Backbeat: Secret Show at Draco Rosa's Studio Inaugurates L.A.'s Fairfax Sessions
Backbeat: Secret Show at Draco Rosa's Studio Inaugurates L.A.'s Fairfax Sessions

arto Artyom Manukyan and Arto Tunçboyaciyan performing at Phantom Vox studio's Fairfax Sessions. (Photo: David Navas)

While the usual stream of cars rumbled down West Hollywood's Fairfax Avenue outside Phantom Vox Studios, a secret show was taking place inside a heavy curtained recording room Monday night. The inaugural event in an anticipated series of intimate performances, dubbed the Fairfax Sessions, featured a trio of Armenian musicians playing what could be described as avant-garde world jazz. They included 2006 BBC World Music Awards winner Arto Tunçboyaciyan of the Armenian Navy Band, best known for the soul-searching sounds he creates from blowing on a beer bottle.

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It was the first public event at Phantom Vox, the recording studio owned by Robi 'Draco' Rosa -- now known as Draco Rosa -- the Puerto Rican rock singer, producer and composer of hits by Ricky Martin and other major Latin artists. Like Martin, he was a member of Menudo.

"I remember when Draco and Desmond Child called me and asked, 'Do you think 'Livin' La Vida Loca' is a good name for a song'?" said Debbie Ohanian, who organized the show at Rosa's invitation, referring to Martin's 1999 crossover sensation, co-written by Draco and Child. Now based in Los Angeles, Ohanian, a clothing designer and entrepreneur, was previously a social force in Miami, where she owned the popular salsa club Starfish. She was one of the first to present Cuban artists in Miami in the 1990s.

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While a bartender shook drinks at a table set up off the studio's bucolic courtyard, Rosa, 41, quietly greeted guests as they arrived on Monday night, and he departed before the show was over. He became the focus of Latin media last year when it was announced he had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his abdomen. He has since been undergoing treatment, and has recorded an album of duets of his songs with artists including Juanes, Rubén Blades, Shakira, Ricky Martin, Juan Luis Guerra and Marc Anthony. Studio manager Tom Baumgartner, who showed Billboard Phantom Vox's vintage Neve console, described how the artists enthusiastically came out to support Rosa and participate in the project, coming to record even over the Christmas holidays.

Last month Rosa signed with SESAC, and recently performed with Guerra and Blades in a series of sold-out concerts at the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

On Monday, an audience of about 50 guests sat in the high-ceilinged room, whose decor includes worn Oriental rugs, a porthole mirror, a ventriloquist's dummy and a large American flag. Tunçboyaciyan was joined by Artyom Manukyan on cello and Vardan Ovsepian on piano for an improvisational set that traveled from straight up jazz to trip hop. The New York-based Tunçboyaciyan, who has performed with jazz giants as well as recorded with System of a Down, at times played his trap drums like congas, chanted and banged a tambourine. Manukyan's playing varied from classical bowing to a not unpleasant electronic drone. The Berklee-trained Ovsepian demonstrated equally unusual range.

rosa Robi Draco Rosa and Debbie Ohanian at Rosa's Phantom Vox studio in Los Angeles during the inaugural Fairfax Sessions concert. (Photo: J. Garcia)

The crowd gave the group a standing ovation. Still, after the performance, Tunçboyaciyan, who has been touring so much he gave his current residence as "Lufthansa", talked about the difficulty of playing in a room without monitors, outfitted for recording rather than live performance. "Between that and the bad Chinese food we ate for dinner, I thought we might not pull if off," he said.