The Moscow Times, Russia
Jan 30 2014

Dying Musical Traditions Recorded

30 January 2014 | Issue 5299
By Tim Misir

Today, the Caucasus is regarded as a region of instability, comprising
heavily disputed areas as well as separatist regions. Now, a small
group of scholars has exposed a different aspect of the region's
diversity, traveling through the Republic of Georgia and collecting
samples of folk music from its myriad ethnicities.

The region comprising what is now Georgia was recognized for its for
its linguistic and cultural diversity as early as the 10th century,
when Arab geographer Ali al-Masudi called this area "jabal al-alsum,"
or "mountain of tongues." Forming a land barrier between Europe and
Asia that stretches for 500 miles from the Black Sea to the Caspian,
the Caucasus' unique geography has seen it being the crossroads of
various cultures and civilizations and the focus of political and
religious rivalries for thousands of years.

Migration to the region resulted in the Indo-European, Turkic,
Mongolic and Semitic languages spoken there, but more surprisingly, 37
of the 50 languages spoken in the Caucasus are believed to be
indigenous to the region for at least 4,000 years.

The lack of national identities led to an explosion of folk cultures.
The landscape and the isolation of villages from one another also
played a role development of the region's diverse cultures without so
much as the influence of a neighboring village only a few kilometers

The result of both isolation and exchange is an extremely rich
diversity of musical traditions, but many of these traditions are now
close to being lost, and no proper documentation of them is being

"You would not call it Georgian music, so it was not being studied by
Georgian scholars," explains Ben Wheeler, who was a folk music student
at the Tbilisi State Conservatory. There, he noticed "an almost
obsessive focus on Georgian polyphonic singing."

While living in Tbilisi in 2012, Wheeler, together with historian Anna
Harbaugh and anthropologist Stefan Williamson-Fa would frequently make
weekend trips to villages and towns in the region on hearing of some
interesting musical or cultural phenomenon.

For example, one of their first trips was to the village of Algeti in
Kvemo Kartli, one of the centers of the Azeri-populated parts of
southeast Georgia, to find an elderly Ashig, a trobadour who plays the
Azeri saz, a plucked string instrument similar to a lute, and
incorporates singing and poetry to the performance.

An elderly man now in his 80s, he had taught all the Ashigs in the
community, and 15 of his former students showed up to hear him give an
impromptu concert.

"There are all these really interesting roots that just are not being
studied and just were not being recorded because they did not
necessarily fit under certain guidelines. Even the archives of field
recordings at the Conservatory provided no information whatsoever,"
Wheeler explains

"It is amazing that they have been preserved for as long as they have,
especially in these incredibly small communities. ... The crazy thing
about the Caucasus is that it is such a small area, but there is so
much there. If we took the same song and went to the village next
door, they would have no idea," Wheeler tells me, explaining their
interest in the smaller folk cultures of Georgia.

They took to online crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to finance
their research, which lasted nine months. Called the Sayat Nova
Project, it is named after the prolific 18th-century Armenian poet and
bard of the Caucasus who made his compositions in several languages.

They have amassed a trove of audio and video material, including field
recordings and interviews with musicians collected from their trips,
including songs in the Bats language, of which there are only about
2,000 native speakers, by the Udi people, one of the oldest tribes of
the Caucasus, with a population of about 200 in the village of
Zinobiani, and songs by Avars in Georgia, who also number about 2,000
from three villages.

A selection of their recordings, "Mountains of Tongues: Musical
Dialects of the South Caucasus" has just been released on the L.m.
Dupl-ication label, and it includes 19 tracks from 12 communities,
including Azeris in Georgia, Acharians, Tushetian, Leski musicians
from Azerbaijan and Kist and Chechen musicians from the Pankisi Gorge,
among others.

Sounding like a mix of Middle Eastern and Eastern European music,
almost all of the songs are performed by amateurs on traditional
instruments, and the recordings are raw and unprocessed, sounding like
they were just taken at the kitchen table from the living room with
people going about their normal lives in the background, but Harbaugh
says it that was a conscious decision to keep it that way. "Some of
the ethnomusicology recordings are very sterile, very academic. The
reality of the situation is that that is where they are playing the
music, that is where they are usually performing. It is not in a
studio," she adds.

The Sayat Nova Project is currently building an interactive website
where all their material will be hosted. As for future plans, they
tell me that they hope to return to Georgia to distribute the proceeds
of the record to the musicians featured on it, as well as to explore
the North Caucasus more extensively in the future. "I think Dagestan
would be an ethnomusicologists' goldmine," says Wheeler.

"Mountains of Tongues: Musical Dialects of the South Caucasus" is
available on LP and MP3 via More about the project can
be found at

From: Baghdasarian