Tag Archives: Georgia

“Mountains of Tongues” – Musical Dialects from the Caucasus

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We’re incredibly excited to announce this release: it’s a selection of recordings made by the Sayat Nova Project throughout the South Caucasus. The album will be released on the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s label, L.M. Dupl-ication on an LP with free download of the tracks and a PDF of the liner notes. “Mountains of Tongues” will be released on Nov. 12th but you can preorder it here:

http://www.midheaven.com/item/mountains-of-tongues-musical-dialects-from-the-caucasus-by-va-lp

We want to thank Jeremy and Heather from Hawk and a Hacksaw for releasing it, Lucy Duncombe and Kenneth Wilson for the artwork, Harry Wheeler for our logo, and John Dieterich from Deerhoof for mastering the album. But most importantly we want to thank all of the musicians we met in the Caucasus  while working on this project.

Here’s a clip of Grastia (featured on the cover) from the village of Ghari, Georgia playing the Diara:

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UPDATE: Sayat Nova Project

The Sayat Nova project has reached its initial funding goal  in just over a week. We’d like to thank everyone who donated and/or shared our Kickstarter. Thanks to your contributions, we’ll be able to create the website, cover the expenses for your rewards, and pay for some of our travel costs.

With 11 days to go, we’re continuing  to promote the Kickstarter in order to fund even more recording trips across the Caucasus. Because of the abundant support we’ve received in such a short time, we’re hoping to continue fundraising to fully fund the high costs of traveling to hard-to-reach places such as Svaneti, Tusheti, Quba, and Xinaliq. This extra funding will also cover the costs of travel for local volunteers and interpreters when necessary. In the following months we’ll be meeting with Georgian, Roma, Jewish, Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Abkhazian, Assyrian, and Ossetian musicians living here in Tbilisi. We also have multiple trips planned to surrounding areas and farther afield. Here’s the general itinerary for a few of our larger scale trips and some information about some of the different groups we’ll be recording:

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February: North-Eastern Georgia: we’re visiting musicians in villages surrounding TianetiAkhmeta Kvareli, and Lagodekhi .This trip will allow to record Georgian musicians from the region and hopefully Batsbi, Kist, Chechen, Dagestani, and Udi musicians as well.

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March: Azerbaijan: visiting QaxShekiGabalaXinaliqQuba, and Baku. We’ll be recording Azeri music (Ashigs and Mugam) as well as Georgian, Lezgin, Tats (Jewish), and Avar musicians. We’re also hoping to meet with some famous Azerbaijani electric guitarists (Remish!) in Baku (fingers crossed).

Digital Maps for Graphic Design

April: Armenia: In cooperation with the Union of Kurdish Youth of Georgia we’ll be visitingYezedi Kurdish villages in the Aragatsotn Province and traveling through villages on the way to Yerevan.

In addition to these larger scale trips we’ll be traveling on the weekends to villages all over Georgia in order to document as many musical dialects as humanly possible! We’re planning on traveling to Racha in May and Svaneti and Tusheti sometime in June (as soon as the snow melts). In addition to all these trips, We’ll be hosting events in Tbilisi with local musicians where we’ll present our work and give talks about the Sayat Nova project. To everyone who has donated so far:

 Thank you! Təşəkkür edirəm! დიდი მადლობა! Շնորհակալ եմ! Большое спасибо! 

Please help us continue to promote this project! 

Here’s our kickstarter: http://kck.st/WxntHo

Our facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SayatNovaProject

And an event we created for the frequent posting of videos: EVENT

– Ben

 

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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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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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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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