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By Ted Levin

I first heard Georgian singing in l974, when, as a young adventurer in search of the musically exotic and miraculous, I pointed my car east and drove from London to Tbilisi, traversing the Caucasus Mountains by the Georgian Military Highway, though "Highway" is a rather too generous name for that road. In Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I asked where one could hear local musicians, and ended up at the ancient monastic church of Mtskheta, listening to a passionate young folk troupe entertain German tourists.

The music was extraordinary. My first impression was that it sounded at once Eastern and Western, ancient and contemporary, sacred and worldly. Georgian music still sounds that way to me, and I believe now that its protean quality reflects the geography and cultural history of Georgia. No musical ensemble has so sensitively and comprehensively captured both the essential unity and diversity of Georgian musical culture as the Rustavi choir.

The Rustavi Ensemble (pronounced "roostahvi") is the best known of a considerable number of talented groups currently performing Georgian music. It was created in 1968 by Anzor Erkomaishvili, a singer and folklorist from a distinguished Georgian musical lineage that goes back seven generations. After graduating from the Tbilisi Conservatory, Erkomaishvill gathered singers from various parts of Georgia and began to build a repertory that brought together their different regional song styles and vocal timbres. Georgian vocal music is strictly divided between men's and women's genres, and from the beginning, the Rustavi singers have been male. Most songs are sung a cappella, but spare instrumental accompaniment on stringed instruments such as the "chonguri" and "phanduri" is sometimes added. A group of players within the Rustavi performs a separate instrumental repertory, and the Ensemble now also includes a dance troupe.

The Rustavi's eclectic, yet authentic, repertory was an innovation in the performance of Georgian music. Earlier vocal ensembles had mixed together traditional folk songs and popular composed music, or focused narrowly on songs from their own particular region. These regions, named after the ancient Georgian tribes that settled them, still represent the traditional territories of ethnic groups descended from the tribes. Erkomaishvili's vision was to break through these ethnic boundaries of regional styles while performing ethnographically authentic music from all of Georgia.

The Rustavi's performance style synthesizes the powerful, rough-hewn sound characteristic of the traditional regional folk choirs with a newer, cleaner, more finely-honed aesthetic whose orientation is towards concert presentation - nowadays on an increasingly international scale. While striving to preserve, and in some cases recreate, authentic voicings and vocal timbres, the Rustavi singers have simplified the complex scales used by the earlier choirs in order to create firmer, more brilliant harmonies. The use of a smaller number of Singers for certain songs has also helped to clarify their musical structure.

Anzor Erkomaishvili and I together selected the music presented here from a newly recorded anthology, "100 Georgian Folk Songs," commissioned by Melodia, the Soviet record company. Ours was a maddeningly difficult task. Each of the hundred songs in the anthology is a gem that crystallizes the genius of Georgian oral musical tradition in a different, luminous form. In our selection, we have tried to represent the rich variety of song genres and regional styles offered in full measure in the complete anthology.

Occupying (together with Azerbaijan) the strategically situated Caucasian isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian that marks one of the vague, if traditional, boundaries between Europe and Asia, Georgia, it seems, has always been Georgian . Legends and epic tales speak of no great migration, no Volkerwanderung that brought the ancient Georgian tribes to the Caucasus. At the same time, Georgia has been a crossroads of empires since early antiquity. Greek merchants colonized the eastern end of the Black Sea, establishing settlements on sites that have been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years: Pitiunt is now the Georgian city of Pitstlnda, Bathys became Batumi, the resort town of Sukhumi sits on the remain of ancient Dioscurias, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Russians have all left their mark on the region's history and civilization. Yet the cultural traditions of the ancient Georgian tribes endured through centuries of conquest and occupation. Their endurance has been aided by two formidable obstacles to assimilation: Georgia's mountains and its languages.

The Caucasus range is higher than the Alps. (Mt. Elbrus, at 18,336 feet, is over 2500 feet taller than Mt. Blanc.) Remote and snow-bound settlements have resisted the penetration of alien cultural influences. Likewise, Caucasian languages, which constitute an independent language group with no certain relationship to any other (one theory proposes a link between Georgian and Bascue! ), preserve an autochthonous repertory of songs and oral poetry whose roots are extremely old. The three-voice polyphony characteristic of much folk and liturgical music in present day Georgia existed by the beginning of the 12th century, and is probably much older. (Polyphony: music in which two or more related melodic lines move to some extent independently.)

