Tag Archives: music

The Udi village of Zinobiani

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House in Zinobiani

In late Febuaruy, we (the Sayat Nova Project) got on a marshutka headed for the town of Kvareli. We’d heard that a small village called Zinobiani just outside the town had a small population of Udi, a Christian people who are descendants of the early Caucasian tribes of Azerbaijan.

To prepare for most of  our recording sessions we’ve been really careful to make as many contacts as possible and to do a lot of research beforehand so we have some idea as to exactly what and who we’re looking for. In this case, we couldn’t make any contacts because no one we asked had ever heard of Zinobiani, or for that matter, the Udi people and although we searched and searched, we found only a few examples of Udi music. So, we decided to wing it and just head out to Zenobiani and see if we could find any musicians.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost everywhere I’ve been in the country of Georgia has been incredibly beautiful. Achara, Kazbegi, Algeti, Gardibani, Kutaisi, you name it. Each region has its own unique landscape, whether its snow capped mountains, tropical forests, rolling green hills, or craggy desert rock formations. But as we sped toward Kvareli in the packed marshutka, the towns and villages we passed looked like shots from a black and white film that couldn’t be kept in focus. To my left and right,  everything was a different shade of grey or brown, each town lifeless and full of fog.

We entered Kvareli but of course didn’t know where to get off. As more and more people exited the van, the driver seemed increasing confused by our continued presence. Our driver, a middle-aged man with graying hair, a puffy black vest, and an abrasive personality questioned us:

“So where are you going? What do you want?”

“We’d like to catch another marshutka to Zinobiani.”

 “Why do you want to go to Zinobiani? There’s nothing there!”

“We’re studying different musicians so we want to go and meet the Udi people who live there and see if they know any songs.”

” Udi people? Me! I’m Udi. Me! I’ll take you there. It’s where my mother lives.”

So we stayed in the van and drove back out of town. Foggy fields to our right, foggy fields to our left. After about 10 minutes, we slowed down, took a right, and stopped on a thin road with a few stone houses on either side. We had reached Zinobiani.

The school in Zinobiani houses a museum (Here’s a great set of photos of it taken by  Georgian photographer Sandro Shanidze). Its dedicated to preserving the Udi language and culture but unfortunately for us, it was closed until May and its director was out of town.  So we had no option but to walk around asking people if they spoke the Udi language and if so, did they know any songs? Unfortunately, our driver did not help.

“Nobody here knows anything! You won’t find anything. You should just go look on the internet.”

The school’s English teacher saw us on the street and brought out a couple of books for us:

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And the longer we stayed in the street talking to our driver and the English teacher, the more attention we attracted.  A man in a rusty Lada stopped, pulled out his cellphone, and used its distorted little speaker to play us some songs in Udi accompanied by synthesizers (there is a slightly larger population of Udi people living in Azerbaijan and these songs were recorded there).  But it was looking like we weren’t going to find any musicians. Our group of Zinobianians kept growing but no one was aware of any musicians or knew any songs in the Udi language.  Finally, an old woman wearing what looked like a traditional black dress and blue shawl walked up to our group and claimed she knew Udi songs. And of course, true to his role in the story so far, our driver exclaimed:

“You don’t know Udi songs!”

To which she angrily responded :

Of course I do! I’m UDI!

So we asked her name (Olia), told her about our project, and she agreed to sing for us at her home at six that evening. And in the meantime it turned out that, although our driver was a bit heavy handed, he was perfectly happy to take us to his mother’s house and show us how Udi bread is made.

And after getting all our accomadation settled in nearby Kvareli, we returned to Zinobiani that evening. We weren’t sure where Olia lived but assumed that given the size of Zinobiani, it wouldn’t take us to long to find her home. We passed a man burning a large pile of hay on the side of a dirt road and he told us  “keep going straight, then take a left”. At that corner we passed a man chopping wood in his yard and he told us to “go straight and its the last house on the right”. But then he said to us “Ah, you’re the Russian ethnographers! Welcome back.” It turns out that during the Soviet Union some anthropologists had interviewed Olia about Udi folklore. This was in the 70’s.  Forty years ago. Either this man was a little crazy or time passes in a very peculiar way in Zinobiani.

We found Olia’s house, a two story stone building with a muddy yard. She greeted us at the door and we sat down together at her kitchen table at one end of a narrow room. Her sons and grandchildren were sitting around the wood-fire stove at the other end, watching TV next to the stove and talking loudly. (Grandchildren have quickly become The Sayat Nova Project’s worst enemy. We record many elderly musicians and there is nothing worse than when our subject is just about to complete a beautiful, unique piece of music and their grandchildren scream, hit someone, break something, or knock over our equipment, essentially ruining the recording).

Olia was a fantastic host and excellent story teller. She was shy to sing initially and spent almost an hour talking to us about the history of the Udi people, reciting poems, telling folk tales, and explaining different marriage traditions (when an Udi women first enters her new home after being married, she breaks a plate on the floor). She also told us some of her own history, how she had moved to Georgia to be married in Zinobiani when she was young, how she still has some family living in Azerbaijan. Anna is still working to translate our hour long conversation from Russian and I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Eventually, Olia sang two songs for us. We were able to make video and audio recordings but this was a very lively room and they are a bit noisy. Still, we are really happy with the examples. There are an estimated 200 Udi people living in Georgia, all of whom reside in Zinobiani. We hope these aren’t the last examples of Udi songs recorded in Georgia, but given the dwindling population of the town and the decreasing number of people who speak the language, this is a definite possibility. Here’s an audio example a and a couple videos.

