Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Another appointment Tinatin Gurchiani had made for me was to stop by the National Folklore School to visit with Giorgi Ushikishvili. What I didn’t know at the time was that Giorgi had had a nationally televised program on folk music back in the Saakashvili administration. (I also discovered along the way that many projects seemed to come and go with governments.) And Giorgi really was the national guardian of the deep well of Georgian folk music.
Not too far from the Tamar Guesthouse I strolled along the busy streets near Marjanishvili Square until I arrived at an older building along Jansughi Kakhidze Street. I was told to enter where I heard the sound of singing. And indeed as I approached I could hear a group of young boys forcefully chanting out a Georgian song. I opened the doors to enter a fairly undistinguished room, and unremarkable school rooms, with several girls waiting in one place and a closed door with the boys behind it. I stood by the door happily imbibing the glorious sounds while keeping my eyes open for someone who might be Giorgi or introduce me to him. After about ten minutes a women approached me and suggested that I wait in an office. She didn’t speak English really, but I found myself sitting. I kept mangling the name Giorgi Ushikishvili as I pointed to a clock. Eventually someone walked through the door, it was Giorgi’s sister Nino. She did speak English and told me that Giorgi had been held up at a previous engagement in another city. She suggested that I come back on Friday evening when the men would be rehearsing, implying that the boys singing were nothing special. I thanked her and explained that listening to the boys practice would really be interesting to for me. She told me to wait as she stepped out of the room for a moment. I stared at Georgian Orthodox ikons on the walls. Nino stepped back in and said I had permission to watch the boys rehearse.
And so I finally stepped behind that beckoning door filled with voices and nodded at the boys. They stopped somewhat self-consciously for moment until the choir master snapped them back into focus. I movedt to the back of the cramped space and sat. Then they began to sing. And when they did it the last thing on my mind was the dullness of so many youth group choirs. One boy belted out a refrain the boys echoed back with a chorus, call and response. The toe-headed boy sang out again and again. The other boys answered back and back again. Soon they were clapping in double time and the pace picked up and the song began to change. And the melody was strong, but the harmony was unpredictable to me. And it seemed to reach into some deep place of courage and joy. I eventually got out a camera to try to take a few still shots as the songs flew out of their mouths. When asked who wanted the lead on the next song several boys would shoot up their hands up. It was an honor for them. Eventually a couple of older teenage boys dropped in and immediately added bass notes to the boys ensemble. At one point they formed a ring, put their arms on each other shoulders, and began a series of steps with a song. I can’t even begin to describe this.
I left that evening to dutifully return on Friday evening.
On Friday, as I was walking down the street, I saw a woman begging who had been there several times before. I decided to drop a couple of coins in her can. Behind me I heard a young voice. “That was very kind of you.” I turned to see a boy about 12 years old walking next to me. I said “You speak English well.” He thanked me and offered me a small grape-sized fresh fruit that was very sour. I accepted and he said “I know you.” he said, “You were at my class.” He was one of the young singers. And so we walked down the street talking together until we arrived at the door to the school again.
This time I met the stocky Ushikishvili: an earnest man, very serious about folk music. Nino came in again to translate. Georgian folk music by his reckoning was that music that had been passed down without an author. I remembered that there were discussions about this sort of thing back in the early Sixties in America, most of which faded from public consciousness after Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar. But Georgia had a good reason to be strict in its definition of folk music, it still had a living folk culture. In fact that was one of the things that so attracted me to the music here. Unlike the USA or Canada, Western, Central and even most of Eastern Europe, where folk music is like some relic kept in a back closet or brought out for the tourists and on special occasions, in Georgia the natural music of the Georgians was still alive. I pointed out the music of Mariam Elieshvili, or the many YouTube videos that seemed to give evidence of the continued folk traditions Giorgi firmly said “No. That’s not folk music.” It was as far as he was concerned pretty much pop music. But I countered it is still firmly based in Georgian folk traditions. I mentioned that my own thought about what was folk had more to do with regions. He listened, but I certainly didn’t convince him. He looked visibly pained when I mentioned the effect of technology upon music. And yet when I asked him if folk music in Georgia was still healthy he quickly said yes.
His school was proof of that. He took me into a humble classroom filled with chairs. Standing there were men of such character that if you walked by them in the street you’d merely think of them as fairly typical Georgians. They seemed to range from about 60 down to their early 20s. He introduced me. They were glad to meet me. I set up my equipment and tried to work as quickly as I could to get ready. They arranged themselves in a semicircle. Giorgi took the lead vocal. There was a moment of silence. And then they began to sing.
The sound that washed over me connected me back to something ancient, the real depths of time, not some Renaissance Fair reconstruction. This was a living memory of the past embodied in contemporary souls. Giorgi told me later that some of the songs could easily be 2000 years old, given the subject matter. I’d never stood in the presence of such songs being sung. I was utterly haunted. No wonder Giorgi held such intensely strong convictions.
And to make his point he gave me a serious stack of CDs of various vocal groups and a book of Georgian Orthodox church music to aid in my beginning to understand this music. Even now as I write I can only say that as I begin to listen and explore this musical world I feel I am walking across a gem field.
Next time we meet the folk ensemble Chveneburebi.
And more puppets will be coming up…