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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

Taking flight on the wings of Armenian tradition

July 31, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

"Spirit of Armenia!" at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday was all that and more -- a veritable open-air marketplace of sounds, sights and rhythms from the republic. And with a lengthy program dedicated to traditional and contemporary music, it was also a fascinating display of the global reach of Armenian culture.

For many Western listeners, the most instantly recognizable Armenian musical element is the sound of the duduk. A double-reed instrument with a gripping, vocal-like quality, it has become the atmospheric element of choice for exotic films ("The Gladiator," "Syriana," "Dead Man Walking," to name only a few). And it was present on the program in its fullest blossom via the playing of the duduk ensemble the Winds of Passion and, especially, by the extraordinary work of the instrument's most famous virtuoso, Djivan Gasparyan. Although he played only two numbers, Gasparyan's capacity to evoke emotional intensity from a seemingly rudimentary instrument was convincing testimony to his great artistry.

Like Gasparyan's, singer Hovhannes Shahbazyan's performance was highlighted by its connection to traditional elements. Winding adroitly through note-bending melismas, he recalled the ageless qualities of ancient modal melody before driving into an irresistible flow of body-moving rhythms.

A lineup of contemporary Armenian singers -- male vocalists Adiss and Sako and the supple-voiced Silva Hakobyan -- found connections with the borderless qualities of international pop without departing from their native roots.

Another mono-named performer, Andy, garbed as a Western rock 'n' roller, weighed in more heavily on the faceless, global-pop side of the ledger.

The local aspect of Armenian music was well represented by the San Fernando Valley-based Element Band, balancing engaging vocal harmonies with a cross-fertilization of sounds and attitudes. As with the other pop-oriented performers, whispers of rock, Middle Eastern rhythms, even traces of bossa nova and bolero drifted amiably through the music.

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