Georgian polyphonic singing betrays its origins on the periphery of Europe. While its textures and vocal timbres sound European, much of the music defies the conventions of harmony, counterpoint, and voice-leading that were common to polyphony in Europe's central regions as early as the end of the fifteenth century. Indeed, to ears seasoned by the sounds of European music, Georgian polyphonic singing retains traces of archaism. Angular melodic leaps, hocketing, and parallel consonances call to mind the style of the medieval French motet and mass. At the same time, these unconventional sounds seem to be harbingers of musical modernism.

It is not surprising, then, that Igor Stravinsky, a composer identified with both neo-Classicism and neo-Primitivism, was drawn to Georgian folk music's powerful contrapuntal rhythms and exotic harmonies. In 1966, at the age of 84, Stravinsky was interviewed by a Soviet music journalist who asked what music he had most recently been listening to. "One of my greatest impressions," replied Stravinsky, "is of recording of Georgian polyphonic folk singing from mountain villages near Tbilisi. This tradition of active musical performance, which goes hack to antiquity, is a wonderful treasure that can give for performance more than all the attainments of new music ..."

Georgian polyphony is remarkable on several accounts, not the least of which is its anomalous character as a kind of musical island in a sea of homophony (i.e., music in which melodic interest is concentrated in a single line). The traditional folk and liturgical music of Georgia's intimate neighbors - Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks - is overwhelmingly homophonic and seems to have been so for at least as long as Georgian music has been predominantly polyphonic.

The genres presented on this recording include work songs, marches, wedding songs, liturgical chorales, historical songs, healing songs, laments, table songs, and riding songs. For the most part, these genres have lost their original functional connection to work, ceremonial events, and social life in Georgia. Only table songs, which combine the Georgians' love of poetry with their love of food and wine, are frequently sung in their original context. Other songs have become part of a widely-known and widely-sung performance repertory common to scores of amateur and professional choirs. Variants of these songs exist in different regions, but particular variants have become increasingly canonized through the influence of music festivals, concert tours, and the mass media. Despite canonization. Georgian folk music is still overwhelmingly an oral tradition, and the subtleties of intonation and harmonization are learned by ear.

The several distinct vocal styles heard on "Georgian Voices" are associated both with particular genres and geographical regions. For example, the lyrical and delicate "Orovela" represents a genre of plowing song originally sung in Eastern Georgia as well as in neighboring Armenia, where it is known as "horhovel". Singers alternated solo melodies, recitatives, and intoned exclamations with a drone-like retrain. The improvised solo line would be passed back and forth among different plowmen, and a single stanza could go on for as long as it took to plow one furrow. In the present concert version, a bass drone accompanies the solo melody line throughout. This "Orovela" was recorded for an earlier anthology of the Rustavi Ensemble and is included here to commemorate the soloist, Hamlet Gonashvili, one of the greatest Georgian singers, who died tragically in 1985.

Three-part songs in which the different voices are aligned in chords by a common rhythm are typical of Svanetia, in northwestern Georgia. The Svanian march "Lashgvash" is an example of this style. Three-part choral harmony is also central to the liturgical chorale singing of the Georgian Church, represented here by "Tsmindao Chmerto" and "Kebadi." Georgia was Christianized in the first half of the fourth century, and its church music developed under the strong influence of the Byzantine rite and Its monophonic chant. Yet the enduring Georgian propensity for multi-voice singing asserted itself in church music as well as folk music, and three-part chorale singing became established in Georgia long before it was accepted elsewhere as a part of Christian worship.

The most virtuosic style of Georgian polyphony developed in the western regions of Guria and Adjaria. Gurian and Adjarian songs commonly contain three, or even four, independent melodic lines. Each line functions with great melodic and harmonic independence, and good singers can improvise within these lines as they sing. The relation of the different melodic lines in the boisterous polyphonic styles of Western Georgia could be described as contrastive, in distinction to the imitative contrapuntal principle that has played such an important role in Western European music. An unusual feature of Gurian and Adjarian polyphony is the krimanchuly, a high-register, sustained yodel that embellishes the lower voices with striking melodic leaps and bold rhythmic motives. The krimanchuli part requires special vocal masters, and the relatively few krimanchuly singers command great respect. The Rustavi's krimanchuli specialist, Tristan Sikharulidze, displays his artistry in the classic historical songs "Ali-Pasha" and "Hasanbegura" and in the work song "Naduri."

