Spirit of Armenia and the Balkans

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Program: #14-10   Air Date: Mar 03, 2014

NOTE: All of the music on this program came from the boxed sets featuring: La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI directed by Jordi Savall These recordings are on Alia Vox and the U.S. distributor is Harmonia Mundi USA.

Spirit of Armenia. 

Armenian Spirit Product Image

1 Menk kadj tohmi (duduk, vièle à archet, kamantcha, vièle à archet & perc.)
2 Akna krunk (2 duduk)
3 Kani vur djan im (rebec, duduk, vièle à archet & percussion)
4 Chant et Danse (2 duduk & percussion)
5 O’h intsh anush (vièle à archet, duduk, vièle à archet. & perc.)
6 Matshkal (2 duduk)
7 Dun en glkhen (kamantcha)
8 Garun a (vièle à archet, duduk, vièle à archet & perc.)
9 Chants de mariage (2 duduk, kamantcha & perc.)
10 Al aylukhs (duduk, kamantcha, vièles à archet & perc.)
11 Plainte : en sarer (2 duduk)
12 Azat astvatsn & Ter kedzo (vièle & percussion)
13 Sirt im sasani (2 duduk)
14 Hayastan yerkir (viola, duduk & orgue)
15 Hey djan (2 duduk)
16 Hov arek (duduk, vièles à archet perc.)
17 Lamento : sev mut amper (2 duduk)

Armenia, one of the most ancient Eastern Christian civilisations, has miraculously survived a convulsive and peculiarly tragic history. Since its foundation, it has been surrounded politically and geographically by other great cultures with chiefly Eastern and Islamic beliefs, and has endured a cruel history punctuated by ruthless wars and massacres that have led to the disappearance of more than half its population, the exile of many others and the loss of major portions of its territory. Despite all this, throughout the centuries Armenia has preserved the essence of its national identity, first by the creation of its own alphabet (devised in 405 by the monk Mesrop Mashtots) and thanks to its rich architectural heritage, which is scattered beyond the country’s present-day borders. Although this tangible heritage is one of the most striking features of its nationhood, Armenia has also preserved a rich intangible heritage in the form of its music: a very rich and varied, albeit little known, repertory (except in the case of the duduk).

In all highly developed cultures, music – represented and embodied by certain instruments, as well as particular ways of singing and playing – is the most faithful spiritual reflection of a people’s soul and history. Of all the instruments used in its ancient musical traditions, Armenia has given special pride of place to a unique instrument, the duduk. It is no exaggeration to say that this instrument is the utmost expression of Armenia. As soon as we hear the sound of these instruments – they are usually played as a duo – the almost vocal quality and sweetness of their vibrations transport us to an extraordinary elegiac and poetic universe, introducing us to a dimension that is both intimate and profound. The music acts as a genuine balm, at once sensual and spiritual, which touches the human soul and gently heals all its wounds and sorrows.

Montserrat Figueras felt a deep affinity and enormous fascination for these Armenian instruments, especially the duduk and the kamancha, as well as a great admiration for the extraordinary musical qualities of our musician friends from Armenia. After her death, I found great consolation in listening to these wonderful Laments for two duduks and kamancha, and that is why I asked our Armenian friends to take part in the farewell ceremonies that we held for our beloved Montserrat. Their musical performances filled the venues with otherworldly sounds of overwhelming beauty and spirituality. It was after moments of such great emotion, and prompted by the deeply consoling effects of their music, that I had the idea of dedicating this unique project to the memory of Montserrat Figueras, at the same time paying a personal homage to the Armenian people, who have suffered so much throughout their history (a suffering that has yet to be fully recognized) and who, in spite of so much pain, have inspired music that is so full of love and conveys such peace and harmony. It is also a sincere homage to the wonderful musicians who devote their lives to keeping the memory of this ancient culture alive. By a great stroke of luck, back in 2004 our very dear friend, the outstanding kamancha player Gaguik Mouradian, had given me several collections of Armenian music, including the fabulous “THESAURUS” of Armenian melodies, published at Yerevan in 1982 by the musicologist Nigoghos Tahmizian, in which I have found some extremely beautiful examples of this repertory. To these we have added the pieces for kamancha, as well as those for two duduks, suggested by our Armenian friends. Together with another extraordinary musician and very dear friend, the duduk player Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian, I spent several months studying and deciphering the secrets of these ancient and beautiful melodies, listening to old recordings and discovering the “hidden” keys to the style and character of each piece. Over the last several months, not a single night has passed without my spending a few precious hours studying and playing these powerfully seductive melodies.

