Tag Archives: Ajara

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: 




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:


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. 



View from across the Road/River

And these are a few photos from inside the mosque:



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


Filed under music, photo, Travel

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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