Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Breaking the Bonds of the Tomb

The view from Gelati

I spent Orthodox Easter, from Red Friday to early the morning of Easter Sunday, very near the heart of Georgian Orthodoxy. Davit Aghmashenebeli (r. 1089-1125), the king whose reign inaugurated the Georgian Golden Age, who moreover is revered as a saint in the Georgian church, and whose name graces the main street of literally every Georgian city, is buried on the grounds of Gelati Monastery, a hilltop retreat outside the bustling urban center of Kutaisi. I went there on the recommendation of John Graham, a native Vermonter who has spent the better part of the last decade living in Georgia and painstakingly studying the historical origins and modern revival of Georgian chant. He's currently part of the choir at the Kashweti Church in Tbilisi, where, unbeknownst to me at the time, I heard him sing on Christmas Eve. When I asked John where, of all the places in Georgia, I should spend Easter, he recommended Gelati, and even had a friend within walking distance of the monastery who could put me up in her guest house. Two days, then, after my trip to visit Tristan in Guria, I boarded the marshutka for Kutaisi, with charged-up batteries for my camera and digital audio recorder.
I arrived some two hours later, and met up, not with the proprietor of the guesthouse, but with her son, Sandro, and a young woman, Kristina, who lived next door. Sandro and Kristina served as my unexpected tour guides, first in Kutaisi, then to the monasteries of Motsameta and Gelati. Our first stop was the ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral, an imposing structure that looms above the city, offering views of the greater part of Imereti, and even the idyllic valleys of Racha, to the north. A large reconstruction effort is presently underway, to restore the roof and cupola of the cathedral, so even if it weren't Good Friday, when church bells sit silent and the general mood is one of sober reflection on the Crucifixion, religious observances would be minimal here. We still found a ceremony in progress, though music-less as far as I could tell, in the roofless chapel of St. George, which predates, I believe, the grander cathedral structure (see photo at right).

After a brief tour of the older part of Kutaisi, we bumped along the roads out of town to the north, first to the monastic retreat of Motsameta. This small church, with attached quarters for monks (off-limits to "foreigners," as a sign warns), perches on a promontory above a bend in the Tsqaltsitela river, so-named for the red color granted by the alluvial silt. The story of its founding involves two brothers who resisted the advance of a Muslim army and suffered gruesome deaths. The location of the church, hidden by trees and sloping hills until appearing some 200m from the entrance gate, certainly inspires a sense of nature's grandeur and the security of an omnivoyant perspective. The building itself seems to have been renovated relatively recently, and the frescoes inside the small chapel could hardly be more than 100 years old, apart from a fading area in the roof above the altar, whose blue background seems to echo the grander achievements of Gelati, left as a testament to the first artists.
A short drive, then, to the less-secluded village of Gelati, where I was welcomed at Maia's guesthouse, treated to a mid-afternoon meal, and then taken to the Cathedral of the Virgin. The monastery complex, which includes the Cathedral, smaller churches to St. George and St. Nicholas, a 12th-century Academy, a metal gate from the Persian city of Ganja, and dormitories for monks and guests, overlooks a valley where two rivers meet. A huge tree, some kind of conifer, dominates the grounds, though its height, by divine decree, never exceeds that of the Cathedral itself. A smaller tree nearby, whose flowers reminded me of the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., where I spent many Easters in my childhood, also caught my attention (it's the picture at the top of this post).

Gelati, with the tree

The painted interior of the cathedral truly inspires awe. On this first trip to the church, I only spent about 15 minutes inside, though I was stunned by the proliferation of images from floor to ceiling. The frescoes were painted over a wide range of time – 12th-17th centuries, I believe – though there's an undeniable unity to the experience. My guides, Sandro and Kristina, pointed out some of the more unusual Biblical scenes that appear on the walls – including Judas hanging from a tree and the recently decapitated John the Baptist – and drew my attention to the crowning achievement of the monastery: a marvelous mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ-child, embracing the curve of the apse and requiring over 2.5 million stones to achieve its indigo-and-gold transcendence. There was minimal activity in the church, mostly limited to worshipers' individual devotions and meditations. My guides assured me that the next day there would be some singing.

The mosaic above the altar
(the bottom part was restored with paint)

I rose early the next morning and hiked up the winding road from Maia's house to the Monastery. It was a beautiful, bright day, with a blue sky that turned pale as it met the snow-capped mountains of Svaneti to the north-west. I had been told that, by following a path above the monastery, I could reach another, smaller monastery of St. Elias. I dutifully took the path up the mountain, which quickly became a pockmarked dirt road navigable only by ATV or heavy machinery. Some twenty minutes into the climb, I came upon a sign that said, "Fortress of the Monk," with what appeared to be a cubist map underneath the title, though there wasn't a trace of human settlement in sight on either side of the road. After puzzling over this for a moment, I continued up the road. As the sun beat down and my distance from that sign increased, I began to wonder if I'd made a mistake, though I still felt energized by the beauty of the day and the solemn purposefulness that overtakes me during certain times of year. Stupendous views of mountains and distant villages opened at every turn, and finally, after climbing a steep switchback, I thought I saw a roof or maybe a window through a row of trees. Maybe this was the monastery – maybe there was a solitary hermit who lived there! Would he welcome me? Was I somehow trespassing? Practicing in my head some introductory phrases in Georgian, I crested the summit and beheld a Caterpillar front-loader where I thought I'd seen the glinting reflection of a window. It was a rock quarry, scarred with giant tire tracks and heavy machinery lying idle. The humor of it was a relief to me, and I turned around to appreciate the climb I'd made and the special view accorded those who make futile ascents. Bounding back down the road, I practiced the Gurian songs Tristan had taught me, even if the words usually escaped me. Still riding the high of his master class, I let my mind wander and imagined teaching these songs to others, sharing them somehow, even pairing them in a concert with polyphony from other periods of history and regions of the world … Still harboring these thoughts, I returned to Gelati and stepped back inside the Cathedral, where a Holy Saturday service was in progress. And here was singing!

