So, Why Georgia? A Crash Course in Georgian Folk Music

So, Why Georgia? A Crash Course in Georgian Folk Music

Most of you know that we’re in Georgia because I [Matt] am doing something vaguely music-related. I’m currently involved in fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology, a field that studies music as a cultural and human phenomenon, something with a social context (though admittedly, I’m talking more about the musical sounds themselves in this post). So, why might an ethnomusicologist be interested in Georgia?

Duh…because you get to wear a sword and gunpowder cartridge bandoliers when you sing.

Well, yeah. The swords are pretty cool–you don’t get to wear one of those in the Mennonite church choir–but so are the musical sounds. World music lovers mostly know Georgia for its folk polyphony (polyphony literally means “multiple sounds”–i.e. harmony). It’s a vocal style that usually has 3 simultaneous parts going. But the rules of the harmony are different from those with which most North Americans and Western Europeans are familiar. Western harmony (both European classical music and most of the Western popular music of the last few centuries) is based around major and minor tonality; Georgian polyphony includes some major and minor triads but also features tons of more unique chords that come across as wonderfully “dissonant” to a Western ear.

I guess that even includes Canadian and Australian ears.

Hope you’re ready for lots of youtube clips. In this example below, the dissonant chords are created partially by voices that are improvising in the moment, while always knowing how to come back together at the end of phrases. To give them more freedom, most of the words are nonsense syllables, the Georgian equivalent of “fa la la.”

If you’re not used to it, it may sound weird or even unpleasant, but to a harmony nerd like me, singing this stuff is like eating candy. One of the “songmasters” I’ve learned from in Georgia once told us that people with good musical ears like Georgian music because it gives them a sonic challenge, trying to figure out the new rules of harmony and tuning. Since it massages my ego, let’s just go with that for now…

Georgian music is also fun to sing because the style can be either gutsy and raw, or capable of great virtuosity and expressiveness–just check out the example below. Men’s singing groups tend to be especially prized–singing was traditionally associated with masculine activities like working in the fields and overindulging in wine at supras–and the presentation style is very informed by Caucasus ideals of masculinity and honour. For this reason, some ethnomusicologists have recently been applying a feminist analysis to Georgian polyphony performance, but that’s another story. This example also shows the typical makeup of a Georgian ensemble: one top voice, one middle voice, and everybody else singing the bass part as a group.

Despite that, there are also specific women’s songs (especially lullabies, healing songs, and the like), and some great women’s ensembles performing in Georgia today. Many Georgian Orthodox church choirs are comprised mainly of women, and here’s an example of church chant, which is also in three parts and follows a harmonic system related to that of folk polyphony:

Music historians used to argue that harmony was “invented” by European monks about 1000 years ago. The existence of various kinds of folk polyphony all around the world has disproved this hypothesis, and some Georgian researchers suggest that their unique kind of multipart singing has possibly been around for two or three thousand years. It’s impossible to prove that conclusively, of course, but there are ancient artifacts from the area showing people dancing in configurations similar to round dances like this one:

The above example comes from Svaneti, the region of Georgia in which I’m most interested, and where we hope to spend at least half of our time in Georgia. Svaneti has awesomely dissonant harmonies (often it’s hard to tell if chords are major or minor due to their being so far from equal temperament) as well as many interesting preserved folk traditions. More on that later. Some of you may be interested to note that the timing of the steps that start at 0:45 in this example doesn’t correspond with that of the singing–the vocal parts are counted in 8 but the steps are counted in 7. No problem, right?

One of the most famous features of Georgian traditional polyphony is a special kind of yodelling called “krimanchuli.” You can hear it in this clip first around the 0:45 mark. This is also an interesting example to watch because the filming technique lets you pick out each specific voice and hear how they fit together (although since the song alternates between a trio and the larger choir, half the time the camera seems to be panning past people while they aren’t actually singing!).

Georgian vocal polyphony may be the most famous musical product of the country, but there are also traditional folk instruments, several of which I’m learning to play. The Svanetian changi (harp) and chuniri (upright bowed fiddle) are shown in the first picture in this post. Here’s an example of both in action, plus the chance to hear another women’s ensemble:

And here’s me sawing away at the chuniri owned by our Australian friend Denise, who visited us last week on her way to Svaneti.


More common folk instruments in Georgia include the chonguri and panduri, here pictured with a more familiar object for size comparison.


Most of the time, these instruments are used to accompany voices. However, my friend Ben, who’s also an ethnomusicologist, has been studying Georgian instrumental music and has a lot of interesting posts on the subject at his blog. Currently, I’m taking a short study program in Georgian folk music at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, which includes history and theory but also lots of song and instrument lessons. Right now, I’m learning the chonguri. Here’s a picture of a lesson with my teacher, Nino, who brought us along with her and her family to Achara a few weeks ago (as discussed in the previous post).


To finish things off, here’s a video featuring both panduri and chonguri, as well as everyone’s favourite, the bagpipes. But first, it wouldn’t be “Sakartvelo with Baby” without at least one baby picture.

Forgive the bad technique, this was before my first lesson!
Georgian Feasting and Hospitality

Georgian Feasting and Hospitality

A mountain morning view.
A mountain morning view.