"Hasanbegura" and "Naduri" also illustrate another principle of Western Georgian polyphony: the antiphonal alternation of two separate ensembles. In "Hasanbegura," one part is sung by a trio which includes the krimanchuli, while the contrasting group, called gadadzakhily, provides the bass refrain that repeats throughout the song. In "Naduri," the antiphonal principle is connected to the song's original function. "Nadi" were villagers who voluntarily assisted their neighbors at harvest time. Competing groups of workers would begin in a slow tempo with alternating melodic figures, and as the work intensified and neared completion, melodic motifs became shorter and the alterations, more rapid. The end of the song - and of the harvest - was marked by a slow finale sung in unison. "Naduri" songs lasting an hour or more were sung by as many as 200 singers working in a single field.

Nowadays, tractors and combines have replaced the "Nadi," and the "Naduri" songs have been consigned to the concert stage and recording studio. But table songs, represented here by the old Kakhetian chestnut, "Chakrulo," still provide a glimpse of the irrepressibly musical spirit of rural Georgia, as I learned during a recent visit with Anzor Erkomaishvili.

On a chill, damp December night, we drove to a collective farm near Telavi, east of Tbilisi, to join in a communal evening of drink, song, food, and camaraderie . Entering an unremarkable Stucco house, we found ourselves in a cheerful open room heated by a fare that filled an oversized stone fireplace at one end. An immense wooden table extended out from the fireplace, its surface all but invisible beneath myriad jugs of wine and plates of food. About 20 men with weathered faces, dressed for the occasion in drab suits and faded shirts open at the collar, sat and stood, by turn, around the table. The role of tamada, or toastmaster, passed from one man to another as intricate, poetic toasts and richly harmonized songs followed one upon the other, building a collective exhilaration. The physical power of the singing was such that beating tones created by slight pitch discrepancies in the harmonizations left one's ears ringing. Watching the glowing faces of the singers as they emptied their goblets in the ceremony of wine, food, and ecstatic song, I thought of the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece. Ancient Greece is gone, but in a Georgia valley, near the territory where legend tells that Jason and the Argonauts roamed in search of gold, the celebration of the wine and the fervent power of music lives on. For information of History and tradition of Georgian Sacred and Ritual Music, please CLICK HERE

The Compact Disc (D) or Cassette (C) - "Georgian Voices - The Rustavi Choir" (Length: 44:28 minutes) you can order: ,
This CD or Cassette contains Georgian Folk and Liturgical music:


01. Holy God: Chorale
02. Tshkenosnuri (Riding Song)
03. Going To Guria
04. Ali-Pasha (Historical Song)
05. Orovela (Plowing Song)
06. Langvash (March)
07. Odoya (Work Song)
08. Hasanbegura (Historical Song)
09. Mirangula (Lament For A Lost Son)
10. Chakrulo (Table Song)
11. Sabodisho (Healing Song)
12. Lechkhmuri Makruli (Wedding Song)
13. Kebadi (Sacred Chorale)
14. Guruli Naduri (Work Song)
Nugzar Gelashvili: Ensemble
Bondo Gugava: Ensemble
Ramin Mikaberidze: Ensemble
Amiran Moliadze: Ensemble
Geno Mujiri: Ensemble
Zurab Ninua: Ensemble
Tariel Onashvili: Ensemble
Tristan Sikiharulidze: Ensemble
Boris Sordia: Ensemble
Lado Tandilashvili: Ensemble
Badri Toidze: Ensemble
Saliver Vadachkoria: Ensemble
Production Credits
Anzor Erkomaishvili: Art Direction, Compilation, Director
Ted Levin: Compilation Producer, Liner Notes
Melanie Marder Parks: Artwork
Rustavi Choir: Main Performer