The choir was small - four women and one man, but they clearly knew what they were doing in Gelati's acoustics. It's one of the relatively few times I've seen a Georgian choir in its traditional place - stage right, as it were, of the ikonostasis - rather than in a choir loft or, like at Sameba Cathedral, practically in another zip code and piped in with speakers. There's a marvelous natural resonance in Gelati's church, thanks I'm sure to the interlocking system of gentle arches and its imposing yet human scale. The natural light pouring through the high windows made me thankful that this church had not succumbed to the mania for artificial light that I'd seen elsewhere. This assumption wasn't quite correct, as later that night, for the All-Night Vigil, a bright halogen bulb would be hung from over the main door. Guide-less, I lingered over the images that surrounded me, glad to take the time and read into their stories. I found myself especially moved by some frescoes to my right as I entered, showing scenes from Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I'd always been struck by the scene of Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples (partly because at my church growing up, my family had often been part of a re-enacting of this strangely intimate moment). Underneath the scene of washing, though, I saw a profoundly poignant and almost comical scene. Peter sits in the courtyard of the High Priest, while his friend and master is being questioned inside. Most of the frame is empty space, except for a gold-orange rooster, perched in proud isolation, gladly singing its morning call, while the despondent Peter sits with his head in his hand, glumly realizing that his three denials have happened just as predicted. I show the picture at right.

Heavenly light, of course
It was hard not to reflect on theological questions while immersed in such an outpouring of devotional craft, and as it was Holy Saturday, I began to reflect on that day. I never had devoted much thought to it growing up, when compared to the drama of Good Friday and Easter Sunday - I think we usually went to church on Holy Saturday, but can't be sure. The drama on Saturday, by contrast to the death and Resurrection, is more mysterious, and somehow less canonical. The gospels tell with detail what Jesus did, practically for each hour from Holy Thursday to Good Friday, and then of course the story of Easter Morning, with the women going to the tomb, the stone rolled aside, the mysterious man sitting there, the disciples on the road to Emmaeus - all of these events, though awe-inspiring, are couched in a clear narrative. The struggle of Holy Saturday - when Jesus "harrowed" Hell, set free the heroes of the Hebrew Bible, and basically cut the ribbon for his new real estate venture (Paradise) - is not described in the Gospel, so it's been left up to theology, with differing results based on sect, sentiment, and century. It somehow, to me, shows that the gospels, for all their audacity, remain silent about the actual moment of death, about the path following death, leaving it to scholars, bishops, and poets (most notably Dante) to define. For this reason, Holy Saturday has always struck me as a day of (mere) preparation, though not, in my view, for the return of a savior, or the commemoration of a new world order's commencement, but preparation for the moment of death, which is to say, preparation for the rest of life. 

Let me interrupt this personal discourse to share some more of the lovely, sensitive singing from the Gelati choir, at the moment when the bells of the nearby belfry, silent for Good Friday, found their voice again:

Some time after this trip, I read in Joseph Campbell's Creative Mythology (Volume 4 of his The Masks of God, my constant companion on this journey), some further reflections on Holy Saturday, and the relationship between humanity and the pervasive, enthralling idea of resurrection. Perhaps some of my affinity for Campbell comes from his similar Irish-American Catholic background, in which the rites and resonances of Catholicism are deeply ingrained, yet serve not as a limiting factor but as a strong jumping-off place from which to survey the underlying function of mythology in people's lives. One of his favorite texts is James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, in which a certain number, 1132, recurs again and again, like an idee fixe. The numerological significance can be read as the combination of Rise and Fall. The Rise comes from 11 being "the renewal of the decade," while 32 refers to the acceleration due to gravity (32 feet per second per second), or, in other words "The Fall." A further significance may be read as a reference to Paul's letter to the Romans, 11:32, which reads "For God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all." In this reading, the very "fallen" nature of humankind, with Original Sin or what have you, is itself a vehicle of grace. This oxymoron is captured in a phrase of Augustine's, "O felix culpa" (Latin for "oh happy fault," as in mea culpa). Apparently this "phrase of hope," in pre-Vatican II times, was repeated by the priest during the Roman Catholic ritual of blessing the Paschal candle on Holy Saturday, as Campbell writes, "the dark, dark night of Christ's body lying in the tomb."
The tabernacle of the church [Campbell goes on] is open - empty - to symbolize the awesome mystery of God's death and descent into Hell. "This," says the priestly celebrant, "Is the night at which at this time throughout the world restores to grace and unites in sanctity those that believe in Christ, and are separated from the vices of the world and the darkness of sinners. This is the night in which, destroying the bonds of death, Christ arose victorious from the grave. For it would have profited us nothing to have been born, unless redemption had also been bestowed on us. O wonderful condescension of Thy mercy toward us! ... that Thou mightest redeem a slave, Thou didst deliver up Thy Son! O truly needful sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault [O felix culpa], which deserved to possess such and so great a Redeemer! O truly blessed night, which alone deserved to know the time and hour in which Christ rose again from the grave! This is the night of which it is written: And the night shall be as light as the day; and the night is my light in my enjoyments.
Campbell then quotes a pun by Joyce (one of literally thousands throughout Finnegans Wake), that plays on this Latin phrase. "Poor Felix Culapert!" As though felix culpa had become the name of a rather mundane greengrocer or window-washer in Dublin. There also arrives a reference to Phoenix Park (sometimes "Felix Park"), the main park of the Irish capital, where murders in Joyce's lifetime famously took place. The phoenix, then, is the "multicolored soul-bird ... which resurrects of itself - 'when the fiery bird disembers' - from the ash of its self-immolation." I also see something a bit more naughty and/or vulgar in the pun, with the word divided, in a pan-European style, into aperto, from the Italian adjective for "open," and cul, which any 10th-grader in French class will gladly translate! 

