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


Filed under music, photo, Travel

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.


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:

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


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:



Filed under history, music

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


Filed under Books, photo, Travel

Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

I have been working my way through Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea” since I arrived in Georgia. It’s taken me months, mostly due to laziness but partially because Ascherson has the ability to present multiple ideas in a single sentence, each one branching off into a new area of interest that warrants further research ( i.e. youtube and google  searches).

The book begins in the Crimea and tends to move clockwise (with stops in Russia, Abkhazia, and Turkey) but also jumps both geographically and chronologically, discussing the ancient Greek colonies on the Danube and Herodotus’ writings, Polish writers in the Crimea and Turkey before the Russian Revolution, Tatar Mongols and their effects on the genealogy of the peoples of the Black Sea. Its baffling the variety of topics covered in each chapter so I won’t discuss them all- I just want to discuss my favorite topics and post a few links to related articles and videos.

Earlier on, Ascherson discusses Barbarism and this concept’s origins in the works of ancient Greek writers. He writes:” The term ‘Barbarian’ began as an onomatopoeic Greek word about foreign language: the ‘bar-bar babble’ sound of an incomprehensible tongue. ”  He goes on to explain that while the term was initially used in the Illiad  but hadn’t yet obtained a cultural and political meaning. The term was used in reference to the unknown, the others.  The term began to take on a new meaning doing the time of the Persian Wars:

“but in the 5th century BC Athens, above all the Athenian tragedians, constructed a single barbarian world, squeezing people as distinct as the Scythian nomads and Mesopotamian city-dwellers into a single new species, and opposed it to the image of a single and united Hellenic world. All that the Athenian ideology found alien and repulsive was now transferred from the ‘monster’ to the ‘barbarian’….and from this new species were born other oppositions. It was not only the Scythian whose aporia was barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom and settledness. It was the Persian of Asian whose servility, luxuriousness, and cowardice were barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom, self-restraint, and valor.”

The discourse of Barbarianism seeped into the plays and other writings of numerous Greek writers. It was apparently difficult to cram such a diverse number of “non-greeks” into one category but this particular problem was overcome:

“The Scythians and other northe’rn peoples, for example, were supposed to be wild, hard and ferocious, while Persians were perceived as effeminate and undermined by easy living. Never mind! By swerving between two extremes, barbarians were only showing how far away they were from the Greek Ideal of mosotes (measuredness), or from the Greek ethic of nothing-in-excess.”

While this ideology was maintained (and arguably still exists in much of the Western world), the romanticism of the ‘Barbarian’ (and the discovery of Greek/Barbarin hybrids) began to seep into the writings of Greeks who were either banished to outlying colonies of the empire, or those who willing explored these outskirts and catologuged thier interactions. The Stoic Philosopher Dio Chrysotom (I’ve linked the name to his “ecomium on Hair” ) visited the Greek colony of Olbia (in present day Ukraine) in 95 AD and catalogued much of what he saw (a rarity at this point in history).Dio was visiting the city at a time when the ties between the Graeco-Roman world has not been severed but had been gradually fraying. The citizens seemed to be half Scythian and half Hellenic. They wore Scythian clothes and most spoke horrible, outdated Greek. Ascherson describes one of Dio’s interactions with one of the Olbians:

” He (Dio) met a handsome lad on horseback called Callistratus and started a conversation. Callistrus was a real museum piece. He was wearing ‘Barbarian’ trousers and a cape, but on seeing Do he hopped off his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like the other Olbains, he turned out to know Homer by heart and to be immensely proud of it, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. At the age of Eighteen, he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, for his interest in philospy and for his beauty, ‘and he had many lovers’. Dio read this not as some fact about sexual orientation, but as a wonderful survival from a lost age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Greek veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual and spiritual experience. the Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea homosexuality was still the height of fashion”

