Kartulia: New Georgian Ethno Folk
rec. 2019, venue not given
MEMO MUSIC MM6167 [49:31]
A short while ago, I came across a CD which on paper appeared to offer something quite different from my usual choice of review material. Entitled Mystic of the Horizon, it featured the work of twentieth-century Georgian composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Chabuka Amiranashvili. In the event, it proved to be an entertaining exercise, as my review hopefully confirms, even though I had expected there to be some greater detail on the specific topic of Georgian folk music itself.
However, it certainly whetted my appetite to delve deeper, and I am now very pleased to have in front of me a CD released by Shara, a band of eleven people – six musicians and five dancers under the leadership of Amiranashvili – who together have developed a completely new approach to Georgian folk music, which they describe as ‘Georgian Ethno Folk’.
For some time the Republic of Georgia has been something of a hidden treasure. Located at the border between Europe and Asia, it has developed a rich culture of which most foreigners still have very limited knowledge. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Georgia emerged as an independent republic under German protection, before being forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1922. By the 1980s, an independence movement emerged, which led to Georgia’s secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. From then on, the country has pursued a decidedly pro-Western foreign policy, which, of course, soon led to worsening relations with Russia.
Shara, which actually means ‘narrow road’ in the vernacular, seeks to combine the familiar with the new, particularly in their stage performances, where their dancers and visual effects significantly heighten the effect of the music, and provide a total immersion into Georgian culture, intended to captivate the audience from the very first moment.
The sleeve-note/cover provides some interesting background information about the ensemble, and mentions that their producer, Amiranashvili, wrote a lot of new material, but also drew on classical folk songs from the different regions of Georgia, often specifically tailored to suit a particular event or performance. Amiranashvili comments that while Shara sings in the Georgian language, whenever the dancers are present, their highly-emotional choreography plays a vital part in helping to communicate the gist of the text, without the need for a physical translation to be displayed either as subtitles, or surtitles.
Georgian folk music is predominantly vocal and is widely-known for its rich traditions of vocal polyphony. All regional styles of Georgian music have traditions of vocal a cappella (unaccompanied) polyphony, although information relating to the southernmost parts of the country is somewhat more sketchy.
Vocal polyphony based on ostinato formulas, repeated rhythm or pitch patterns, and rhythmic drones are widely encountered across the country. Apart from these more common every-day techniques, there are also other, more complex forms of polyphony, often involving drones and pedal-points, as well as Krimanchuli – a local variety of yodelling, prominent in the western part of the country.
Both east and west Georgian polyphony is based on a wide use of sharp dissonant harmonies (seconds, fourths, sevenths, ninths), unlike our far-more-mellifluous thirds and sixths, fifths and octaves. In fact, because of the wide use of the specific chord consisting of the fourth and a second on top of the fourth (C-F-G or C-D-G), the founder of Georgian ethnomusicology, Dimitri Arakishvili (1873-1953) called this chord the ‘Georgian Triad’ as opposed to its traditional western counterpart (C-E-G). Shara are also involved in teaching the special Georgian singing style in different parts of the world, thereby keeping the tradition alive – something which, in fact, belongs to the UNESCO world heritage of Georgian singing.
A selection of ethnic Georgian instruments can be heard on the CD. In terms of strings, there’s the Panduri, a strummed lute, usually with three strings – and the Chonguri, related to the former, but larger and with a peg halfway down the neck. The Gudastviri is a drone-less, horn-belled bagpipe, with twin melody-pipes or chanters, while the Garmoni – the Georgian accordion equivalent – can either be diatonic (white keys only), or chromatic (conventional keyboard layout). Among the percussion section is the Doli, which consists of a hollow wooden cylinder covered with leather, tightly attached to it with iron rings. It is played by palms and fingers, under or over the arm, while sitting or dancing.
