Tag Archives: Caucasus

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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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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Thomas De Waal’s “The Caucasus”

Last night I finished reading Thomas De Waal’s introduction to the Caucasus.  Ideally, this should have been the first book I read about the region; It provides just enough information and anecdotes about each country to incite further research.

Waal very briefly discusses the pre-Russian history of the Caucasus by dividing the first chapter into a Persian, Azerbaijani, Armenia, and Georgian sections. He cites Sayat Nova (See earlier post) as an example of the intermingling influences of the pre-Tsarist atmosphere. He quickly moves on to the 1800s and the arrival of Russian protection, colonization, and absorption.  The third chapter focuses on the Soviet Caucasus, beginning with the post WWI teetering between Transcaucasian independence, Bolshevik influenced states, and fully incorporated members of the USSR, continuing onto Stalin’s and Beria’s purges and exportations of ethnic communities, all the way up to the fall of the Soviet Union..

By the fourth chapter, Waal begins to focus on the individual conflicts that have come to define each country and their relationship to each other, Russia, and the West. He covers the Nagorny Karabakh “quarrel”,  Caspian energy, and varying aspects of Georgian politics including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and The Rose Revolution (my favorite detail of which Waal describes:  ” Saakshvilli dramatically swept into the parliamentary chamber, clutching a single red rose and shouting ‘Gadadeki, gadadeki!’ (Resign!”) Shevardnadze stopped reading his speech and was hustled from the chamber by his bodyguards. Saakashvili strode onto the podium, theatrically finished the cup of tea Shevardnadze had been drinking, and declared the new parliament invalid.”).

One feature of the book I particularly enjoyed was Waal’s short blurbs inbedded in each chapter pertaining to a short topic: Wine, Georgian Language, Lermontov, Rustaveli Avenue, How Georgian was Stalin?, Soviet Florida, Baku Jazz, Shusha, Ajaria, The Greeks of Abkhazia, and The Ergneti Market. The book never covers any concept or country in-depth, but that’s not the point of an introduction. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in becoming interested in the history, culture, and conflicts of the Caucasus.

– Ben

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Goltz on Abkhazia and Asmus on South Ossetia

Thomas Goltz‘s “Georgia Diary” and Ronald d. Asmus‘ “A Little War that Shook the World”  both address the events that led to the  conflicts in Georgia’s separatist regions. They both differ greatly when it comes to the perspective of their authors and the scope in which they view the implications of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Goltz is a war reporter and writes like a war reporter i.e. macho, sardonic, and cynical. In the beginning of “Georgia Diary,” Goltz is driving a rental car carrying another reporter and Abkhazian separatists down a mined road just beyond the ever-changing Georgia/Abkhazia border:

“..’Stay away from that one,’ says one of the militiamen in the back seat, pointing to a small pile of shattered blue bathroom tile scattered over a water pocket in the broken tarmac. I have already seen it and meant to avoid. If there isn’t a mine under that chunk of rubble, I will eat tiles for breakfast. ‘Boom,” I say playfully  jerking the wheel in the direction of the pile.”

He also has  great sense of humor which breaks through the veneer of  hardened, stranded-in-the field war-time journalist and allows the reader to share his enthusiasms and curiosities.  The book starts in January 1992 when Goltz, a reporter living in Baku,  is asked by the london Sunday  Times to find and interview Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of Georgia and the nationalist responsible for the slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” Goltz, nor any other reporter, is able to find Zviad. This sojourn does get Goltz involved in the conflict in Abkhazia and he subsequently finds himself trapped in an extremely confusing war zone.

The fighting in Abkhazia in the early 90s had so many moving parts (historical and ethnic grudges, Russian manipulation, seemingly hypocritical North Caucasian intervention by Chechnyan free-lance militants against the Georgians) that every reporter involved had a difficult time weeding through the contradictions, confrontations, and conflicting view points of militants, politicians, and citizens of the region. Goltz does an excellent job of weaving together the necessary historical/political background, his own experience through his interviews with Shevardnadze, his relationship to the citizens of Sukhumi and their personal reflections, and his descriptions of the situation on the ground, with its constantly changing borders and the influx of foreign fighters and exodus of native Georgians. “Georgia Diary” gives great insight into the conflicts of the early 90s but leaves a great deal unresolved. This is not the fault of Goltz, it is simply the situation; very little has been resolved, even twenty years later.

Much is left unresolved in the closing of “A Little War that Shook the World” as well. Ronald d. Asmus was a diplomat and he writes like a diplomat. Very little is said about the ethnography and history of the region of the conflict. Asmus uses the conflict to comment on the relations between Russian and Nato affiliated countries.. Georgia is merely a pawn (which should be apparent by the cover of the book) in the power struggle between Russia and the West.   Hour by hour events of the summer of 2008 are meticulously chronicled,  including Saakashvili’s phone conversations and sleep schedule. This doesn’t actually  make for a boring read; it’s a nice juxtaposition of what seems like vanilla diplomacy and the visceral reactions of politicians. Vladimir Putin comes off as the quintessential evil, revenge driven antagonist. Asmus describes a closed-door meeting in which Putin literally mimed throat slitting in reference to Georgian plans to maintain sovereignty of South Ossetia. Much like the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, no one side, including the West, comes off looking particularly well. Mistakes were made by all. Unlike the Nargorno Karabakh conflict, there is a very obvious hierarchy of power and a concrete evidence of malicious intent on the side of the Russians. The most frustrating example is that of Russian “peacekeepers.” When Georgian troops advanced into the region, they were ordered not to fire on Russian peacekeepers, supposedly neutral forces stationed in the region to deter ethnic conflict. In one instance, Georgian forces allowed these individuals to pass only to have the peacekeepers turn around and open fire, killing Georgian soldiers. One the other hand, many Russian peacekeepers were killed who may have been simply attempting to keep the peace.

“A Little War That Shook the World” mostly functions as a warning to the West. The Russian reactions and manipulations of  the “Kosovo Precedent” and its implications illustrates how much seemingly unrelated international events that many view as positive can be used to support a variety of conflicting idealogues. The Russian Government, who very much opposed the precedent, used it as supporting evidence for the Ossetian’s  right to autonomy (and a subsequent Russian annexation).

Both books help to explain the international implications of these separatist regions but neither (especially “The Little War”) will help the reader to understand much about the culture and history of the people living in them. That isn’t the intent of either author and would probably be a difficult feat. What is accomplished by both is an illustration of the importance of small countries and regions. Conflicts in countries and autonomous regions no one has ever heard of  are often the spark that lights an international brush fire. Asmus and Goltz both believe it would be in the West’s best interest to pay attention.

– Ben

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