Compiled in Tbilisi,Georgia, by Ted Levin and Anzor Erkomaishvili, from original recordings by

There is also other album of Rustavi Choir -"Oath At Khidistavi: Heroic Songs & Hymns From Georgia" (Length: 59:50 minutes):

TRACK LISTING: (Click on a title to listen a music)

01. Odioya  MPEG Sample
02. Chona  MPEG Sample
03. Tskhenosnuri
04. Romelni Kerubinta
05. Hasanbegura
06. Didou Nana
07. Adila Ali Pasha
08. Naduri  MPEG Sample
09. Batonedo
10. Kviria
11. Chven Mshvidoba
12. Maqruli
13. Gikharoden Shen Tsmindao Dedopalo
14. Utash Lahshkruli
15. Perkhuli
16. Chakrulo
Nugzar Gelashvili: Choir, Chorus
Amiran Goliadze: Choir, Chorus
Ramin Mikaberidze: Choir, Chorus
  Tariel Onashvili: Choir, Chorus
Badri Toidze: Choir, Chorus
Saliver Vadachkoria: Choir, Chorus
Production Credits
Anzor Erkomaishvili: Art Direction
Mikhail Kilosanidze: Engineer, Mastering
Ted Levin: Executive Producer, Liner Notes
  Joan Pelosi: Design
Rustavi Choir: Main Performer

Review by Dirty Linen
The Rustavi Choir - Heroic Songs & Hymns From Georgia [Shanachie 65014 (1998)]

That's Georgia, formerly of the Soviet Union, not of the American South. Those who have never heard the exclusively male, a capella voices of a Georgian choir will find this a good place to start. Harmonically dense like the best of 20th Century Russian classical music, melodically unique, though close in spirit to Bulgarian music, Georgian music is usually delicate and strong simulta neously, and this vocally powerful and spirited choir stays true to the tradition, but will catch and hold even an unfamiliar listener's attention with its rich vocal textures and occasional solo interjection.
Dave Beltane


There are also:

Rustavi Folk Choir: "Chakrulo World Folk Heritage".


01. Djvarsa Shensa
02. Kakhuri Alilo
03. Madlobeli
04. Rachuli Alilo
05. Chona
06. Lataria
07. Tsmidao Dedao/Gvtismshobelo
08. Megruli Makruli
09. Brevalo
10. Chakrulo
11. Tsamokruli
12. Lechkhumuri/Makruli
13. Adide Piri Chveni
14. Voisa
15. Movedit Takvani/Vtset
16. Guruli Zari
17. Meupeo Zetsatao
18. Imeruli Naduri
19. Kakhuri Nana
20. Gurili Alilo
21. Dges Sagvto/Madlman
22. Svanuri Perkhuli


and, Table Songs Of Georgia


01. Kakhuri Mravaljamieri
02. Makruli
03. Shashvi, Kakabi
04. Orovela
05. Turpani Skhedan
06. Zamtari
07. Diambego
08. Shemodzakhili
09. Berikatsi Var
10. Chakrulo

Cover Image - Supra-Georgian Banquet

TRACK LISTING: (Click on a title to listen a music)


01. Pitsi
02. Gaoul Gavkheda
03. Kalospirouli
04. Alilo D'Imeretie
05. Dzveli Koutchkhi Bedineri
06. Satchidao
07. Maspindzelsa Mkhiaroulsa
08. Dghes Saghvioman Madlman
09. Maqrouli
10. Alilo De Mingrelie
11. Mravalzhamier Long De Kakhetie
12. Djgyrag
13. Vakhtangouri
14. Sadghegrdzelo
15. Adila Ali Pasha
16. Mravalzhamier D'Imeritie
17. Tamar Kalo
18. Tchven Mchvidoba
19. Mourza Bekzil
20. Me Var Da Tchemi Nabadi
21. Gandagan


Date: November 1, 1998
Length: 49:50 minutes
Genre: WORLD
Category: Georgian

For more information on History and tradition of Georgian Sacred and Ritual Music, please CLICK HERE
or for Georgian song "Suliko" CLICK HERE

For information about "Ensemble Tbilisi" please CLICK HERE.

Also coming soon Georgian Real Audio files, so stay with us....


Copyright - Besiki Sisauri