need to establish our schedule – I’m looking to rehearse for hopefully two or three times per week. And I want our first show as a band to be the CD release party. But besides them I am playing with a guitarist pretty regularly and sometimes we have a harmonica player, and sometimes I’ll play with guest musicians. On last Friday, Arik Grigoryan from Bambir played two songs. In the past – Sasha Hakobyan he’d come and usually do harmonica songs. And then I play sometimes with Marie Arabadjian, she’s a vocalist for Solar Band. We’re doing Armenian songs. There’s an Armenian guy from Halep who just came, so we’re doing like two guitars and Marie singing. And Eileen Khatchadourian came in September, she’s a singer from Lebanon, she won Best Rock Album in 2009 from Midan. I played with her when she performed at Bourbon St., and I’ve written songs for her and stuff. These are all the different people I tend to collaborate with and yes, now I am in the process of forming a regular band.
Rekwired: What about the band in the US? You’ve gathered some people to record the album, did you play with them, too?
RJ: Yeah. I’ve played with many bands in the US and I always wanted to create an album, but I thought the ideas I had were very different and they had a lot of different influences, and a lot of times I couldn’t find the people who shared in those ideas and who also shared in that range of influences. So I decided rather than trying to form a band and then trying to write an album together, or even trying to join a band and propose one or two songs, I’d make an album. Or I would write the songs and then bring in musicians who I knew and who I trusted, who I loved, and work with them. So that’s what I did. I developed the songs, and then [engaged] my friend Julian [Rosenberg] – he’s a great bass player and a very dear friend of mine, so we had the bass and we brought on the drummer who was one of the best drummers in Baltimore, Mike Gambone. He’s amazing. I started rehearsing with him, showing him the songs. I have lyric sheets and I write notes on them and I make photocopies. So I just hand them out. And I do it here in Armenia, too, so if I have new people I give them the papers and I say – these are the songs. It’s a good point of reference. And then a keyboard player, too, Jon Tippens, who was also a really good friend. They were all really kind enough to agree to participate and they all said the same thing, basically, which is like: “We haven’t heard music like this before and this is very interesting for us”. Because, you know, they were playing a lot of same stuff: a lot of funk, R&B, soul. And this was different for them so they were kind enough to agree to go on a such journey.
Rekwired: You’ve also played several gigs with a band called Raffi Joe and The Gypsy Zest, tell us about that.
RJ: The Gypsy Zest. That was just a name for the band because it’s not just my name, it indicates that there’s a band. In the US it was a constant line-up, here we’re working on making it a constant lineup. There also, we were trying to get guest musicians to come, but there was a core: Mike on drums, Jon on keyboard and Julian on bass. And they’re all listed on the album.
Rekwired: What is Gypsy Zest? It’s a title for a genre that you invented. Can you tell us why exactly “Gypsy Zest”, was it because of gypsy jazz influences, or what?
RJ: There’s a few reasons. First of all, I had a hard time, like many musicians, describing the music in one genre, category, because it’s a fusion of styles. And people always asked me – okay, what’s your style, what’s your style. And my options were either tell them all the different genres that it’s a fusion of, or maybe say something short and simple that describes all of that. So – Gypsy Zest,- because yes, there is a sort of gypsy feeling to it, and Zest because, you know, it’s got a zesty feeling.
The truth is that we were going to form a band – this was in college – we were going to form a band called Zesty Zigots and that never happened but we always kept talking about it. And then we had another band we were going to create that was called The Gypsy Treat, and so I wanted to sort of pay homage to those things that never became a reality by incorporating them, and I thought it was actually a nice description for all the different genres – rock, Greek, funk, Latin, Armenian, blues, Balkan.
Rekwired: How did you find that fine line that keeps the album so whole, complete, because many other artists have really hard time gathering all those different genres into one and yet recording a fluent album as a result.
RJ: I spoke about this a lot with the mixing engineer when we were mixing the album and he was amazing. His name is Chris Bentley, he’s also listed on the credits. He has a great ear and he’s not only thinking about each song, really specifically, but he’s thinking about all the songs together. I think one of the things he said, or two things, that are common across all the songs, even though each song is different, is the singing and the guitar-playing. There’s a certain shared expressiveness across all of them. The singing is always expressive and very dramatic. Even in more subdued songs there’s these more expressive moments. And then the guitar work can be erratic at times, and there’s usually either a solo or some sort of unexpected moment or turnaround that will catch you by surprise. Those are some of the things that are common across all of the songs.
