The astonishing musical heritage of Georgia
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
SOPHIA DEBOICK on the astonishing musical heritage of the crossroads country, heard in the work of Kate Bush, Hollywood films and political campaigns.
Georgia has had many invaders – first the Mongols, then the Ottomans and Iranians and finally the Russians – eager to exploit its position as a crossroads between Europe and Asia. But in its medieval golden age it developed a culture rich enough to bind its people together for the next eight centuries, and music was central to it.
Song is deep in the Georgian soul. Everyone sings, the barrier between professional and amateur meaning little, and Georgia’s polyphonic singing tradition is a deeply communal one. Pre-dating the fourth century Christianisation of the country, it continues as a secular tradition to the present day, and it is a living part of the country’s nationhood with songs for every occasion, from weddings to work. Although Georgian polyphony is associated with rural areas, it has been fostered and preserved in Tbilisi, a hilly city of hot springs that looks both east and west.
Georgian polyphony is some of the most startlingly mysterious music ever made – at the end of his life Stravinsky considered a recording of this folk singing from mountain villages near Tbilisi "a wonderful treasure that can give us much more than all the modern music can". In fact Georgia’s mountainous geography – the Likhi Range cutting the country into eastern and western halves, and the Svaneti Range isolating that northern region – makes for a distinct regionality in types of polyphony, from the complex polyphony of Svaneti to the contrasted polyphony of three sung parts of the west (Asho Chela, sung in Mingrelian, a Kartvelian language, is one example), and the eastern Kakheti region’s tradition of a melody sung over a continuous vocal drone.
Inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List in 2008, Georgian polyphony sounds as ancient as it in fact is. The Kakhetian toasting song Mravalzhamieri (meaning ‘many years’), singing of survival and living a long life – essential concepts to any culture – is a prime example of the extraordinarily unearthly power of this music, which sounds like a clash between medieval plainchant and the Islamic call to prayer.
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Chakrulo is perhaps an even more loved song. Featuring the yodel – the krimanchuli – particular to Georgian polyphony, the song dates to the eighth century but was given renewed relevance in the space age when it was included on The Golden Record of world music put on the space probe Voyager 2 in 1977. While Soviet officials lobbied for a popular Russian song to be included, Chakrulo was championed by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who described it as "the music that people who have enough to eat make". Today, toasts to "Chakrulo, which breached the galaxy" are sometimes heard at celebrations where it is sung.
Tsintskaro (‘Spring Water’), the name of a Kakhetian village, is another celebrated song in the Georgian polyphonic tradition, particularly the version of truly staggering beauty sung by Hamlet Gonashvili (it was later used to stunning effect in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and sampled on Hello Earth on Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (1985)). Gonashvili is a towering name in Georgian music. Known as ‘the voice of Georgia’, he studied music in Tbilisi in the late 1940s, and his death in 1985 falling from a tree while picking apples was, for such a national legend, appropriately like something from a folk tale.
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In 1970 Gonashvili’s trajectory crossed that of another vital name for Georgian music when he became a soloist with the Rustavi Ensemble, a group founded by Anzor Erkomaishvili in 1968 with the intention of bringing together styles from across the country’s different regions. But the Erkomaishvili family’s contribution to Georgia’s musical heritage began far earlier, when Gigo Erkomaishvili, Anzor’s great-grandfather, who was born in western Georgia in 1839, presided over the 1907 recording of 42 songs in Tbilisi by his folk ensemble for the English record label Gramophone. It was a landmark for the preservation of the polyphonic tradition, which would face many threats as the 20th century rolled on.
Gigo’s son Artem would continue his father’s work. A master chanter of the drone and yodel-less chant of the Georgian Orthodox Church, he became a living repository of the tradition when it was banned after the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia was subsumed into the Soviet Union. Opposition, and the culturally suspect, was brutally suppressed under Stalin and secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria – both Georgians – even while secular Georgian folk music was embraced through official events like the capital’s annual Tbilisoba festival (later, even rock music was tolerated, the Spring Rhythms: Tbilisi-80 rock festival being the first such event held in the USSR).
