New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: georgian music

Fascinating, Rare Choral Music From Georgia

In the Georgian language, zedashe means “jug.” The Republic of Georgia is home to one of the earliest wine-making civilizations, and also a deeply rooted tradition of choral music. So it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most celebrated choirs would call themselves Zedashe. Their latest album Silver Sanctuary is streaming at Bandcamp.

Traditional Georgian music sounds like nothing from the surrounding areas. Much of it is stark yet resonant. It follows neither traditional western, Arabic or other levantine scales or harmony. Zedashe are serious scholars, blending all sorts of large and small-scale songs from across the centuries with new arrangements, some based on musicological fragments they’ve unearthed over the years. Various configurations of the men and women of the ensemble join voices throughout this rather epic 22-track record, occasionally bolstered by drums, panduri and chonguri lute, accordion and bagpipes. Some of the songs feature lyrics in endangered regional languages including Chan and Megrelian.

Irony and hardship permeate this material. Unrequited love is a persistent theme, as are drinking and war. Couples bound for arranged marriages long for their true loves. Fables illustrate age-old human foibles. One of the songs salutes Queen Tamar, a 12th century strongwoman and patron of the arts. Others chronicle struggles against Russian invaders.

The longer, slower numbers tend to be more hypnotic and drony; the shorter, more kinetic ones often feature a lot of call-and-response. There are also a couple of impassioned solo performances.

And in keeping with this month’s theme here, this music is illegal to either perform or witness in most parts of the world. For anyone who missed this past year’s ACDA/NATS/ChorusAmerica webinar, most professional choirs don’t expect to be able to either rehearse or perform (outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow, or a small county in Idaho, anyway) for the next two years. Isn’t it about time we all raised our voices together against this madness?

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

A Spicy Midsummer Taste of Golden Fest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

It’s a fair bet that rustic Carpathian acoustic music-and-dance ensemble the Cheres Folk Orchestra, Malika Kalontarova’s otherworldly tar lute-driven Tajik group, explosive Georgian crew the Dancing Crane Ensemble, and exhilarating Albanian music stars Merita Halili & the Raif Hyseni Orchestra have played Golden Fest, the nation’s most electrifying Balkan music festival, which takes place every January in Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that these four acts’ show Sunday afternoon turned out to be the highlight of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival so far.

The Tirana-born Halili has a wide-angle vibrato that she engages like a high-speed guitar tremolo for a spine-tingling effect that sparkles with microtones along the sharpest edges. Hyseni, who hails from Kosovo, played the entire show with a big smile on his face: if you had his speed on the accordion, you’d be smiling too. He saved his two most supersonic, almost menacingly chromatic flights for one tantalizingly brief solo, and an intro anchored by Halili’s stark vocalese,\ where the rest of the band looked at each other, amazed and mystified about where they were expected to leap in.

When the moment came, they were ready, every bit as adrenalizing as the vocals and accordion. Their reedman doubled on clarinet and alto sax, often playing each during parts of the same song with a relentlessly volleying, microtonal, melismatic attack. Their Albanian bassist and guitarist held the center throughout the tricky changes, propelled by a jazz drummer with a playfully uneasy, boomy thump on his toms. They opened with a brisk ba-bump number that edged from blithely major-key to bracingly minor, then later bounced their way through a dance tune that had a happy-go-lucky Mexican feel. But the best numbers were the wild ones in 7/8 time, the whole band stampeding furiously as if to get out of the way of the Soviet tanks that drove this music underground for so long.

Turbocharged Albanian folk has made a big comeback since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but many indigenous musicians steeped in dancer/bandleader Malika Kalontarova’s spare, hypnotically insistent Tajik Jewish repertoire have emigrated to Israel. This group is one of the few in this country to play this magical material. The group’s three tar lute players would often triple the lines of an allusively modal melody line over similarly stark drumbeats that varied from a straight-up thump to more intricate metrics. The effect was as exotic as it was antique: tar music from Iran and Kurdistan are reference points, but both of those cultures use scales closer to Arabic modes. It was easy to get lost in.