Anyway - apologies for the lengthy digression - it was a marvelous day of deep thinking and enjoyment of nature. More delicious food followed at Maia's guesthouse, followed by a nap before the Easter services, which began at 11pm. I went with my guides and was quickly accompanied by other young members of this community. The church was now filled, though not to overflowing, as was no doubt the case in Tbilisi's Sioni or Anchikhati churches. I felt with reasonable confidence, and not a little pride, that I was one of the only "tourists" there. I did hear some Russian, but no other English speakers. There was singing for much of the night - the same choir as before, which disappointed me somewhat, hoping for a mighty, stereotypically male Georgian chorus sound. I continued to be amazed at their sensitivity, balance, and breath control. Around midnight, when Easter, I supposed, officially began, the whole congregation exited the cathedral and walked three times around the church, holding candles. Mine blew out quickly, though I was too consumed with handling my audio recorder to pay much mind. These were the bells that triumphantly rang out with our triple circuit:

Soon afterward, we heard the first iteration of a text that would be repeated over and over again during the night, either intoned by a priest or sung in a variety of arrangements. My guess is that its first line includes the phrase, "Christ is Risen," and I connect it therefore with the Greek Orthodox hymn, "Khristos Anesti," similarly sung repeated on Easter, from which text\I took the title of this post. Here's the Georgian hymn in its first appearance:

And again, with the same text, but different music:

And finally, an hour and a half later, in a third arrangement:

We stayed until about 3:30 AM, not staying all the way to the end, as my host Sandro was kindly waking up at 9am to drive me to the marshutka, so I could meet up with my family from Kobuleti for Easter celebrations in Guria. Those celebrations may merit another post, but I'll leave you for now. A final, longer musical excerpt I think is in order, to give you a sense of what it's like to stand during these long Orthodox services, when time itself - collapsed miraculously by the idea of an eternal God suffering death, the defining feature of temporariness - seems to disappear entirely:

Worshipers gathered at Gelati

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cheerful Host Has Favorite Guests

The village church in Makvaneti,
in the misty hills of Guria
Among the many surprises and discoveries of living in Ashfield, Massachusetts and working with Double Edge Theatre since about 2006, perhaps one of the least expected involved my meeting Tristan Sikharulidze and his trio, Shalva Chemo. Tristan is a master singer and living repository of the fabulously rich tradition of polyphonic song in Guria. In the spring of last year, Tristan's group came  to the U.S. for a concert tour organized by Carl Linich, a leading American expert on Georgian music and founder of the Kavkasia vocal group. Along with concerts in the expected places like Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., the three Gurian singers visited some rural areas of New England and upstate New York, performing and giving master classes. One such event was at the home of Ricki Carroll in Ashfield, a rambling, curiously-decorated house with a lovely backyard, the kind of place where local musicians performed and amateur singing societies held potluck dinners. When the announcement came in a local email newsletter that this Georgian group would perform and hold a master class, I signed up immediately, not really knowing anything about Gurian music in particular. The master class started at 4pm and I was ten minutes late – in one of those twists that remind what privileged company I've been able to keep in my artistic life, my tardiness owed to a private meeting with the legendary Polish actress Rena Mirecka, then in residence at Double Edge. At Ricki Carroll's house, we spent about an hour learning a Gurian song, a lovely piece whose text told a story of the angels Michael and Gabriel, followed by a potluck dinner and a sold-out concert featuring the masterly voices of Tristan Sikharulidze, his older brother Guri Sikharulidze, and the bass Merabi Skalandadze.

Me with Tristan and Levan
Fast-forward a year, almost to the day, and I find myself in Tristan's study, looking at photos from his tour, including one from the Ashfield master class that, but for my lateness, would've included me as well! I had come to Makvaneti, Tristan's village 5km from the main town of Ozurgeti, in the hope of meeting this man whose music had entranced me before. What I received was two days of essentially private master classes and a remarkably generous welcome from Tristan's family. When I first arrived at Tristan's home, I had Francesco, my companion from the Samegrelo expedition, with me. Within minutes of getting there, Tristan said, "Well, what song do you want to learn?" and launched into his lesson. I don't think Francesco was expecting this exactly – having to sing with us – but he gamely went along before leaving to meet up with another friend back in Ozurgeti. The first song we learned was called "Maspindzelsa Mkhiarulsa, or "The Cheerful Host." As I understood it, this would be an appropriate first song at a supra, with a text celebrating a merry host and his funny guests, and admonishing God "not to interrupt" someone with so many friends. I took extensive recordings throughout my trip, but, as in Svaneti with the Pilpanis, the singing here was instructional, not performative, so there's not as much to share. After teaching me the words and melodies by ear, Tristan would sing each of the three harmony parts for me to record. One of his grandsons, Levan, was also with us at the dining room table, and joined in from time to time. Here's a brief moment, with Levan singing the top line, me singing the middle part, and Tristan singing bani, or bass, when I suddenly heard the structure of the song working together, despite my stumbling:
And, for comparison, here's Tristan's group "Shwidkatsa" singing the same song on CD:

In the liner notes to one of the two CDs Tristan gave me as a gift, Anzor Erkomaishvili repeats the common wisdom that a great Gurian singer never sings a piece the same way twice. Erkomaishvili should know, given that this founder of the world-famous Rustavi Ensemble came from the same village as Tristan. Improvisation is integral in the traditional performance of Gurian songs. When it comes to improvising in the midst of fast-moving three-part harmony, this is easier to understand in the context of the traditional trio setup – with one person per part, improvisation comes more naturally – yet there's a certain specific language of Gurian improvisation that allows for variation of performance even in larger groups. This is especially true in the passages of the song that include "nonsense" syllables like "a ba de lo de lo wo de la de la wo da," which are yet to be taken seriously as the vehicle of flights of improvisational skill and melodic interplay.

