From the Soul to the Hills: The Music of the Caucasus

The music of the Caucasus is powered by national ardour and ritual. All that's needed is an open and willing audience to accept the undisclosed gifts it brings.

Above: Still from The Color of Pomegranates (1968)

The Caucasus region has a history quilted with myth and magic; its Greek legend of Prometheus doomed to the region by Zeus, a punishment for secreting the powers of fire, rings through the centuries as a signal for creative thirst, invention and desire for knowledge. Indeed, there has always been something inherently promethean about the Caucasus; many countries that reside within the region have undergone numerous and labyrinthine changes throughout the ages in the attempt to assert an identity or refute imposing ones.

A good deal of the surrounding world’s culture has left its mark on the Caucasus. From the Ottoman, Russian and Persian empires, which conquered the region, to the grip of Soviet rule, this strip of geography has seen a re-envisioning of life countless times in the quest for cultural progression.

While the Caucasus continued to be entwined with wars, dictatorships and sieges, it also managed to become a place in which the arts flourished in spite of the political turmoil. While a good number of cultures and nations coexist in the Caucasus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are but three countries that have had a unique and progressive musical culture that has at once been preserved over the centuries and has been renewed through the exploits of modern-contemporary customs.

Georgia lies in the Caucasus, bordered by the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. While little in the way of contemporary cultural arts has made its way outside of the country, Georgia has had an enormous wealth of artistic tradition stemming from a history that stretches from the times of classical antiquity to soviet rule and independent republic.

Over the years, a few significant slips of Georgian culture were introduced to the rest of the world; the films of Georgian-born Sergei Parajanov (who was Armenian by blood) provided the world a window into a nation in which the then little-known culture was merely a country on a map. Filled with moving, romantic and colourful images, one of Parajanov’s well-known and greatest films, The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), is a swirling, surreal tone poem and fable based on a popular Georgian folk-tale.

Other films like the whimsical musical-drama Melodies of Vera Quarter (1973) and Pirosmani (1969), based on Georgia’s famous and most-loved painter, also gave outsiders of Georgia a small glimpse into the country’s life and culture. But these windows into Georgian life have often been too few for those living in the West to gain a solid appreciation.

Indeed, the country hides a generous helping of surprises and delights for anyone willing to investigate the culture. Georgia’s most important contribution to musical culture is polyphonic singing. Usually sung in three parts with complex harmonies woven around a basic melody line, polyphonic singing has become Georgia’s most recognized traditional music. Much of Georgian polyphony has its roots in the years Christianity was introduced into the country in the 4th century, AD. But many believe the country’s traditions of polyphony predate religious inception. Intricately patterned and byzantine in its execution, polyphony is remarkably melodious, deeply joyous and spiritual, evoking the high-spirited passions that run deep in Georgian traditions.

Neighboring country Azerbaijan has its own answer to Georgian polyphony, known as mugham, a folk-singing (as well as instrumental music) based on a modal system that is largely improvised. Mugham singing can be described as a rippling and melodious wail, ebbing and flowing in accordance to the singer’s fervour and emotion. Like Arabic maqam, the traditional modal system used in vocal and instrumental Arabic music (which Azerbaijani mugham draws upon), the intensity of the vocalization in mugham depends on the nature of the performance. A mugham singer will inflect his or her voice with certain nuances and cadences depending on the rhythms and tempos of the accompanying musicians.

Azerbaijan’s greatest mugham singer is arguably Alim Qasimov. A traditional mugham singer who has crossed over into popular culture, Qasimov has recorded a number of albums and earned the International Music Council-UNISECO prize for his contributions to music. He also counts Björk amongst his fans, with the Icelandic musician claiming Qasimov as one of her favourite singers today.

Mugham has also splintered off into other musical genres, such as jazz. It isn’t too difficult to see how the two separate genres might be congruous; both depend on improvisation, their modal scales complimentary to one another. The late Vagif Mustafazade is often heralded as the father of Azerbaijani jazz, successfully fusing the modal scales of mugham with those of jazz. An accomplished pianist who earned the praises of artists like B.B. King, Mustafazade sought to popularize and redefine mugham through jazz. He left behind many works that are still revered by many jazz lovers in Azerbaijan today.

