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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The Sayat Nova Project

SAYAT NOVA PROJECT Garib offcial LOGO

This week marks the beginning of a new project I’m starting along with my friends Anna Harbaugh and  Stefan Williamson-Fa and with help from the Tbilisi State Conservatory and the Union of Kurdish Youth of Georgia. Since I started the blog and came to Tbilisi, I’ve been posting mainly about trips to record musicians around the Caucasus. The Sayat Nova Project will be a extension of that, and more.

We are currently fundraising to build an interactive website that will host our recordings, along with other audio examples and articles, using an interactive map. The map will display the different examples by using ethnography, as opposed to political borders, as a means of illustrating the diversity of  cultures in both the North and South Caucasus and in order to de-emphasize conflicts of nationality. This region has proven extremely susceptible to inter-ethnic tensions, particularly in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. As a consequence of this strife, much of the research and resources in the region have gone to understanding the causes of inter-ethnic violence and promoting integration. Meanwhile, efforts to study and record the music of the region tend to examine the unique national characteristics of music, as opposed to an encompassing study of the region’s musical dialects, which are as diverse as its many languages.

We chose Sayat Nova as the symbol for our project because of his unofficial title “The Bard of the Caucasus.” A musician, poet, and polyglot who wrote in Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Persian, he is a great symbol of the cultural diversity that exists in the Caucasus to this day.

We are particularly lucky to be currently working and studying in Tbilisi. In addition to figuring as the geographic center of the Caucasus, Tbilisi is renowned for its status as the most culturally diverse city in the region. Historically, it has been home to large populations of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Jews, Turks, and Persians—as well as Georgians. We live in Tbilisi, and the proximity to these different groups has already presented us with opportunities to record and interview Georgians, Kurds, Azeri Ashiks, Chechen refugees, and Kist people (Chechen’s who immigrated to Georgia after the fall of Imam Shamil in the 1870s).

With the Sayat Nova Project, We’re hoping to create a resource for anyone who’s interested in the music of the Caucasus and to include the input of academics and enthusiasts from every country in the region. I’ll be posting updates here on the blog as well as on our facebook page:  facebook.com/SayatNovaProject.

Please visit and share our kickstarter page in order to help us continue our work to document the musical dialects of the Caucasus:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/372148935/the-sayat-nova-project

I will continue to update this page with the locations of our recording sessions as well as the status of the project.

– Ben

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The Ashigs, Ashiks, Ashiqs of Algeti

My updates have been less than prolific the last 2 months but I think  have a decent excuse: things are happening. Tar lessons, new research subjects, a new conservatory-backed project to document the different ethnic minorities of the Caucasus and put together an interactive website (more on this later), and plenty of recording sessions out in the field (figuratively and literally; some musicians actually played for me while standing in a field.) Here are some recordings, videos, pictures, and some descriptions of a session that happened last weekend:

Anna Harbaugh (my girlfriend and a speaker of Russian), Stefan Williamson-Fa (my friend and fellow ethnomusicology enthusiast), and I took a bus 45 minutes south of Tbilisi to a small city called Marneuli. The city is the center of the Azerbaijani population of Georgia (83% of the population are Azeri).We had a contact named Zaur who knew of a small village outside of the city where an elderly Ashig lives.

Simply discussing the correct spelling of this term gives you some idea of its trans-Caucasian nature and this figure’s importance to the different peoples of the region. It has six spelling, not including the English: AzerbaijaniAşıq, Turkish: Aşık, Persian: عاشیق‎, Armenian: Աշուղ (ashugh), Georgian: აშუღი (ashughi). In western terms the position this title denotes is the equivalent of a bard or a troubadour: someone who incorporates playing, singing, and poetry. In Tbilisi’s old city there is a monument to Sayat Nova, the Bard of the Caucasus, which in Georgian reads: თბილისის დიდი აშუღი (directly translated: Tbilisi’s big Ashig).

In Azerbaijan, the classical repertoire of Ashiqs “includes 200 songs, 150 literary-musical compositions, nearly 2,000 poems and numerous stories.” Ashigs play the Azeri saz, an instrument distinct from the Turkish saz due to its larger body, its playing style (held horizontal against the chest), and brighter tone.