I especially enjoyed this excerpt because of what it illustrates about cultural hybrid-isms  and the strange ripple effect that comes as a result of larger empires abandoning or losing territory or their control over a population. I’ve read of other instances of the same phenomena, in another book that took me even longer to read (about 6 months). In Rebecca West’s gargantuan book of Yugoslavian travel writing “Black Lamb Grey Falcon,” she describes a scene in which the representatives of Ataturk’s new government in Turkey come to Bosnia to meet with Muslims living in the former Ottoman Empire. Citizens of the town come to the train station dressed in their traditional attire, wearing their Fez and other Eastern dress, and are shocked when the representatives appear, dressed in button down shirts and Western attire–a trend encouraged by Ataturk. Both of these illustrate the way history lingers and transforms in different environments, creating something ultimately new and distinct, but forged from the old and what was once commonplace. It’s a concept I’d like to explore more in the field of ethnomusicology, examining the music of border regions or searching for Ottoman influences in places like Bulgaria and Serbia, or Persian influence on the music of Armenia and Georgia.

I know very little about Polish history and was surprised to find that, even though its shares no borders with it, much of its political and literary history has ties to the Black Sea. Mickiewicz , Poland’s greatest poet, was sent into exile at the age of twenty-four. Odessa is supposedly where he “let himself go,” visiting brothels and describing himself in his poems “as a ‘pasha’ with a harem.” He also had a love affair Karolin Sobanska, a Russian informer and collaborator, who was the wife of the man who essentially served as his parole officer, Jan Witt. It is also where he also wrote his “Crimean Sonnets” of which there are eighteen.  These poems are still widely known and quoted in Poland.

Ascherson also discusses the Sarmatians.  It is an extremely strange, backwards, and contradictory example of class ism. In the sixteenth century, Polish writers started to claim that the Polish people were actually descendants of a tribe Indo-Iranian pastoral nomads called the Sarmatians. Supposedly this was for political reasons, allowing the Polish nation to lay claim to lands to the East.

“But then, in the next hundred years, the Sarmatian myth took an extraordinary, freakish twist of its own……..In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish nobility came to believe that it was they – not the Polish population at large- who were the exclusive descendants of the Sarmatians. ”

This helped to create a kind of caste system in which peasants were believed to be a ancestors of the Sarmatian’s slaves. This ideology also helped promote new forms of fashion:

” The style was also, and famously, about dress and decoration. Here, all of the ironies of Sarmatism were concentrated. By the early eighteenth century, the Polish-Sarmatian noble was a startling, unmistakable figure. He shaved his skull, cultivated long, dropping mustaches and wore a long kontusz caftan held in over his paunch by a sash. His sword would be a curved scimitar, its hilt probably encrusted with gold and jewels. In short, he looked like a Turk – or possibly a Turkified Tatar…..This  neo-Sarmatian outfit was actually the clothing of Poland’s enemies, the oriental gear of Turk and Tatar warriors appropriated by those who boasted that they were the bastion of Catholic and European Christianity against the pagans.”

Ascherson also travels to eastern Turkey, to an area populated by the Lazi people. They are not turkish; The Lazi speak a language that is in some ways similar to Mingrelian and falls into the Kartvelian language group. The Lazi language is at some risk of extinction, partially due to the fact that is had no written alphabet up until the German Scholar Wolfgang Feurstien began sending textbooks with an alphabet he had helped create using his previous linguistic research in the area and with help from Lazi people living in Germany. This attempt to catalog and encourage the usage of this language got him in trouble with the Turkish government. The editor of a Lazuri journal in Istanbul was arrested after its first issue was published. Ascherson details the complexities of being a Lazi and having the option of multiple identities Turkish, Lazi, or some combination of the two. He also talks briefly about a language called Ubykh, which is now extinct. The last speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died in 1992. Dr. George Hewitt, the Caucasian Languages professor at London University, is quoted briefly discussing the need to catalog and encourage the use of all of the smaller Kartvelian languages:

“I regard myself as immensely privileged to have met and worked with Tevfik Esenc, in 1974, and ever since I have not deviated from the belief that it behooves all of us with an interest in the languages of the Caucasus to do all we can to prevent any of the rest suffering the same fate as Ubykh, whether by language-death through accidental or deliberate neglect of by the threat of physical annihilation….”

I found a short documentary called ” Son Sesler” which means “last sounds” in Turkish. It footage of interviews with the last speaker of Ubykh.

There is also this short video of a french linguist describing his lessons with Tevfik Esenc- 2:00 into it he discusses the variety of consonances, of which Ubykh has 84.