Tristan himself doesn't speak English, but when we were alone he was able to communicate enough in terms of the music, and the rest of the time his two grandsons, Levan and Ila, were there, and they both spoke English very well. With Levan and Ila, we shared our tastes in music and literature, and our interests in languages of the world. I never thought my ability to draw a reasonably accurate Indo-European language tree would come in handy, but Ila was interested, so I happily complied with one. He in turn, while sharing his interest in progressive rock, was shocked that I, a resident of Boston, no less, had never heard any of Dream Theater's music. Unforgivable, apparently.

Ozurgeti is only a 30-40 minute marshutka ride from Kobuleti, so I have every intention of returning and learning more songs. I hope there'll be chance to hear the whole Shalva Chemo group together, or at least to hear Tristan singing with some of his fellow Gurians. He really is the acknowledged master of this repertoire, and it would be a shame not to gather what I can from him, especially as he is so generous with sharing.

One final image that stuck with me was Tristan showing me a ch'uniri – the uniquely Svan bowed instrument – which had been given to him by Islam and Vakho Pilpani, the masters of Svan music whom I had stayed with back in January. More and more, I feel a web of hospitality, generosity, and love of music forming around me, along with the conviction that the significance of these relationships will resonate for many years to come.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Weekend in Samegrelo

It's Passion Week here in Georgia and anywhere where the Julian calendar is still used to calculate church feasts, resulting in Easter this year being celebrated a week later than in the Western Gregorian system. Easter, the terminus of Passion Week, in Georgian is "kristes aghdgoma", literally "Christ's rising-up." A nice result of the importance of this period of time in Georgia is an extended holiday from school. I've already used my time off to visit the great Gurian song-master Tristan Sikharulidze in Makvaneti, and will head to Gelati Monastery in Imereti to hear their famed choirs for the Good Friday and Easter Vigil services. Each of these trips will be featured in feature posts.

Francesco's host family at their shop,
with Kristina, our invaluable translator
Playing catch-up now, I wanted to share some of the music from my journey to Samegrelo two weekends ago. The main city of Samegrelo, a region in Western Georgia north of Guria and Achara, is Zugdidi, which is where my friend Francesco, another TLG volunteer from Italy, is working. His host family, who run a small shop in the labyrinthine bazaar of downtown Zugdidi, welcomed me into their home for two nights, and arranged for a wonderful musical encounter on Saturday.

I had been to Zugdidi once before, in January, when traveling with Teatr ZAR to Svaneti. Zugdidi is the closest city to upper Svaneti, and in addition to being a major stopping place for marshutkas en route, it's where anyone needing supplies of any kind (oil, car parts, hiking equipment, etc.) loads up before heading into the Svanetian mountains, where resources are scarce. My impression of Zugdidi at that time was decidedly unpleasant, thanks to the bitter cold, the recent heavy snowfall, the smoke-filled cafes, the seemingly inscrutable inhabitants, and murmurs of danger being so close to the disputed border of Abkhazia. Nowadays, a tense stability makes such worries largely unfounded, though 5-10 years ago, separatists had made raids in Zugdidi, and the city has been undoubtedly altered – something like 30,000 displaced persons from Abkhazia swelled the city to double its size, leading to a sort of urban sprawl.

The boundless hospitality of the families I met did much to dispel my original impression of the region, where Mingrelian, a language related to Georgian but mutually unintelligible with it, is spoken at home and among friends. After a feast at Francesco's host family's home on Friday night, the two children in the family and a cousin who spoke excellent English, took me to the Dadiani palace museum in the city. This was the home of the Dadiani family, who had been kings of Samegrelo until the early 19th century, and whose artwork and furnishings showed strong influence from Russia and France. An in-law of the family was descended from one of Napoléon I's generals, and thus the museum is one of three places where an original bronze death-mask of Napoléon is displayed. I was struck to see, in the ornate bookcases of one of the sitting rooms, a large number of music scores – most of them, it seemed to me, were long-forgotten 19th-century French operas and operettas in a piano-vocal arrangement. It was raining that day, and none of the pictures I took are much to speak of.

Sadly, I also don't have any pictures from later that night, when Francesco, two other TLG volunteers, and I, were hosted at a supra in the village of Kakhati. The lack of photos owes more to my inability to do two things at once: I was too busy operating my portable recorder, and forgot to hand off my camera to one of my fellow guests. Our hosts were two brothers, who knew many Georgian and Mingrelian songs, and were happy to oblige us right from the beginning. Here's the song they sang for us first:

You can also hear one of their daughters singing with them here. She had a lovely, piercing voice, and joined in with some songs later in the evening, after her duties preparing and serving the food with her mother, aunts, and cousins, was more or less concluded. There are actually three brothers in this family, and in their full complement they're able to cover the three vocal parts of all traditional Georgian music. What we heard that night, and what I'm sharing here, was not the best representation of these brothers' skill, missing, as it were, the bass. In these recordings, you can often hear one of the brothers sliding between the middle and lower part, when the harmony particularly requires it. Nonetheless, I was awed by the power of their voices, which were still strong and strident two hours of singing later. Their third brother, apparently, lives in Tbilisi, but returns from time to time, like at Easter. I hope to return at some later point to record the men with full harmony.

