A Journey Into European Puppetry

Mariam Elieshvili

Halfway Around the World for a Song

Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Mariam window

Mariam Elieshvili  April 10th, 2016

Later the second week of my sojourn in Tbilisi I met up again with singer Mariam Elieshvili. This time I was treated by Mariam and her mother Ia to a Georgian meal of khachapuri, a covered sour cheese pizza without the sauce, and khinkali, a dumpling filled with meat, cheese, mushrooms or other stuffings, along with a goodly portion of savory juice. I shared a bit about my Alaskan life, complete with photos from Haines featuring bears, moose, mountains and puppets. In turn we discussed Georgian music and how Mariam had at the tender age of 18 already become something of a national celebrity with her own national folk music show. (For a sample follow this link.) Mariam also told me that she had arranged a meeting for the following Sunday with the band Chveneburebi, a word that translates into ‘our people’.

Mari & Ia

Mariam and her mother Ia.

When Sunday, April 10th, came I spent the morning visiting the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral to hear music and to experience a Georgian Orthodox service. After a trek up a street passed more entropically weathered structures I found myself at the largest church in all of the Caucasus. I was familiar with many aspects of Orthodox Christianity but had never attended a church before. And when I did I experienced many new emotions. This is not the place to unfurl my thoughts in much detail but the music was indeed quite special as a quintet of girls punctuated the liturgy with a deeply beautiful polyphony. And as I watched the congregants come and go during the service I suddenly realized the reason why Georgia seemed to be organized on such different principles of social life compared to anything I had seen before. The difference between Eastern and Western Christianity was now tangible to me.


Inside Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral. The small cluster of women in the upper left corner are singing polyphonic Georgian Orthodox chants.

Later that day I met up with Mariam and Ia again at Marjanishvili Square. We took the metro to the old Griboedov Theatre building. It was on the border of a recent demolition site where a new edifice would soon be occupying the hollowed out lot. After clearing security we traveled to the top floor and a found ourselves in an old recording studio with the members of the male folk singing group Chveneburebi. Again here were men you wouldn’t have noted if you’d seen them on the street or on a construction site. They strummed on the panduri, a three stringed instrument with plastic or gut strings, and it’s slightly larger bass relative, the chonguri, as well accompanying themselves with frame drum and accordion. And they waited for me to let me hear their lively version of Georgian folk music.

Musical Enjoyment

Jege with Drum and Giorgi on Accordion

Again moving quickly, musicians are always ready before the camera is, I was introduced by Mariam to Giorgi Gobejishvili, Jege Sakhokia and the other members of the group. They practiced a few tunes as I figured out the best set up in the cramped studio space. When Chveneburebi perform they usually dress up in traditional costumes with a show that includes singing, instrumental music and even a bit of dancing. Finally everything seemed in order. Mariam and Ia sat back in the corner as I tried to adjust the sound. And then they began to sing.

This music was quite different from what I had experienced at Giorgi Ushikishvili’s National Folklore School. And I was fast coming to realize that styles in Georgian depend greatly on where the music originates from. There isn’t one Georgian style. There are many styles depending on which part of the country it originates from. Compared to the mysterious style I’d heard earlier Chveneburebi played a stronger earthier style. (No doubt they knew many of the other songs as well.) They asked me what I wanted to hear. And I regretted not being familiar enough with Georgian songs yet to name many. But I did manage to remember Rachuli! They sang with a strong collective voice that then diverged into repetitious patterns that were sped up by hand claps and a strong shouts. Obviously many of these songs had been work songs. Not only that they also knew the yodeling technique unique to Georgia as well. Sometimes they would put their hands on each others arms and move in circles. I could only imagine this music in its element back in the mountains.

And one thing I have come to realize over time is that Georgians not only have a strong sense of melody, a powerful propulsion of rhythm and a deeply moving harmonies, but perhaps above all they possess an unerring dynamic structure to most of the music they perform. They know when to add new elements to the song that they excel in above all. Chveneburebi was no exception. Neither was Mariam Elieshvili. When Mariam performed her classic song Chven Exla Erturts, she effortlessly modulates up a key halfway through the song. I think the idea of a simple verse chorus verse chorus pattern without dynamic escalation would never occur to the Georgians. When America had a folk revival in the 1950s and 60s most performers simply played the songs. Much American pop music merely follows the song with instrumental breaks. Nice arrangements, yes. But I have heard recordings of Georgian music that simply left me gasping for joy at the development of the tunes.

Eventually Mariam joined Chveneburebi for a quieter more introspective song and then I got her to sing three songs by herself: Lale, that starts as a haunting slow plaintiff song, Chven Exla Erturts, which she had composed around a poem with the help of her school mates and had already been adopted as a classic Georgian tune played by many others, and Shenma Survilma Damlia, another deep folk song. (The first two of which I did ask for specifically.) I had wanted to film her simply singing, without all of the jitteriness of the usual home video or cellphone video. Or without the backdrop of a Georgian television stage.