We finally managed to set aside the time to work on these pieces together, and between the end of March and the beginning of April we gathered at the wonderful Collegiate Church of Cardona to record all the pieces we had selected to form part of this personal and collective tribute to the bewitching, elegiac Spirit of Armenia. Immediately afterwards, together with Lise Nazarian, another great Armenian friend, we set about researching and studying material to accompany the music in the CD booklet: books on Armenian art and history, of which we found an abundance thanks to Armen Samuelian et Alice Aslanian, the curators and driving force behind the amazing bookshop “Librairie Orientale” on rue Monsieur-Le-Prince in Paris, and also to the orientalist Jean-Pierre Mahé for his essential overview of the art and history of Armenia. Finally, we are grateful to Manuel Forcano for his texts on the Memory of the Genocide and the nation’s historical timeline: a history that we hope through our own modest contribution to keep alive through the emotion of the music featured in this recording. Without Emotion there is no Memory, without Memory there is no Justice, without Justice there is no Civilization and without Civilization human beings have no future.—Jordi Savall.


Spirit of the Balkans. 

Balkan Spirit Product Image

1. Borin Cocek (Serbie)

2. Doina, hora (Roumanie)
3. Ta xyla & Çeçen kızı (Grèce & Turquie)
4. Chichovata (Nord-ouest Bulgarie)
5. Der makām-ı Hüseynī Sakīl-i Ağa Rıżā (Turquie)
6. Zajdi, Zajdi (Serbie). Aleksandar Sarijevski
7. Sborenka (Dobrudzha, Nord-est Bulgarie)
8. Azt hittem hogy minden könnyem (Tsigane)
9. Kovni (Tradition Kurde)
10. Cuando el Rey Nimrod (Séfarade)
11. Sousta (Grèce)
12. Galabovska Ruchenitsa (Thrace, Sud-est Bulgarie)
13. Bilijana (Pirin, Sud-ouest Macédoine)
14. Ciocârlia / Seva. Bora Dugić d’après Angheluş Dinicu, Paris 1889
15. Suite - Doina, Purtata, Hora ka la kaval (Roumanie-Tsigane)
16. Sanie cu zurgălăi (Tsigane). Richard Stein
17. Suite - Hora de ascultare, Hora mare, Hora lui Dragoi (Roumanie-Tsigane)
18. Vrcavo Kolo (Tradition de Serbie centrale)
19. Pastirska Elegija (Serbie). Version musicale Bora Dugić et Jordi Savall


The idea of embarking on a major musical and historical project on the peoples of the Balkans and the Gypsy and Sephardic diasporas, was born towards the end of 2011 during the preparations for a concert dedicated to the city of Sarajevo, which we gave as part of de Barcelona’s Festival Grec on 9 July, 2012. Twenty years ago, during the tragic events of the war which led to the disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, the city had suffered a terrible siege by Serbian troops, more than 12,000 people were killed and more than 50,000 were seriously wounded. Europe in particular, and the whole world in general, responded with absolute silence and a more than questionable decision not to intervene in the conflict, the consequence of which was a brutal four-year siege of the Bosnian capital (1992-1996). International intervention did not decisively come about until 1995, but by then more than twenty thousand tons of missiles and shellfire had already disfigured for ever the physical and human geography of a city which for centuries had been the cultural crossroads of the Balkan peninsula where the traditions of the Slavonic world, both Orthodox and Catholic, existed side by side in perfect harmony with more recent cultural traditions such as Islam, brought by the Ottoman Turks – who ruled the Balkans for more than four hundred years - and Judaism, brought by the Sephardic Jews who found refuge there after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. As Paul Garde observes, “This last Balkan war broke out suddenly in Europe after half a century of pacification when the more troubled chapters of its history lay forgotten. Hence the incomprehension and the suspicion directed against the region, and the resurfacing of stereotypes which portray it as eternally doomed to a pattern of killing and misery.” Still regarded as the “powder keg of Europe”, we should not forget, as Predrag Matvejević points out, that the Balkan Peninsula was also “the cradle of European civilisation.” A peninsula forming part of the Mediterranean world, which stretches from the island of Cythera in the South, to the Danube and the Sava in the North, but one in which, as Georges Castellan points out, “the olive tree does not actually reach as far as Istanbul, and the Bulgarian countries owe nothing to the soft breezes of the Mediterranean.” And yet, from the Peloponnese to Moldavia, despite the changing landscapes, the towns and villages have much in common: everywhere there are dome-topped Byzantine churches, often a mosque, and the corbelled buildings (çardak) and inns (han), and caravanserai or caravan stops, that are to be found both in Patras and in Bucharest, in Skodra and in Plovdiv, not to mention the pavement workshops where the craftsmen invite you to join them in a Turkish coffee as they hammer away at their copper plates. A family resemblance? Yes, undoubtedly that of diverse peoples who, after a long shared adventure, have constituted within Europe a distinctive cultural expression.” Observant travellers pointed to a certain style of living, a sort of “spirit” of the Balkans, which combines a laid-back approach to life, conviviality and above all a sense of hospitality, a fundamental value that is still greatly respected by all Balkan societies, and in particular continues to be cultivated in rural areas.