There was so much food – when we walked in, there was simmering on the wood stove a giant pot of ghumi, a tasty kind of white cornmeal polenta, into which you plunge pieces of cheese. To stir the pot, a spoon approximately the size of a boat paddle was required. The Mingrelian way with roast chicken was also delectable, cut up into crispy-skinned pieces that are impossible not to eat with your hands. And where there's food in Georgia, of course, there's wine. Three toasts in, the brothers took out a crystal drinking-horn, clearly reserved for special toasts. In this case, the subject of the toast was us, the guests. After downing the horn, the younger brother offered it round. Francesco's host father accepted, and one or two other Georgians – I was the only foreign guest who took the offer, and managed somehow to accomplish the feat without pausing in the middle. It was the least I could do …

I would estimate a half-liter as the volume of the horn at our feast.
No wonder some later events from that evening are a blur …

Now was my chance to show them the one or two Mingrelian songs I had up my sleeve. First I tried one called "va giorko ma", which I believe means "You Don't Love Me." As soon as I started, the brothers and other guests joined in. I reproduce part of the song here, with apologies for the prominence of my voice in the mix, owing to the fact that I had the recorder on the table in front of me. You can also hear me missing a point in the song where, apparently, you're supposed to repeat the previous phrase before going on to the next section. It was great fun, all the same:

A few toasts, and songs expertly sung by the brothers, later, I proposed the Aslanuri Mravalzhamier (I linked to a YouTube video of this song in a previous post. The results aren't worth sharing, but I loved the Mingrelian Mravalzhamier (each region, practically, has its own Mravalzhamier, the traditional toasting song) that the brothers sang in response:

Finally, we sang the one Acharan song I'd learned up to that point, "Ts'qals Napoti", (which I talked about here). At first I stuck to a lower bass part (which I was kind of making up) and let the brothers sing the top two lines, but after one time through, and with people clapping to the beat, I started the song over again, and everyone joined in with gusto. This was the participatory highlight of the evening for me:

All together, the two brothers sang something like twelve songs. My ear for either the language or style is not enough for me to discern specifically Mingrelian traits in the songs, and it's very possible that some of the pieces they sang were from other regions. Everything they sang, though, was infused with lyricism and a sense of sweet harmony, somewhere between the languid melismas of Kakhetian table songs, and the restless, often dissonant puzzles of Gurian songcraft. One of the most revealing moments of the night for me came when I asked if another song I knew, "Ia Patonepi," was Mingrelian. It was, they confirmed for me, but explained that they wouldn't sing it at a supra. I had known that the song derived from a tradition where songs were sung around the bed of an ill person, in the belief that the pretty songs would dispel the spirits making the person sick. It was striking, nonetheless, to realize that such songs still have a specific power among these communities, and are reserved for specific occasions in the life of the family.

Toward the end of the night, the young people in our hosts' family began to take control, which meant pop songs being played from the computer and all of the male guests (myself, Francesco, and Shane) dancing with the young ladies present. Then, with the suddenness that always seems to mark the end of Georgian parties, we gathered our things and were back in the taxis heading home for Zugdidi. The taxi drivers, by the way, sat at the table with us, participating in the feast, thankfully excluding the toasting part.

The next day, somewhat the worse for wear, I went sight-seeing with Francesco, his host sister, and another volunteer, to the village of Tsalenjika. The main site to see here is a church, perched high on a hill (as so many are), and featuring striking frescoes from the 11th-12th centuries, the "Golden Age" of Georgian culture. The artwork is in pretty bad shape, but what remains is haunting, bringing to mind the frescoes I had seen inside the church in Svaneti, though in a more refined, less immediate style. This was the first church I've been in, also, that truly had no artificial light inside, which made me appreciate the construction of windows and the importance of candles, omnipresent in Orthodox churches, even more.

The cupola (is that the right word?) of the church in Tsalenjika.
We also stumbled upon the House-Museum of a minor Georgian poet, Terenti Graneli (1901-1934), of apparently melancholy disposition, who was born in town. After a brief return to Zugdidi and a cup of coffee at the "American Bar" in town, I found myself once again riding along the Black Sea coast, back home to Kobuleti, happy to have such new, positive memories of this unique region.

