Note: Where are the puppets? See the note on Firebird Assoluta.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…