Album Review – Adana by Vardan Hovanissian and Emre Gültekin – Waiting for the snow to melt.

IMG_3222 As is so often the case, musicians are ahead of the social curve, sharing a mutual language that transcends unforgiving nationalisms. In the case of this beautiful CD – entitled Adana after the city on the Turkish Eastern Mediterrean, which was released around 24 April 2015 when world leaders disagree about whether it is important to use the term genocide when referring to the deaths of up to maybe 1.5 million Armenians 100 years ago in the dying years of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of Turks and some Kurds – encouraging mutual understanding and the reconciliation between Armenians and Turks is its main and explicit theme.

Created togehter by Armenian Vardan Hvanassian on duduk and Turkish Emre Gültekin on stringed instruments such as baglama, tanbur and the wonderfully delicate uç telli  (‘three strings’ prounouced uetch-telly), this is an album of two friends and two nations. The booklet artwork shows two sensitive musicians genuinely enjoying each other’s company. The intimate informality of the whole concept is emphasised in the fact that credits for songs are given by first name only: Emre and Vardan. Joris Vanvinkenroye and Simon Leleux contribute on double bass and percussions.

I’ve previously heard it said by a major name in Turkish folk music after collaborating in a similar project with a famous Armenian duduk player that the combination was musically unsatisfactory, due to the fact that the Armenian and Turkish scales are different and that the duduk with its fixed notes could not work well with instruments such as baglama with its quarter tone scales. It may be true that in this combination some things are musically not possible, but that doesn’t mean that this CD doesn’t work with absolutely stunning and tasteful balance to bring two music cultures together.

For those not familiar with the duduk, a simple wooden reed instrument, which is the leading sound on this album, there is maybe no more plaintive sound in the whole wide world. Its tones have no sharp edges, you can feel the living tree from which it is made, its register matches the human voice, it sings broad melodies and touches something deep. It needs space, leading you to picture open medows at the foot of mountains – and on this CD there is plenty of artistic space for the music to speak. It contrasts with the plucked sounds of the Turkish instruments used – the long-necked baglama lute, the even longer and stately tanbur, and the smaller, sprightly uç telli.

It’s not easy to review albums of duduk music, since the character of the instrument is so strong that it’s hard to get away from always mentioning that the music is meditative, reflective and sad. In Turkish they call it hüzün (a kind of melancholy) which is almost a national character-trait in the Turkish pysche. Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk speaks of perosnal and national hüzün in his autobiographical Istanbul – and he is given the main quote on the back of the album notes from his book Snow: “How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known.”

So yes, this album is a delicate reflective exploration of the pain of nations, both of whom still keenly feel the sufferings of the past. And yet it is immensely uplifting. The sadness is not dark melancholy; suffereing is respected and transformed by quite understanding.

These were my thoughts as I listened through the first few tracks.

Track 5 Daglar (‘Mountains’, a poem by Emre’s father) starts with hushed song. Suddenly the duduk solo, a stylised improvisation, comes in with its long high note, restrained and yet flying, uplifting, looking to the tops of the mountains. It’s maybe only with repeated listening to much duduk music that one begins to detect the positive emotions of hope and joy that underlie the expression of sadness in such an aesthetic.

Track 6 is entitled Hrant Dink, after the Armenian Turkish journalist murdered for his highlighting of the Armenian question. His death in fact brought a certain amount of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. One feels the track as an exploration of the other. In the background there are light percussion and bass sounds. It’s folk music with a modern and sophisticated outlook.

Track 7 is Lusnak Gisher. This has duduk accompanied by the airy sound of the tar, soundling rather like a santur. It’s a simple instrumental interpretation of a song about someone wandering in the night, taken for a vagrant. The instruments harmonize in 3rd and 6ths.  These are of course known songs in the communities where they come from, and we can only get the smallest sense of the meaning they hold for those who know them, even as instrumentals without words.

Then to the title track Adana. On receiving the CD I was curious to know why an album with many Armenian tunes was called Adana. What I’d always understood was that Adana has a reputation for being quite nationalistically Turkish. What I didn’t know is that 100 years ago it was raised to the ground in an attempt to exterminate the sizable Armenian population there and was at the heart of the tragedy. This is given as a traditional song. But 100 years is not so long ago for the reality of the tragedy to have passed into ‘tradition’. This is a song about families that still live today. A double bass improvisation opens leading into a drone.  Low duduk improvisation is followed by statetly tanbur and into the song itself. Emre’s voice is low, almost whispered.

Here you can watch the group perform this live.

Track 9  brilliantly showcases the rippling sounds of uç telli and is in fact an improvised tribute to Ramazan Güngör, master of the instrument. There are scrapes and percussion which remind me of an Iranian style of music and that Anatolia connects very much further East. The 3 single strings instead of doubled courses make for crystal clear notes, and I see an icy mountain lake.

Track 10 is a song about the beautiful Bingyol region and a traveller asking the way – so my sense of landscape is not wrong. Again this traditional Armenian song has been arranged, simply, in what feels like a contemporary aesthetic.

On track 11 double bass partners with duduk in unsual but effective combination in a composition about nostalgia about young love. Bass duduk ends track 13; it stands out with its lower register and causes me to check this new tone. The song is about patience.  The last song again is about mountainous landscapes: this spring, after the tragedies that have struck, the snow doesn’t want to seem to melt.

This album is all about patience, taking time to understand, and allowing the snow to melt, maybe in its own time, but being convinced that it must do so. It’s a concept album in the sense that the concept is so strong. But I don’t know of a finer album dealing with this theme with such a high level of artistry and musical tastefulness.

The CD is beautifully presented with short notes in French, German and English to orientate the listener. No doubt there are many similar great recordings in both Armenia and Turkey that are mainly for home consumption. It’s great that Belgian label Muziekpublique is really making the effort to communicate this music to a wider audience.

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