Recordings Artem Erkomaishvili made at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire in 1966, a year before his death, would be vital documents of religious chant, a tradition now kept alive in Tbilisi by the Anchiskhati Vocal Ensemble as well as the International Research Center for Traditional Polyphony at the Tbilisi Conservatoire. When the Rustavi Ensemble’s recording of We Venerate Thy Cross was used in a scene in The Big Lebowski (1998), a tiny part of the work of the Erkomaishvili family was finally glimpsed in the West.
The importance of family dynasties in Georgia’s music history has not waned, and today the most powerful family in the country has brought music and politics together with startling results. When the Georgian Dream coalition, headed by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, swept the United National Movement, dominant since the 2003 Rose Revolution, out of office in 2012, there were hopes for a new liberal and pro-European era in the country. These hopes were reflected in the call to arms of Georgian Dream, a song released ahead of polling day by Ivanishvili’s teenage rapper son, Bera. The accompanying video featured Georgians young and old massing in the streets of Tbilisi to vote.
Things have taken a less idealistic turn since as Ivanishvili, who made his money in Moscow in the 1990s, has found himself branded by critics as little more than another Russian oligarch, a perilous position as the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain occupied by the Russian troops who invaded in 2008. His ostentation is also controversial, his monolithic fine art-filled and helipad-topped glass and steel mansion a dominant presence in the Tbilisi hills. Victory in the election of late 2020 ended in accusations of vote rigging and Ivanishvili resigned as Georgian Dream’s chairman last month.
Before the disillusionment at its alleged corruption set in, Georgian Dream did make some liberalising moves, legislating against anti-LGBT discrimination, although while simultaneously defining marriage in purely heterosexual terms, and legalising cannabis – long prison sentences for possession of other drugs remained, however. The latter move also got the backing of a Bera song, Legalize (2018), on which the establishment scion valiantly tried to claim rebel cred: "I represent the generation/ Which is no longer afraid of the government." That song was also a response to anti-drug raids at Tbilisi’s Bassiani techno club, a strongly LGBT space, which sparked a wave of protests in Tbilisi and a face-off with both far right factions and riot police in the streets.
Today, both Bassiani and Bera continue to represent a new face for Georgia. Bassiani is considered one of the best techno clubs in the world and has its own record label. Its maiden release was from Tbilisi native and resident DJ at the club, Gigi Jikia, aka HVL, and it also put out Madrid DJ and Bassiani regular Héctor Oaks’ As We Were Saying (2019), inspired by the 2018 raids.
On Georgian Dream Bera rapped "When I win a Grammy / I will say thank you / With a Georgian accent", and still seems serious about this ambition, splitting his time between LA and his Tbilisi recording studio (also called ‘Georgian Dream’). He fully exploits his uniqueness as the only albino Georgian rapper on earth and boasts some 1.5 million Instagram followers (a number equal to the population of Tbilisi – the whole population of Georgia is only 3.7 million).
Yet, as Dance or Die (2020), a short film by Bassiani’s organisers, draws parallels between Georgian folk dance rituals and dancing as defiance at the club, and Bera speaks of being schooled in the polyphonic tradition when young, the inheritance of the past still looms large, even as Georgia continues to remake itself.
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While Georgia’s native language singing tradition runs deep, plenty of pop acts hailing from Tbilisi have adopted English. Indie rock pioneers Soft Eject, whose Please Just Carry On (1995) became a classic of the early post-communist era, have been followed by Eurovision 2016 entrants Young Georgian Lolitaz and four-piece Loudspeakers. The BearFox, whose atmospheric ballad Holding You (2014) was a domestic hit, is the project of X Factor alumnus Mebo Nutsubidze, and both the vampish Nina Sublatti and Tibilisi-born Natia Todua also came to prominence as TV talent show winners.
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