My letter to Djivan was an attempt to express something of my feelings on visiting his country, to thank him for his overwhelming generosity and to try to explain why my reaction at the time must have seemed inadequate. The real reason is that I was disorientated by the conflict of unfamiliar impressions. Armenia is a strange country. Even in the baking heat of August there seem to be hardly any flies or mosquitoes. The language is full of words like ‘Zvartnots’. The alphabet has the strangeness of the almost familiar but actually incomprehensible. It looks like it was designed by a Hollywood art director for a space fiction movie. Michal Shapiro, a world music aficionado from New York, said the hotel sign made her feel like she was on acid. When I asked her what she meant, she said, ‘When you’re tripping you see something you can’t understand but you feel sure you’ll understand it when you come down.’


So what was I doing in this strange country with Michal Shapiro and other non-Armenians? I will explain. Some time in June 2000 I had voiced the thought to my wife that if I had one wish to do something before I died it would be to go to Armenia and learn to make duduk reeds. A week later I received a call from Eva Skalla, a Polish-born lady whom I happened to know. She lives in England and manages Djivan Gasparian's international tours. She asked me if I’d like to go to Armenia, all expenses paid, to participate in celebrations for the 1700th anniversary of the Armenian adoption of Christianity as state religion. She asked me if I knew of anyone else that played duduk. As it happened, I did: Didier Malherbe (of Gong notoriety), a saxophonist who had been aquiring jazz skills on the duduk for some years. We'd never met, but I researched his contact details and passed them on to Eva. I accepted her offer with one condition: I wanted to learn how to make duduk reeds. No problem, she said, I’ll organise it.


I thought that was pretty amazing. I just said something that I thought would never happen and a week later it was all set up. I must have really, really wanted it deep down. And the universe listened  and responded. How delightfully New Age. But nothing is quite that tidy, as I suppose I suspected – deep down.


Armenia, on the whole, was not fun. Despite Eva’s constant efforts on behalf of our small group, the Armenian officials who were supposed to be facilitating our gig were supremely unhelpful. You’d see them once and they’d disappear for good. Most of our time seemed to be spent sitting around not knowing what was going to happen or worrying that what was supposed to happen wouldn’t happen. This is the way of things in Armenia. It's a middle Eastern country and its ways are those of the middle East; officials are grafters and time-servers, and government has only the most superficial concern for the people it governs. Just like in the West of course, but without the West’s consitutional checks and balances, and without freedom of the press. Poor people can’t get anything done, wage earners only do things for themselves. And here we were, plonked into the middle of this, expected to come up with an hour-and-a-half concert in three days, and none of us had ever met before, except Didier Malherbe and Patrice Meyer, the Parisian Dynamic Duo. They were well rehearsed with their own tunes. I wasn’t and felt like a shmuck (or perhaps I mean a klutz – my Yiddish is limited). I’d brought Scottish highland pipes and Irish uilleann pipes with me to see what the locals might think of Gaelic music, but there was going to be no opportunity to play jigs and reels. We spent most of the three days of rehearsals politely acquiescing to an Italian composer (self-styled) of limited intelligence, who had brought some synth loops with him on a lap-top and who would apparently have been quite happy for the whole gig to consist solely of that. After two and a half days of this my blood was beginning to boil, not only because of the frustration and annoyance but also because the weather was extremely hot. The temperature and dryness of the air was making my uilleann pipe reeds go out of tune - they’re designed to be played in the coolness and damp of the British Isles, not in the baking August heat of Asia Minor. The only ones who seemed cheerfully unaffected were the two seasoned gigsters Didier and Patrice. When it came to the crunch these two guys were the real professionals. They pulled the rabbit out of the hat for the rest of us, performing superbly in wholly unsuitable conditions with a sound crew who did not know how to operate the equipment, in front of live TV cameras and half the population of Yerevan.


But that is all forgettable. The main thing is that we were introduced into the company of Djivan Gasparian. I had heard his name, listened to his recordings, even met his agent, but never imagined I would ever meet the man himself. My first encounter with him surprised me greatly. He is probably the most famous man in Armenia but behaves without the slightest pretension and even with a degree of self-deprecation. At the same time he is impatient of the failings of others and sensitive about his public image. He is an extraordinary character. ‘Larger than life’ may be a cliché – but it applies to him. A white-haired 75-year old with more enthusiasm and stamina than most men half his age, he consumes vodka to an extent that would leave me paralysed. And he has twinkling eyes. He really does. I watched him closely and his eyes twinkle all the time. He reminded me of accounts I have read of the famous Greek-Armenian philosopher and mystic G. I. Gurdjieff, whose powerful personality and unorthodox behaviour eclipsed everyone around him. Like Gurdjieff, Gasparian has no patience with politicians, bureaucrats and other self-serving types. He looks always for the genuine human quality in a person, which is why he told me he prefers to be with musicians. I accepted the compliment, and his assessment of the musical fraternity (though my own experience admits of some exceptions).