However, for a true understanding of this distinctive Balkan character, we must take a look back in history. In the eastern Mediterranean, the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century gave way to a blueprint of the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople, which was to be the greatest and richest city in the Balkans for more than a thousand years until 1453. Byzantium was to unify the peninsula in both political and religious terms, leaving its legacy of Orthodox Christianity, which continues to be an essential characteristic of the majority of Balkan countries today. In the 16th century, however, the whole of the Balkans fell to the Ottoman Empire which, in 1453, adopted from its capital at Istanbul the tolerant attitude of traditional Islam towards the Christian majority as another “People of the Book”, as long as they accepted Muslim rule and paid the taxes which exempted them from military service. This Ottoman conquest also brought considerable upheavals in the human geography of the region. On the one hand, it introduced a third religion, Islam, and at the same time left a trail of devastation and mass migrations, resulting in an inextricable mixture of populations, languages and cultures. As Manuel Forcano reminds us, it was after this invasion that the Ottomans referred to the region using the term Balkan, which is derived from two Turkish words meaning “blood and honey”; they encountered not only the richness of the region – its fruits, and the sweetness of its honey – but also the courageous, warrior-like and rebellious nature of its inhabitants, who fought fiercely against their invaders.

In the late 17th century the might of the Ottoman Empire began to dwindle. The Austrians re-conquered Hungary, Vojvodina and Slavonia. Finally, in 1739, the Treaty of Belgrade was signed, thus putting an end to a long war between the two empires, and for a century and a half their borders remained stable along the Sava and the Danube and the peaks of the Transylvanian Alps.

In the 19th century, nationalism spread throughout Europe and, one by one, in the same surge of national feeling, all the Christian nations subject to the Turks revolted against their rulers: Serbia (1804), Montenegro (1820), Greece (1821), Wallachia and Moldavia united to form Romania (1877), Bulgaria (in 1878). There followed a cultural, linguistic and literary renaissance of the various peoples in the region: Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenians, Croats and Serbs. In 1912 the First Balkan War broke out; Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro formed an alliance to fight against Turkey. The Second Balkan War broke out a year later following the defeat of the Bulgarians, while at the same time Macedonia was divided between the Serbs and the Greeks, and Albania became independent. Not long afterwards, the First World War was triggered in the Balkans when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June, 1914.

A melting-pot of peoples, languages, beliefs and cultures, the Balkans are the mysterious face of that “other Europe”, which for 400 years as part of the Ottoman Empire was almost entirely cut off from the main cultural and social currents of Western Europe. The Balkans have always been a highly contentious crossroads, constituting at one and the same time a rich meeting-point and the theatre of dramatic confrontations.