And another really important thing is if one is to listen to the whole album from beginning to finish I think the order of the songs is very important because we didn’t know the order until the very end. And everyone had a different opinion on what the order should be: it should be like this, it should be like that, this song should go first, that song should go first. So ultimately, I just tried to listen to everybody, if I liked this person’s idea how the order should start and that person’s idea about how it should end, just trying to bring it all together as much as I can. I think the ordering is also important.
Rekwired: What about the title? It’s called “Pushkin Street”, and we all know that it’s the famous street of pubs in Yerevan, the favourite street of young people.
RJ: When I came in February, 2012, I had the opportunity to perform twice on Pushkin street. I performed at Beatles pub, and I performed at Calumet, in just one week. And that really inspired me to call the album Pushkin Street. And at that time I was like: am I gonna create an album, am I not gonna create an album? But after that week in Armenia I became really determined. And I wanted to acknowledge Armenia in the album because Armenia is always important for me, especially musically. I also wanted to recognize, of course, that street because of all the music that happens there and the fact that it’s named after a famous writer, I think is also significant. I just loved the name of it and I also thought it’s a good idea to name it after something I have a direct experience with. There’s a writing principal – write what you know, so I’m very familiar with Pushkin street. I didn’t want it to be an abstract, funny name, like The Naked Babies Dance Over the Rainbow, just something simple, and that had a lot of personal meaning to me and something I felt could have personal meaning for others.
Rekwired: Do you have any other previous records?
RJ: Well, sort of, yes. I’ve recorded – not personally me as Raffi Joe, this is the first one, – but I’ve recorded with high-school band, Longhouse, we recorded an album. In college we recorded a live album with my funk band Defawnk. I’ve recorded with a soul band in Baltimore, actually 2 soul bands, one being Milton Russel & the Promise. I recorded and abstract album, that’s really weird. It was meant to be for a film but it was all on Garage Band and really low quality. It was just really experimental.
Rekwired: What are the main influences on your music?
RJ: A lot of influences, we were talking about at the beginning. So, there’s rock, blues, jazz, gypsy jazz, flamenco, Greek, Armenian, Latin, theatre music. I’ve performed in an orchestra for four musicals. That Boy, the musical, I played lead guitar. Into The Woods – I played drums. I also played in gospel musicals, and I’ve worked as an actor. I studied as an actor, so I love theatre and I think that’s definitely part of the influence. These are the genres, and in terms of artists, there’s Sam Skarstad, he’s my friend, The Beatles, of course, there’s this rebetiko music from Greece, from the 20s, it’s like the Greek blues, – Markos Vamvakaris. I like him a lot, was listening to him a lot. I was listening to That Boy the musical, I was listening to this band Superland Stage Band, Viza, Oingo Boingo, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, Ibrahim Ferrer.
I was told I should listen to Frank Zappa, and I was told that so many times that I said I should definitely not listen to Frank Zappa until I’m finished, then I’ll listen to Frank Zappa. So now I’m listening to Frank Zappa after the fact. Also Fela Kuti, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, a lot of this gypsy jazz stuff. There’s a group called Doug Martin, Avatar Trio, these are the guys I was living with in San Francisco. And there’s this French-Armenian guy in Marseille who I met who wrote some really crazy songs. I met him when I went there for a visit.
So I’ve been listening to all this stuff. John Scofield,- as a guitarist, I love John Scofield. Tony Bennett, I love Tony Bennett. And then I like all the Armenian folk songs, ‘cause I went to Armenian school. There’s like a lot of Armenian folk songs and now with the oud lessons I’m learning all these other songs.
Rekwired: You mentioned the theatre as an influence. What other stuff besides music influenced you?
RJ: Bicycling. Two times I’ve bicycled from Baltimore to San Francisco across the USA, and those were really amazing experiences. And I actually came up with a lot of music during those. We had a team – twenty five people, we became like a family, so I would make up songs about everyone on the team and our experiences.
Bicycling, what we did – going across America, was really hard, especially the first time. The second time was less hard ‘cause I had done it before. But the first time was really hard, you know, climbing the rocky mountains, climbing the Appalachian Mountains, going through the deserts, going through very windy parts.. in the summer, it was very hot. It was tough, you know, so one of the things that taught me is just to fight hard, if you really want to achieve something, just keep pedaling, keep going one pedal stroke at a time, don’t worry about your destination, just be in the moment, be present in the moment. And also bicycling is great exercise, so it always reminded me of importance of taking care of yourself, and in taking care of yourself through the bicycle – taking care of the environment around you. I brought my bike with me, it’s here. I was just biking before we met. So I try to use it now in Armenia, just to go here and there.
