Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Rustavi Choir: Georgian Voices

Formed in 1968 by Anzor Erkomaishvili, a folklorist and singer, The Rustavi Choir is an amazing all-male ensemble performing the dramatic and stately repertoire of vocal music from the republic of Georgia, most of it a capella, although others have some accompaniment on stringed instruments and dancers have also been part of the organization.  Unlike other ensembles, the Rustavi performs material from throughout the country, rather than specializes in the music of a particularly region or given ethnic group.

The 1989 album, Georgian Voices, another impressive release from the Elektra Nonesuch Explorer Series, takes fourteen selections from among 100 Georgian folk songs compiled by a record label from the Soviet Union (then only a couple of years away from revolution and dissolution.)  Producer Ted Levin worked with Erkomaishvili to winnow the wealth of material recorded between 1981 and 1988 to those pieces that appear on the album.  Given the significant appeal at the time of Les Mystere des Voix Bulgares, the project of Bulgarian female choral music that emerged from an Elektra Nonesuch album to stunning success, there are some obvious connections, most significantly the use of polyphony and the intersection of Western and Eastern influences.

Georgia' s position near the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea along the Caucasus places it at a nexus between Asia and Europe and the area was a flashpoint for centuries of political and military battling that has created the cultural and musical circumstances from which this album draws.  Levin's very informative liners trace the historical background of this extraordinary music, noting that Georgia's immediate neighbors in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey all feature homophonic music, making this island of polyphony all the more remarkable, as it has tenaciously maintained its hold in its home country.

The types of songs include ones for plowing fields, general work, traveling or riding, a paean to a deceased child, religious chorales, and weddings, though the direct connection of the song to the original references have been lost in modern Georgian society.  They range from fast-tempo, very rhythmic pieces showcasing impressive vocal techniques like yodels and rapid melodic runs to solemn, emotional pieces with a drone setting the basis for solo performance.  The performers learn by ear and this is remarkable given the great complexity of the styles they develop and master.
Three-part harmony is commonplace in which an established rhythm is developed and then different chords are utilized by each part working with their independent melody, with improvisation also beigng utilized.  In some pieces, separate ensembles work their magic, so that a part might be sung by a trio of singers in a higher pitch, while a bass refrain is sung by another group.  In a work song, you might have one coterie of workers singing in one melodic line and another developing an independent one, with a slow tempo building in intensity in power over the course of the tune.
Levin concludes his excellent essay by noting a trip to a Soviet collective farm and enjoying a night of food, music, drinking and friendship, in which the connection of singing to the simple pleasures of the evening brought to his mind, "the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece . . . [and] the celebration of the vine and the fervent power of music lives on."
Georgian Voices is a powerful and uplifting record, showcasing the best of what a timeless folk music can be, even in a rapidly-changing modern world—and certainly the transformations in Georgia that began with the fall of the Soviet Union only a short time after the release of this record and in the two decades and more since must have provided even more in the way of challenges to preserving this music.
The Rustavi Choir:  Georgian Voices
1.  Tsmindao Chmerto  2:54
2.  Tshkenosnuri  1:49
3.  Mival Guriashi  2:11
4.  Ali-Pasha  2:02
5.  Orovela  5:25
6.  Lasgvash  2:21
7.  Odoya  4:07
8.  Hasanbegura  3:08
9.  Mirangula  3:13
10.  Chakrulo  5:04
11.  Sabodisho  3:32
12.  Lechkhmuri  Makruli  2:07
13.  Kebadi  1:54
14.  Guruli Naduri  4:41

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