Mystical sound of the duduk

duduk_2916 Armenian highlands peppered with gorges, valleys and monasteries | Neeta Lal

The Armenian Highlands come alive with the sound of the 'duduk', an ancient woodwind instrument whose music is proclaimed by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

The haunting notes of the duduk resonate across Armenia, a South Caucasian country with snow-cuddled Ararat mountains heaving on its horizon like stony behemoths. The unique flute crafted from apricot wood sounds like a wailing voice, its tone fleshy and pulpy, soulful and evocative.

As I travelled across the country of three million — bordered by Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan — I spotted duduk players working their magic outside monasteries, temples, churches and even on the cobbled streets. The duduk is at the heart of Armenia's social life and cultural identity, inextricably woven into the warp and weft of its artistic fabric. No celebration, wedding, funeral or baptism is complete without the notes of this woodwind wonder.

duduk_3045 Duduk maker Kolya with the instrument | Neeta Lal

The duduk's antiquity is impressive. Some say, the short cylindrical tube with seven or more finger holes and one thumb hole dates back to before Christ. In 2005, Armenian duduk music was proclaimed by UNESCO as a `Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'. The duduk's stirring sound has also been used in some Hollywood classics including Peter Gabriel's score in The Last Temptation of Christ

The legends surrounding the duduk are as fascinating as the instrument itself. Some claim that the duduk was born thousands of years ago, even before the ancient kingdom of Urartu, an Iron Age kingdom centred on Lake Van in the Armenian Highlands. Some go further, claiming that the duduk was played on Noah's Ark. In the 1990s, a group of Armenian archaeologists discovered a duduk made of a stork's foot bone. The Armenians take pride in the fact that both the Americans and the Japanese have failed to reproduce the sound of the duduk on a synthesizer. This, according to them means that the duduk is a gift of God.

Though the craft of duduk making and playing is not as vibrant as it used to be, its artisans are still prized for their talent. In Byoran, one hour from Yerevan — where bands of mist curve around the ample bellies of the hills — we visit the home of one such artist.

Kolya Torosyan, 82, has been making duduks for over half a century in his charming home-cum-workshop. When he began as a youth, Kolya says he had nothing but ambition, a woodworker’s chops, and plenty of apricot trees in his garden to shape his dreams. "In early days, everything had to be done by hand with old-fashioned tools — the drilling, the chiselling, the crafting," Kolya explains while pottering around in his workshop brimming with ancient instruments. Over the years, the artist has tried many different woods to craft duduks with varying degrees of success.

"Originally duduks were made of reed," he elaborates. "Reed is a water plant so it's very vulnerable to humidity. When water seeps into the plant, its parameters change which also alters the instrument's sound." In Armenia the best duduks are made of apricot wood. The tree has to be old, around fifty or sixty years and solid to get the beautiful timbre of the duduk sound. When the trees are too old to bear fruit anymore, they’re perfect for woodwork.

“When a tree grows old its cells die; that is the appropriate tree for the duduk," explains Kolya . "That wood is dense and prevents moisture from percolating beyond the first layer. After it is cut, the wood is dried in a dark, dry place, a process that can take up to three years. Duduks are tuned by hollowing out just the right amount of wood to create the perfect pitch," the musician tells us.

So good are Kolya's duduks that they are also sold in the US under the Refugee Arts in Massachusetts. The artist also retails through music stores across Yerevan, and as an ‘honorary master’ his work is also showcased at the government’s Folk Art Museum. When Armenia was part of the USSR, Kolya says, he was invited to play at an event in Moscow. With pride, he shows us sepia-tinted photos of his younger self playing at various competitions he won.

duduk_3104 Duduk players performing outside monasteries | Neeta Lal

What is the reason for his good health and prolific output? we ask Kolya. The octogenarian laughs and quips — "I love what I do! It's important to be passionate about your work". "Besides," he adds with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm married to the love of my life," referring to his 88-year-old wife.

Kolya also likes to keep himself busy by making his own vodka, but of course from apricot trees that grow abundantly in his garden, makes his own matzun (a thick and creamy Armenian curd), cheeses as well as lavash, the famed Armenian see-through bread. The rest of his time is divided between teaching his son the tricks of his trade, attending to his bees, his garden and animals.

Does he fear people's love for the duduk will die? Kolya shakes his head slowly and says: "Our love for the Armenian duduk will never die. Because it is the voice of our nation; it has soul and strength in it. It has victory in it!"

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