From deportations to duets

"Karin" is a musical dialogue between two virtuosos seeking to reconcile the souls of their home countries through their instruments. Marian Brehmer listened to the second album of Armenian duduk virtuoso Vardan Hovanissian and Turkish baglama master Emre Gultekin

By Marian Brehmer

One can hear the closely interwoven tonalities of the baglama and the duduk even on the first track of the album, revealing that the two instruments are by no means strangers to each other and that the full beauty of their sound seems to emerge when they are played in duet.

The Turkish long-necked lute and the Armenian oboe made of apricot wood are more than just two instruments from Asia Minor. With their unique sounds, they are the cultural ambassadors of two countries which share a complicated historical relationship to each other.

"Karin" is the title of the latest album released by the Armenian duduk virtuoso Vardan Hovanissian and the Turkish baglama master Emre Gultekin. This second duo project following their album "Adana" brings the two musicians together again and, although they are both cosmopolitan performers, the music is thoroughly rooted in their respective homelands.

Scoping a historical power struggle

The disc starts off so lively and cheerful that the uninformed listener is unlikely to have any idea of the deep tragedy behind the title "Karin". What to some might sound like a woman’s name is the former designation for the eastern Anatolian mountain city of Erzurum.

For centuries, Erzurum, a city located about 1900 metres above sea level and at the crossroads of different cultures and empires, found itself caught up in the various power struggles between Armenia, Russia, Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

The metropolis remains anchored in Armenian historical memory, however, on account of the mass murder committed against Armenians during the period of the First World War.

Karin is also the birthplace of Hovanissian’s grandfather, one of just 200 who survived following the deportation of some 40,000 Armenians from the city during the genocide.

Genuine, deeply rooted reconciliation

Considering this family history, the efforts towards reconciliation, which the Armenian virtuoso hopes to achieve together with his musical partner, seems even more significant and genuinely deeply rooted. Hovanissian grew up in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where he was introduced to the duduk by the renowned master musician Khachik Khachatryan. The history of this double-reeded instrument reaches back over 2500 years, which is why the instrument is often described as expressing the soul of Armenia.

For more than thirteen years, Hovanissian has been friends with the Turkish baglama player Emre Gultekin, whom he met in a Brussels recording studio. Gultekin grew up in Belgium as the son of a well-known baglama player.

Through the musical exchange with his Armenian friend, Gultekin quite consciously makes references to the historical period when the culturally fluid heritage of Anatolia set the tone, long before it ossified in the rigid structures imposed by national statehood.

"Karin" is thereby also intended to recall the years before the great trauma, when Erzurum was still a multi-cultural centre of artistic and intellectual activity. Correspondingly, besides Armenian and Turkish elements, the album also includes Kurdish, Persian and Georgian influences, which are all closely and effortlessly interwoven.

For instance, the track entitled "Karin" begins with a common melody line performed by the saz and the duduk. Then, a woman’s voice suddenly resounds, singing in Persian a poem by the contemporary Iranian poet Ali Akbar Sheyda. And the track "Qamla Damtskevla" swiftly transports the listener to a Georgian mountainous landscape.

Borders seem to dissolve

The sentimental vibes of baglama and duduk merged with the beats of the daf, a frame drum, seem to open in the inner eye to the wide mountain panoramas and yellow-brown fields of Anatolia. Borders begin to dissolve, while songs and poetry span time and space, just as they always have done.

In short: while listening to the life-affirming and occasionally melancholic music, one takes up the cause of Hovanissian and Gultekin and can truly believe in the possibility of a peaceful, post-ethnocentric co-existence for Turks, Armenians and Kurds.

Even though at the political level matters may appear to be complex and entrenched, the direct cultural exchange encountered in projects such as this one can prove to be both ground-breaking and a cause for hope.

Marian Brehmer

© 2019

Translated from the German by John Bergeron