During our stay in Armenia he invited us to eat with him almost every night, either at an expensive restaurant or at his house. Dinner at Djivan’s table involved mountains of food and frequent ceremonial toasting in vodka prefaced by formal speeches (a Gurdjieffian custom also). Djivan does not speak English but only Armenian and Russian. He can communicate with his agent Eva Skalla, who is of Polish stock and can just about get by in Russian. He demanded that we enjoy ourselves, eat, drink, sing and dance, for ‘one who does not embrace life with courage will die an early death.’ Discretion is the better part of valour in my case; I’m fairly sure I would die an early death if I drank vodka in the quantities he does. He has a rounded upper abdomen which I assumed must be vodka gut, until on our last night together he invited me to feel it. I did. It was solid as a rock - pure diaphragm muscle with not an ounce of fat on it. He grabbed hold of my own rather flabby belly and laughed. That night, after I had consumed so much of his vodka at his insistence that I could hardly walk, he drove us back to our hotel in Yerevan from his house in a village twenty miles away. I was almost unconscious and couldn’t witness the hair-raising journey, but I know it must have been fast, for Gasparian ignores all the rules of the road at all times. He goes through red lights, swerves in front of on-coming traffic and takes the shortest way round roundabouts. He knows that if the police stop him they’ll wave him on as soon as they see who he is. This actually happened on a couple of occasions while I was in his car.


Gasparian’s philosophy of life is simple. There are good people and there are bad people. You stick with the good people and give them your heart. You give nothing to the bad people, the insincere, the posturing politicians, the duplicitous money-grubbers and the rest. Gasparian makes no secret of his contempt for such people. After our televised live concert, which apparently was regarded as having been very successful (!), we were summoned to the Festival Commission Office to receive ‘official thanks’. The Festival Commissioner kept us waiting for three hours for no apparent reason and then invited us into his office where he spouted diplomatic vacuities for a further half hour. While the rest of us smiled politely, Djivan scowled and looked down at the polished table top on which he was conspicuously twirling his mobile phone.


Although he is wealthy by Armenian standards, with a comfortable house and a black BMW, Gasparian has a reputation for generosity and humility which I often saw demonstrated. One day as we were leaving a restaurant some young boys came up to us and started begging. The Armenians with us shooed them away. But not Djivan. The most famous man in the land gathered these kids together and squatted down to their level with his hands on the shoulders of the two nearest. He asked them: ‘Why are you doing this? Won’t you be ashamed later on, when you are twenty years old, that you begged when you were children?’ They answered him: ‘We have no parents. The man who looks after us makes us come out begging. If we come back with nothing he beats us.’ Djivan told them: ‘Bring this man here tomorrow and I’ll give him a beating.’


On our last day in Armenia the promised meeting with the Reed Master came to pass. The National Duduk House is a shabby building consisting of a couple of dingy rooms and a verandah. It looks like a garden maintenance shed, and is in fact situated in the grounds of the ‘English Garden’ in the centre of Yerevan. The Reed Master had a Kurdish appearance, with a narrow bony face and an enormous moustache. His name was Felix. Via an interpreter, Felix told me that he had learned his craft, not from an old master, but on his own, by trial and error. As a result of his self-taught skills he was now making duduk reeds superior to anything in the past. His reeds are played by all the best musicians in the country. He explained the reed-making process to me. The cane is cut to about four inches in length and the surface scraped down about half a millimetre. It is softened by simmering in water for a day, then soaked in olive oil for a day, then a form applied to press the circular cross-section into an oval. But not too much otherwise it cracks. Then back into the pan to simmer for another day, then back into the oil, then squeezed a little more, and so on. Eventually the two sides of the oval meet to form a double reed. The other end is notched and conically shaped to fit the mouth of the duduk. A cane tuning ligature is heat-formed and tied to fit over the reed, and is attached with thread to a wooden cap that protects the lips of the reed. The whole process takes up to three weeks. Three weeks to make one reed! I had got the information I came for but I knew I would never try it myself. Felix had devoted his life to a highly esoteric craft, and I realised this was not a path I was capable of following, not with a wife and family to support.