Despite their turbulent history and their linguistic and political fragmentation, the peoples of the Balkans still share a great many cultural traits and the legacy of their historical past. And it is their shared features that we wish to highlight in this first recording along with our guest musicians from the various cultures, religions and regions. With them we have studied, selected, prepared and recorded a variety of pieces to create a beautiful musical anthology, combining the ancient, the traditional and the popular from this fascinating and still very mysterious part of Eastern Europe. We firmly believe that the emotion, vitality and beauty of all these musical expressions will help us to understand more fully what can be seen as the musical image of the authentic “Spirit of the Balkans.”

In Western Europe today, “Balkan” culture, made popular thanks to the films of Emir Kusturica and the music of Goran Bregoviç, seems to have gained currency. Balkan music festivals abound, and concerts by Fanfare Ciocârlia and Boban Markovic play to packed audiences. Traditional Balkan music, or at least what the West regards as such, has secured its place on the world music shelves of all good record stores. But little is known about the less “folkloric” repertory, which doesn’t fit into the mental schemes of Western audiences. It should be remembered that Balkan music has been influenced at a very deep level by Roma, or Gypsy, culture (see the article by Javier Pérez Senz “Music with a Gypsy Soul”) – a fact that appears to have been overlooked by the musicologists of the region, who talk about “Serbian”, “Bulgarian” or “Macedonian” music, without mentioning that its sources and the musicians who perform it are very often Tzigane (Gypsy).

Some of the most outstanding musicians representing the different cultures of this part of Eastern Europe, together with the soloists of Hespèrion XXI and myself, have delved into this extraordinary historical, traditional and even modern musical heritage to study, select and perform it, thereby creating a genuine intercultural dialogue between the different cultures that have so often been torn apart by dramatic, age-old conflicts.

The selection of music for this recording has been carried out on the basis of our research into the Sephardic and Ottoman repertories conserved in the principal cities of the Balkans and, above all, thanks to the proposals made by the various specialist musicians and ensembles, including Bora Dugić, Tcha Limberger, Nedyalko Nedyalkov, Dimitri Psonis, Gyula Csík and Moslem Rahal, whom we invited to work with us on the project. We thank them all for their remarkable commitment and their wonderful musical performances. Their variety and diversity have contributed to the shape and meaning of this “Balkan Spirit”. Ancient and modern musical traditions, rural and urban music, celebratory music (track n. 14 Ciocârlia was composed and performed to mark the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in 1889) and evocative pieces, songs and dances of widely different origins, from Bulgaria to Serbia, from Macedonia to the furthest reaches of Ottoman Turkey, from Romania to the Hungarian border, from Bosnia to Greece, from Sephardic music to Gypsy traditions. A veritable musical mosaic performed using the original instruments of each culture: Kaval, Gûdulka (Bulgarian Lira), Tambura, Greek Lira, Kamancheh, Kanun, Oud, Tambur, Ney, Santur, Saz, Violin and Double Bass, Frula, Cymbalum, Accordeon, Organ and Guitar, etc. All these musical expressions enable us to evoke a multicultural map of the musical traditions of this rich part of Eastern Europe, which astonish and entrance us not only with their vitality and passion, but also with their beauty and spirituality. We can see that, despite the national characteristics of the various peoples of the Balkan Peninsula, it is very often those very same traits that unite them at the deepest level. This first recording, Balkan Spirit, is the prelude to a major CD-Book project entitled Honey & Blood on the music and history of this region which we are preparing for release at the end of this year.

The consolidation of Peace on the peninsula is an enterprise still beset with difficulties, particularly in those regions which have been most severely scarred by war: Bosnia and Kosovo. But understanding and integration between the different peoples of the Balkans can only come about through genuine reconciliation similar to that which was forged half a century ago between France and Germany and the integration of all the countries of the Balkan Peninsula in the European Union. As Paul Garde writes, “they don’t have to become Europeans, they are already”, but even as “the angel of history” moves forward, it does so looking back over its shoulder in what is a major process of reconciliation involving individual national identities and their own past, in which all the multiple layers of the Balkans’ past, and notably their Ottoman heritage, must be taken into account. Like Jean-Arnault Dérens and Laurent Geslin, we believe that “it is in this rediscovery of their own history and their multiple identities that the peoples of the Balkans will eventually once again be the masters of their own destiny and, to the surprise and wonder of Western Europeans, devise a different way of being European.”


—Jordi Savall

CD Info

Alia Vox CD AVSA9892, Alia Vox CD AVSA9898,