Nothing Sounds Armenian Like a Duduk: ALMA Lecture

Ethnomusicologist McCollum Speaks at ALMA on the Cultural Impact of the Duduk

WATERTOWN, Mass. (A.W.)—On Feb. 4, Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) Research Fellow Dr. Jonathan McCollum presented an illustrated lecture at ALMA on the topic of “The Armenian Duduk and the Impact of Cultural Policy from Soviet Times to Present Day.” The talk also featured musical accompaniment by master duduk musician Martin Harotunian.

McCollum’s experiences and interests span several fields, including historical musicology, ethnomusicology, archeomusicology, museum studies and art history. He is the co-author of Armenian Music: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Discography. He was a contributor to Identity, Pluralism, and Soviet Music and Defining Music: An Ethnomusicological and Philosophical Approach, and wrote the chapter on “Music of Central Asia and the Caucasus” in OnMusic’s World Music Online textbook.

ALMA’s curator, Gary Lind-Sinanian, introduced his former protégé stating, “We’d like to welcome back Jonathan, who was an assistant of mine many years ago and is now no longer a Ph.D. candidate, but a doctor.”

McCollum took a moment to thank his Armenian studies mentor while he was an undergraduate student at Tufts University. “I really came to this field thanks to Professor Lucy Der Manuelian,” McCollum said. “Armenia has been extraordinary to me as a musician and a scholar, and I’m happy tonight to talk to you about an instrument I believe is very important.”

“The duduk is one of the oldest aerophone instruments in the world. It is actually a double-reed instrument similar to an oboe. It is actually the only truly Armenian instrument that’s survived through history, and as such is a symbol of Armenian national identity. … The duduk is often depicted in Armenian illuminated manuscripts and goes back to the time of Tigran the Great. The duduk is recognizable due to its tambour, which is unmistakable.”

McCollum went on to detail the duduk’s construction and uniqueness. “The reed is usually carved from the apricot cane that grows alongside the Arax River. Nasality is also an important sound quality of the range that makes the duduk unique.”

He stressed, however, that “the most important quality of the duduk is its ability to express the language dialectic and mood of the Armenian language, which is often the most challenging quality to a duduk player.”

Mastery of circular breathing, much like those techniques used in Bulgarian throat singing and Tibetan chanting, is crucial to successful duduk performance, he said. “Circular breathing, blocking the epiglottis while maintaining the facial expression, is used to play the duduk and is also used to play the didgeridoo in Australian by native aborigine tribes.”

Of the duduk’s resonance in evoking powerful emotions from the listener, McCollum explained, “The duduk is meant to invoke feeling and ‘native emotional accumulation’ of historical memory. For this reason there’s a reason why the duduk is used in emotional scenes such as those in the movie ‘Gladiator.’ Orality, or the narrative nature of music, is still an important form of how we learn, even in Western culture.”

He added that while today we associate the ceremony of marriage as a purely happy occasion musically and socially, “in many cultures due to the family separation aspect, there’s a sense of sadness that the duduk relates.”

During the Soviet era, authorities strove to streamline duduk performances in the name of uniformity of Soviet peoples, rather than the diversity of styles and folk ensembles that existed in many villages. “Professional music was considered a more appropriate form of performance in place of folk ensembles. Paradoxically during the Soviet era, there was a push to get rid of the regional aspects of duduk music so that all the cultures in the Soviet Union would receive the same message from folk music.”

McCollum ended his talk with the duduk’s lasting legacy. “Last year the duduk was chosen by UNESCO as representative of Armenia and that’s important because it says definitively, ‘This is Armenian.’ It’s a statement not many other cultures can say and can be jealous of.”

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.


  1. In the film “The Russia House” with S.Connery & M.Pfeiffer, the armenian melodies are heard maybe 20 minutes. I recognized “O Siroun – siroun” and other famous melodies. Without references in the final cast.
    This behaviour often appears in reports/middle length film about Greece or oriental countries (in french broacastings for instance).

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