Middle Eastern Music Blog

Is the Duduk Really Armenian?

Our new synth app features a splendid display of numerous instrument samples – one of which is the duduk. As soon as you saw the title of this post, as the reader, your mind likely visualized a deep and emotional movie scene soaked in the tears of the soundtrack’s multi-thousand-year-old weeping duduk.

So what’s the story with the duduk?

The duduk is a double-reed woodwind instrument widely associated with ancient origins in Armenia. Through a wave of usage in the Western world, the mournful instrument has left a deep and lasting impression on the global music scene, providing haunting accompaniments in albums, movies, television shows, soundtracks and concerts galore (Gladiator, Ronin, Syriana, Passion of the Christ, Battlestar Galactica, Yanni performances, etc.) – so much so that it has reached a point where study of the duduk has expanded beyond the realm of Armenian musicians into something bordering along the mainstream. If you’d like a full analysis on the role of the duduk in modern music, film, and television, here is a great read done by the LA Times.

So what do we know about the instrument?  It is pretty consistently attributed to the Armenians and wikipedia states it is at least 3000 years old. The sources which state as such, however, tend to be infirm or pervaded with tautological approaches (as in, it’s old, because it’s old). There are similar sounding instruments in various neighboring countries, such as the duduki in Georgia, the mey in Turkey and the balaban in Azerbaijan. Depending on the region where a particular country is situated, trees indigenous to that area will serve as the material for making the instrument (plum, walnut or apricot trees). The Armenian variety are typically made with apricot wood, which provides a distinctive and noticeably different sound from the woods generally used in other countries. Nonetheless, the version of the duduk we hear today, which can be seen as consistently discussed and mentioned to be “thousands” of years old by various sources, may actually have a bit of a more complicated, and much more recent history. A history rooted in politics, revolution and social and cultural engineering, specifically the Sovietization of the Caucasus states, including Armenia:

 

Article info: A Look at the Emergence of the Concept of National Culture in Armenia: The Former Soviet Folk Ensemble
Author(s): Andy Nercessian
Source: International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jun.,
2000), pp. 79-94
Published by: Croatian Musicological Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108426
As this article states, the duduk’s sound in recordings before 1926 was decidedly different than the tone and timbre heard in duduk’s in the modern era, and more closely resembled what people might recognize as a zurna (another – much more high pitched and piercing – double reed wind instrument) by today’s musical expectations and norms. In essence, there is evidence that the duduk heard today was designed and built less than 100 years ago, in line with, and as a result of, Soviet cultural engineering, departing from its origins as a zurna-sounding like instrument.
Let’s look a little deeper. Nercessian’s research continues:
The Turkish and Russian words of duduk and duda respectively – which are from completely different language families sounding nearly identical to the Armenian name is quite a coincidence. And there is more information on the reconstruction of the duduk by V.G. Buni and the development of the instrument in Armenia vis-a-vis other neighboring countries.
So where does this take us? When it comes to music – a multicultural, innately shared and inescapably diverse artistic medium – the answer is that the question of whether an instrument is “______ian” itself may not be all that meaningful.  What is the utility in assigning definite and closed borders to the understanding and view of an instrument’s origins? As we can see, the support for the multi-thousand year old ancient Armenian-only narrative of this instrument is not absolute, and also, upon closer detailed examination, unearths sources outlining that the modern duduk may have been a byproduct of political events and sociocultural engineering programs which modified an already existing – and decidedly different – instrumental ancestor.
Does this mean that we should not enjoy listening to the duduk? Of course not – quite the contrary.  It’s one of TAQS.IM‘s favorite instruments!
Let us know what you think in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Is the Duduk Really Armenian?

  1. Harry Kezelian says:

    We have some recordings of duduk made in California in the 30s/40s. At least, I think it is a duduk. The instrument sounds much more like a zurna. The reason being that the musicians were “Russahyes” who came to CA before 1926. On the other hand, I have also heard recordings made before the first world war. Some sounded more zurna like and some closer to the modern duduk (though not as smooth).

  2. Harry Kezelian says:

    Based on the available evidence, I believe yes, the duduk is Armenian in origin. Though it is utilized in different forms by neighboring countries, all of those regions are very close to the Arax river, flowing almost completely through historic Armenia, which is where the water reeds used in the making of duduk reeds naturally grow. Therefore, the duduk is used by Eastern Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, and the inhabitants of Northwestern Iran. Probably its introduction to Georgia came by way of Armenians from the Arax (Ararat) valley. In Turkey, the native areas where the duduk is used, is really limited to the rural areas to the East of Erzurum – areas which fall in the uppermost part of the Arax river valley, and again a part of historical Armenia. But, it has been known and admitted that the Armenians are the most closely connected with this instrument. That being said, it was not really used very often in Western Armenia and therefore was not commonly known among the Armenian Diaspora which stemmed from the Genocide. The reason for that is that Western Armenia mostly lies outside the basin of the Arax River. Even storied strongholds of ancient Armenia like Van, Moush, Sasoun and similar locations were not near the Arax and were not locations where the duduk was common. For example, the instrument of choice in Sasoun was the srink (see below), which was then superceded by the davoul-zourna.