Rekwired: How do you find it? Biking in Armenia.
RJ: I have to be honest with you, I’m mostly biking in Yerevan. I only went once to Khor Virap by bicycle, that was okay, but biking in Yerevan is a little dangerous. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone unless they know what they’re doing on a bike or if there starts to be more bicycle infrastructure developed. I know there’s a lot of great initiatives to try to create more of a bicycle culture and that kind of thing. But bicycling is definitely a big non-musical influence on my music.
Rekwired: Considering that you have theatrical background and have already tried writing songs about made-up people, do you think that someday you might write a musical yourself?
RJ: I would love to! Well, I’ve written three screenplays for films: one is about Soghomon Tehlirian, one is about Arshile Gorky and another one is different. I also wrote one here. It’s short, it’s like 16 pages, it’s about a beggar in Yerevan who has to go to Tbilisi, to go to his brother’s funeral. And he has to collect the money to do it. So I do write scripts, but I have thought about writing a musical, too. I think I want to write a second album before I try writing a musical. I do have a friend in New York who I love writing music with and we have a lot of fun together; so he would be someone I would love to write a musical with. But yes, it’s definitely something I’m interested in doing.
And I have to say, just being in Armenia during this time – since I’ve been here, all these crazy things were happening – Safarov, chess, the elections, and I’ve also seen a lot of problems – all the trash everywhere, the homelessness, the poverty, the elderly beggars, the children beggars.. When you go out to the villages, the sense of helplessness, that kind of thing. I don’t know, I’m going to be thinking about these things for a very long time. And I want to continue thinking about that as I write more music, so it’s a big inspiration.
I’m trying to prepare the second album, so I already have a lot of material now, I’m starting to slowly weave it together. The thing about writing this music is that I have so many chord progressions and melodies and ideas, and it’s like they’re on a shelf and I have to grab them and start trying to bring them all together.
Rekwired: When are you planning to start the new record?
RJ: I guess I really want to start sinking my teeth into it in the fall. I want to do some more performing and continue to collect ideas, which I’m doing now. I’d like it to be out in 2014, maybe, that’s my hope.
Rekwired: Any Armenian musicians you’d like to collaborate with?
RJ: Oh, so many! Komitas! [laughs] I don’t know, for example, I’d love to have Arik play on some songs. I’d love to have my oud teacher, Mihran Demirchyan, play. If we can get Serj Tankian that would be awesome. Arto Tunçboyacıyan, that would be awesome. There’s the guitar player from Viza, Orbel, he’s awesome, I’d love him or their oud player, Andranik. Sasha, I’d love to have Sasha. Maybe if I do something funkier – maybe with Daniel Petrossian, he’s in Florida.. Charles Aznavour. Those are some of the people I’d like to collaborate with. It really depends where I’m recording, what resources are available and what’s the availability of the other players, sometimes that’s just what it boils down to.
Rekwired: Plans for future?
RJ: Continue to rehearse with all these people, continue to develop my ideas, continue to practice on oud and flamenco. Really, right now I’m trying to become a technically better player, more than trying to write new things. It’s like my priority, it’s always been that. Especially with oud, but also with flamenco guitar because playing flamenco guitar is hard, it’s really hard and it requires a lot of practice, a lot of attention, a lot of dedication. So I want to continue with that. And of course trying to continue to do promotion for Pushkin Street. I want to do a music video, so I’m trying to talk to some different people about that. I’m trying to reach out to the press and spread the word. And one of my goals is to have my music featured on film, television, radio, game or commercials, so we mastered a fully instrumental version so it can also be easily applied to different media settings. It has been used by Tailgate 32, a web series show, – they used one of the songs, Stumped, on an episode. That was cool. It takes time – moving all these things forward, but I’m trying.
You can purchase a physical copy of Raffi Joe’s debut album, Pushkin Street, from Green Bean Coffee Shop, InnSerenity yoga retreat center and The Music Factory in Armenia. The record is also available via iTunes, Bandcamp, Spotify, CD Baby and Amazon.
The interview was prepared by Gayane Aghababyan and Nelly Aghabekyan.
All photos are courtesy of Raffi Joe.