Both Cheres and the Dancing Crane Ensemble often took a seat when their dancers cavorted across the stage to recorded music; considering how fast this show was pulled together, there may not have been enough time to rehearse all the material. When the two groups played, drums and accordions figured heavily through a mix of spare mountain melodies and more straight-ahead minor-key material that edged toward the Balkans in places. The Ukrainians put rippling, incisive cimbalom front and center. The Georgians, in particular, took advantage of their time onstage to showcase the allusive tonalities of their brooding choral music, and the high-voltage moves of their dancers, guys in quasi-military getup with bullet embroidery, women floating and fluttering across the stage in a series of colorful long dresses.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow, August 12 with afternoon performances on the plaza: picturesque Americana songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires at 2 is the highlight. Then out back in Damrosch Park popular, lustrously harmony-driven Americana rock veterans the Jayhawks hit the stage at about 8. Avoid the atrocious 6 PM opening act – the worst band ever to get booked for a Lincoln Center show – at all costs, even if that means you don’t get a seat.

An Otherworldly, Mesmerizing Performance by Georgian Choir Ensemble Basiani

Inside the Town Hall last night, the atmosphere was not quite as dark and stormy as the unseasonable torrents pelting the midtown streets. Out of the rain, a robust, enthusiastic, mostly Russian-speaking crowd were engaged by some of the most otherworldly sounds resonating on any New York stage this year. Music from the Republic of Georgia is instantly recognizable – there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. While the twelve men of the eclectic and often electrifying choir Ensemble Basiani sometimes echoed the solemn, brooding quality of the Russian tradition, as well as a couple of interludes of lustrous polyphony in the same vein as Palestrina or Monteverdi, most of their music was strikingly and unmistakably distinctive.

Singing completely from memory, the choir seamlessly aligned an endlessly shifting series of uneasy close harmonies, when they weren’t firing on twelve individual cylinders’ worth of wry, sometimes droll call-and-response. Much of the material in their repertoirs dates back hundreds, maybe thousands of years, yet those harmonies are so strangely sophisticated that they’re avant garde: music that old suddenly becomes new again. Stravinsky took melodies like those from further north on the Russian continent and turned them into the Rite of Spring – nobody knew at the time how much he was simply appropriating ancient village themes.

There wasn’t a lot of the ornamentation found in Ukrainian, Baltic and Balkan music in this set, but when there was, the choir worked those effects for all the deadpan humor they were worth. One number pulsed along with an emphatic “huh” refrain worthy of James Brown. The opening and closing pieces featured one of the tenor voices leaping around, utilizing a device that came across as half yodel, half chirp. And he was very good at it!

Likewise, the group worked the dynamics up and down, from insistent, rhythmic agrarian chants, to rapt hymns, to a handful of slowly crescendoing, hypnotic themes which a couple of guys in the ensemble accompanied with bandura lutes. Another number featured a larger-body lute to match the heft of the music. One of those songs, possibly the biggest hit with the audience, was recognizable as a larger-scale arrangement of an ancient folk tune memorably recorded by the duo of acclaimed American singers Eva Salina and Aurelia Shrenker on their classic AE album. The audience finally came out of their trance and began a spontaneous clapalong; at the end of the concert, they wouldn’t let the group go and after several standing ovations were treated to three encores. Ensemble Basiani’s next stop on their American tour is November 1 at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S Goodwin Ave in Urbana, IL; tix are $33.

Zedashe Bring Ancient Yet Amazingly State-of-the-Art Georgian Harmonies Back to Life

Imagine if you couldn’t rap, or sing old Irish songs, because it was against the law. That’s essentially what the older members of Zedashe had to deal with in their native Georgia before the breakup of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall came down, it didn’t just open up the Iron Curtain nations to plundering American privatizers: it unleashed a torrential cultural reawakening. Zedashe number among the many, many artists who seized the opportunity to resurface with their underground, centuries-old sound intact. They dedicate themselves to preserving and bringing a folk repertoire rarely heard outside their native land – and until recent decades, not heard there either – to a global audience. It’s an ancient, yet strangely almost avant garde sound, considering how alien and jarring their tonalities are, compared with not only western music but the music of the neighboring lands as well. You might think that there’d be some obvious cross-pollination with Turkish, Armenian or Russian music, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least with this particular slice of the Georgian folk tradition. Zedashe are playing just their second-ever US tour. Their first New York stop is at Drom at 7:30 PM on October 1 as part of the New York Gypsy Festival; advance tix are $15. Then they’re at Barbes playing for the tip jar on October 3 at 8.

