Armenia: Heavenly Duduk / Japan: Master of Shakuhachi

Apr 14, 1999 at 12:00 am

Within the sumptuous tapestry of world music traditions, a thread of solo wind instruments stands out, including the Arabic ney, the shenai from India, the Armenian duduk and the Japanese shakuhachi. Though centered in cultures separated by thousands of miles, the deeply meditative, centuries-old melodies played on these tubes of wood are shot through with an existential melancholy that transcends time and space. Suggesting distances crossed on foot or horseback, the rootedness in the earth of ancient customs and the fleeting blossoms of our lives in the universe, these musics touch us with waves of endless nostalgia.

Djivan Gasparyan’s previous recordings, particularly the droning, tragic beauty of I Will Not Be Sad In This World (Opal-Warner Bros.), were a revelation when they began to emerge from the Republic of Armenia in 1989, attracting the attention of the Kronos Quartet and ambient-new music fans. On Heavenly Duduk, his plaintive, clarinet-like sound is backed by two other duduks — one a bass instrument — as well as percussion, vocals and zurna, a nasal ancestor of the oboe. What was already stunning now has an added sensuality that makes this release a pure masterpiece.

The shakuhachi — a vertical bamboo flute with no mouthpiece — was developed hundreds of years ago in Japan as part of Zen practice. Playing it is an inherently meditative experience and listening involves concentration, whether consciously or not. On Master of Shakuhachi, Tadashi Tajima’s drawn-out, breathy tones waver, are — according to tradition — intentionally not perfect, like the strokes of ink in Japanese painting which seem to hover in a zone between spontaneity and precision. As on his 1994 release, Shingetsu (Music of the World, Ltd.), Tajima plays the venerable shakuhachi repertoire with a languorous patience, a time-is-on-our-side solidity. These are as close to definitive as shakuhachi recordings get in the West.