It’s easy to make things sound complex. What’s much harder is to make complexity sound easy. Los Angeles-based guitarist and composer Vahagni weaves in both, his playing and his compositions, strands from several styles and traditions — flamenco and classical music, Armenian music and jazz. Yet the overall result has a rare, easy-on-the ear quality that belies its many influences.
Born Vahagn Turgutyan in Yerevan, Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union, Vahagni (pronounced Va-HOGG-nee), is the son of Sarkis Turgutyan, a guitar soloist for the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Armenia, and Satenik Shahnazaryan, a theatrical actress. In September 1991, just weeks before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, the family moved to Los Angeles, where they had friends and relatives. Vahagni was only six, but by then, his musical foundation had been established.
“In my house there were primarily three types of music: Armenian folk music, classical music and flamenco,” explains Vahagni. His father’s passion for flamenco began after seeing a television special featuring the great Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia. After that, recalls Vahagni, “he became obsessed and taught himself to play flamenco.”
Vahagni started playing guitar at 9, but early on, his father didn’t allow him to play flamenco. “He wanted me to learn classical technique, the classical repertoire and how to read music first —and he enforced it. He felt it was an important foundation,” recalls Vahagni. “But a couple of years of classical studies were enough for me. By the time I was 11, I started playing flamenco.” His father’s favorites — flamenco masters such as Ramon Montoya, Sabicas and Niño Ricardo — became his early influences.
At about that time Vahagni also became intrigued by classical music and jazz, he says. “I started with the fathers — Beethoven, Bach, Mozart — then Stravinsky. It was the same process with jazz: a lot of Miles, Trane, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Jarrett, a lot of Bill Frisell.”
Meanwhile, having learned everything his father knew about flamenco, Vahagni decided that the next thing to do was to go directly to the source. He didn’t know anybody in Spain and, by his own account, “didn’t speak a word of Spanish,” but in 2004 he moved to Andalucía, the lively and sunny cradle of flamenco.
He studied with maestro Paco Serrano, went to tablaos and played “as much as I could, anywhere they’d let me,” he says. “That´s all I did.”
One thing is to learn the technical aspects of flamenco, but immersing himself in the culture of flamenco also taught Vahagni about “the energy” that finds expression in that music. “That is something you have to feel to understand it,” he says. “You can’t learn that from books. Nobody can explain it to you.”
In all, he spent the next three years alternating between long stays in Andalucía and stretches back home in Los Angeles to recieve his Masters of Fine Arts at the California Institute of the Arts. A highlight of his apprenticeship was playing for one of his idols, the legendary guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar who, on the spot, offered to take him as a disciple. But when the maestro’s health problems delayed their work together, Vahagni embarked on his professional career. “I played a lot in Los Angeles. All my paying gigs were in the jazz scene or with jazz cats, that's where I learned the most,” he says. “And then I also started recording an album. The moment to study with Sanlúcar and be a student again had passed — but I still stayed in touch with him.”
He recorded Short Stories, his first album under his own name, in 2008, and in 2012 released Solitude, an album that featured 11 original tracks and an arrangement of an Armenian folk song.
In 2014, his work caught the attention of Afro-Spanish singer Buika who was looking for an exceptional guitarist, versed in flamenco but with a modern global sound, to accompany on her world tour. After the long tour, Vahagni began work on his next album Imagined Frequencies, released in 2015 and followed by concerts in Japan, US and Canada.
Imagined Frequencies, which features a program of original compositions and one strikingly fresh arrangement of the Armenian traditional song “Hov Arek Sarer Jan” interpreted by Afro-Spanish singer Buika, who also appears in the video, covers a broad musical ground, subtly and elegantly. It is his third album as a leader and, says Vahagni, it’s a true snapshot of himself as composer, player and producer.
“There is more of me in this album than in any other of my recordings,” he says. In fact, his development as a player and composer is accompanied here by his growth as a producer. On Imagined Frequencies (Vahagni Music), Vahagni turned the studio into another instrument “producing, editing and, basically, doing everything to shape the sound of the record. I just fell in love with the creative process in the studio.” Imagined Frequencies includes traditional instruments and performances but also extensive post-production “sound design.” This includes the use of pre-recorded material such as bits of an interview by Spanish painter Salvador Dalí (heard on “Sketches of Dalí”) to taking a section of a piece and, through sound manipulation, creating an entirely new song, as in “Ghost Ships” featuring Sebu of the indie pop group Capital Cities.
In 2016 Vahagni joined the multi platinum selling electro rock group Capital Cities for a nation wide tour as lead guitarist. Commencing the tour in 2017, Vahagni finished the year with a sold out show in Los Angeles with his group. Apart from his solo project, Vahagni has recently joined forces with singer/songwriter Ryan Merchant (Capital Cities) to form the group Paco Versailles. Their sound is a mix of flamenco guitar rhythms with disco-leaning electronic production and captivating vocals, a new genre they call Dancemenco.
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Based in Los Angeles, guitarist Vahagni metes out his influences—the folk music of his homeland Armenia, as well as flamenco, modern sound de- sign, Western classical music and jazz— in his highly personalized third album, Imagined Frequencies
Over forty-minutes and eleven tracks represent a wide range of music from Vahagni that is highly-praised for good reason.
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