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