And these three topics are a small portion of Neal Ascherson’s book. I could write more but this post is too long already. If read it this far, thanks, I appreciate it.

– Ben

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Sayat Nova Pt. 2 – Alaverdi, Armenia


This weekend we traveled south of the Georgian border to the small copper mining town of Aleverdi, Armenia. We saw multiple churches, ancient bridges, monasteries, as well as your less typical tourist fare; multiple dead dogs, bee hives, and Soviet-era abandoned gold mining factories. Its a great coincidence, and in no way a result of planning on my part, that on the hills above the town of Aleverdi are the Sanahin Monastery and the Haghpat Monastery. Seeing these two Monasteries turned out to be a good follow up to one of my previous posts. Sanahin Monestary, pictured above, is the place where the poet and musician Sayat Nova trained to become a monk. The Haghpat Monestary is where he served and died. He was killed in 1795  by the invading army of Mohammad Khan Qajar, the Shah of Iran, for refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam. I wrote about him and the movie “The Color of Pomegranates”  in this early post:

It turns out that multiple scenes from the movie where filmed at the Haghpat Monestary. After coming back home to Tbilisi, I rewatched Sergei Parajanov’s film and recognized a few shots:

Here’s a photo I took this past Saturday:

And here are a few still shots from “The Color of Pomegranates” :

I also took this photo of Anna cooling off in this fountain outside the Monastery:

And then found this in the movie:

The Church also has a plaque commemorating Sayat Nova:

 Anna translated the Russian portion of the plaque above (and learned some interesting new volcabulary- did you the Russian verb постригать – “to become a monk”, also means “to cut your hair”?)

” 1775-1795 The great Armenian poet and musician Arutyun Sayat Nova was forced to become a monk. He stayed and kept watch in this monastery in the capacity of senior priest. ”


We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town meeting Armenians, all of whom were friendly and even more hospitable than they as a people are renowned for. One woman stopped us as we were walking up to some ruins and made us coffee, gave us treats, talked with us about the financial situation in Armenia and the US, and let me take pictures of all her bee hives:

Another man and his son’s friend made us coffee at their apartment and the younger one taught me to play the Armenian version checkers, a game I still do not completely understand. I lost every time, even though he would switch pieces with me when I was about to lose. They had a music room with a piano and a Saz, which I was very excited to find. This is one of the instruments Sayat Nova was supposed to have played, according to my guide at the Tbilisi Museum of Musical Instruments and Folk Music.

   Finding this instrument was perfect  because a few weeks ago I discovered a short documentary on one of the last Turkish Saz luthiers and have wanting to post it, but had no justifiable reason to until now.

– Ben

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ჩონგური (chonguri)

First off, we want to apologize for the total lack of posts; this kind of thing is much easier for us when we are at home. We’ve been living in Tbilisi, Georgia and teaching in public schools  for the past 3 months. I’ve started a short program through the Tbilisi State Conservatory . I am taking classes in Georgian music theory, music history, Georgian Language, and instrument lessons for now. Other components will start next year:  folk transcription, field work , and a thesis. The program was created by the International Research Center for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State Conservatory.

I wanted to post a few performances and a transcription of some Chonguri music  that I have been studying. Georgian music is most famous for its polyphonic choral tradition. Georgian folk instruments like Panduri or Doli are used to accompany songs and are not associated with virtuosic instrumental music. The Chonguri,  most popular in western Georgia, can be played in a energetic, polyrhythmic, multi-voiced style. It has 3 strings, usually tuned do, mi, so (although there are other alternate tuning) and a 4th drone string tuned an octave above the first. The instrument is played by plucking with the thumb and first and second fingers and by strumming with all four fingers on the right hand. Hammers-ons and pull offs (guitar terms; Georgians don’t have a traditional name for these techniques) are used in every song I have heard so far. One song uses left hand plucking, something I have only really seen done on violins.

