Monthly Archives: September 2012

The International Symposium of Polyphonic Music and the music of your region

[This is an article intended for the  Teach and Learn with Georgia blog, but I thought it would be helpful to anyone who is interested in Georgian music, so I’m re-posting (in this case pre-posting) it here]

Photo from the Tbilisi Museum of Musical Instruments

A Georgian acquaintance recently said to me: ” In Georgia there are three important things: singing, dancing, and drinking”.

A symposium coming up on September 24th will be focusing on the first of the three, more specifically “polyphonic singing.” The conference will be held Monday through Friday with lectures from international scholars as well as performances by both Georgian and foreign groups throughout the week. The symposium is being hosted by the “International Research Center for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State Conservatory.”  I wanted to use this post to promote the conference but also to illustrate some of the different regional styles of both vocal and instrumental music in Georgia.

If you’ve been living here for even a short amount of time, you’ve probably heard this music a great deal already. Hopefully this will help those who are interested to recognize the origins of the different songs you hear at supras, in restaurants, at home, on the street (basically everywhere). I’m just focusing on regions where TLG volunteers are placed (with a few exceptions) so that you can get an idea of the characteristics of your placement’s musical tradition. I’m going to start in the East and head West.


Eastern Georgian singing, in general, is simpler than that of western Georgia. Multi-voiced song often feature drones in the different voices that are dependent on the main melody. Uncommon on the Black Sea Coast, in Kakheti there are multiple instances of monophonic (single voiced) songs. Dmitri Araquashvili, a Georgian ethnomusicologist, in a historical review of Georgian music from 1925 wrote the following:

“In Eastern Georgia one-voiced (solo) songs survive in peasant’s daily life. Such songs are for plowing, threshing etc. They deal with hardships of life or pity for the draught animals. Here is, for example, the text of one song: ‘O plow, I am ready to sacrifice myself to you; I like your arch shaped neck. You give us bread and wine. A man driven by want can’t help but make friends with you’.  Another such example is, ‘O horned water buffalo,  I am with you at the yoke, but I cannot carry it with you. I am still called a boy’.

Despite these examples, in Kakheti three part singing is still the norm. According to the Polyphonic Institute:

“Kakhetian men sing very loudly and boisterously, while women’s singing matter is more balanced”

In the example above, a call and response format is established, which allows for a mono-and poly-phonic trade off. It also gives you the chance to hear the virtuosic qualities of the soloist’s performance.


To my knowledge, no TLG volunteers are placed in Tusheti due to its inaccessibility for a majority of the year. I couldn’t help adding something from Tusheti though. They are known for having  some of the more complex instrumental music found in Georgia. This is just a short clip of a shepherd playing Balalaika in a Tushetian style:


Kartli and Kakheti regional singing are very similar and are usually described lumped together. But because the capitol, Tbilisi, is in Kartli, all the best musicians and choirs reside and/or perform here. At the upcoming symposium there will be 16 different choirs from Tbilisi performing, most notably the Ensemble “Rustavi“.  Since its inception in 1968, the ensemble has had over 5,000 concerts in over 60 countries and performs song and dances from all over Georgia. You can find a ton of their recordings HERE and they are all downloadable and free.

I chose the track above because it is a solo instrumental piece, which is a rare thing in most parts of Georgia (although readily accessible in Tbilisi- anytime I ride the metro I see someone playing/carrying a Panduri). Because polyphony in Georgia is a fairly unique phenomenon and because the culture is very “group oriented” and therefore encourages large groups to perform together, solo instrumental music has not achieved the same popularity and academic interest. But the Tbilisi Museum of Musical Instruments, located up the street from Maidan Moidani in the old city of Tbilisi has a wide variety of artifacts on display, as well as a great website HERE, with pictures and descriptions of the different regional instruments.


Music in Imereti is influenced by that of Kartli and Kakheti but the citizens of lower Imereti tend to “sing in a pizzicato manner, without glissandos” (according to the research center for traditional polyphony.) These are terms usually reserved for instruments but in this case must mean short and punctuated, without sliding from note to note. The singing in the example does seem “punchier” than music sung farther east. I chose this track because, unlike the music of the East which is often accompanied by the three stringed fretted Panduri, this song features the four stringed fretless Chonguri, an instrument associated with Western Georgia. More about Chonguri once we get to Ajara.


The music of Racha seems more tense and dramatic than that of its Imereli neighbors. It is influenced by Svan music, which I will talk about in just a minute. This track features the Stviri (as its known in Racha- it has three other names, depending on where you are in Georgia), a bagpipe capable of producing two different “voices.” Using this instrument a solo performer can create three voiced polyphony by filling the bag with air and then singing along with the two voices.

(Just for Music Theory Nerds: I think the song is a great example of modal mixture, with the bagpipe accenting both the minor 3rd and major 6th, putting the song is in the Dorian mode, but once the accompaning singers enter, they sing the major 3rd and major 6th)

This is a great clip from 1978 of the same song being performed in Racha, along with some footage of the surrounding coutryside:


For similar reasons as Tusheti, I don’t think  anyone from TLG has been placed in Svaneti. But there was research done by the same author mentioned above, Dimitri Araqishvili, concerning the music and traditions of the Svans. The example I chose is not sung in Georgian but in Svan. Because of their extreme isolation from most of Georgia, Svan culture, including its song, progressed in different ways. Araqishvili wrote the following after he returned from making phonographic recordings there in 1923: “All Svan songs together constitute a single enormous solemn and dark hymn to the gods and nature. ” There is something particularly melancholy about the song “Lile”; it’s plausible that the slow pace and grand chords are a reflection of the Svan’s environment and isolated way of life.