NEXT TIME: Private Master Class with a Gurian Song-Master

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Images From My Day Job

A girl from the first grade who danced in traditional Adjaran dress
at the March 1st International Woman's Day Celebration
Greetings from a suddenly warm Kobuleti in April! I'm working on a longer post right now – with music! – from my trip to the Mingrelian-speaking region of Georgia last weekend. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share some photos from my work teaching English at Public School No. 3. Now, if I had to rank my reasons for traveling to Georgia, the top two would be hearing/learning music and absorbing/involving myself in the culture. Teaching English is certainly encompassed in the latter, though it wasn't the prime mover in this whole adventure. All that said, the challenges and rewards of teaching have surprised me. The system here requires some adjustment for someone used to public schools in Newton, Massachusetts: particularly the emphasis on reading and rote memorization, to the detriment of speaking or functional vocabulary, as well as the precarious discipline, with students rarely waiting to be called on or staying quiet while other students speak or read, and prevalent copying and other, more subtle, forms of cheating. I do what I can to share my values, especially when it comes to listening when someone else is speaking, and generally having respect for one's peers, but whenever I feel myself getting too schoolmarm-ish, wearing out the Georgian words for "be quiet!" "sit down!" or "repeat after me!" I remember that the most important thing I can share with these children is my own wonder at the power of language, and the joy of discovery when some element of a foreign tongue clicks into place in your mind.
I'm the one in dark green.
Also my beard is much fuller than any 10th grader's.
I've also been able to be involved with the students a little bit outside of class. My classes with the tenth grade (the oldest students I work with in class) usually dissolve into discussions about things like sports, movies, travel, and books (which is really what I think is most useful anyway – casual conversation), and one day they asked if I liked to play basketball. Apart from soccer, my love for which I rediscovered at Double Edge Theatre, basketball is the game I have played the most in my life, and have had the most, if still moderate, success. I'll spare you my play-by-play account of my championship-winning basket at Boston College Basketball Camp in 1995. Anyway, I had been looking for some ways to get some exercise, and I happily took up the class's offer to play basketball with them after school. Since then I've played three three-on-three games with them, and it's been a lot of fun. I've lost whatever shooting touch I once had, but I still try to play lock-down defense of the old Bill Cowens-Celtics school. I am also unafraid to exploit my height advantage over the 15-year-olds.
My thanks to the student who took this great photo,
capturing a moment when I had no idea whom to pass to.
I've also started meeting with a group of students interested in more English conversation. This has been fun, though despite most of the students I talk to telling me they want to join this "club," every Monday it's usually just four girls and a boy from the seventh grade. But I think their English is definitely improving! I'm at the beginning of the extended Easter holiday now. No school today (Monday) and then no school from this Thursday through next Tuesday. My travels during this period should be fun – tomorrow I head to Guria, a region famed for its complex polyphony, to meet Tristan Sikharulidze, a revered song master and leader of the group Shalva Chemo, which I had the pleasure of hearing in concert in, of all places, Ashfield, Massachusetts last April. Here's a recording of the group, a traditional Gurian trio:

After that, I plan to go to Gelati Monastery, near the major city Kutaisi, to attend Orthodox Easter services (the feast day in the Julian calendar being a week offset this year from the Gregorian). The monastery is in a famously beautiful location, and its choir is known for maintaining a certain ideal of Georgian chant. I'm quite excited. I promise much musical material from these next trips!

On an after-school outing to a park in town,
with my co-teacher Sopi and one of the sixth-grade classes
(also the photographer's thumb)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Day-Trips to Batumi

AUDIO CORRECTED (and check out my snazzy new flash player!)

I'm back! Sorry for the delay in posting: a strange cough/cold kept me out of commission for a few days, and then somehow the internet connection at my home wouldn't allow me to upload pictures to this blog. So I'm writing this once again from the (still unheated) computer room at my school. Before I was sidelined by illness, I made my first solo trip to Batumi, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, to hear some church music. This was two Sundays ago, and though it was rainy and cold in Kobuleti, and I woke up with the aforementioned cough, I took the half-hour marshutka ride to Batumi to attend the 3-hour Divine Liturgy Service at the Cathedral of the Mother of God. This church was originally built as a Roman Catholic church, in a sort of Gothic revival architectural style around 1900. The pews that presumably had been there in its Catholic past had all more or less been removed (the congregation, with few exceptions, stand throughout Georgian Orthodox services), and the church was quite full. As I entered, I was pleased to hear a strong, male choir, singing the traditional Georgian chant. I had heard a rumor that they sang hymns more in the Russian tradition here in Batumi, but it doesn't seem to be the case. Here's a brief clip of the men's choir (about eight or nine men total). You can hear me trying to stifle my inconvenient cough in between verses:

One of the many stained-glass windows, 
another sign of its Catholic past. 
An even better one featured angels playing
traditional Georgian instruments,
but it was right next to the ikonostasis
and I didn't want to intrude with my camera.
Even more interesting than the men's choir, which sounded very good, was a group of children and I think a few women, who alternated different responsorial duties with the men's group. There were about fifteen or twenty of them, of varying ages, and their voices cut through the space in pure harmonies, somewhat like an English boy-choir, but less polished, more full-throated. Here they are, singing one of the liturgical pieces I've come to recognize from church services. I don't know the name of it yet, but I think it's beautiful. I think I include two or three verses here; in total, there were at least eight or nine, and the whole piece lasted about ten minutes:

It was my plan to try to speak with the choir director, a middle-aged woman who led both the men's and children's choirs with calm assurance, but in the hubbub after the service ended, I couldn't manage the introduction. Thankfully, there are more musical discoveries waiting in Batumi.

A week after this trip, I took the marshutka back down the coast – another rainy, dreary day – this time with the goal of introducing myself at the Zakharia Paliashvili State Conservatory. I had a letter of introduction in Georgian, written by my co-teacher Lamara, and after sitting in on a piano lesson where a young woman played Saint-Saëns' 2nd piano concerto with admirable grace given the horrendous state of the piano she played on, I was introduced to some of the music faculty. One of them gave me the name of a young woman, named Lolita, who leads one of the few really traditional music ensembles in Batumi. Their name is Aidio, and they're an all-female singing group. Their focus is on songs specifically from Achara, which is very exciting for me, as it's not an area that's represented as highly in recordings and texts that it make it out to the States. So last Friday, I met Lolita and got to listen to a rehearsal. The songs were lovely – combining the intricate runs and occasionally dense dissonance of the Gurian style I was familiar with, with a graceful, dancelike quality. There's a website,, which has audio examples of songs from throughout Georgia (in English and Georgian), so I downloaded a couple tracks by this group, Aidio, to give you a sense of their sound. Here's one - I believe it's a dance song:

I hope to have some regular encounters with this group, and I also have a plan to meet a traditional ensemble from Kobuleti. Apparently, Kobuleti was the home, in the past, of especially intricate vocal songs, though it's unclear how much that tradition has lasted.