The group’s seventh and latest album, Our Earth and Water, is streaming at Rockpaperscissors. If stark close harmonies, boisterous field hollers, intricate vocal ornamentation and austere folk hymns for mixed choir are your thing, don’t be daunted by the grand total of 26 tracks: most of them clock in at around the three-minute mark, often less. Most of the songs are for choir alone, with occasional accompaniment from strummy panduri lute, accordion, drums and even bagpipes on the album’s creepiest tune. The men and women of the group tend to belt at full throttle – this is not relaxing, sleepy-time music. The upbeat numbers include a quick shout-out to the ancient Georgian war god along with the expected wedding songs, harvest songs and work songs. But there are some quieter tracks, including a a dizzying yet elegant rondo, a tender accordion waltz sung by one of the women and a plaintive panduri-and-vocal lament sung by one of the guys.

This isn’t all completely serious stuff, either: there’s a bit of quasi-yodeling, some goofy falsetto from the men in the group, a real tonguetwister that sounds like a jumprope rhyme and a suspiciously eyeball-rolling here-comes-the-bride number. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that the group records at the local winery. Take a taste of this and let it take you back to a land that time forgot.

Haunting, Otherworldly Ancient Georgian Songs from Zedashe

If you’re a fledgling Brooklyn record label, you want to establish yourself with a big-name indie rock band, right? Maybe if you’re lucky, some famous remixer [fill in the blank with the name of one if you know any – dozens of emails pitching indie rock remixes come over the transom here every day, and every single one of them goes in the trash] will remix one of the tracks ,and then you’ll suddenly be rich and famous, no? Insurgent Brooklyn label Electric Cowbell Records does things a little differently. Aside from putting out the excellent, more Afrobeat-inclined second release by CSC Funk Band (more about that one here soon), they went to Georgia in the former Soviet Union for Zedashe. In an era when nobody buys music anymore, they are going to sell a lot of copies of this album. It’s actually worth owning as a cd – you heard it here first.

Zedashe are a multi-generational ten-piece-plus choir from the village of Sighnaghi who specialize in centuries-old folk songs. They sing in their native Georgian language, accompanied by spare panduri lute, gardoni (wooden accordion) and chiboni (bagpipes) and occasional drums. Their music is literally otherworldly: it comes from another time and place. Throughout history, Georgia has been torn by war and invasions: it’s a miracle that any culture there existed at all, let alone one that could be passed down through the generations. The album was recorded at the local winery. It’s hardy, feral stuff.

Low, hypnotic, sometimes menacing drones anchor many of the choral pieces. A work song for artisans carving a wine trough sounds like a sea chantey – and lends credence to the argument that WHOOOOAH means exactly the same thing in Georgian as it does in English, i.e. “stop right now and go back in the direction you just came from.” There’s a catchy anthem that with English lyrics could be an East Anglian folk song and a matter-of-fact number with the garmoni delivering an echoey effect like a 1960s guitar repeaterbox. The close harmonies of the choir, composed of men, women and children in the old tradition, are sometimes surreal, often trance-inducing: this is the creepiest childrens’ choir you will ever hear, bar none. There are places where the counterpoint is as sophisticated as the most elaborate western classical music. There are horror film soundtracks in process waiting for some of these songs. There’s also a psychedelic aspect to many of the 23 tracks here. Zedashe take what they do very seriously: the opening track, for example, is described as being “derived from G. Svanidze’s 1924 recording of Petre Petriashili.” After hearing this, one can only hope to hear the original. For the English-speaking world, Electric Cowbell has a useful listening guide with translations of the lyrics here.

This blog was launched in August of 2011. The very first album chosen for review here – out of a universe of millions – was a 2004 collection of choral works by Ukrainian composer Roman Hurko, in memory of the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At the time, given the global extinction event that happened the previous March 11, it made sense. With this album, it looks like this blog has come full circle.