Mariam Elieshvili’s type of music is certainly folk music by American standards, but it is a newer form of folk music by Georgia’s much stricter standards. Whereas Georgian folk music is seen as having no author, simply being passed on. What Mariam does can include those older songs, which she certainly knows, but it can include more recently written songs and tunes in Georgian style. This music is often passed on through YouTube videos, especially since Georgia’s music industry has a great deal of difficulty in policing its recordings. I view it as a highly healthy musical development, as opposed to merely imitating American or Western European styles. The shared videos are themselves a form of folk sharing in the digital age.

And in a way hearing Mariam sing in person had been one of the goals of this whole journey. I had originally discovered her YouTube videos back in early 2012. In the first video I discovered she was sitting in an unpretentious room with her brother Sandro. She sang and he was playing a panduri while singing harmony. The song was called Ayvavebula. I had looked and thought okay here are a couple of kids singing, she was 13 or 14 then, her brother younger, but as soon as she opened her mouth I knew I was in a different musical universe. And that led me to make hundreds more discoveries in Georgian music. And so sitting here now listening to her sing in my presence, especially considering the success she has had since then, was a profoundly privileged moment. I thought how I had bridged the vast gulf between my virtual introduction to a singer and a land almost exactly halfway around the world to the reality of hearing such a pure voice sing in my own presence in a small studio in Tbilisi Georgia. I could rest easy after that.

Mariam Big Laugh

Mariam after a song.

And not only that I had made a new friend in Mariam, or should I say several friends. I bid the men of Chveneburebi adieu. And I said very fond farewells to Mariam and Ia. I knew I would meet them again someday.

(And I’m waiting for Mariam to finally finish recording her album so that I can invite her to America!)

Next we enter the world of Georgian folk dance when we visit Sukhishvili.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska


What is Georgian Folk Music?

Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
Giorgi & Crew

Giorgi Ushikishvili (3rd from left) and a men’s choir practicing.

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.National Folklore School

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.


A boys choir practicing

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.

Volunterring to Sing

Volunteering to sing the lead part.

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.

Waiting to Sing

Waiting for the next boys’ choir rehearsal

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.

Giorgi Ushikishvili

Giorgi Ushikishvili

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…

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska


East of Moscow and Mecca

Guesthouse Sign

The Entrance to the Guesthouse

I’m told that if a person is born blind and later in life has an operation to see that what happens when they finally look around is that they are assaulted by colors and shapes that make no sense. It is a riot of chromatic sensations, not a moment of clarity. Arriving in Tbilisi , Georgia was like that for me. Not that it was a disarray of bright colors. Oh no it wasn’t. It was indeed pure darkness.

Tbilisi from the plane

Tbilisi from the Lot jet window

The Polish Lot plane landed at about 5am Georgian Time. The formalities at the border were the nearly non-existent. I looked and found a thin man, perhaps in his fifties, who was holding up a sign that had the words BYRNE POWER scrawled on it. I saw him and tried out my first Georgian word on my first Georgian. “Gamarjoba.” (Hello.) He nodded and silently motioned me to follow him to a small worn gray car. I put my bags in and we drove silently through the Georgian night. I turned back to look at the airport. Tbilisi was a city of well over a million people. The airport was over twice the size of the one in Juneau Alaska, a city with a population of 35,000. I guessed not that many people were flying.

Street Scene

The Streets of Tbilisi

My driver didn’t say a word during the entire trip, about a half hour ride. A small radio was on, but just barely. It sounded like insects rasping. I’ve heard occupied headphones on the London tube that were louder. At first as we drove through the darkness, things didn’t seem too different. The road was essentially a low grade four lane highway, in need of a little repair. Eventually we started passing commercial buildings with Georgian script on them. Eventually we were surrounded by one, two or three story structures as we turned off the highway onto the city streets. As I looked out at the bare trees and crooked lanes and deteriorating buildings under the yellow street lamps I noted the endless indecipherable Georgian alphabet adorning so many buildings. A sense of the alien was creeping upon me, infiltrating every pore of my scalp.

Alphabet Posters

Reading (?) Georgian

Turning onto a narrow side street we passed darkened houses. But they didn’t really look like houses. Maybe warehouses? My silent guide pulled the car over and I hefted my stuff down the road a little piece. I looked over and saw a glowing green sign and said under my breath, ‘Aha, that must be it.’ It wasn’t. We arrived at a menacing looking gate, with the words GUESTHOUSE painting on a board. Beyond it only inky blackness. This was my destination. We walked through the iron gate into what at first seemed like a garage, but was only a passageway. We entered the courtyard, which was illuminated by a single light from two floors up in an old structure with ramshackle wooden balconies with another painted sign reading TaMaR. I had arrived at Tamar’s Guesthouse. I walked up met Tamar, a pleasant lady who was concerned for my journey. Evidently my quiet driver was her husband. She spoke passable English and introduced me to my tiny room. I was staying in a room in their flat. I put my heavy luggage down. Laid down in the dark and and wondered where on earth I had actually landed.

