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!