Unfortunately, recordings of performances are extremely hard to find. The instrument is apparently less popular because it is difficult to play. Panduri seems to be the preferred string instrument.  There is also a lack of chonguri makers left in Georgia. I still haven’t been able to purchase one (I’m borrowing my teacher’s), because the one chonguri maker left (that the people at the conservatory know of) lives in a town across the country that is not accessible by bus (I don’t have a car). The recordings that I have found I’ve become completely obsessed with and have been working on a transcribing one of them:

Rough Draft 

First Half in Finale

The transcription is of performance by Iosef Verulidze, a performer who I can’t find any information about. If any Georgians are reading this and you have ever heard of him, or know someone who has possibly heard of him, please let me know. Pay special attention to the video at 58” – I am having an incredibly hard time transcribing it, maybe you can help me. Here is the performance:

The next recording is a performance by Aleko Khizanishvili who is, according to my chonguri teacher, one of two or three people left in the entire country who can play this well. Luckily for me, he lives in Tbilisi so I will be able to take some lessons with him if I practice enough. The piece, Khorumi, is a dance in 5/4 with accents on 1, 3, and 4.  At 1′ 28”, he accentuates these beats by hitting the body of the instrument.

Here’s a 3-piece performing the same tune, next to the mosque and sulfur baths in Tbilisi’s old city:

Here are a couple of photos  of Chonguri that I took in the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. They also have a great website with information about the Chonguri Here.

Last thing is a video of me playing one of the first compositions I learned.

UPDATE: I wrote this post in May of last year and since then I’ve  performed some solo Chonguri pieces on Georgian Televsion:


– Ben

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Georgian Rough Riders

To Russian authors, explorers, and artists at the turn of the 19th century, the Caucasus symbolized a “New Frontier” and the region was romanticized in a  fashion similar to that of  the “Wild West” in the United States. It turns out that American Cowboys actually borrowed some moves (and fashion tips) from Georgian rough riders who appeared in the U.S. in 1893 as a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West traveling circus. Mislabeled “Cossacks” (most likely done as a publicity move given the Cossacks’ colorful reputation),  the Gurians traveled throughout the country, starting shows by dressing up in traditional chokhas, carrying their weapons and singing. Western historian Dee Brown writes: “Trick riding came to rodeo by way of a troupe of Cossack daredevils imported by the 101 Ranch. Intrigued by the Cossacks stunts on their galloping horses, western cowboys soon introduced variations to American rodeo. Colorful costumes seem to be a necessary part of trick riding, and it is quite possible that the outlandish western garb which has invaded rodeo area can be blamed directly on Cossacks and trick riders.”

I found some pictures and  biographies of famous Georgian Rough Riders, as well as a short documentary that I’ve posted below.

–    Ben

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Kartuli Ena (Georgian language)

In preparation for teaching in Georgia we’ve both been trying to practice “kartuli ena” (Georgian Language).  We’ve been working through Dodona Kiziria’s “Beginners Georgian,” which has a great preface about the history of the country’s unique alphabet and language.

To quote directly from Kizeria’s preface: ” The Georgian Language displays surprising stability and consistency in its grammatical system. Today, eighth-grade students can read with relative ease eleventh-century texts, and almost any Georgian, young or old, can quote stanzas from the twelfth century narrative poem The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, a part of high-school curriculums.”

Georgian is spoken by the approx. 4 million people in the country and by emigres in diaspora. The first Georgian alphabet, asomtavruli,was created in the fourth century, probably based on Greek and Phoenician letters. It can be seen in its earliest forms chiseled on church floors in Georgia, as well as in churches in Greece, Palestine, and Egypt where Georgian clerics would travel to study their new found faith (Christianity, which was adopted sometime in the middle of the third century AD).

In the nineteenth century, when Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire, a policy of Russification began that banned the use of Georgian in official institutions. Thanks to the intense efforts of Georgian intellectuals, Russian censors eventually allowed the publication of magazines and newspapers in Georgian. Jacob Gogebashviliv published a primer for elementary school children entitled Deda Ena in 1876 that is still used in the first grade.

Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet educational system encouraged universal literacy and provided free education. They instititued a program of native language education in an attempt to combat the 70% illiteracy rate across the USSR.  By 1979, Georgia had the greatest number of people with university and college degretes in the Soviet Union.

In the books we have read so far, Georgians seem  intensly proud of their alphabet and language. Their claims concerning its longevity may sometimes be a source of bad blood between them and their  neighbors.   In his book Eastward to Tartary, Robert Kaplan, during a conversation with an Armenian, insinuates that the younger Armenian alphabet looks “similar” to the Georgian. The Armenian replies by telling him a joke in which the Georgians decide on the letters of thier alphabet by throwing a bowl of spaghetti against the wall.