We arrived in Marneuli and  Zaur called a local representative from the village of Algeti. He agreed to meet us once a marshrutka dropped us off outside an abandoned cultural center in the village. The short ride to Algeti felt like entering a completely different country. Around Marneuli we still heard both Russian and Georgian and saw signs in both alphabets, as well as Turkish. Once we entered the claustrophobic little van and headed off in search of the ashig, we heard only Azeri, spoken by old women with bags of vegetables and golden teeth. As we neared Algeti, more and more of the passengers exited, until it was just the three of us and the driver. He stopped at the edge of a dirt road and signaled for us to get off. He eschewed payment, muttering shyly, “but you are guests.”

Upon arriving at our destination–a three way intersection of scrubby grass and road–we learned that the cell number we’d been given by Zaur didn’t work. We loitered around  discussing our next step until we saw a tall, lean figure in a black suit approaching us from down the road.  We knew not to expect the ethnomusicologists dream session: Azeris in sheep skin hats and traditional dress playing songs unchanged for centuries, without a sign of western influence in sight. But still, we didn’t expect our Ashig to be dressed like an businness man.  He turned out to be the representative here to meet us and introduce us to the musicians. Behind him, carrying a large instrument case and wearing the traditional grey woolen hats of the Azeri Ashigs, was Ashig Garib.

Garib was born and raised in Algeti. He is 75 years old and has been playing since he was in his late teens. Not only is he a venerated performer (he carries in his wallet  a photograph of a certificate from the Georgian government, signed by Misha himself, in which he was declared a national “cultural landmark”); he had also succeeded in pretty much single-handedly replacing the region’s only music school, acting as mentor and teacher to all of the region’s many ashigs–some of whom we were soon to meet. Garib, as far as we could tell, spoke no Georgian and very minimal Russian which was so accented it was incomprehensible to us. We quickly set up our microphones, cameras, and video equipment out in the front yard of a boarded-up community center and Anna started interviewing the representative (who we began calling “the mayor” because of his nice suit, white hair, and omniscient air).  Ashig Garib slowly took out his Saz, which was beautifully ornamented and engraved with his name and title. Unceremoniously, he started in on his first song, while curious groups of older men from around the village began strolling over from across the fence.

Ashig Garbib played four songs and during each more men showed up to watch, smoke, and join in with shouts of encouragement at key moments. Some of this group were actually his students and were eager to take over once he was finished. Here is a clip of Ashig Aleskar, a 36 year old student of Garib’s:

The mayor said he was playing “Melodia Dastana,” which is a genre of Ashig music that involves the narration of heroic deeds or love stories. Unfortunately, Aleskar had a soar throat and wasn’t able to play for too long. While we were off to the side asking the mayor more questions, one of the men picked up  Aleksar’s saz and started fiddling with it. It looked like he was having trouble tuning it and it also appeared he’d just wandered in with one of groups of men so I incorrectly assumed he wasn’t an ashig. But then he started playing.

His performance incorporated all the different aspects of the Ashig art: virtuosity on the saz, passionate singing, and the recitation of poetry. The five seconds between 1:43 -1: 48 in the video below were my favorite part of the entire day; this guttural, rhythmic ornamentation in time with his saz playing united all of the interesting aspects of this tradition into one little moment.

The youngest performer we recorded that day was a 25 year old named Rolan. The mayor wrote down his name without “ashig” so I am assuming he has yet to earn this title. He played this instrumental tune:

Rolan and Ashig Gymbat, the surprise Ashig, disappeared as soon as we were finished recording them. We were left sitting in front of the community center with the mayor, Ashig Garib, Ashig Aleskar, and a friendly old man with a cap and mustache who had wandered over to watch. Oh, and a flock of sheep. During the last song about thirty sheep swept into the courtyard and started grazing.

