You may not realize you are familiar with Georgian music, but it has long been used in Western pop culture to transport audiences to another plane. Haunting folk songs like “Tsintskaro” appeared in Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre and on Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love. “We Venerate Thy Cross,” a Georgian sacred song, was the soundtrack for Maude’s apartment in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. Decades earlier, composers like Igor Stravinsky became fascinated with Georgian polyphony—music with multiple melodic lines—which dates to the pagan era.
Land of History and Legend
How did this completely unique sound develop—especially in a country at a cultural crossroads? Situated between Russia to the north, Turkey to the south, and the Black and Caspian Seas to the west and east, the republic of Georgia has long been a complex meeting ground of West and East, Christianity and Islam, church and state. Nestled between the greater and lesser ranges of the Caucasus Mountains, it is a land of fortresses, castles, and ancient cave cities, where legend and history remain closely intertwined. Georgia was home to the sorceress Medea, who in Greek mythology helped Jason and the Argonauts obtain the Golden Fleece. It was also the empire of Queen Tamar, who wisely ruled a late-12th-century golden age, and the birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Over centuries the country has endured invasions and occupations by the Mongols, Persians, Turks, and Russians, who still have a foothold in two Georgian territories. Georgia reclaimed its independence in 1991, after the Iron Curtain lifted, though it has since struggled to operate a fully functioning democracy.
In spite of repeated invasions, the geographic barriers of mountains and sea often left Georgians isolated, and the country’s rich cultural heritage deepened and flourished. The Georgian language, which does not fit into any European language group, has a distinct alphabet that evolved in the fifth century C.E. The Georgian Orthodox Church emerged around the same time, after the female healer Saint Nino introduced Christianity to the region. Even during periods of Arab occupation, the Church persisted and thrived, until finally forced to go underground during the Soviet era.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church regained prestige and power; though the Georgian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Church remains closely enmeshed with the state. Today in the capital city of Tbilisi, you can visit a Georgian basilica, a mosque, a synagogue, an Armenian church, and a Zoroastrian temple—but 83 percent of the country’s population identifies as Georgian Orthodox (roughly 10 percent is Muslim). In the past three decades, the country has seen a resurgence of the sacred and traditional music suppressed during Soviet rule.
It has been said that Georgians enter and leave the world with song, and between births and funerals they sing for every occasion: religious devotion, illness, work, and supras (traditional feasts). Some songs pre-date the arrival of Christianity, describing rituals to the sun, weather, and seasons. Later sacred music was nurtured by monasteries, where monks composed Orthodox liturgical hymns. But musically Georgian polyphony, which emerged as three-part singing prior to the introduction of Christianity, maintains its unique character across genres, and only lyrics distinguish sacred from folk songs.
“In terms of musical language and style Georgian traditional folk music and sacred music are absolutely the same,” says Zurab Tskrialashvili, Ensemble Basiani director. “Both of them developed in the same musical-thinking environment, but with different functions. First it was people’s everyday life in villages, and second, religious life of Orthodox Christian people.”
The music is, however, still distinguished geographically through distinct regional harmonies and bass lines, and improvisation makes transcription difficult. In 2010, when Ensemble Basiani made its U.S. debut at Lincoln Center, The New York Times described a traditional Gurianregion piece as “a wild, multilayered, partially improvised song during which one singer yodeled with enthusiastic abandon.” The ensemble sometimes employs krimanchuli, a type of improvisational yodeling that translates as “twisted high voice,” developed centuries ago to frighten away evil forest creatures.
By perfecting krimanchuli and other techniques, Ensemble Basiani has played a significant role in the revival of Georgia’s musical heritage, embracing traditional tuning and replicating performance styles from archival recordings. Since 2013 Basiani has held the status of State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Singing, and its members wear traditional Georgian dress—black or red chokhas (high-necked woolen coats) accessorized with a sword, dagger, and/or gun cartridges. Georgian culture maintains strict gender roles, and many popular songs memorialize masculine role models such as warriors, bandits, and horsemen. Men and women sing different songs, just as they perform different tasks, though scholars attribute the tradition of all-male choirs more to the close vocal range of the music, which typically spans only an octave and a half.
Basiani’s White Light Festival return marks its third Lincoln Center appearance, and Tskrialashvili says these New York concerts have introduced Georgian music to new Western audiences and created unforgettable memories for the ensemble. “It was a real acknowledgment of Georgian traditional polyphony as the masterpiece of the world,” he says. This year’s performances are at the intimate Church of St. Mary the Virgin, which is especially fitting, as one of the ensemble’s most popular songs is a secret hymn to Mary. The Kartli-Kakheti (eastern kingdom) song, which translates as “You Are a Garden,” persisted during the Soviet era due to metaphorical lyrics that obscure its object of sacred devotion.
“‘Shen Khar Venakhi,’ the hymn to the Holy Mother of God, was (and still is) one of the popular songs among the people,” Tskrialashvili explains. “Godmother is considered as a vineyard, and the lyrics don’t contain the words such as God, Jesus, Christ, et cetera, so the communists couldn’t realize it was a religious chant...the Georgian people worship Godmother with special respect.”
Ultimately, Georgia is a country of contradictions—venerated historical women in a society of sustained machismo, a cultural crossroads with an autonomous national identity, and a strong adherence to national religion and tradition in conversation with post-Soviet modernity. You can hear the implicit conflict of the country, and hope for resolution, through its music—in piercing, dissonant notes through which tension is held, then resolved, and a rare sound of unearthly beauty persists.
“What more can I say to convince?” Tskrialashvili asks. “This [music] is something that people must try even once, to realize how different, beautiful, and full of surprises life is.”
Ann Crews Melton is a writer based in Bismarck, North Dakota.