Cat Spies

Suspicious Feral Cats – Two of Thousands

The morning light came with the cheeping of hundreds of birds, but I was about three hours off from European time. I lounged around in bed listening to the sounds nearly right outside my door of Georgians moving around and talking. It wasn’t early mind you. Georgians don’t seem to get going till around 10AM. And not just these Georgians either. Most Georgians! Georgian streets at 8AM are still quiet. My Street!

At last I stumbled out into the Georgian daylight sometime around noon. I started walking with a rough idea in mind of getting to an ATM for Georgian lari, of getting a metro pass stocked full, of finding food, of seeing where I was. The first disorientation came as I started walking down my street, a street with a name I still can’t pronounce two weeks on. Try it! ‘Tsinamdzghvrishvili Street’. It’s tough for Georgians! The sidewalk, if that’s what it is, is about as even as the sidewalks in Anchorage after the 1964 quake. Tree roots, unfinished sections, cars parked on the lumpy asphalt walkway. And then the real problem came when I had to start crossing the streets. The concept of the traffic light has been slow to catch on here. Very slow. (See escargot.) And so you just take your chances. The cars don’t really stop. You walk out into the traffic judging whether you can make it or not. If you look at the cars, trying to stare them down that doesn’t work. Then they assume you see them and that you will get out of the way. You have to step out without making eye contact. When I tried to cross at one point I was utterly baffled. It was a four lane highway. No one was even thinking about slowing down. I surveyed the landscape for some way across. No way. Finally a woman stepped off the curb and I followed her. They wouldn’t kill us both I reasoned. As we crossed the bridge over the Mtkvari River that same woman turned towards a church and made the sign of the cross.

Birds of Prey

Russians with Birds for Photos near the Narakali Fortress

I was getting sweaty in the humid air. It wasn’t summer yet. But by Alaskan standards it certainly was. And everyone was wearing black coats like it was a chilly spring day. I found a tourist information bureau and stepped in and asked where the nearest bank machine was. Two pleasant black haired girls pointed down Rustaveli Street and I thanked them ‘Madloba.’ and turned to walk away as I did they both called out in English, ‘Where are you from?’ I said ‘Alaska’ and they were suitably impressed enough to ask a few questions and smile quite welcomingly at me. My first taste of Georgian curiosity.

Trad Photos

A Photo Shoot in Traditional Costume

I did indeed get my lari and fill up my metro card. The metro itself was a relic of the Soviet Era and was buried deeper than any public underground transport I’d ever been on. The escalator ride down took about two minutes. Some local kids would just sit on the descending stairs. Other folks would practically trip over them on their way down into the tepid windy tunnels.

Sitting on the Escalator

Sitting on the Escalators

Fortunately in many public places besides the Georgian alphabet there was often English. And so I was not completely bewildered. But as I waited to hear from my contacts in Georgia I spent a couple of days sightseeing. I got thoroughly lost looking for the outdoor ethnographic museum. I found myself wandering on a highway in the hills as I tried to descend from the statue of Mother Georgia down into a botanical garden, that I never did get to. I sampled the Georgian cuisine, discovering some unimagined use of certain spices that I couldn’t put my finger on. But in the swirling confusion of those first few days I was often completely askew. Yet the disorientation often had me admiring ruins of elaborate structures from a forgotten time.

Terrace Old Town

Strangely Marvelous Architecture is Breathing Everywhere.

One morning I went seeking what an official Tbilisi website designated as the ‘Animated Puppet Museum’. It was considered a national museum. I had no idea that Georgia even made stop motion animation films. Yet my peripatetic wanderings only led to the street address number 23, only to find myself staring at a rusting plaque on a wall reading ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. In a note from the Quays, they immediately conjured up a story about this. One can only most see their film. “Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key…” Meanwhile what lay beyond that decaying sign? What indeed?

Tbilisi Puppet Museum

The Mysterious Locked Door at the Animated Puppet Museum

Sweaty lost wanderings, past indecipherable script, past faces I had never seen before in my life, began to create a sense of real dislocation. And I had really studied up on the culture. And I had lived in New York City for 16 years, I’d seen many types of faces. Nevertheless the I felt I had landed on Mars. Where were the puppet theatres? (One was on tour. Another had vanished.) Where was the Georgian music? McDonald’s blared American pop music into the streets. And I was beginning to wonder if perhaps I’d made some sort of mistake in coming here. And I had signed up for three weeks of this.

Then singer Mariam Elieshvili contacted me. (We’ll spend more time with Mariam soon.) And I met her and her mother down at Marjanishvili Square, near where I was staying. She was on her way to a television station to do her show. But we spoke for almost a half hour. She was open faced and very glad to finally meet me. She had ideas about musicians for me to meet. She was the embodiment of charm and courtesy. And with that the spell was broken. My Georgian experience was about to burst wide open.

Mariam with Byrne

Meeting Singer Mariam Elieshvili under the Yellow Streetlights

You must keep reading…

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia (Sakartvelo)