We headed to the tea house in the middle of Algeti. It took us about 5 minutes to take in all the sights. There is a mosque, a chaikhana (teahouse) , and little groupings of houses. Boys were riding horses around in the street and huge groups of men (we didn’t see a single woman the entire time we were in Algeti) sat outside the Chaikhana playing backgammon. We drank some delicious black tea, ate the strongest cheese I’ve ever experienced, chewed on the toughest meat in Georgia, and talked with the four men. We talked about Stalin (“All this land was my family’s until Stalin came and took it” – Man with the cap and mustache), living in Georgia (“This area has been part of Azerbaijan for 6,000 years!), Remish (Ashig Aleskar has a picture of the two of them together), and they told us there are more musicians in Algeti who play Zurna. We promised to come back soon and record them. They insisted on paying for our meal and our marshutka back to Marneuli. I can’t wait to go back. Here are a few more recordings of Ashig Garib and Ashig Gymbeck as well as some pictures of the recordings session:

More posts to come sooner than later.

– Ben

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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.

Kakheti: 

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.

Tusheti:

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:

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.

Imereti: 

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.

Racha:

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:

Svaneti: 

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.

Samegrelo: 

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.”

Guria:

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’.”

Ajara:

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 “Transcaucasianrecords.bandcamp.com.” 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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Guitars of the USSR and the Jolana Special in Azerbaijani Music

During my first trip to Eastern Europe, I found an “Orpheus”  electric guitar leaning against a wall in the basement of a music shop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  Half of its parts were missing and dust was gathering on its sparkly-orange plywood body. I bought it for the equivalent of $20 and carried it around in two pieces in my bag for the rest of my trip. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with discovering, collecting, and playing electric guitars from the Eastern Bloc.  Besides the Orpheus, I’ve bought a 80’s era Tonika while living in St. Petersburg, A “Moni“-style Hungarian model while visiting Budapest, and just recently, at the dry bridge market in central Tbilisi, a Ural Tonika.

This was a particularly significant find for me; the Tonika represents a lot of what  is historically fascinating and strange about Soviet produced electric guitars.  Most noticeably, the shape of the guitar is unlike any other in the world. This wasn’t an accident or the result of a particularly creative guitar designer. The alien shape of this guitar was a result of the direction and specifications of Central Planning. Because this was the first model of electric guitar to ever be made in the USSR, it could not appear to be a copy of a American Strat or Gibson. It had to be a distinctly Soviet production. The direction given to those in charge of the production of the  first Lenigrad Tonikas must have been something like “I don’t care what it looks like, I  just don’t want to recognize it.”

The resulting guitar was indeed something “Soviet.” It was unreasonably heavy and made of cheap wood, with a neck like a carved baseball bat. The guitars were nearly impossible to play, with frets that could cut your hand and intonation that created sounds half and whole steps away from the intended tone. And, just for the sake  of contradiction inherent in just about anything produced in the USSR, the guitars had fairly complex and often very well made pickups.  It was like filming something in high definition that you didn’t want to see up-close. Luckily for musicians in Leningrad, the guitar makers  in Czechoslovakia were doing a fine job of making decent, playable guitars which quickly became the choice of musicians throughout the Soviet Union. This site has a long list of most of the guitars made in Czechoslovakia, including some really strange ones:

Jolana Big Beat, complete with short wave radio

While doing some research on Azerbaijani music, I found a couple of really incredible guitarists playing what seemed like a “modern” take on traditional Azeri music. My personal favorite was Remish. I couldn’t  find much information  in English or that was comprehensible when translated form Azerbaijani, just that he had attended a musical school and was a famous musician still living in Azerbaijan.

Remish

The best thing I found was the following video.

It is more than an hour and a half long. Most people don’t have time to sit around watching hours of footage ripped from an old VHS tape but, luckily for you, I am not most people. To save you some time, here a list of what i think are the best moments. Throughout the whole performance he does amazing things with trills and mimics vocal ornamentation by using bends with the left hand along with bends with the whammy bar. He is also using some heavy analog delay and overdrive. ALSO, his pick grip is identical to that of a tar player which leads me to believe that he studied this instrument as well:

5:20- some great slide guitar played with a glass bottle

10:40- back and forth with a clarinetist

11:30-13:12 ridiculous solo break

17:20- great melody and the tempo picks up

30:00-great one handed tapping and solo section, accordion exchange shortly after

34:00-ridiculous bends

42:40 some intentional bridge noise and another insane ornamentation

48:48-49:15* best part. just watch it.

