Obituary: Djivan Gasparyan (1928-2021) | Songlines
Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Obituary: Djivan Gasparyan (1928-2021)

By Simon Broughton

Legendary Armenian duduk doyen and composer Djivan Gasparyan has died, aged 92

New Djivan Crop

Djivan Gasparyan (photo by Simon Broughton)

There can surely be only one musician who’s played for Stalin, Peter Gabriel, Nelson Mandela and Brian May. That’s the Armenian duduk master Djivan Gasparyan. The duduk is a humble folk oboe, carved out of apricot wood, but Gasparyan made its melancholy sound a resonant symbol of the suffering of his nation. He brought its plangent tones to the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010 for the Armenian entry ‘Apricot Stone’ and to a wider audience in film soundtracks including The Crow, Gladiator and Blood Diamond.

Fittingly, it was hearing the duduk being played in the cinema to accompany silent films as a kid that first attracted him to the instrument. “The film didn’t interest me much,” he says. “I was riveted by the music and its extraordinary ability to express the right feelings through the duduk.”

Gasparyan was born in 1928 in the village of Solak, near the Armenian capital Yerevan. One of the cinema musicians gave him a beaten-up old instrument and explained to him the process of circular breathing needed to play the accompanying drone part. He practised for months and, when he went back, the musician “looked at me in amazement and said ‘If you can play like that on an old instrument, try this’ and pulled his own instrument out of his pocket. That was how it all started.”

Gasparyan’s childhood was tough. His mother died in 1941 when he was 13 years old and his father went to fight in the war. “With mum gone and dad fighting, I played on the streets for bread to support my brother and sister. I learned that the power of the duduk comes from the expression you put into it.” Gasparyan would sometimes sing a song called ‘Mother’, which was always an emotional highpoint.

After the war, in 1948, as part of an Armenian folk ensemble, he was selected to play in a show by the 15 Soviet Republics for Stalin at the Kremlin. The Russians won first prize, but the Armenians came second and Gasparyan was awarded with a watch engraved with his name in a red box. As a young musician in need of cash he was forced to sell it.

Traditionally, duduk players performed in pairs, the lead (dudukahar) playing the tune and the second player (damkash) holding a drone. He recorded like this for the Soviet Melodiya label in 1983 and the recording was licensed by Brian Eno in 1989.  I Will Not Be Sad in this World introduced Gasparyan to the world and was dedicated to the 25,000 or more killed in the Armenian earthquake of December 1988. It’s the soulful, keening quality of the reedy duduk that makes the music so emotionally stirring and why Hollywood has often called on it for its historical and emotional dramas.

After Armenian independence in 1991, Gasparyan started touring widely and made many recordings, notably for the German label Network. International collaborators have included Hossein Alizadeh, Ludovico Einaudi, Andreas Vollenweider and Kronos Quartet, as well as rock royalty like Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox and Brian May.

“Without the duduk, the Armenians are nothing,” Gasparyan said. He has put a simple, but searingly powerful instrument on the map and has inspired many players in Armenia and around the world, as well as his grandson Djivan Gasparyan Jnr who continues his legacy.

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