The Living Tradition of Music in Georgia

One thing that has always struck me about Georgian culture is that it is a culture of song.  It is often said that one out of every two Georgians are musical, either singing or playing an instrument (such as the traditional banjo-esque “panduri”).  Musical talent is highly respected, as it is integral for unlocking a number of other fundamentally Georgian traditions.  For example, the famous Georgian “supra” or feast often involves the participants bursting into joyful (and slightly drunken) song.  Music is also a key part of the Georgian Orthodox faith, as priests regularly express their love for the divine on Sunday mornings by treating their parishioners to the haunting melodies of traditional Georgian polyphonic song.  Unlike some cultures in which traditional music is more-or-less artificially supported to entertain tourists, Georgians of all ages truly love their music.  Considered essential by the old and cool by the youth, the music in this country is truly alive – actively passed from generation to generation.

This week is the annual Art Gene Festival in Tbilisi, which showcases folk music choirs from the various regions of Georgia.  The scale of the open-air festival is itself a testament to the importance of traditional music in Georgian life – in a country roughly one third of the size of my home state of Oklahoma, approximately 80 folk choirs are performing over the course of eight days.  Participation is open to all, and the performers range from professional choirs to university groups to gaggles of little old ladies.  Often choirs come from tiny villages, bringing their own interpretations of familiar melodies to the big city.  For such a small country, each region is remarkably distinct in its music style – the playful yodeling of the lush Adjaran mountains fuses with the somber tones of Shida Kartli, each contributing to a sound that is still unmistakably Georgian.  And, while the audience is dotted with a handful of foreign faces, the majority of the attendees are Georgians young and old who come in great numbers to applaud and sing along with their countrymen.

I have always believed that the way to both learn a language and get the feel of a culture is through music.  Nowhere has this been truer than in Georgia – as I listened in the audience at Art Gene, I felt that I was tapping into the pulsing heartbeat of the Georgian people.  While I couldn’t understand every word that was sung, I felt myself being irresistibly drawn in to the raw emotion of the music and infected with the same enthusiasm that connects both the Georgian performers and audience.  Here, communication didn’t require verb conjugations or grammar rules.  Here, all that was needed was soul.

At the end of the night’s performance, I followed the crowd slowly out of the park, lost in thought.  I had taken only a few steps from the performance space, however, when I was met by a stirring sound.  All around me, those who had been part of the audience only moments ago were now breaking spontaneously into song.  Groups of friends, walking home together, crooned softly together into the warm night.  I hummed along with them.

By: April Gordon

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program

Term: Summer 2017

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