My Duduk Story
Thirty years ago, as a music student, I was listening to my favourite pop music station and I was stopped in my tracks to hear the most haunting, beautiful sound. It was a soulful musical instrument that to me sounded very like the human voice. It was played in a very expressive way with a quality like a flute and yet with a slight edge and rawness that is not from a flute. I waited for the DJ to say who was playing but he just kept playing songs, although I did hear him say Armenian. This memory stayed with me, but I was busy playing my own instrument the bassoon. However, in my mind, I filed this memory away and decided not to forget and to try to track down what I'd heard.
Years later my search for this haunting sound becomes more real. I wanted to find this musical instrument that had reminded me of my beloved bassoon but sounded more ethnic and from another land and time. I asked around musicians and amazingly managed to find out that what I'd heard was an Armenian Duduk. It was an old, traditional instrument that was hardly heard of in western culture but this was going to change!
I went looking in London to see if I could buy one. There were shops there with hand-crafted instruments from all round the world. Though I looked several times I could not find one. I didn't even know what one looked like I was on a bit of a blind quest. Then in 1988 a movie came out The Last Temptation of Christ with a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. This atmospheric soundtrack became famous and featured a slow, languishing, haunting, powerful and timeless melody played on the duduk. Now things were starting to become easier to find my elusive instrument.
I found out that the player I had heard on the radio those years ago was well-known and much respected in his own field and he's made CDs. His name is Divyan Gasparayan. Nowadays you can probably go into any big music store and find his CDs in the world music section. I've even heard a rumour his music is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth!
There was a photo on the CD cover so now finally at least I knew how this instrument looked. As it can produce quite low notes I expected it to be bigger so I was surprised to find that the longest one is only 16 inches in length. It looks a bit like an oboe, or a big penny-whistle. The main body is a simple hollow wooden pipe with 8 finger holes, and one hole underneath for your thumb. It's hand-made; traditionally from apricot wood which helps to give it characteristic warm tone.
It has a very large double reed on it and here lies the skill (and difficulty) in playing it, and the secrets of its husky tones. Also, I suspect, the carefully crafted reed is the reason that its tone sounds deeper and fuller than you would expect from an instrument of this size. The range of notes is actually quite small just over an octave but I had never really noticed this when I'd heard it played as I was so drawn into the music.
The duduk originated in Armenia about 1500-2000 years ago and later Armenians took it to neighbouring countries where slightly different versions are played with their own names e.g. mey in Turkey. Although I associate it with slow soulful tunes, in Armenia you are just as likely to hear it playing fast upbeat tunes for dancing, weddings, festivals and folk music.
It seemed that film & TV producers also started to realise this instrument sounded atmospheric. Gradually I was hearing its tones more often in soundtracks; I particularly noticed a poignant track in the movie The Gladiator. You can also hear its evocative sound in the movies: Dead Man Walking, The Crow, Alexander, Syriana Munich Chronicles of Narnia and recently a favourite TV series of mine (science-fiction with spiritual tones) Battlestar Gallatica.
Finally, I found one in a rare musical instrument shop in London. Good as I am at playing wind instruments; I have to admit I found it really hard to play! I felt a bit like my head was going to explode with pressure as I blew into it. This was not the fulfilling, triumphant scene I'd imagined through all the years of my quest. I'd fantasised I would be standing in the shop and would take a few moments to find my way round the instrument, and then an amazing poignant sound would come out that took people's breath away. But the reality was I could hardly get a sound out of it, and it did not sound wonderful!
I can try to blame it on that I think my instrument was leaking badly (hence the shop had put blue-tak around the mouthpiece to make it work). Also you need to soak the reed for a few minutes to moisten and soften it up a well-crafted reed in good condition can make all the difference. However, I am wise enough to know that many musical instruments need a while of experimenting before you can produce pleasing sounds.
So, from being an instrument of ancient times and little known in the West now, with the immediate personal access opportuned by the internet and YouTube; you can watch and listen to short videos of great duduk players and see the actual instrument being made and demonstrated by its craftsmen. I could not have imagined anything like this all those years ago when I started my search. Sitting at home on my computer watching these videos from across the world; I felt like these musicians & duduk makers are new stars of the internet. Such is the magic of the internet to connect people and bring our dreams into a real possible hobby.