Ex-Soviet bureaucracy dogged us to the last. Despite the Festival Commissioner’s assurance that everything was arranged for our departure, we found out, when we arrived at the airport at five am the next morning, that we were not permitted to leave the country because we had not the necessary authorisation.The plane was due to leave at six. For the next fifty minutes Eva tried every ruse she knew — ‘Do you know who we are? These musicians were on television here. They are internationally known and have urgent engagements abroad’ (a slight exaggeration there on my part) ... but to no avail. As a last resort, just before our plane left without us, she called Djivan. It was five-forty a.m. after a heavy vodka night. Djivan couldn’t have got back to his house before three. ‘Put me on to the airport manager,’ said Djivan. We were on the plane in minutes. That’s what it’s like in a country like Armenia. You can’t rely on anything, but, one way or another, things happen. Armenia produces the purest of water, unique mystical religion, fantastic food, glorious cognac, heavenly music, people of the calibre of G. I. Gurdjieff and Calouste Gulbenkian, and an extensive selection of top assholes. It was weird being there and I was glad when the plane finally took off.


Despite my general disorientation I did manage to interview Djivan Gasparian on our last night together. That was as far as my presence of mind went, because I think I may have drunk a pint or so of vodka. Consequently I was not able to ask him any searching or intelligent questions. Djivan, who had consumed a lot more vodka than I had, nevertheless gave profound answers and some to the questions I didn’t ask. I also got a bit of Patrice Meyer. Here is the transcript, Eva Skalla translating from Djivan’s Russian:


DG (over background kitchen noise) David kramaz! Interview entanek. (Presumably ‘David, shut up! I’m doing an interview.’ David, his son-in-law, unusually for an Armenian male, was doing the washing up after one of Divan's feasts.)


(Kitchen noise diminishes)


DC So maybe you could tell us something about the history of the duduk and the history of Armenia. Why is duduk important to Armenians?


DG The duduk is the story of Armenian life. The duduk is Armenian life. The Armenians have suffered a great deal. The Armenians are an ancient nation. Every hundred years the Armenians had some terrible war. They were always taking Armenian land, we were always being killed. Which is why our music is a little bit sad. It is only thanks to God that Armenia even exists today. It could so easily have been that Armenia did not survive, such has been our history. Like the Aisori (Assyrians) who have disappeared off the map, so could the Armenians have disappeared, like other nations who do not have their own country: Kurds, Assyrians, Gypsies. At least we have our own land, we are alive on our land. Good or bad, that’s not important. It’s just enough that every man should have his own small house. What else would you like to know?


DC You are a man who is loved very much by your people. Why is that?


DG Everyone must love his parents and his land. The Armenians are my family and I love them.


DC And they regard you as their father?


DG I am just a small man. Can I be the father of Armenia?


DC Are you asking me? I think the answer is yes.


DG I am not president. I am a musician.


Eva Skalla (in Russian, but presumably) Wouldn’t you want to be president?


DG No. If I became president they would kill me very quickly.


DG’s grandaughter (in Armenian, but presumably) Who would? the mafiosi?


DG Not the mafiosi. I have my own principles and I would not be willing to change them. Nobody would appreciate my principles, certainly not those who would want to kill me quickly.


DG (after some discussion with his wife and granddaughter) Ninety percent of the duduk players in Armenia are my students in one way or another. Many people play the duduk today. Never have there been so many duduk players as there are at the moment.


DC So when you were young there were not so many?


DG Not as many as there are now. The duduk was played in a different way in those days. It was I who brought the duduk to the place it is now. I have raised its status. People used to want to give their children violin and piano and cello to learn. Now they all want their children to play duduk. I am a soldier of the duduk. A front-line soldier of the duduk. I have done a great deal for the duduk. I have given the duduk high culture. I have brought the duduk into the symphony orchestra, into classical music, into jazz, into rock music. Everywhere I have taken the duduk. I have opened a big road for the duduk. I have brought the duduk to the whole world. And everywhere people love the duduk. And I am so proud and so happy. So happy.


[Interview ends with sighs of contentment and the sound of me kissing Djivan sloppily on both cheeks]


Later on, with the minidisk machine still recording, I was sitting with Patrice on the porch. I tried to enthuse him about the wonderful duduk reeds I had recently acquired from Felix the Reed Master.


DC It’s so easy to play a drone with circular breathing on these reeds. [Plays a drone using circular breathing.] I can do it! And on my old one I couldn’t.