53:28- nothing’s cooler than play and smoking st the same time

58:26- major and minor 3rd shifts

58:50- tempo change out of nowhere!

1:05:50- surf rock bend and neon sign

1:15:40- more smoking, eating, shredding, money being thrown in his face

These are my favorite parts but all through this performance he is relentless.

I also found a younger Azeri named Elman Namazoglu. Take a good look at his guitar in the video below:

This is the Jolana special- it seems that every famous Azeri guitarist uses this Czechoslovakian model.  This kind of virtuosic performance would of been impossible using a Tonika or Orpheus guitar. Even though western guitars, Strats and Les Pauls, are now available in all of the Caucasus, the Jolana special continues to be the favored model. I’ve found a few schematics of the Jolana Tornado, essentially the same guitar with a few minor changes:

And just in case you had any doubts as to the popularity of the Jolana with Azerbaijani guitarists, I also found this picture of a Jolana with the colors of the national flag painted over the red finish. This guitar is everywhere:

Here is a great post from a fellow Seatte-ite with more videos:

http://moodorgan.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/monsters-of-azeri-guitar-ramish-rehman-memmedli-elman-namazoglu/.

Hopefully I will find some more Soviet guitars to add to my collection (after writing this I desperately want to find a Jolana special). When I do I will be sure to post some more pictures.

– Ben

UPDATE!

A lot has happened since I first posted this article more than a year ago! If you follow the blog, you will know that I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the Caucasus making field recordings as a member of the Sayat Nova Project.  While visiting the city of Quba in north-eastern Azerbaijan I was finally able to get my hands on a Jolana Tornado! Here are a few pictures:

JOLANA TORNADO IMG_2177 IMG_2178

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Books Bought and Found in Tbilisi

Russian Book

Tbilisi is full of old books. Some are sold from stands in underground metro passages, others you can barter over with booksellers at open air bazaars, and some, as I found out yesterday, you can discover in dust-covered boxes next to the large metal trashcans outside your apartment. This was my first exposure to the world of Caucasian dumpster diving; I’d seen stray dogs and cats stealing all kinds of rotting vegetables and entrails from the trash but I assumed there was nothing in there for me. My neighbor hood, Isani, is the Armenian district in Tbilisi and most of the Armenians here speak Russian in and outside the home. It looks like these books  belonged to either a Russian or Armenian family because they were all in Cyrilic. There were about 6 boxes and a few moments after I started digging through them, two older Georgians pulled up and helped me pick out some classic Russian literature and other gems until my arms were full. I helped them haul the rest into the back of their van, which was with covered in white dust and filled with powdery sacks of flour. I come back to the apartment with biographies of Gorky and Mayakovsky, plays by Chekov, two books on Lermontov, two collections of Tolstoy stories, a book of Lord Byron translations, a short soviet-era novel called ” How to Temper Steel,” a book of Armenian poetry (in Russian), and a translation of  “A Thousand and One Nights“, complete with incredible pictures which I’ve posted at the top of the page.

My pile of new books

1001 Nights

Armenian Poetry

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The pictures from “1001 Nights” are probably mt favorite but the Mayakovsky books also has some great photos:

The Poet with Dog and Cigarette

Anna and I haven’t found all our books in dumpsters – We’ve accumulate a decent collection of other Russian, Georgian, and even English books intended for people of the Soviet Union, with translations of colloquial phrases and other different words in the back.:

And here’s a little excerpt from the back of the Somerset Maugham book:

This version of Alice in Wonderland, published in Moscow in 1967, has  incredible artwork, which I think are reminiscent of some other soviet era cartoons. Just take a look at some of these chapter headings:

Anna has been, slowly but surely, translating a book she bought from a bookseller in one of the underground passageways on Rustaveli. Its called “Georgians in Moscow,” and it details the history of the community from the year 1653 to 1722. Here are a few photos from inside the book:

I am planning on doing another post about the Georgian Futurist Movement and a book we bought at the literature museum with graphic poems and Dadaist literature but that will have to wait. Here is a couple pages from it until next time:

– Ben

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