Michael Brook on his collaboration with Djivan Gasparyan

Candian producer/guitarist Michael Brook is interviewed about his experience working with the legendary Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan. The pair recorded the album 'Black Rock' at the ACATIFE studio in Lanzarote (‘the Black Rock’) in October ‘97 and at Real World Studios, Box, England.

I believe you’ve recorded with Djivan Gasparyan once before, a collection of the more classical Armenian repertoire.

It was for Opal, which was Brian Eno’s label at the time. I think Brian had found a recording of Djivan when he was in Russia and I don’t think he’d been released much over here and he licensed that from Melodia. They wanted to record a new one and we did it all in three hours. It was quite amazing (laughs). Djivan and his troupe said ‘Is that enough? Have we done an album’s worth of music yet?’ We did it at a church in London and it was all to two-track, pretty much a live record. I think it was the first time he’d sung on a record available in the west and he’s a really good singer.


When the troupe play is it long improvised pieces or is there a structure to the pieces?

They’re mostly traditional songs. I don’t know if he considers himself a songwriter.


Presumably it’s his interpretations of them that interests you?

Absolutely. They’re very, very sensuous. With both Djivan and Nusrat, there’s a soft side to what they do. It’s passionate but there’s also this delicacy that I don’t think there is in Qawwali so much, it’s generally a full-tilt kind of singing. Although Nusrat would do that at times, he was generally in a quieter, more delicate area. I think Djivan’s the same. My understanding is that a lot of the music is traditional Armenian folk music which is a bit more in-your-face than what he does.


What was the attraction for you of working with Djivan as a duduk player?

It’s an amazingly expressive instrument. It’s just a little stick of wood with some holes in it and a reed, a very simple instrument. The expressiveness and the nuance that can come across are, I find, extremely involving, very much like a voice. He’s the main practitioner of the instrument. It was that sensuous expressiveness that attracted me to it. Because we were going to be in the Canary Islands at the same time my initial instinct was just to record another traditional album, just take a DAT machine and record. Amanda Jones at Real World Records thought, well, there’s already a few traditional albums —and I think rightly so. If you’re not really into that sort of music then you won’t be able to tell one album from another and the distinction is minor unless you really know the music. So Amanda suggested that we do more of a collaborative album and bring other elements into it, which I think is the right thing and I’m really pleased with it.


Do you consider this as one of your hybrid works then?

Very much so. It’s totally hybridised. There’s also Richard Evans who was technically the engineer, but he had a lot of musical input, he played flute, bass and guitar and there’s a lot of Djivan singing on it too. You could have had a record with duduk all the way through with different backing tracks but I felt that that would not be that listenable to, so there are long periods of time where there is no duduk so I think that’s created a more eclectic and more interesting landscape for it to be in— I hope, that’s what we are shooting for.


What did Djivan make of the venture?

He was very open to it. He was kind of working on spec quite a bit because when I met him to record the first time it was on very short notice and so all I had was a drone, maybe a guitar thing and a beat and that was it and he had to play against that, so pretty uninspiring stuff. Then we did a second  session here where the backing tracks were a bit more developed. Still, I’m sure he won’t recognise the backing tracks at all, a lot of the work was done after he’d done his bit.


Michael Brook & Djivan Gasparyan, photo credit: Cristina Piza

Tell me about your ‘musical consultant’ on this project, Sam the Armenian cab-driver.

My wife got a taxi going to the airport and the driver was really nice, he said he was Armenian. She told him, “Oh my husband’s working with an Armenian musician”. I guess Djivan’s like Michael Jackson there, I mean, like he’s totally mega, so this guy was really excited we were working with Gasparyan. There are two songs were I had to chop up the lyrics and I didn’t know if it was making much sense so I asked Sam to come over and say are these edits OK? Would a typical Armenian have a problem with them? Actually he was fairly enigmatic and I’m not sure that he understood what the lyrics were, I don’t know if there’s more than one dialect, because he said— “Oh yes, sound’s good, everything’s fine. But turn the duduk up!” (laughs) He’s a really nice guy.


This sounds like what I heard happened in the Massive Attack remix of ‘Mustt Mustt’ where the vocals were edited for sound rather than meaning. Were you trying to avoid making inadvertent nonsense out of the literary meaning of the words?

On Mustt Mustt there were a couple of edits I did that didn’t make sense I found out later, so for Night Song what I had to do was transcribe all the lyrics phonetically and be more careful about cutting on the middle of a line.


Could you conceive of doing live performances with Gasparyan?

Yeah, it’s quite possible. He’s a great live performer. With that stuff it’s always just a financial challenge, it’s like with Nusrat —he just got up and did it. When you do these hybrid type things it’s like weeks or more than a month usually to get it together and sometimes it makes it financially unfeasible.


Has Gasparyan been playing since he was really young?

I think so, he’s about 70 now. He’s like the national treasure of Armenia. He’s a lovely guy, very warm, committed to his music but not precious about it.


You’ve worked with U Srinivas and Nusrat and you studied with Pandit Pran Nath, the Hindustani classical vocalist, you obviously feel a deep musical affinity with a particular sort of Indian music. Is there any sort of affinity you hear in the duduk?

Oh yeah, the use of drones and ornamentation are totally in common with Indian music. Melodically it’s a bit different, I think that some of the modes that are used are more European. The way you bend notes and the use of the drone could be [from] Indian music. The drones are produced by two accompanying duduk players, they have a circular breathing technique so they can just keep it going forever. It’s a strange gig for them because they must obviously be very skilled but they just play one note! When we did the [first traditional] recording they would very occasionally echo Djivan’s phrases which I think they do in live work a bit. When we were in Lanzarote they transcribed a Bach piece for four duduks and that just sounded fantastic.

Featured Album

  • Black Rock

    Djivan Gasparyan & Michael Brook

    Released 06 September 1998

    The black volcanic landscape of Lanzarote provided the unifying location for Gasparyan’s mellow, gorgeous performances and the inimitable creativity of guitarist/producer Brook. Together with multi-instrumentalist Richard Evans, they have created a dramatic, sultry and beautiful soundscape.

By Chris Darke

Main image: Michael Brook and Djivan Gasparyan at Real World Records, Box, Wiltshire. Photo credit: Cristina Piza.

Published on Wed, 09 September 98

Further reading

Mari Kalkun nominated for 3 Estonian Music Awards

The award nominations are in recognition of her album Stories of Stonia, released Summer 2023.

The Zawose Queens from Tanzanian musical dynasty announce debut album Maisha

The Zawose Queens, Pendo and Leah, are the daughter and grand-daughter of the late Dr. Hukwe Zawose.

Track of the day: ‘IWAIWA FUNK’ by Bab L’ Bluz

French-Moroccan power quartet Bab L' Bluz, release the third track from their album Swaken.

Track of the day: ‘AmmA’ by Bab L’ Bluz

'AmmA' draws on music from north-east Morocco and influences from Tunisia and Algeria.