Classical guitarist Vahagni’s flamenco EP The Life and Death of a Great Matador is being released digitally by Vahagni Music on Friday, October 18, 2019.
The release is supported with a dramatic video featuring Manuel Gutiérrez performing in a bullfighter’s jacket designed by Domingo Zapata.
Framed by Flamenco, This Soundscape is a Tribute to his Father, his Journey, and his Musical Roots
Given his love of visual arts, and painting in particular, it is not a stretch to think of Los Angeles-based guitarist and composer Vahagni’s new EP as a triptych. The title track and centerpiece, “The Life & Death of a Great Matador,” is a composition he wrote for his late father and suggests both celebration and mourning. It is framed by the mysterious, meditative Interlude and the expansive Sunday, each a complete statement that can also be heard as prelude and postscript.
The Life & Death of a Great Matador
The release gets a powerful interpretation in the video featuring flamenco dancer Manuel Gutiérrez. He tells the story with a fierce, intense performance in which he ends facing his fate in a bloodied bullfighter’s jacket — a stunning, wearable art piece by artist, writer, and fashion designer Domingo Zapata.
“Manuel portrays a person’s life, from the joys and victories to the regrets, through the eyes of a bullfighter,” explains Vahagni. “We didn’t want a choreographed dance. Rather, we wanted gestures suggesting some specific emotional textures, and then we cut it to the music, almost like a short art film rather than a music video.”
“I’m a very visual person,” explains the musician, whose credits include tours with Afro-Spanish singer Buika and mega-hit pop duo Capital Cities. “So you know that whatever project I have in mind, there’s always some visual element to it. Always.”
A Tribute to Armenian guitarist Sarkis Turgutyan
“The Life & Death of a Great Matador” is Vahagni’s homage for his father, the late Sarkis Turgutyan, the first-ever guitar soloist for the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Armenia. His father’s passion for flamenco, a genre he fell in love with after watching a television special on the great Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía, became a foundational piece in Vahagni’s music. It’s not by chance that flamenco informs the sound of this tribute.
“The piece is part of my mourning process,” reflects Vahagni. “He passed away a few years ago, and I picked the theme of the matador to represent his life. That’s why in the first part of it you hear me playing guitar in a kind of celebration of life; and then in the second part, it’s about death and mourning.”
A Chaquetilla designed by Domingo Zapata
As for the chaquetilla, the bullfighter’s jacket, it’s darkened by streaks suggesting blood and mud. It was loaned by Domingo Zapata himself after hearing the music and learning about the concept of the video.
As it turns out, Gutierrez and his wife work with actress Eva Longoria and her Foundation and at one of its events, they met Zapata and “it was all very organic, straightforward. And it worked wonderfully,” says Vahagni.
The music on the EP reflects Vahagni’s evolving approach to using the recording studio as a composition tool and as an instrument, something he explored in his album Imagined Frequencies (2015). The Life & Death of a Great Matador, is “based on open forms of writing, more of an art music kind of composition. ‘Interlude’ is just an extended gesture,” he says. “It’s all just me and my production, done live to one guitar loop.” Meanwhile, with its steady almost mournful pulse, the opening of “Sunday” hints at a martinete, a style within flamenco, before it becomes an unexpected, jazz-tinged rumba.
Born Vahagn Turgutyan in Yerevan, Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union, Vahagni (pronounced Va-HAWG-nee), was only six when, on September 1991, just weeks before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, the family moved to Los Angeles.
He grew up listening to Armenian folk music, classical music, and flamenco. He started playing guitar at nine, but before letting him venture into flamenco, his father demanded Vahagni learn classical technique, how to read music and works from the classical guitar repertoire. Flamenco, classical music and jazz — from Ramon Montoya, Sabicas, and El Niño Ricardo to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Miles Davis and Pat Metheny — became, and remain, the foundation of his music.
“Flamenco is one of the few musical cultures that sounds like it was made for the guitar. As a guitarist you feel it: this music is meant to be played with my instrument,” says Vahagni.”
The pull of flamenco took him from Los Angeles to Andalucía. Although he admits he “didn’t speak a word of Spanish,” in 2004 Vahagni decided to go to the source and moved to the cradle of flamenco. He spent time in Córdoba and Seville, studying and playing “as much as I could, anywhere they’d let me.” For the next three years, he alternated between extended stays in Spain and Los Angeles.
He became part of the LA jazz scene (“All my paying gigs were in the jazz scene or with jazz musicians, that’s where I learned the most,” he says); recorded several albums including Short Stories (2008); Solitude (2012) and Imagined Frequencies (2015). Since, he has decided to release his music more frequently but in smaller formats such as EPs and singles.
“I’m more and more interested in developing music that is not conventional,” says Vahagni. “I love sound design and the marriage of technology and actual instruments. I hear the music I’m working on as the equivalent to what happens in painting: it’s not figurative but just textures. Each track on this EP represents a very personal feeling for me, but you as a listener can make of it whatever you want.”
Even in Spain, flamenco is a blend of cultures
What we now call flamenco originates with the Romani people of northern India. They were traveling court musicians.
I recognize flamenco in the classical music and dance of Bangkok, Thailand, one of the cities of my birth.
On the journey to Andalucía, which was the end of the world from the European perspective, what we now call Spanish flamenco absorbed everything along the road through what are now Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria/Lebanon/Israel/Jordan, Turkey, Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, Italy, France and finally Spain.
The conquistadors shipped out from Andalusía and brought their music with them. In what we now call Cuba (formerly New Spain) the evolution continued into what we call Latin music today. Cuban rumba flamenco even went back to Spain as flamenco ida y vuelta (flamenco round trip).
After touring South America, legendary flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía brought a Peruvian Cajón (drum box) back to Spain. It is now a standard flamenco instrument. Most people think it is Spanish.
So flamenco keeps absorbing everything around it like a Mediterranean sponge. It’s lovely when someone from one culture completely understands something from another culture.
Vahagni is Armenian flamenco. Or maybe he’s just flamenco because if you let go of your pride of heritage, flamenco is made from little pieces of us all.
Have a listen and watch the video. If you are really still, you can hear the entire road from India to Cuba and back. ¡Olé!