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“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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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).

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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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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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Sayat Nova Pt. 2 – Alaverdi, Armenia

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This weekend we traveled south of the Georgian border to the small copper mining town of Aleverdi, Armenia. We saw multiple churches, ancient bridges, monasteries, as well as your less typical tourist fare; multiple dead dogs, bee hives, and Soviet-era abandoned gold mining factories. Its a great coincidence, and in no way a result of planning on my part, that on the hills above the town of Aleverdi are the Sanahin Monastery and the Haghpat Monastery. Seeing these two Monasteries turned out to be a good follow up to one of my previous posts. Sanahin Monestary, pictured above, is the place where the poet and musician Sayat Nova trained to become a monk. The Haghpat Monestary is where he served and died. He was killed in 1795  by the invading army of Mohammad Khan Qajar, the Shah of Iran, for refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam. I wrote about him and the movie “The Color of Pomegranates”  in this early post:

https://caucascapades.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/sayat-nova-and-the-color-of-pomegranates/

It turns out that multiple scenes from the movie where filmed at the Haghpat Monestary. After coming back home to Tbilisi, I rewatched Sergei Parajanov’s film and recognized a few shots:

Here’s a photo I took this past Saturday:

And here are a few still shots from “The Color of Pomegranates” :

I also took this photo of Anna cooling off in this fountain outside the Monastery:

And then found this in the movie:

The Church also has a plaque commemorating Sayat Nova:

 Anna translated the Russian portion of the plaque above (and learned some interesting new volcabulary- did you the Russian verb постригать – “to become a monk”, also means “to cut your hair”?)

” 1775-1795 The great Armenian poet and musician Arutyun Sayat Nova was forced to become a monk. He stayed and kept watch in this monastery in the capacity of senior priest. ”

THE COPPER MINE

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town meeting Armenians, all of whom were friendly and even more hospitable than they as a people are renowned for. One woman stopped us as we were walking up to some ruins and made us coffee, gave us treats, talked with us about the financial situation in Armenia and the US, and let me take pictures of all her bee hives:

Another man and his son’s friend made us coffee at their apartment and the younger one taught me to play the Armenian version checkers, a game I still do not completely understand. I lost every time, even though he would switch pieces with me when I was about to lose. They had a music room with a piano and a Saz, which I was very excited to find. This is one of the instruments Sayat Nova was supposed to have played, according to my guide at the Tbilisi Museum of Musical Instruments and Folk Music.

   Finding this instrument was perfect  because a few weeks ago I discovered a short documentary on one of the last Turkish Saz luthiers and have wanting to post it, but had no justifiable reason to until now.

– Ben

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Sayat Nova and The Color of Pomegranates

In each book I have read about the Caucasus, Sayat Nova is mentioned at least once, if not numerous times. It’s not difficult to see why.  His life and poetry are a conglomeration of the many  languages and cultures of the region. He trained as a monk at the Monastery of Sanahin, but later became a poet at the court of king Irakli II.  He was an Armenian, living in Tiflis (Tbilisi- the current capital of Georgia,) with a Persian name (Sayat Nova actually means “King of Songs” in Persian), who most often wrote in Azeri.

He composed over two hundred songs in four languages: Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, and Persian. Some of his poems move between all four. His polyglot verse is a reminder not only of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region, but an indicator of the neighborly interchange once enjoyed in an area now discussed so often in relation to ethnically driven violence and border disputes. While Sayat Nova is most often claimed as a representative of Armenia’s cultural heritage, ultranationalist Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike may be horrified to learn that he often wrote poems in Azeri using Armenian script.

The Soviet Surrealist film maker Sergei Parajonov‘s most famous film, “The Color of Pomegranates”  is a visual biography of the poet’s life. The film was immediately banned by Soviet censors, but after Parajonov changed the title from “Sayat Nova” to “The Color of Pomegranates” and re-edited portions of the film, it was released in 1968.  The sureal images of Sayat Nova as a boy, lying on the roof  of an Armenian church covered in open books, their pages flapping in the wind, of the young boy’s father smearing the blood of a decapitated chicken across his forehead, of the poet as a young man dressed in a women’s veil and dress all must have surprised the typical Soviet film goer (other Soviet films of that year include War and Peace, a slapstick comedy film called The Diamond Arm, and the Russian animated version of The Little Mermaid). Parajonov was later imprisoned and sentenced to 5 years in a labor camp for “rape of a Communist Party member, and the propagation of pornography.”

Here is the link to that film with english subtitles:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJUBu13o4lc]

And here is instrumental performance of what I think is one of Sayat Nova’s works:

(I plan on devoting an entire post to the instrument being played in the clip ((the Tar)) soon)

– Ben

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