Brave new world music

When vocalist and composer Mariam Matossian made the move from her hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia to Greenville, S.C., she didn't figure on meeting any fellow Armenian musicians. In fact, for her first year in Greenville, when Matossian performed it was mostly at venues thousands of miles away with her Canadian backing band.

Vocalist Mariam Matossian blends Armenian stories and songs with world music savvy.

"Just last summer, someone suggested I get in touch with River Guerguerian through MySpace," she tells Xpress. Surprised to learn that a Middle-Eastern influenced percussionist was living just an hour away in the mountains,  Matossian checked out Guerguerian's tracks — and was blown away. "I was like, 'No way,'" she remembers.

At the same time, Gene Berger of Horizon Records in Greenville passed a disc on to Matossian's husband (and promoter), Haro Setian. It was Free Planet Radio's album, with Guerguerian on drums. Two recommendations seemed like more of a sign than a coincidence, so Matossian contacted Guerguerian to see if he could suggest a local band to back her East coast performances. The percussionist suggested Free Planet Radio. Matossian describes her first meeting with the world-jazz trio (including multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser and bassist Eliot Wadopian) as "probably one of the most amazing rehearsals I've ever had."

But finding a band who could relate to and riff off of Matossian's exotic sound was only half of the challenge. The other side of the coin was finding an audience in her new home. Three years ago, the singer relocated after marrying Setian, a Greenville-based realtor. The two met when Setian purchased one of Matossian's CDs on Web retailer CD Baby, which tracks the e-mail addresses of its customers. "Because I was raised to be a polite Canadian, I wrote people thank-yous," Matossian explains. That sparked an e-mail exchange and subsequent courtship. The two share not just a love of music but their Armenian heritage and a desire to do good for their ancestral homeland (neither were born there, but both have traveled to Armenia and volunteered in its orphanages).

A former republic of the Soviet Union, Armenia is sandwiched between the oft-tumultuous territories of Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It's an area rich in history (its patriarch the great-great-grandson of Noah of arc fame) but rarely registers on the American radar the way other ethnic music hotbeds (Africa, India, Brazil) do. So, when Matossian booked her first Greenville gig this past February, she billed it as "A Night of World Music" because "I didn't want to be too specific and scare people away."

Far from alienating her audience, she sold out the Warehouse Theatre and drew crowds from across the region. Setian reports that his wife's upcoming White Horse performance (with Free Planet Radio) has attracted fans from as far as Nashville. From the White Horse Web site: "Last time these folks were at White Horse we were sold out and the audience was transported to ecstasy." Last time was actually a Free Planet Radio concert with Matossian sitting in for three songs. This time it's Matossian's show.

So what does Armenian music sound like? Filtered through Matossian's world-view, it's delicate yet rhythmic, mystical yet earthy, melodic yet invitingly groovy. "It's totally a fusion," the vocalist says of her style. Raised in Vancouver (which, she points out, has a smaller Armenian population than Toronto, New York or Boston), she was classically trained on piano; her vocal coaching in opera.

"I grew up listening to Latin, jazz and Middle Eastern music," she notes. "I'm not a purist; that's not how I grew up." The end result, instead of an Armenian cultural program, is more of a jaunt through world cultures with an emphasis on the songs Matossian has collected from her mother and from the Armenian orphans she met. At a radio performance, a Chinese musician told Matossian how much her music sounded like traditional Chinese tunes; Setian points out that Irish listeners recognize a commonality to Celtic songs.

Matossian is passionate about her culture, and about introducing it to others. "I don't just sing on stage," she says. "I tell stories. I tell my grandmother's stories. I'm singing in a foreign language, so I like to talk about the songs."

who: Mariam Matossian with Free Planet Radio
what: Armenian/world music
where: White Horse Black Mountain
when: Saturday, Aug. 1 (8 p.m., $10. www.whitehorseblackmountain.com or 669-0816)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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