Acharuli Chonguri and Hospitaliti

View from the village of Okroashilebi

View from the village of Okroashilebi

Just returned from a trip to Achara and I have some great recordings, a lot of pictures, and a couple of interesting stories.  I visited two cultural centers, a few schools, and several extremely remote villages.

I made my first recordings in a music room in the village of Oladauri’s only school. Oladauri is for sure the farthest  removed of all the villages I’ve ever been to in Georgia. To reach it, you first have to drive along the main road between Shuakhevi and Khulo, which is in pretty bad shape and occasionally terrifying: tiny lanes with no barriers, hugging cliff-sides, with all cars going to or from either town utilizing an imaginary “third lane” directly in the middle of the road.  Once you’ve started down the  dirt road to the east, signs of civilization pop up only occasionally, and in the meantime, your internal organs are significantly churned by the pot-hole-filled, muddy, snowy mess that is the road to Oladauri. But the landscape around you is so gorgeous it makes it hard to complain.  After approximately an hour of driving up steep, slippery hills, you’ll see the small grouping of houses and a school that comprise the village of Oladauri.  Here are a few pictures I took once I reached the town: 

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DSCF1172Achara (sometimes spelled Ajara) was conquered by the Ottomans in 1614. During this period the people of Achara converted to Islam. Currently, 30% of the population are still Muslim and there was a mosque in almost every village I visited. That might explain the attire of the man pictured on the gravestone in the first picture and the crescent moon above the door in the second. But more on that later.

I visited the school and met with the music teacher. He told me there were many good musicians from the village but they’d all moved to Batumi for work. He was eager to help me and recruited a couple of the local musicians that remained to play for me. They performed some instrumental music for me on Panduri and Salamuri.

When they’d finished, the music teacher ran outside to gather some more singers.

After these great performances I headed back to Shuakhevi. One of the most instructive things I’ve learned about living in Georgia is that you have to know someone to get things done. If you know just one person, they will know twenty more and one of those people will either know the person you’re looking for directly, or have some idea of how to find them. Case in point:  I told my Georgian language teacher at the conservatory that I was traveling to Shuakhevi. She called her colleague who is from the region and it turned out that his brother is the chief of police in Shuakhevi. I called the policeman once I reached the town and he took me to the cultural center to meet with the director.

I explained that I was hoping to record any musicians but was particularly interested in instrumental chonguri music (I’m hoping to write a paper for my conservatory studies on variations in traditional performances of Acharan  chonguri music). They made some phone calls and soon Ramaz Davitadze arrived. Looking the part of a dapper Georgian country gentleman, he strolled into the room with his Panduri in hand, greeting me happily and was eager to discuss traditional folklore with me. He had studied music in Batumi and was a member of Shuakhev’s Folk ensemble. During the next few hours I had some great conversations with him and we were able to share different variations of chonguri songs with one another.  He was one of my favorite people I’ve met while living in Georgia.

I was also able to come back the next day and record Ramaz playing another tune in the park:

And here’s a photo of Ramaz with the Center’s director, The chief of police, and another man from the center:

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During this trip I also spent some time in Khulo and met with some musicians at Khulo’s cultural center. I was asking about chonguri songs, and although they all claimed to be unable to play any, one woman borrowed my chonguri and within a few seconds they were singing this:

Later, I had lunch with the director of the cultural center, Avdantil Bolqvadze. We spoke about the people of Achara and its atmosphere of religious tolerance. Avdantil explained that Christians and Muslims live and work together and seemed almost surprised that it could be any other way.  Khulo has both a mosque and a church, located relatively close to one another. If you spend enough time in the town center, you might have the opportunity t0 hear both the call to prayer and church bells  sounding simultaneously.  I was obsessed with taking pictures of mosques during this trip, first because I think it’s an unique and interesting aspect of Acharan history and daily life, and second because they vary significantly in size, age, and building  materials. My favorite was the mosque in the town of Iramadzebi. It’s a completely wooden building, with the exception ofthe prayer tower which is made of some kind of tin. 

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View from across the Road/River

And these are a few photos from inside the mosque:

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My second favorite mosque was in the town of Dioknisi. It was built in 2001 with funding form the Turkish government. Notice the waterfall in the background on the left: DSCF1268

I took this footage outside a music room in Dioknisi’s school:

Because this is already a long post, I will try to make this next story as short as possible:

I wanted to visit a chonguri player in a remote village called Tskhmorisi, but did not have his number, address, or a ride. Just his name: Tamaz Nakishidze. So I spoke with the chief of police. He found his number– how, I have no idea– and told him I was coming. But then there was the question of a ride. Ramaz found me a bus heading out of town, towards Tskhmorisi which would take me to the bottom of a dirt road leading to the village. Pridon, the chief of police, arranged for a patrol car to meet me there and escort me to Tamaz’s house, a good 45 minutes crawling up a rocky hill. Once I had made my recordings and spoke with Tamaz, they took me back down the hill, blasting Russian rap music. The rest of the story involves hitchhiking, some students jump starting a car using pieces of discarded metal, and a cautionary tale about a man from the area who was recently eaten by wolves. But I finally made it home (much later that night) thanks to the hospitality of the people of Achara. And I have these great pictures and recordings from my meeting with Tamaz Nakishidze:

You’ll probably notice he’s playing the same piece as Ramaz from the video above. This is one specific aspect of Georgian folk I am trying to write about for my studies at the conservatory. There are  so many variations of these two instrumental pieces, Khorumi and Gandagana. I want to write a paper analyzing as many of these variations as I can find. In a culture that values group performance and polyphony, it’s interesting to see a tradition of soloistic instrumental music with such a diversity of improvisations. Here are two of Tamaz’s variations of Khorumi:

Tamaz's Grandkids

Tamaz’s Grandkids

Overall it was a very successful trip. The Sayat Nova project is planning to head back to Achara sometime in May. I have more pictures, recordings, and footage, but that will have to wait until we finish building the website for the Sayat Nova project. Our kickstarter is still up and running so please share this post and help us to continue to promote it!

– Ben

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2 Comments

Filed under music, photo, Travel

2 responses to “Acharuli Chonguri and Hospitaliti

  1. This is one of the most exciting kickstarter projects i have ever participated in. Thanks for the updates and making it come alive, and keep the photographs of religious buildings coming!
    -John Uhlemann
    KHDX radio, St. Louis

  2. Ben! This project looks incredible. I’m looking forward to seeing what develops. That song you recorded by the music teachers really struck a chord, you know who originally recorded/wrote it by chance? Also, if you have time, I’d love any music recommendations from caucasus that I’d be able to find outside the region… or better yet, lie and tell me that’s impossible so I have an excuse to pay georgia a visit.

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