Now that we are fully in the West of Georgia, you can hear more complex lines in both the Chonguri accompaniment and the vocal lines. Each voice has an individual pattern, as opposed to many songs in the East. Songs are sung in both Georgian and Mingrelian. This example also features a mixed-gender choir which is common in Samegrelo. According to the research center: “Mingrelians sing softly with plaintive intonation”, which I think is exhibited in “Tesh Igbali.”


The music of Guria is insane. It’s incredible. It’s my absolute favorite. The most independent and intricate parts can sound like completely random nonsense to the uninitiated. But soon you realize the sheer density of these songs is unchanging and uniform and every time you re-play the tune or hear another recording of the same, you hear something completely new that has been there the whole time. The krimanchuli, or yodeling voice has a particularly foreign sound but has grown on me exponentially, to the point that I try and replicate it constantly while sitting around my apartment. My girlfriend is not a fan. An excerpt from the research center:

“Gurian musical dialect is most interesting and has been regarded by many specialists as the crown of the folk polyphony. A surprisingly original high voice in some Gurian songs – krimanchuli should be mentioned. It is performed in falsetto and reminds of the Alpine yodel. Igor Stravinsky, amazed by krimanchuli, wrote: ‘Yodel, called krimanchuli in Georgian, is the best among those that I have heard’.”


The instrumental music of Achara mostly features the chonguri. It can be extremely virtuosic, allowing for improvisation and the combining of various songs and themes. I am currently a studying chonguri and other elements of Georgian Folk Music at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, where the symposium is being held. I will be playing this piece, along with a Georgian military dance song called “Khorumi,” at the symposium’s closing concert on Friday the 28th. I’ve written one article about chonguri and the different transcription of Acharian folk music I have done HERE.

More information on the Symposium including previous speakers and performers can be found HERE. And if anyone knows of musicians in your village (especially if they play Chonguri), please let me know so I can visit and record them.

– Ben


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мyса, Duisi: Kists and Chechen Refugees, the Trans-Caucasian Records Project

On August 29th, I traveled north-east from Tbiisi, through the cities of Telavi and Akhmeta, to Duisi. The town sits at the entrance to the Pankisi Gorge, a valley that borders the Chechen Republic.  The inhabitants of Duisi and the surrounding towns are primarily Kist, a Sunni Muslim people who speak Chechen, Georgian, and usually Russian as well. During the Second Chechen war, the Kists sheltered 7,000 Chechen refugees and now most towns in the gorge have a mixed Kist/Chechen population.

Kist men

I met a Chechen refugee named Sonsa, who helped me and a few friends find a house to stay in. Once we were settled in I asked him if he knew any Chechen musicians.  Sonsa slowly nodded and told me to wait an hour and he would take to one.  After dinner (egg noodle dumpings with spiced meat, covered in shredded carrots and peppers), I followed Sonsa down the street to this house:

Mysa’s House and Pool Hall

Through the doorway on the right four men were smoking and yelling in the dark, playing a game  on an ancient, dirty pool table. A short man with a shaved head and golden canines strode up to me and began to aggreseivly question me- “what do you want?”, “Do you have any presents for me?” This was Mysa, a fifty year old Chechen refugee who had moved here with his family from Grozny 10 years ago, after the Second Chechen War.  Mysa was initially skeptical of me and in my broken Russian I tried to explain I was a student at the Conservatory in Tbilisi and simply wanted to hear some Chechen songs. He lifted up his shirt to show me a surgical scar running horizontally down his chest. “операция (operation)” he said, pointing to his throat, signalling to me that the procedure had made singing difficult. His pool hall buddies grew impatient with our conversation, went into his house, grabbed his guitar and balalaika, and spurred him into performing.

Mysa played one song on balalaika. It was extremely fast, involving all sorts of dexterity, his fingers flaying against the strings and his nails striking the body of the instrument. At one point his flipped the Balalaika over and played the entire piece left handed. It was getting dark out but I was able to film a small portion of it:

Mysa was an talented performer who, despite his initial hesitations, clearly enjoyed his role as the town’s musician. He went on to play multiple songs on his twelve string acoustic. All except one were in Russia (the exception was in Georgian) and most sounded Western or similar to Vysotsky. One song stood out from the others. It was called  “Chechen Night” and it’s tone was extremely theatircal, frightening, and political. The dynamic range Mysa exhibited during its performance made me doubts any claims that his ability to sing had been affected by surgery . From what I can gather from the lyrics (which is very little given me deplorable understanding of the Russian language), The song is a war cry, a narrative that describes the Russian’s attack on Chechnya and states that the people of Chechnya will rise up against Moscow.

*I forgot to add this in the initial post: When I asked him where he studied Mysa stared at me for a minute, shook his head, and then mimed stealing the instruments, reaching out his arms slowly and pulling them in quick. ” I am a thief (vor),” he said. The title of Vor comes with a great deal of respect and has   a complex history which you can read about here.

I’ve posted the recordings of both the Balalaika instrumental song and “Chechen Night” on a new site “” This is a new project I’m starting; a compilation of field recordings made all around the Caucasus. I will be posting new recordings as often as I can of buskers, musicians in small towns from varying ethnic groups, and even concerts in Tbilisi.

The recording session was the highlight of the trip; the rest of the time was spent wandering around the town, which is very small and has no restaurants, bars, or grocery stores. Here are a few pictures:

Tombstones in both Georgian and Arabic:

The Town’s Mosque:

Donkeys and Ruins on a Hill:

More posts to come and hopefully more tracks to add to the transcaucasianrecords site.

– Ben


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