    Based on the primitive design, it is probably one of the oldest instruments in use in Armenia, and this has been known for many years, for example, this information can be found on the liner notes of Soviet Armenian musical albums dating back to the 1960s. Yet, there was no widespread acceptance among Armenians and certainly not diaspora Armenians in the 60s, of the duduk being “the official Armenian national instrument” and there was not the “duduk-mania” that we have seen in recent years. So the claims that it was a very old instrument predate it’s being dubbed a national symbol. However, the more recent claims that it is 3000 years old seem to be overreaching speculation. The basis for this seems to be that any picture of any kind of pipe-like instrument on an ancient carving found in Armenia is claimed as duduk, and the earliest carvings might date back 3000 years.

    Also, it is probable that as old as the duduk is, the blul/srink/kaval is just as old or older. Although, that instrument in its various forms is much more widespread than the duduk, being played in many forms in many countries in the region. Interestingly, Gomidas Vartabed described the srink rather than the duduk as the primary native Armenian instrument that represented a “pure” Armenian form of music. (Though he didn’t deny that other ethnicities used the same or similar instruments).

    I think the explanation for the recent explosion in interest for the duduk comes first of all from the smooth tone of the duduk developed in the Soviet days. But, there are pre-Soviet examples which are pretty close. This tone cannot solely be attributed to Soviet influence. There are also pre-Soviet examples which are not as close. This can be attributed to the instrument not being so important culturally in those days, and that there were duduk makers willing to produce inferior quality duduks. Today, nobody would want to build a duduk that sounds like a zourna, as it’s become known for its beautiful tone. But the smooth sound of the duduk, even if it pre-dates the Soviets (and I think it does) was not enough to cause duduk-mania. It remained for many years as a niche instrument known to those who studied Armenian folk music as some kind of precursor to the clarinet’s use in Armenian music, but was not well known by the Armenian diaspora. Again, this is because it probably wasn’t common in Western Armenia.

    In the 1980s, duduks became popular in film music and the depth of emotion produced by the instrument was profound as well as cinematic. People wanted to know what this beautiful instrument was. When it was revealed to be a then-obscure instrument from an obscure place in the world called Soviet Armenia, most often used at funeral gatherings for its sad tone, and when the Earthquake of 1988 thrust Soviet Armenia into the world spotlight, people around the world wanted to know about the music of this small country. Diasporan Armenians, knowing that the music of Soviet Armenia was different from their own, also wanted to learn more. The perfect situation was caused for the rise of the duduk to stardom. It was soon dubbed “the Armenian national instrument” and people would declare that “if you don’t cry at the sound of the duduk, you are not a true Armenian.” While many diasporan Armenians loved the fact that a creation of their own people was now beloved across the world, and could produce such beautiful sounds, others felt left out that their musical cultural identity was now going to be defined by an instrument that they had never even heard of. Even for those who liked Eastern Armenian music better than Western, the “kamancha” of Sayat-Nova was much more well known and looked upon as an icon in comparison to the duduk, previous to that time. But, modern day tastes seemed to crave something that sounded ancient and otherworldly and the duduk filled that role.

    Because of the popularity of the ARMENIAN smooth-toned duduk, Turks, Azeris, and others have upped their skills in building the mey or the balaban in order to produce a similar sound. They are using it in their folk orchestras now in a prominent position, because of the sound that Armenians made famous. (there was a time when it was used in Azeri minstrel bands long ago – merely as a drone instrument!!!) I don’t blame them for using a beautiful sounding instrument. But let’s be honest as to who the credit for duduk-mania belongs to – Armenians, and Armenians alone (with some help from Hollywood).

    That being said, as an Armenian-American of Western Armenian descent, I do find it annoying that the duduk is claimed as THE one and only Armenian national instrument, that all Armenian music has to involve it (to the point where we find very non-Armenian sounding modern hip hop influenced music somehow being given an Armenian-nationalist stamp of approval by having some duduk thrown into it), I don’t think we can keep claiming that it is 3000 years old, and ESPECIALLY, we need to stop using it in Genocide documentaries as most of the Genocide survivors had never heard the instrument. Now, if you want to use it in a movie about the Karabagh War or the Earthquake of 1988 you can and should!!!! It’s sound is indeed beautiful and heart-wrenching, and is indeed Armenian!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.