Spot the duduk

I was teaching Edward Said's Orientalism last week (as you do) and as I was writing my lecture it occurred to me that the duduk provided the perfect example to illustrate Said's argument.

For those less obsessed with the obscure reed instruments of the world, the duduk is a recorder-sized wind instrument characterised by its fat double reed and mournful sound, that's found across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. It's typically made of apricot wood and goes by many names such as balaban and mey. In Kurdistan it has an arid, almost waspish sound:

But the form of the instrument with which we in the West are most familiar comes from Christian Armenia. Here it is traditional for one or two players to hold a drone, using circular breathing, while another plays the melody.

It was Peter Gabriel who brought the duduk to worldwide attention (or perhaps I mean to the attention of the West), with his 1988 soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. He remixed an old Armenian folk melody, 'Hovern Engan', played by Vache Hovsepian (1925-1978), into the opening track, 'The Feeling Begins'.

If the sound of the duduk isn't remotely familiar to you then you've probably been living in a cave. I've lost count of how many films and TV dramas now use it in their soundtrack, but here's a few I've spotted: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Gallactica, Gladiator, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean...I'm sure you can add more.

In fact it's become something of a lazy cliche, like slapping down Uilleann pipes to signify don't-ye-know, top-of-the-mornin', sweet bejeesus Oirishness. Any time the composer wants to signify the Orient, the East, mysteriousness, treachery, otherworldliness, unspeakable sadness, bitter melancholy, tragic beauty, or erotic danger (exactly the chain of associations that Orientalism seeks to dismantle), they throw in a duduk. Job done.

Meanwhile, and more interestingly, many Western musicians are taking up the duduk, not because they want to sound 'eastern' but because they are drawn to its sonorities and musical possibilities: the instrument is starting to find a Western voice. Of these my favourite is Didier Malherbe, aka Bloomdido Bad de Grass, a pixie-hatted jazz saxophonist who seems born to have played it. Here he is guesting with his old band, Gong (and yes, I fully intend on looking like that when I'm in my 70s).

And here again with his little known French jazz trio, Hadouk.

I'm sure there's many more examples I've missed. Who's up for a game of spot the duduk?


  1. Well I first heard it on the Djivan Gasparian and Michael Brook record 'Night Song' - but that's on Realworld records, which was founded by Peter Gabriel, so I guess techincally it was also him that brought it to my attention, just not via the most popular route.

    I remember watching a trio of Armenian dudukists (dudukers?) on youtube, where the comment thread was a vitriolic shouting match between Armenians and Azerbaijanis (and, for all I know, other Caucasians too) each asserting the superiority of their culture and the derivativeness/inferiority of the other's. Whoever would have guessed that a youtube comment thread could get so uncivil?

    1. On closer inspection, the video I remembered turns out to be the second down on your list. Now we can all savour the vitriol :-)


  3. I can confirm that it's really blimmin hard to get a sound out of a duduk that doesn't sound like quacking :/

  4. I'm not sure where I first heard the duduk (maybe in the Maria Callas 'Medea'?), but I didn't know what the heck it was for a long time. I only knew it was one of the most beautiful and sorrowful sounds I'd ever heard.



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