As a final image of this first description of Batumi, here's Medea with the Golden Fleece, atop a super-tall pedestal in the middle of one of Batumi's squares. As I may have mentioned, this region of the Black Sea coast was once part of the ancient kingdom of Colchis (6th to 1st centuries BCE). In Greek mythology, in turn, Colchis was the legendary home of Aeetes, Medea, and the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the golden fleece. I took a picture myself of this statue, but it was so overcast, you couldn't really see any detail in the sculpture. So I stole this from Wikipedia:
Imagined dialogue with city planners:
"So, this is before she killed her children, right?"
"Oh yes, of course. We don't condone that kind of behavior."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

თქვენ საჭიროა მხოლოდ სიყვარული

Kobuleti School No. 3:
Note the Adjaran flag to the left, the Georgian to the right.
And the ubiquitous road construction in the foreground.
This post's title is Google Translate's version of "All You Need Is Love" in Georgian. I have a feeling it's not quite right. 
But that, at least, was the sentiment I wanted to share with my students, when my co-teachers asked me to teach them some songs for Valentine's Day. Not knowing too many "traditional" Valentine's Day songs (what even would that be?), I went with the Beatles classic. Here's a video of the students singing with me on the piano (video taken by Amir, a fellow TLG volunteer from another school in Kobuleti). The first two verses are sung by different sections of the 7th grade, the last one by one of the 9th grades:

There was a small gathering after school on February 14, with this and a few other songs in English, as well as poems and short scenes (in English) by the students. In keeping with the general trend of events in Georgia, it was planned at the last minute, started a half-hour late, and was ultimately really fun and good-spirited. Here are the adorable 4th graders singing the chorus of "You Are My Sunshine", with some vague gestures that I sort of made up to go with it:

This was not a one-way musical exchange, however! When the students and teachers found out that I had learned some Georgian songs (particularly "Aqvavebula Aragvze Deka", a real hit with the kids), they insisted that I sing them at the party as well. They also taught me the words to a local, Adjaran song, which I now love. It's called "Tsqals napoti chamohkonda", and as far as I can tell it's a song addressed to woodchips floating down the river, which are supposed to deliver a message to the singer's lover. Here's a performance of it on YouTube. I recorded these songs as well – accompanied by the school's music teacher as well as a student playing the panduri, a small lute. The sound isn't so good, though, because as soon as the students and everyone watching realized what we were singing, they all joined in, shouting and clapping and generally drowning it out. It was fun, though, especially when a boy from the fourth-grade jumped up and began dancing to the Adjaran song.

In other news, I hope to embark in the next few weeks on a small expedition to learn some Mingrelian songs. One of my co-teachers is Mingrelian, from Zugdidi, and an English teacher from Italy whom I met during the TLG training is currently stationed there. Zugdidi is a larger city farther north in the Samegrelo region, and Francesco, my Italian friend, has made some contacts with people who know some traditional songs. I'm looking forward to it, as Mingrelian songs are really lovely, and are in a different dialect than most Georgian music. For folks from Double Edge, the one Mingrelian song I know begins "O dido udo nanina," and it's one of my favorites.

Meanwhile, I'm investigating getting a panduri myself from an instrument seller here in town. Whether I'll be able to bring it back to the U.S. is another question!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Death in the Georgian Family

Sunset on the Black Sea
Two Saturdays ago (Feb. 4), I attended a Georgian funeral for the first time. The man had died the previous Tuesday, and five days of official mourning followed, as per the custom – I was only present for the funeral, the gasveneba, so I can't speak really to the whole process of mourning that I was very close to for that week. During this time, I did write a fair amount in my journal, and I thought I'd excerpt a bit of it here. In general, I'm inclined not to publish the names of my host family here, but other than that, these were my reflections at the time:

Jan. 31: There's been a death in the family today: M.'s (my host father's) brother-in-law, the children's uncle. I met him last week, a large boisterous man with a huge paunch and unsteady gait. M. said he could drink five liters of wine in a sitting. Our first conversation consisted mainly in variations and conjugations of "Do you like Schnapps?" "Yes, I like Schnapps," etc., with a lot of good-natured laughter. He was much more animated than a couple of days previously, when I'd had dinner at this uncle's apartment with M. He had been ill that day, didn't drink at all, and mostly stayed on the couch. Even this last time, at the end of the night, he suddenly became very sleepy and incoherent. I wonder if he had been taking any medication. His death had something to do with his heart, though I wasn't totally sure when L., the grandmother, told me. She used a word that sounded like "impakti," which led me down the road of thinking a car crash may have been involved. [Given the truly insane nature of Georgian driving, this, sadly, would not have surprised me.] I'm here now with the three younger children, while the parents attend to the business of this, apparently sudden and unexpected, event. The kids were very upset, especially the oldest boy. I seem to be thrown into some kind of babysitter position, though I doubt what kind of authority they'll let me wield. The youngest especially is capable of being a handful – for the last ten minutes he's been eating an apple with a large knife, which I've seen him do before, and his older siblings seem not to think it's a big deal. Though the way he wields it while climbing around the couch makes me nervous…
I don't know how exactly how this loss will affect the family or my role in it. From a standpoint of culture, and possibly music, I'm curious to see any services that may happen, and also to be supportive however i can. Though I definitely don't want to intrude.

