Polyphonic singing and folk music play a huge role in Georgia’s culture. Similar to the fantastic food, exquisite wine, and hearty toasts that make the country famous around the globe. Georgia’s music is strongly linked with its geographical isolation shaped by the surrounding Caucasus Mountains. However, this set the perfect foundation for the development of immensely-rich folk singing traditions.
Georgians have been creating complex harmonies in pre-Christian times. Singing at home, in the fields, at festivals, or even when mourning, the people of Georgia contributed to an immense heritage. One of the trademarks of this massive singing culture in the country is polyphonic singing. Consisting of at least three voices singing in perfect tune. That’s what we’re exploring today, the history of polyphonic singing. Join us for a musical trip surrounding Georgia and its numerous nestmates.
History and Traditions of Georgian Polyphonic Singing
When talking about folklore, it’s usually quite difficult to pinpoint the date and location for certain songs or techniques. One thing is certain, this tradition developed over hundreds of years before it spread to Western Europe.
This technique has a natural place in Georgian society and it’s performed on all occasions. Furthermore, it continues to be an integral part of the country’s culture. A fantastic feature of Georgian polyphonic singing is that each region developed a slightly different technique – due to the isolation caused by high mountains. So, Georgia has three types of polyphony:
- Complex polyphony – common in Svaneti
- Polyphonic dialogue accompanied by bass – most popular in Kakheti, Eastern Georgia
- Contrast polyphony – containing three semi-improvised parts popular in Western Georgia
It’s interesting to observe that Georgian vocal music evolved differently from the Western European guidelines, based on harmony. The scale is not based on octaves, but on perfect fifths. So, intervals are not tuned among themselves giving the music intensity and richness, as well as a slightly unusual sound compared to western songs.
Georgia’s Various Types of Singing
You probably observed by now that singing is an integral part of the country’s culture. Furthermore, it plays a big role in the world-famous Georgian hospitality. But just how many types of singing are there?
Well, each occasion comes with the opportunity for a different song. Most of the singing is done during feasts. Called Supra, a Georgian feast can spread over several hours and includes several toasts followed by an appropriate song.
However, there are work songs, romances, battle songs, and much more. I’ve tried to gather them all and explain each in the list below:
- Work Songs – called Qunari these are different for various parts of Georgia. For example, the orovela is a solo work song found in Eastern Georgia. Naduri is a three or four-part work song characteristic of Western Georgia.
- Feast Songs – or supruli as they’re called in Georgian, these feast songs can vary from romances (satrpialo) to epic songs (sagmiro)
- Ritual Songs – fit for various occasions, these include healing songs, tunes for funerary rituals, weddings, and even travelling or riding songs.
Traditional Georgian Music in Present Day
Skipping to more recent times, a great moment was marked when Georgian polyphony was recognized by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of mankind. It happened in 2001 and confirmed what all Georgians knew in their hearts – this heritage is exceptional and no sacrifice is too large to maintain it.
After the fall of the USSR, Georgian musicologists collected and revamped old songs that are performed by contemporaneous singers. The “Rustavi” State Academic Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance, in particular, has dramatically contributed to the revival and proliferation of folk songs. With over 600 folk songs recorded and 4,000 concerts so far, the ensemble is known both in Georgia and internationally. They even worked with the Coen Brothers to create the soundtrack for the huge cinematical success of The Big Lebowski.
With such international exposure, it wasn’t long until ensembles of Georgian music started to appear outside the country. The USA and Canada were the countries that led the way before other European countries joined as well.
Polyphonic Singing Influence on Modern Georgian Music
Such a rich cultural background couldn’t possibly go unnoticed by modern Georgian artists. In one way or another, the polyphonic singing technique was incorporated into songs across all genres. Pop, in particular, is the genre where traditional music is easily incorporated as bands try to pitch in at reviving the exceptional folklore.
Actually, this is a movement happening all across Europe (especially Eastern and Central) where modern bands mix pop, hip-hop, or rock with traditional motives to create a synergy between new and old. If you’ve enjoyed my journey inside Georgia’s traditional music and want to discover more about the present-time artists, check out some excellent Georgian pop on my Soundcloud page.