 

 

 

And while researching we were able to find this clip of Udi singing:

 

We also discovered that the Udi people play a pivotal role in what Thomas De Wall calls the “History Wars.” In the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, historians on both sides have tried to use their research to make a claim as to “who was there first.”  The Udi people are used by some Azerbaijani historians to explain the presence of Armenian churches and Armenian inscriptions in Karabakh. Here’s an excerpt from Wall’s “The Caucasus”:

“…To mitigate this, a curious theory was launched in the 1960’s by the Azerbaijani historian Zia Bunitov. It centers on the fate of the ancient Christian people, called Caucasian Albanians by the Romans, who mostly lived in what is now Azerbaijain. Only a few fragments of their writing survive. The historical consensus used to be that the Albanians were almost completely assimilated by other local peoples, including the Armenians, from around the tenth century. A tiny ethnic group, the Udi or Udins, mainly concentrated in two villages in northern Azerbaijan and now numbering fewer than ten thousand, appear to be their direct descendants…”

Essentially, Bunitov believes that the Armenian churches in Karabakh are actually Albanian.  One of our project’s aims is to use culture as a way of overcoming conflict, so I don’t want to emphasize the use of the Udi in these “History Wars.” I just find it incredible that the diversity of culture in the Caucasus can be utilized in so many ways, both good and bad. If you are interested in this particular topic, Here is a video that was aired on Azerbaijani television in 1993 explaining this interpretation of the Udi peoples place in the history of the Caucasus.  I should emphasize that we at the Sayat Nova Project do not support or agree with all of the historical interpretations presented in this film, but it contains some footage of Udi folk songs and rituals.

Anyway, here are a few photos from our trip taken in  Zinobiani and Kvareli:

Udi Bread

Udi Bread Shack

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Kiln

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Kvareli's abandoned Theater

Kvareli’s abandoned Theater

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Stefan and  I are heading out to the town of Oni, in Racha in just two days. More updates to come!

– Ben

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Rəşid Behbudov and Persian Santur

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Rashid Behbudov

The Sayat Nova project has had a very productive week. A few days after I returned from Achara, Stefan, Anna, and I headed out to the village of Zinobiani in North-Eastern Georgia and recorded Udi music. (We’ll update you on this trip soon – Anna has a long Udi story to translate, as well as some information on the marriage rites of the Udi people). A few days later our good friend Erekle Qeshlashvili, a painter who specializes in  Georgian Orthodox icons, invited us to visit his icon studio and meet his friend Abbas.

Abbas turned out to be an incredible musician who had studied classical Persian music in his home country of Iran. Abbas is from Tehran but lives and works here in Georgia- He plays violin and Oud in a Iranian restaurant in the old city. We met with Abbas twice, once in the Erekle’s Icon work studio and yesterday he came to our apartment to drink some tea and help me repair my Oud.

During our first meeting, Abbas brought his Santur,  a Persian hammered dulcimer. He played a few improvisations for us while artists  in the studio painted icons and carved traditional Georgian ornaments into blocks of wood. Abbas seemed shy and reserved at first but as soon as we started talking about our project and  music in Iran and Azerbaijain, his eyes lit up:” I will improvise on a Rashid Behbudov melody.” Unfortunately, neither Stefan nor I had ever heard of Rashid Behudov but we still enjoyed Abbas’ playing:

After he’d finished this tune and discovered our ignorance, he told us all about Behudov. ” He was born here, in Tbilisi. He became a great singer and moved to Yerevan to sing in the opera. Later, after the war, he moved to Baku and became very famous.”

After further research, Rashid Behudov seems to be the pop singer version of Sayat Nova. He lived in all three of the major cities of the south Caucasus, he sang in Azerbaijani, Russian, Persian, Turkish and he toured all over the world: Iran, Turkey, China, Japan, Argentina and India where he performed in Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali!

Rashid Behudov was made famous by his role in the film “Arshin Mal Alan.” He played a rich man who disguises himself as a cloth peddlar so he can enter the cities’ courtyards and look at pretty women, in the hopes of finding a bride.

 

Since Abbas introduced me to Rashid Behudov’s music, I’ve watched about 50 clips of his performances but this one has got to be my favorite:

Meeting with Abbas and having these conversations about Persian music and the music of the Caucasus made me realize that the influence of Persian culture in this region is something that I occasionally take for granted. Most of both Azerbaijani and Armenian instruments are Persian in origin. The Azerbaijani Tar (the soloist in the beginning of the video above) was developed from the Persian Tar in 1870, when extra strings where added and the shape of the body was altered. Not to mention the theory behind Mugam has its roots in Persian music. I also live 20 minutes downhill from a Persian fortress in Tbilisi, in the old city which is full of buildings that were built in a Persian style, like this one:

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In addition to introducing us to Rashid Behbudov and discussing the culture of the Caucasus with us, Abbas also allowed us to record him playing multiple improvised tunes on his Santur. I’ve posted some videos and another streaming track below.

Please continue to let people know about the Sayat Nova Project and the work we’re doing with musicians like Abbas, in Tbilisi and around the Caucasus. Our Kickstarter page is still up and running: http://kck.st/WxntHo

-Ben

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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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