Feb. 1: I fear I may have missed the funeral, or am missing it now. I've once again been asked to stay with the children, and judging by the flow of new faces in and out of the house, there's some event going on now. [In hindsight, this was most likely just arrangements for the extensive mourning, somewhat like an extended wake, that took place at the deceased's apartment.]  I hadn't built up the nerve to ask about funeral arrangements, so it wouldn't surprise me too much if the Orthodox rites include a quick interment – but who knows? [I didn't.]

Feb. 2: It's [my sister] Jessica's birthday today – I plan to call her later, when there's a free moment to hop on the computer. [There wasn't one.] It looks like I'm in for another afternoon with the kids, as the parents get ready to go out after lunch … I'm not looking forward to the next few hours – at least with the TV on (it was off yesterday), they may zone out enough for me to finish Campbell's Primitive Mythology and do some preparations for the Valentine's Day party we're planning for school … [More on this party in the next post.]
At least I've learned that the funeral is Saturday. I plan to ask if I can attend, though they always seem to be busy or surrounded by other family, and I'm unable to seize the moment. My still very limited Georgian, of course, doesn't help.

[The intervening page in my journal is taken up with the text of a Georgian poem, "Where are you, my eagle?" by Vazha-Pshavela, written out for me by the oldest son. I intend to memorize it, some day.]

Feb. 4: Today I attended a Georgian funeral, but it was not the one I was expecting. Since Tuesday, I had assumed that the uncle who had died was S., whom I'd written about before. Imagine my surprise when he appeared among the mourners! I must admit, I'm drunker than I thought, so although I owe it to myself to record my observations of this event, perhaps I will wait 'til I'm sober-er.

[I can attribute this mistaken impression to a) my really minimal Georgian; b) my unwillingness to ask too many questions at this time; and c) the size and proximity of the extended family here in Kobuleti]

Feb. 5: Okay. It's the next morning. I ended up getting even drunker, with S., Z. (M.'s other, living, brothers-in-law) and M. at home. I excused myself at one point and went upstairs – to collect myself, I had planned – and promptly passed out until 1am. … I feel somewhat embarrassed about my abrupt departure, the first time I wasn't able to stick with a Georgian event to the end. I think I'll be forgiven, though.
The oldest daughter [who's in Tbilisi most of the time, and who speaks English well] is still asleep, but I want to be sure I ask her to communicate my thanks to the family for letting me attend the funeral, which was alternately fascinating, boring, and quite moving.

Around 11am, I went with the grandfather to join the others who were already there. Although I sensed some inconvenience from my host father at having to ferry me from place to place, by the end I think my presence had been accepted. We went to the uncle's house, or rather apartment, in one of those large concrete blocks. The men were standing in the stairwell or in the front hall of the fourth-floor apartment. I could catch glimpses of the women, sitting in chairs in the living room, and part of what I determined to be the bier where the uncle's body was lying, uncovered. Large groups of men and women filed up the stairs, paying their respects for a moment, then descending again, many of them with tears in their eyes. As they walked out, they shook the hands of the men in the stairwell, and a number of times I ended up in the handshake line, as though I were a member of the family. I felt more awkward about this after I realized that, since S. was alive and sitting next to me, I had never met the dead man. For nearly four hours, I stood with the men in this freezing concrete stairwell, as the same 30-minute CD of Georgian religious music was played again and again, with frequent, necessary adjustments of the volume. Meanwhile, the sun had emerged, melting all the snow and warming the scores of people I realized had remained outside the apartment building. From time to time, i could hear sobs or what I could only call laments emerging from the women in the living room. Finally, at 3 o'clock, the women all left the apartment and gathered outside. I left with the grandfather, realizing as I came out that all eyes were on the apartment's stairwell entrance, with a large area around it left open, and a home-improvement van standing ready with open back doors. The men followed, bearing the bier with the uncle's body. [I have no idea how they were able to maneuver it down the staircase.]

They set it on two chairs in the muddy parking lot, and the dead man's wife, M.'s sister, wailed over the body, soon joined by other women. My view was obscured at this point, and part of me was glad, as it seemed like such a private moment, on display (as no doubt it is meant to be) for all to see. A slow procession of cars followed the van with the body, but not to the church as I had expected, but to the cemetery at the north end of town. The view of the snow-covered mountains here was stunning, as the people thronged through narrow paths between the grave sites. No ceremony here either, but a brief gathering – the wife, now accompanied by the grandfather, her father, continued her lament, but then left the grave, with everyone parting to allow her to go first. I wonder if there is or maybe had already been a component of the memorial in a church service of some kind. [I've certainly heard of Georgian funerals in churches, and even of some of the particular music used in them.]

All of this was followed by food and toasts at a local restaurant. Long, long tables were stacked with food, while at least 150 people – men on one side of each table, women on the other – ate and drank. A man who I presumed to be the dead man's son led a number of toasts, and I suspect the wine was stronger, or the length of time between toasts shorter than I was used to – or it was merely my profoundly empty stomach after hours of stairwell-standing – that set me up so poorly for the night.

I have yet to formulate any grand ideas about this whole experience, but I do know that without the banquet, it would be too unrelentingly sad. The sense of relief and togetherness brought about by the banquet – and by the informal gathering back at my host family's house – was remarkable to me in the intensity and immediacy of feeling.

Writing again in the present:

I admit I've chosen a strange week to share this particular post – without going too much into it, this week in February contains the dates of a number of deaths in my own family – but as with all good travel, this time abroad allows me the space to reflect on my own memories and experiences, and to get a taste of the similarities and differences that tie us all together in the unending web of life, death, family, and community.

And now, a picture of a car filled with cabbages: