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Abram Baskhajauri and the Tushetian chianuri – Zemo Alvani, Georgia, July 2014

This past summer (2014), members of the Sayat Nova Project returned to Zemo Alvani to conduct recording sessions with Tush and Batsbi musicians and to distribute records and profits from “Mountains of Tongues: Musical Dialects of the Caucasus” to musicians. Below is an interview with Abram Baskhajauri, one of the three Tushetian chianuri players the Sayat Nova Project has recorded in Zemo Alvani. The interview, video, and photos of Abram are from July, during our third visit there. Special thanks to Dominik Cagara for his invaluable work as the Sayat Nova Project’s translator and Rezo Orbetishvili and his family for housing us, feeding us, and insisting that we drink what many would consider an excessive amount of wine.


SNP: How did you learn to play music?

AB: I was 15 the first time I went to Shirvan, Azerbaijan, with my sheep. My relative, who came with me, played chianuri. When the rest of the shepards went out, I went inside and tried to play chianuri. There was one older man who was with us and he discovered I was trying to play and he started a fight with me- “Why are you doing this? Who told you you could touch it?” The owner of the chianuri came in a bit later and told him “Why are you causing problems? This guy is young, he should learn if he wants to.” From then on the owner allowed me to play it – because I was his relative, he was supportive. At some point later we went to the mountains and made a new instrument and then I would watch my relative play and try to copy his playing.

SNP: How did you make a new instrument?

AB: We used sheep skin. People used to ask me if I had some kind of formal education but I haven’t. I’ve forgotten a lot – I used to know about 20 melodies.

[in this video Abram is telling a story about when he was studying tractor combine and having music classes at the same school. It turned out there were many melodies he knew that the teachers didn’t so at some point they would even start to dance together. The director came and said “what is this: music or dance class?” and the teachers said “He knows so many melodies we started a party here.”]

SNP: That’s great- so, this instrument is yours or your relatives?

AB: I made it myself.

SNP: Have you seen Gia’s chianuri?

Gia's chianuri

AB: Yes, earlier, in the mountains, they made chianuri like mine, the round ones. Chianuris like Gia’s came later.

SNP: Did you have a model in mind when you made yours? Like your relatives?

AB: Yes, I saw some instruments in Azerbaijan and they were my inspiration, but they had strings made of horse hair. I use horse hair in my bow – this horse hair is from a Russian horse [laughs].

SNP: Why do you use metal strings? I know that in Svaneti they use gut strings for their bowed instruments.

AB: We used to make metal strings out of military surplus materials. In older times we used gut strings.

SNP: What happened when you got older? Where did you play? Festivals, parties?

AB: No, no, I didn’t take part in any festivals. I just played for people at home, for entertainment. This is our tradition – we have music at home. Someone comes, we drink, and we play.

SNP: Yes, we’ve been experiencing that. How did you learn new songs?

AB: You have to learn these melodies by heart. Once you memorize a motive, then you can use it freely.

SNP: Do you ever sing and play?

AB: No, I don’t sing. I have never seen a chianuri player sing and play.

SNP: Have you ever had any students, even in an informal context?

AB: No, no, no one ever came to me. I wouldn’t say no, because I don’t want this instrument to be lost, but no one came. I would like someone to learn it.

SNP: So are you worried about this tradition being lost?

AB: This tradition will be lost because no one is playing. Only Gia plays… and maybe Nikolas’ son. 



SNP: So that means we’ve recorded all the chianuri players in Zemo Alvani?

AB: I don’t know, no one seems interested.

SNP: In what situations do you play nowadays?

AB: There was recently a concert in Kvemo Alvani and I was invited. I’m Jehovah’s Witness and a group of us are going to Lechkhuri forest tomorrow and I’ll play there. There was a long period when my wife was ill and I wasn’t playing at all. And then she died, and my son died, who was only 37, and I became very sad but started to play again.

SNP: I’m happy you are playing again.

AB: I’ve already lost a lot of melodies. I’m 84 years old so.. how long do I have left?

SNP: Thank you so much for talking with us

AB: Whenever you want, whenever you want, you know where I am, come and visit me.


There is a good possibility we will be taking Abram up on his offer. Members of the Sayat Nova Project will be returning to Zemo Alvani in order to make recordings at the annual Zezvaoba festival at the end of May. Here is some footage of the festival, recorded by The Sayat Nova Project in May of 2013.

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News from the Sayat Nova Project


First off, we want to thank everyone again for supporting this project- the response this last month has been really incredible. We have a lot of great news to announce.

The Sayat Nova Project has started working with Onnik Krikorian, a journalist and photographer who’s been working in the Caucasus since 1994 and has written and photographed for the BBC, National Geographic, Al Jeezera English, and the Wall Street Journal. We couldn’t be more excited to be working with him, especially due to the fact that his work in Armenian/Azerbaijani co-inhabited villages in Georgia was a huge inspiration for the Sayat Nova Project. He’s interested in writing a story about us and has been photographing some of our recording sessions. His latest photos of our work are available HERE.

We’re also going to be collaborating with and screening the films of the independent filmmaker Vincent Moon. He’s well known for creating the online music series La Blogotheque  and for filming indie and mainstream musicians like R.E.M and The Arcade Fire, but he’s also done extensive field work with musicians all around the world, including the North Caucasus. We’ll be working with him in July when he visits Georgia during the start of his project “Eurasia“. We’ll also be screening his films on Chechnya and Dagestan at different venues in Tbilisi.

We’ve created a Soundcloud account where you can stream samples of some of the different musicians we’ve been recording over the past few months:

As well as a Youtube channel where we’ve been compiling various clips of music and culture from the different people of the Caucasus:

We’ve got a trip to Zemo-Alvani planned for this weekend where we’re hoping to record Tush and Batsbi musicians.

One more thing – One of the focuses of the Sayat Nova Project is the phenomena of musical hybridisms, when two musical cultures are blended together to create something unique. This Sunday we attended a forum on Ashughs that was held by the Armenian community here in Tbilisi. There we had the great pleasure of meeting Marat Arjevanidze. Marat has been playing guitar since he was a boy and has always loved rock and pop music. When we talk about musical hybridisms within the sphere of this project, we are usually referring to folk music but in the case of Marat’s playing we decided to make an exception. He has an incredibly unique, charming, and unexpected way of interpreting western pop songs. We thought we’d include this video for your enjoyment:

With three days to go we’re just a few dollars shy of $3,000. Please continue telling everyone you know about the project and sharing our Facebook and Kickstarter


The Sayat Nova Project

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Caucasian Escapades

Writers: Ben Wheeler & Anna Harbaugh

Plan:  Post about our experience and any Caucasus-related items of interest including books, recordings, news, found items and artifacts. 

Trips: Primarily around Georgia, with visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

Job: Teach English in Georgia’s Public Schools

Here is a New York Times article about our program, Teach and Learn with Georgia:

It makes the program seem “challenging but at least unique.” That phrase, from what I can infer from the reading I’ve been doing to prepare for the trip, may be a quick way of summing up the history of this diverse region.  The next post will be a short list of Caucasus-related fiction and non-fiction we’ve been reading.

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