Just an Old Sweet Song: Georgian Polyphonic Singing (VIDEOS)

Just an Old Sweet Song: Georgian Polyphonic Singing (VIDEOS)

You’re sitting at a crowded table in a Georgian restaurant making your way methodically through dozens of delectable dishes, when three guys at the end of the table put down their forks and burst into song. The hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up and tears may spring to your eyes at the gorgeous piercing tones of Georgian polyphony.

Singing is important in the South Caucasus country of Georgia – as important and as ubiquitous as the fantastic food, great wine and heartfelt toasts that the country is famous for. Georgians have been belting out their complex harmonies since pre-Christian days, at home, in the fields, at births, deaths and celebrations; there are lullabies, love songs, drinking songs, dancing songs and fighting songs. After Christianity came to Georgia, a huge repertory of sacred chants grew alongside the folk songs as well.

Sounds of SvanetiSongs from the different regions can have very different sounds. In the remote mountainous region of Svaneti, the singers usually harmonize together in an archaic form that has survived the centuries. Songs always end in unison, dropping off a little like a far-away moving train.

Sounds of KakhetiIn the eastern region of Kakheti, most songs are built on a bass drone that can be sung by as many people as happen to be present. The top two solo voices dance around each other, embellishing and improvising on the melody and harmony.

A sample of this music was recently captured during a feast at Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Signagi, in the Kakheti region. The host and other natural winemakers joined the Zedashe ensemble in a Kakhetian song.

History of Georgian Vocal MusicGeorgian vocal music developed independently of Western European rules of harmony, its scales based on fifths rather than octaves, and its intervals not tuned to each other as Bach dictated in the 18th century. This gives its choral music a rich and intense, yet slightly dissonant sound (to western ears).

Sadly, 70 years of Soviet repression took a toll on Georgian traditional music, and some of the songs, if they were not recorded, were lost forever. Since the dissolution of the USSR, musicologists and choirs have been collecting and reviving as many of the old songs as the elders can pull from their memories. In 2008, the polyphonic vocal music of Georgia was elected to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and schools and classes were set up to teach the younger generation the heritage of their people.

One more way in which Georgian polyphonic singing may be remembered in perpetuity: One of the country’s traditional songs, sung in the complex polyphony of the mountainous Svaneti region, is floating around in space. A recording of Chakrulo, a song of resistance against oppression sung at ceremonies and festivities, was launched into space with Voyager I in 1977, along with other vital information about the humans from Earth.

Singers in Svaneti, Georgia. Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Members of the Riho Ensemble in Svaneti, Georgia, tune their traditional instruments
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Travel to Georgia with MIRHead to Georgia to enjoy a performance of Georgian polyphonic singing on one of MIR’s small group tours:

Or, you can opt to travel on your dates and at your pace on MIR’s independent private trips: Essential Georgia, Essential Georgia & Armenia or Essential Caucasus. MIR also specializes in custom, private tours of Georgia and the South Caucasus.

(Top photo: MIR host John Wurdeman loves to sing with the Riho Ensemble in  Svaneti, Georgia. Photo credit: Mariana Noble)

PUBLISHED: April 16, 2015

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4 thoughts on “Just an Old Sweet Song: Georgian Polyphonic Singing (VIDEOS)

  • Sally M.

    Your photos perfectly depict this beautiful country!! Makes me want to go back again! If you haven’t been to Georgia, you must go! I thank our son and his interest in this part of the world for introducing us to not only a beautiful country, with wonderful food and breathtaking scenery, but also wonderful, wonderful people!

    • Mariana Noble

      Thanks, Sally. I’m so lucky I got to go on this trip. As you say, the wonderful people really made the experience stellar.