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Humble Means, Rich Sounds : * Masters from far-flung origins will play their simple instruments in North Hollywood. : Los Angeles Festival: "HOME, PLACE and MEMORY," A Citywide Arts Fest

September 10, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Robert Koehler writes regularly for The Times. and

As the Los Angeles Festival's ongoing series of church-sited concerts titled "Sacred Landmarks" arrives Wednesday at St. Anne Melkite Church in North Hollywood, the sacredness will extend beyond the place itself.

The billing of master instrumentalists--Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan and Palestinian-American oud player Simon Shaheen--with Adam Rudolph's L.A.-based drum quintet, Vashti, marks a coming together of artists who consider their music as something approaching the holy. Theirs is a seriousness as disciplined and total as any Western classical musicians', but informed by utterly different traditions.

And despite their far-flung origins--Gasparyan from war-racked Armenia, Shaheen from northern Israel by way of New York, and Rudolph from the Westside--they approach their work with the humblest of means. Gasparyan's duduk is a small, double-reed flute made of bamboo and apricot-tree wood. Shaheen's oud (what the lute became in Arabia) is a large-bodied, plucked-string instrument. Rudolph's drums have nothing more to them than tightened animal skins tied around a wooden base.

There isn't an AC outlet in sight with these men.

But for Gasparyan, things like electricity have become precious in his home in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, where blackouts can last up to 23 hours a day. The ensuing war in neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh has devastated Armenia in ways that make Gasparyan and his Los Angeles Armenian friends such as translator Edward Sarkissian think of the Armenian holocaust of 1915.

"People there have no happiness," Gasparyan says through Sarkissian. "There is nothing but sadness in Armenia. It's very difficult to even write songs today."

Ironically, his first recording to gain commercial release is titled "I Will Not Be Sad in This World." Recorded in Moscow in 1983 for the Soviet-operated Melodiya label and picked up by Brian Eno's Opal label in the late '80s, the album became a cult hit on "world music" radio oases such as KCRW-FM and praised by the New York Times' Jon Pareles as "distilled melancholy . . . a flute with a tone like liquefied sapphire . . . and the songs are almost heartbreaking in their eerie slow motion."

His duduk can be heard in films ("The Russia House," "The Last Temptation of Christ"), has been sampled on rapper Me Phi Me's "One" album, and will be heard on a new, yet-to-be-titled release on Peter Gabriel's Real World label. And during the L.A. Festival, Gasparyan will appear not only at the J. Paul Getty Museum (Sept. 18), but in one of the fest's biggest draws--sharing the Hollywood Bowl stage with the Festival Armenian Chorus and the L.A. premiere of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony (Sept. 17).

The temptation to leave Armenia's despair behind and settle in London or Los Angeles seems not to exist for the 65-year-old Gasparyan.

Since performing publicly on the duduk at 8 and becoming a soloist with the Armenian State Ensemble at 20, Gasparyan says, "I have been in a very privileged position." His 28 years with the touring State Ensemble took him to nearly every continent, including his first of several L.A. visits in 1959. Even within the Soviet structure, he was able to quit the Ensemble when he tired of the wearying travel and turned to teaching at the Komitas Conservatory of Music and recording for radio, television and CD.

And yet, as his professional life is opening up before him, day-to-day life seems to be closing in. "People have chopped down all the trees in the parks for firewood, thanks to the war and the Turkish blockade of our border," he says, "and now spend hundreds of dollars to buy wood for the winter. I have lost 20 pounds in the past few months.

"I am very pleased that the public is getting to know Armenian music, and that it will lift morale for my people back home and Armenians in America." The sample of this music that Gasparyan and his accompanists Alexander Hartunian and Vachakan Avakian will play at St. Anne will include Armenian folk songs and "romances," works by such composers as Sayat-Nova and Vahat Galantarian.

The melancholy of producing music in a land torn by war is a very familiar thing to Simon Shaheen, born in 1955 in Tarshiha, a Palestinian town in northern Israel. Unlike Gasparyan--who learned music on his own--Shaheen came from a musical family that steeped him early in Arabian traditional music.

"Everyone joked that when I was 6 and playing on stage," he says on the telephone from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, "I was so little that I couldn't be seen behind the oud. "

His father, Hikmat Shaheen, created the music education curriculum for all Arab schools in Israel and in 1960 established the Arabic Conservatory at Haifa, where he formed his Oriental Orchestra. "He took his music very seriously," the son says of the father, who died two months ago.

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