The sleeve notes are in English only, but only provide biographical details about the group Shara as such. While each track is listed in both Latin and Georgian text, there is nothing by way of any explanation as to what each song is about. The CD’s title is Kartulia, which I suspected might refer in some way to the country of Georgia, or its people, given the existence of the word Kartvelian which is sometimes used in this context. Unfortunately, not having a Georgian contact in my address-book, as you do, I decided to phone the Georgian Embassy in London, and spoke to a most helpful young lady there, who confirmed that Kartulia would denote something like ‘Georgia!’, or ‘This is Georgia!’. Unfortunately though, as she was finishing at 5pm, I felt I couldn’t really ask about each of the CD’s twenty tracks as well.
The opening track – Tialo Darialao – is fairly representative of what you can expect to hear on the CD, It opens with some effective vocal polyphony, where the rich timbre of the voices, especially at the lower end of the range, produces a captivating texture. The accompaniment is initially provided by some frenetic strumming on the panduri, before a more ‘westernized’ backing is achieved by bringing in more instruments, especially the bass guitar, though without significantly changing the harmonic palette. Drums are added as the music assumes a far more syncopated beat, and the gudastviri takes over from the voices, creating a texture that has already been referred to as ‘ethno folk – no doubt alluding to Georgia’s unique global position where east meets west, but achieved here by a musical, rather than geographical juxtaposition. The voices re-enter, as the track reaches a climax, and where the drum kit has an ever-increasing part to play in building up the excitement. The next track, Meureme, seems to conjure up the picture of a muezzin, summoning the faithful to prayer, before once more settling into a funky, laid-back beat as previously. There is an effective passage of rapid quasi-parlando ‘patter-singing’ towards the end of the track, where, despite the significant pronunciation difficulties of the Georgian language, the singers articulate this with impressive clarity.
The opening of Kakhuri Shairebi gives the accordionist a moment to shine, and the instrument is, in fact, a fairly prominent contributor to the track. The style of singing has changed, now favouring single voices in dialogue, rather than blocks of chordal harmony. This is also the case in Diaco, where the opening according solo provides examples of Georgian Triads, with their emphasis on intervals of the second, and fourth. Full vocal polyphony returns in Abkhazuri, interlaced with solo sections, while the next track, Kartl-Kakhuri has an almost laid-back ‘Caribbean’ feel to it at times. Gare Kakhuri revisits the muezzin’s call-to-prayer, but in a far more elaborate form and where a lot of the vocal inflections and mini-melismas seem to be rooted more in the style of Arabic music.
I have to say that the next track – Erti Mikvars – felt considerably more cosmopolitan than hitherto, and I couldn’t help thinking that it had many of the characteristics of a European Song Contest entry from a country about which you seem to know very little by comparison. Voices are generally heard here in a solo, or duet capacity, and, while there is no mention of a named female singer in Shara, there is definitely one shown in the group photo in the booklet. Why the Eurovision Song Contest, you might ask? Erti Mikvars seems to belong to that genre of entries, often from less-familiar countries, where you have a pleasant, sentimental ballad involving a male and female singer, with some vocal backup, but where, possibly because of the unique quality and phonetics of the Georgian language, any suggestion of a romantic scenario, is dispelled by the sound of the lyrics, and how they don’t quite seem to be in time with the music, something that would never be the case in an Italian entry, even if the text actually consisted of nothing more than a shopping list.
The prominent bagpipes at the start of Mocekvave Gogona seem to conjure up a kind of pastoral setting, perhaps a shepherd tending his flock. But, as has already happened in a number of tracks so far, the character quickly changes, and it seems that one minute we’re on the hillside with the shepherd – and the next we’ve all adjourned to the nearest hostelry for yet another ‘knees-up’, once our shepherd friend has ensured his flock is settled in for the night. Gadi Gamodi features the accordion at the start, but once the rhythm section joins back in, it turns into just another example of the high-spirited party atmosphere which tends to dominate the contents of the CD. To be fair, though, and certainly by way of contrast, the voices are silent here, and the accordion is the life and soul of that party, even if that tends to be achieved more by repetition of the thematic material than its development.