At the end of our Georgian FAQ, I briefly mentioned Georgian feasting traditions. It seems like a good time to talk a little bit more about them, since we got some firsthand experience last weekend. A friend invited us to travel with her and her husband to Merisi, a mountainous village in Achara, which is the southwestern region of Georgia that borders Turkey and the Black Sea. She knew a lot of traditional singers in the area, and was bringing her own young daughter along too. Staying in mountain farmhouses, eating homemade local food, and experiencing rural Georgian music and hospitality? Obviously, saying “yes” was a total no-brainer.

Plus, Rosa's already getting tatted up and we need to get her away from that urban environment.
Plus, Rosa’s already getting tatted up and we need to get her away from the negative influences of the urban environment.

In traditional Caucasus custom, the host/guest bond is an absolutely sacred and unshakeable one. In Georgian thinking, the guest is viewed as a gift from God, and you can still observe this kind of attitude in more rural parts of the country. One of Georgia’s most famous poets, Vazha Pshavela, wrote a famous piece called “Host and Guest” that narrates the story of a man who takes in a stranger who, unbeknownst to him, is actually the murderer of his own brother and many of his kin. When the host’s neighbours come to his door with damning evidence, baying for blood, the host takes up arms against them and even kills one, rather than breaking his obligation to protect his guest.

Taking a dip in the Merisi swimming hole might be worth killing for, too. Even in February.

So, yeah. We didn’t get mixed up in any blood vendettas, but we encountered something at least 10% as potentially dangerous. Between 12:30 AM (yes) on Friday night/Saturday morning, and 4:00 PM on Sunday afternoon, we attended no less than SIX feasts. Maybe some of them were considered by our hosts to be nothing more than a light meal, but when guests are involved in Georgia, even a snack basically turns into a massive display of prodigious hospitality that really needs to be seen to be believed.

The aftermath of number one.
The aftermath of number one, 2:30 AM on Saturday morning.

The “supra” is one of the most visible Georgian customs, one with an immediate appeal and charm for many first-time visitors to the country. Picture this: a long narrow table set with anywhere from eight to twenty (or more) types of food, including bread, cheese, fresh and cooked vegetables, stews, various kinds of meat, all divided onto small plates so every different dish is within arm’s length of every diner. As the meal progresses, servers keep bringing out new dishes, to the point where they’re literally stacking plates of food on top of each other. It may not seem logical, but the visual aesthetic of abundance is a crucial part of the experience (those who help with preparation usually go home with a lot of leftovers).

Tablecloth’s only 90% covered, still room for more.

It’s not just about food, though; at one end of the table you’ll encounter a figure called the “tamada” or toastmaster, who is responsible for the flow of events and for directing the toasts. In old tradition, these had to follow a rather fixed order, something like first to God, then to St. George, then to Mary, to various persons present, to ancestors who have passed on, to future generations, etc. Today, the toasts are more free and fitted specifically to the occasion.

A “qvevri,” a traditional container usually buried in the ground to store and age wine. If you’re wondering, yes, some people have literally drowned in wine.

If you’re lucky, the toasts will be made with wine. I mentioned in the earlier post about how important wine is as a national symbol here (I was just told by a museum guide today that Georgia has 5000 kinds of grapes and 3000 kinds of wine). If you’re less lucky, the toasts will be made with chacha, the local grape-derived vodka/moonshine.

Keti was shocked to see Rosa drinking clear liquid out of this chacha glass (…it was actually water, of course). Her family kindly hosted us on our first night in Merisi.

Wine toasts have several special kinds of vessels associated with them; a special toast may need to be given with a ceramic bowl that can be reasonably sized or absolutely monstrous. Sometimes a drinking horn or “qantsi” is used (either ceramic or an actual animal horn), with the idea being that the curved shape of the horn forces the drinker to finish all the wine in one gulp, since it can’t be placed back on the table without spilling the contents.

I say “გაუმარ” (gaumar), you say “ჯოს” (jos)!

Supras are also the occasion for a lot of singing. Georgia has a whole genre of “table songs” specifically designed for this kind of setting. At the biggest of the supras we attended last weekend (a combination 3rd birthday and baptism celebration for the host’s grandson), I sang the bass part in a trio for a “Mravalzhamier” (a very common type of table song) that I’d learned on a previous trip to Georgia. Watching the reaction of the host and guests was humbling, as I was then immediately toasted myself by about a dozen different older men, who praised the love of foreigners for Georgian music and deplored the lax attitude of many of their fellow citizens toward their own traditions. I was also requested to make another toast with the drinking bowl (like all the adult men present, I’d already made one for the young boy being honoured with the feast)…fortunately this was a wine-only supra, and no chacha was in sight, or I probably wouldn’t have made it through the three supras that were still to come.

A 3-generation family choir, with friends.

Anyway, this is just a brief look at Georgian hospitality, and a heartfelt “didi madloba” (big thanks) for the graciousness of the people of Merisi, who so generously welcomed a family of Canadian strangers, and for the kindness of my teacher Nino and her husband Lasha, who brought us on their family vacation. As always, Rosa offered us immediate passage through the differences of language and custom. Next time, I promise to finally talk about Georgian music, the reason we’re here in the first place!

The wonderful Turmanidze family, hosts for our second night.