Magazine article The Spectator

Harmonious Polyphony of Birds

Magazine article The Spectator

Harmonious Polyphony of Birds

Article excerpt

Festivals of world music throw up all sorts of folk, but none like the Georgians who are about to star at Womad this weekend. What kind of music can we expect from an amateur choir consisting of two physicists who earn their bread selling cigarettes by the roadside, a philosopherturned-policeman, plus an architect, an engineer and two out-of-work economists? The answer is the most thrilling choral music in the world, by turns tender, uplifting and ferocious.

Two millennia before Scots Highlanders were piped into battle, the Greek historian Xenophon was noting how Georgians readied themselves for combat. `The warriors stood in rows like a choir, then one of them began and all the others joined in, marching to the rhythm of the song.' Half a century ago, Stravinsky almost jumped out of his skin at the yodelling of their successors: it was, he said, the most virile vocal performance he'd ever heard. The music of our modern Georgians - caught in their country's calamitous slump, and consequently with time on their hands - follows directly in that tradition. And as I found when I met them in Tbilisi, their name - M'tiebi, `Morning Star' - accurately reflects their evangelistic purpose.

I'd been drawn to this romantically crumbling city by its unofficial status as the most musical place on earth. The great Russian bass Chaliapin put it nicely: `I was born twice. In Kazan I opened my eyes to life, and in Tbilisi to music.' Here Tchaikovsky conducted, Verdi reworked Aida, and a host of virtuosi emerged from the conservatory, as they are emerging still: no surprise that one of the youngest finalists in the recent World Piano Competition should have hailed from there. Wander round the conservatory now and you realise both the strength of Tbilisi's musical will, and the scale of the problems with which it must contend. Amid beaten-up instruments and incessant power-cuts, Nodar Gabunia, the convivial pianist-composer who runs the place, regards his $20 weekly salary as one of life's little jokes.

But music in Tbilisi is primarily an amateur affair. Walk into any Orthodox church on Sunday morning and you'll hear singing which is warmer and sunnier than its lugubrious Russian equivalent. Outside in the street you may come across circles of middle-aged gents singing in immaculate three-part harmony (this isn't done for tourists, because there aren't any). But Tbilisi's chief musical glory lies in forms which are directly descended from those Xenophon found in 401 sc, and which the inspired amateurs of M'tiebi are now preserving.

Meeting their founder Edisher Garakanidze, Georgia's leading ethnomusicologist, I learned that the glue which bound them together was stronger than mere professionalism. The fact that they were friends from college days was guarantee enough, said Garakanidze, that they could sing together. I also watched him coach the children's choir he had created as a way of passing on these ancient forms. With ages ranging from four to 15, they conjured up their dark, three-part harmonies with rapt concentration: these were the fruits, he told me, of a trawl they had made through villages where such things were still sung. There was a world of difference, he insisted, between the subtly Westernised music with which professional Georgian folk-groups toured abroad, and the real unsanitised thing. If I were to revisit Georgia, he would take me into the country to demonstrate what he meant: coming from this diffident but inspiring man, this was an offer I couldn't refuse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.