At the University of Oregon library we found only one book of Georgian poetry (besides The Knight in Tiger’s Skin). We copied down our favorites. Neither the poet’s name  or date of pubication were listed:


A lake of blood swirls in the meadow, where is the stream flowing out?                                                                                                                                                                                        Within lies a crimson serpent, its head moves; where is its tail?                                                                                                                                                                                                 Loving too much brings doom to many, but has anyone understood?

Ben and Anna


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Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan

Surrender of Shamil, Theodor Horschelt

Imam Shamil was an Avar who heralded from present day Dagestan. He united the traditionally warring North Caucasian tribes in defense against Russian expansionism and led the Caucasian Imamite from 1834-1859. Shamil escaped from the Russians after his forces were defeated in the 80 day seige at Akhoulgo and continued to raise troops from the diverse tribes of the region, waging an Islamist holy war against Russia until his surrender in 1859. At this point, his story takes a strange turn.

The Imam was transported to St. Petersburg, where he was treated as an honored guest of the tsar and before settling on a well-appointed estate outside of Moscow toured the country (“By the will of the Almighty, the Absolute Governor, I have fallen into the hands of unbelievers … the Great Emperor … has settled me here … in a tall spacious house with carpets and all the necessities”), where he was greeted with near fanatical enthusiasm by the Russian public. After 12 years of exile in Russia, he requested and was granted permission by Tsar Alexander II to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he died.

Thomas M. Barrett discusses the significance of Shamil in exile to Russian attitudes towards imperial expansion and developing notions of empire in his article “The Remaking of the Lion of Dagestan: Shamil in Captivity,” writing “the celebration of the capture of Shamil was a mixture of entertainment and imperial boasting, of Romantic infatuation and national pride. Shamil represented the mixing of literary imperialism and state imperialism; he was both a hero of the Russian imagination and a striking example of the fruits of tsarist expansion.”

Imam Shamil’s treatment was a turnaround from the fate of other Caucasian rebels at the hands of the Russian empire, most of whom were either killed outright or sent into solitary exile in one of Russia’s many fortresses or prisons. Rather than strip rebels of their power through literal means or isolation, they began to wage what more resembled a PR campaign. Shamil assisted in the creation of harmonious relations by pledging loyalty to the tsar and repudiating the ongoing efforts of the Caucasian rebels. Bariatinskii, who was Viceroy of the Caucasus under Alexander II, developed a close and cooperative relationship with the former rebel, requesting official statements and dictating many of his political opinions, at least in the public realm. Military personnel were encouraged to visit Shamil and his family on their estate outside of Moscow, where their hosts would greet them in ceremonial dress in this “museum of the East in a Russian provincial town.”

The myth of Shamil proved harder to articulate than Russian authorities must have hoped. Before his capture, he had become a source of fascination in Western Europe, with Thomas Peckett Prest (author of Sweeney Todd)’s serialized story, Schamyl; or the Wild Woman of Circassia. An Original Historical Romance, appearing in London papers, complete with lurid woodcut illustrations. Due to the popularity of Western travel writers accounts of the Caucasus, more was perhaps known about Shamil in the West than in Russia at the time of his capture. Russian authorities hoped that their generous treatment of Shamil in captivity would soften Western attitudes to Russian expansionism in the Caucasus. But his capture and position afterward elicited a mixed response among Russian supporters of the conquest, who feared that Shamil’s new status in the Russian imagination would trivialize Russian exploits in the Caucasus. One anonymous letter writer to a St. Petersburg newspaper expressed outrage at his depiction as a “leader of bandit horseman,” writing:

“Shamil–an autocratic ruler of an enormous expanse of the mountains before whom hundreds of thousands of a warrior population trembled; Shamil–who fought the Russian army for 25 years, more than once getting the upper hand over large divisions led by foreign generals; Shamil–who from poor, wild mountain people has been elevated to the ranks of a university historical personage thanks to his intellect and energy; Shamil–in the understanding of Mr. Author, a leader of bandit horsemen?!?!”

– Anna

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