The Balaban - Common Bonds in the Caucasus
The mournful sound of a twin-reed traditional oboe brings a mysterious atmosphere to many a movie sound track and was one of the recordings that NASA included on its 'Hello Aliens This is Earth' gold disc that was sent into space with the Voyager probes. The instrument’s name might be Balaban, Duduk or Mey according to your language but its wistful music could be seen as a potential bridge to transcend national divisions between nations.
Cinema buffs might think of Bob or Barney, soccer-stats geeks of Boško or Alper. Ibrahim was a Turkish realist painter and Jan a Czech writer. But Balaban is not only a family name. In Azerbaijan it’s much better known as a traditional musical instrument. A snippet of balaban music by Kamil Jalilov was amongst the selection of audio tracks that featured on the celebrated ‘golden records’ carried by the Voyager space missions – a kind of ‘message in a bottle’ from Earth to curious aliens elsewhere in the galaxy. On the credits, NASA mistakenly chose to describe the sound as being produced by ‘bagpipes’ due to the accompanying drone, but in reality a balaban is actually a type of double reeded oboe.
Another widely celebrated balaban star is Alikhan Samedov. His recordings range from trad-pop shuffles like Nerede Kaldın (‘Where are you?’) to mournful laments like Gözelim Sensen (‘You are Beautiful’). Samedov has also recorded several versions of Sari Gelin. That’s a regionally ubiquitous song whose melody stirs hearts right across seemingly deep cultural rifts as we noted in a previous article. But it’s not just the music that should remind us of cultural commonalities. The instrument too is essentially shared across the seemingly intractable national divides of the Caucasus. It’s known as the duduki in Georgia, the mey in Turkey and the duduk in Armenia, under which form, the instrument and its music are have been inscribed since 2008 on UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. For over 7 decades, duduk-player Djivan Gasparyan (1928-2021) was a leading star of Armenian music. He was part of a folk ensemble that once serenaded Stalin at the Kremlin (1948), yet went on to be featured on sound tracks for ‘Gladiator’, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Blood Diamond’ then, aged over 80, was part of Armenia’s 2010 Eurovision Song Contest entry.
And Gasparyan was not the only duduk player to perform on Hollywood film scores.
On the Peter Gabriel soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, the wistful sound of the duduk imbues the first track with an evocative sense of place that ‘feels’ right for ancient Judea. In fact, however, the music was based a traditional Armenian melody that translates as 'The Wind Subsides', also recorded in a superb version by Levon Minassian.
Another contemporary Armenian duduk star is Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian, whose rendition of Tsirani Tsar is a mellifluous delight. Sarikouyoumdjian has enjoyed various cross-cultural collaborations including recordings with Iranian singer Sahar Mohammadi, a much vaunted star of Persian classical music, and Tunisian violinist Jasser Haj Youssef.
Worldwide, the balaban/duduk instrument continues to find its way into the international consciousness through films, TV scores and concerts. Iraq-born Rageed William is a master of the duduk, the Monterey Youth Symphony Orchestra has recorded a Balaban Symphony and you don’t need to be a musicologist to see the similarities between these instruments and the Chinese guan or slightly squeakier Japanese hichiriki.
The ancient history of the balaban/duduk is lost in the mists of time but their ages are thought to be counted in millennia. Unesco traces the music back to at least the 1st century BC. The instruments and their basic playing techniques are undoubtedly shared across many of the Caspian Region cultures and form yet another example of a possible root for finding common bonds in the wake of discord between the region’s peoples.
 Traditional balaban/duduk music is very often accompanied by a second player who produces a single note drone (or ‘dam’) using didgeridoo-style circular breathing. The result can be mistaken as bagpipes to the untrained ear.