Svanuri involves the singers once more, and while the accordion once more does its best to maximize the excitement, the overall design-plan is beginning to sound a tad jaded at this juncture. Whatever your knowledge of the Georgian language, there are no prizes for guessing that the next track, Meureme - Akapela is for voices only. Purely from the ethnomusicological standpoint, it does provide a succinct and effective specimen of the Georgian art of vocal polyphony. There are further instances of the kind of rapid ‘patter-singing’ heard previously on Meureme (Track 2), and one wonders, though without any supporting evidence, whether the shared title, Meureme, has anything to do with this? After a short bagpipe introduction, the next track – Chemi Nabadi – returns to the now-familiar mix of east-meets-west, and where the resulting vocal and instrumental fusion could equally double up as another redundant Eurovision entry once more.
Jansulo opens with some frenetic strumming from the panduri, which launches into a particularly up-tempo vocal and instrumental partnership, definitely with a strong hint of klezmer to it, even if the almost obligatory clarinet lead is absent. Here the voices are used in a variety of different ways, mixing speech, with call-and-response techniques, in a particularly euphonious and ear-catching manner. In Azamat, the accordion is assigned the task of opening the track, but once the main body of instruments enter, initially it’s once more much like its predecessor. However, towards the end, Shara includes an extended coda section, which, while still ending typically abruptly, does manage to add a little more brio to the proceedings.
Kavkasiuri Geni relies on the combination of panduri and accordion to get the ball rolling, even if the listener is soon back on familiar territory, once the full resources join in. Vashe Blagorodie is an attractive, light-hearted little number, featuring two male voices in duet, the lower part somewhat reminiscent of East European basses with a rich, and particularly imposing lower register. Chito-Gyrito is part of the soundtrack from ‘Mimino’, a 1977 comedy film by Soviet director Georgiy Daneliya, which won the 1977 Golden Prize at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival. Unlike any of the other tracks on the CD, there are some nostalgic sound-effects like the old-style phone-dialler, mixed with snippets of conversations, and a prominent accordion part, that seems to come straight out of a French café of the time. With its sustained string-like opening, China Song - Monkey King begins by featuring Shara’s richest and deepest voices, but in what rhythmically soon feels more like a quasi-Reggae mix, with overtones of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ thrown in for good measure. The closing track – China Song - Monkey King – is another Klezmer-like number, full of high spirits, and designed to leave a lasting impression on the listener.
The recording is first-rate, and you feel you are right there in the middle of all the action, even down to the imaginary dancers. The performers are all highly-skilled in their respective roles, and while the general idea isn’t intended to improve on the findings of yesteryear’s ethnomusicologist armed with their trusty ‘Nagra’ portable recorder, there is more than sufficient here to whet your appetite even more, while giving you a basic working-knowledge of Georgian folk music, its forms, and its styles. It would have been good to have had some specific information on each track, but, in the final analysis, this didn’t really detract from my enjoyment and understanding of the CD as a whole.
However, I’ll leave the final say to the performers, and which largely endorses my own thoughts on the CD: ‘If you have the slightest interest in, or love for Georgian music, then ‘Kartulia’ is an album you shouldn’t miss’.
Philip R Buttall
Tialo Darialao (3:25)
Kakhuri Shairebi (2:41)
Gare Kakhuri (3:44}
Erti Mikvars (3:55)
Mocekvave Gogona (3:16)
Gadi Gamodi (3:30)
Meureme - Akapela (2:20)
Chemi Nabadi (3:07)
Kavkasiuri Geni (3:39)
Vashe Blagorodie (3:15)
Chito-Gyrito [Soundtrack from Movie ‘Mimino’] (4:45)
China Song - Monkey King (3:48)
China Song - Take the Hidjab (2:04)
Giorgi Dzadzamia (panduri, chonguri, voice), Giorgi Shanava (voice, panduri, bass guitar, gudastviri), Irakli Chargazia (voice, panduri), Levan Mebonia (voice, bass, panduri, keyboard), Luka Mebonia (voice, Georgian drums, doli), Shalva Tsivilashvili (garmoni)