PM But it’s easier on saxophone?


DC I dunno about saxophone, I don’t play saxophone. But on the other reed I had I couldn’t do it. This is perfect. [Plays another drone.] Now I have spent so much effort trying to do it on the other ones, this one is just a breeze.


PM It’s good to start in this direction, not the other way round. You start with something very difficult and then you take right instrument, easy to play. Ouf.


DC Yep, yeah, yeah.


(Pause)


DC This has been fantastic, you know.


PM I can see that both you and Didier are completely like young students. Young kids in front of a Christmas tree. You have been waiting this moment all the week.


DC Yes.


PM Eh?


DC Yes.


PM I told Didier something like also the relationship between the Indian master and the student, the student waits for one year and he is doing the cleaning and housework and after one year he gets the first lesson, something a little bit... you wait until the Reed Master give you, he show you the tricks.


DC Yeah. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate, or whether it just happens that way, this is the pattern.


PM I think it’s not deliberate, it’s in the tradition.


DC Yes, maybe you’re right. It was amazing what he was saying, you know. Let me turn this thing off.


[Recording ends]



* What the word ‘traditional’ means for an Armenian is hard for a westerner to imagine. The history of this tiny country is one of almost constant struggle to retain a language, an identity and a culture despite being relegated to second-class status in someone else’s empire. Although the Armenian nation has existed for several millennia, it is only relatively recently that it has actually had internationally recognised boundaries. The land occupied by Armenians two thousand years ago, before anyone had thought of drawing boundaries on a map, was about fifteen times larger than it is today. But at least they do have their own country, and are strongly conscious of their good fortune in this respect. Westerners, for whom nationality without territory is hardly imaginable, will find this difficult to appreciate. Tradition in Armenia also means practising the ancient customs of the region, which are shared by Georgians, Russians, Turks, Greeks and others. These customs include: patriarchy, hospitality, generosity, religiosity, emotional honesty, poetic feeling, male disregard for the needs of women, and female thriftiness struggling to counteract male love of conspicious consumption. Once upon a time they were western European customs also, but they are now largely absent from our culture; we are today predominantly agnostic, mean-spirited, cynical and supportive of sexual equality. They are, however, still widely to be found in America, due perhaps to immigration from those parts of the world where, at the time, such traditional values had not yet disappeared.

IN ARMENIA WITH DJIVAN GASPARIAN


Armenia: A dry, mountainous landscape with occasional small fields of crops in strange organic shapes amid expanses of grey-brown rock. Constant heat, day and night. Dry, dusty wind. A few scattered towns and villages with old and crumbling buildings. A small population centred around the two main cities of Yerevan and Gyumri. In Yerevan the rich successors of the Soviet regime have their expensive houses and apartments, and their privileged restaurants in the cool atmosphere down by the river. In Gyumri mile upon mile of temporary tin shacks surround the shattered suburbs, jerry-built victim of the 1990 earthquake, still unreconstructed. The old city centre, with its beautiful ancient cathedral, standing unscathed amid the ruins. Zvartnots Airport, where we first get off the plane. Hot, dry, dusty. We wait for a long time. No-one bothers to explain to us what is happening. I improve the shining hour by finding out the Armenian words for ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Thank you’. They are respectively: ‘Parev’, ‘Setaysetioon’ and ‘Shnorakalootsioon’ (it took me a week to commit this last word reliably to memory). Eventually a bus takes us to Yerevan and an uncomfortable concrete hotel smelling of dust, whose only guests appear to be us. I am directed to a room on the tenth floor. Why I have to be on the tenth floor I don't know. The air conditioning does not work. I spend the night lying naked on a nylon sheet, listening to traffic and barking dogs through the wide open window. It does not occur to me that for the majority of Armenians this would not be discomfort, it would be luxury.


The lady in my local post office had not heard of Armenia. ‘Is it outside Europe?’ she asked me. I told her that it was. ‘That’ll be 65 pence then,’ she said. The letter I was sending was to Djivan Gasparian, supreme master of the duduk, Armenia’s national instrument, and a man who had for some reason taken me to his heart during my short visit to his country. ‘An Apricot in Paradise.’ That’s the title of one of Gasparian’s albums, and it provides a clue, both to the character of duduk music: gorgeous, mysterious, evocative, ancient; and to the character of Gasparian himself: good-natured, profligate, unconventional yet deeply traditional.*

Djivan Gasparian

Armenian landscape

Yerevan