Much of Armenia’s music has ancient roots, some of which stretch back before Christian times. Armenian chants can be seen as the musical cousin of Georgian polyphony. Armenian chants are hymnal, meditative pieces of vocal music, infused with spiritual texts and often performed at religious ceremonies. Outside of religious music, Armenian folk-music has been a definitive element for the country’s culture. Its national instrument, the duduk (a woodwind instrument that shares similarities to the Turkish ney), has become somewhat emblematic of Armenian musical artistry, embodied by possibly the world’s greatest duduk player, Djivan Gasparyan.

One of Armenia’s greatest figures in its history of traditional folk-arts is Sayat Nova, the 18th century bard (or “ashough”, as the term is used in the Caucasus) and musician who composed romantic epics that have left a legacy with the Armenian people. Sayat Nova’s life was the subject of Sergei Parajanov’s film, The Color of Pomegranates (1969), a cinematic essay that depicted the poet’s life from birth to death in a series of visually stunning and breathtaking tableaux.

Parajanov’s highly esoteric film did more than bring to light an otherwise ambiguous figure in Armenia’s history to audiences in the West. His film also gave people a way into the Armenian soul that allowed them to experience the culture through its most emotionally-direct tools: music, painting and literature. Though the music is almost a secondary theme in the film, it still provides an interesting introduction to Armenia’s ancient musical roots.

Drums in the Caucasus are also an integral part of the musical identity of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, respectively. Though the drumming styles of each nation’s music share similarities with one another, there is something unique and distinct about each culture’s percussive element.

Georgia has the doli drums, a hand-held instrument normally played by men at special ceremonies. The drum is unique in that all parts of the instrument can be used to make different sounds. The drum is double-ended and can be tapped on either end as well as on its frame. Often, when performing on the doli drums, drummers will make quite a spectacle of the activity, drumming frantically with almost geometric precision. Doli drummers, when performing together, might also choreograph drumming routines in which they execute acrobatic tricks with the drums, flipping and rotating the drums around at lightning speed. It’s an exhilarating slice of musical culture to behold.

Azerbaijan has the qosha dumbul, or the “double-drum”; two small hand drums attached to one another and bearing similarities to the bongos, albeit with a far less hollow and much tauter resonance. The qosha dumbul is played with two hammers and often accompanied with a fuller band set-up with other Azerbaijani instruments like the saz, (a long-necked lute), the tutek (a flute usually made of apricot wood) and a type of accordion that the Azerbaijanis call the “garmon”. Played together, these instruments create a music that is floral and rich, with elegant and decisive turns that ripple with emotional colour and passion.

For Armenia’s part, drums have been a signifier of cultural and traditional progression, from pre-Christian times and throughout the country’s adoption of the religion through the ages. The Armenian dhol, similar to the Georgian doli drum though a little smaller, is essentially a double-headed hand-held drum, played with either the hands or with sticks. The drum is used in everything from religious ceremonies and weddings to folk-festivals and Armenian pop music. The Armenian dhol is often accompanied by the zurna, a woodwind instrument popular in the Anatolian regions, which has a keening, reedy sound, usually played with uptempo rhythms.

Because the cultural music from the Caucasus equals nowhere the popularity of other world music from regions like Latin America or Africa, much of the sounds from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia remain shrouded in an air of mystery. Much of this amounts to the fact that there seems to be no corresponding images that follow the music of the Caucasus; with the relatively small amount of coverage these countries get either in the media or in entertainment culture, the visual components that accompany the musical traditions fall by the wayside. And this is why learning a few of the preliminaries about each of these countries might be the best way into the music that their respective cultures produce.

Like any other musical culture, the music of the Caucasus is powered by national ardour and ritual, a way of being that allocates how sound and passion will fuse together in the delivery of the performance. The only thing truly needed is an open and willing audience to accept the undisclosed gifts. Speaking on behalf of Azerbaijan’s cultural music (and perhaps music everywhere), Alim Qasimov once told the Al-Ahram Weekly, “It is a sign of a good listener, not just a good performer, to be able to receive that which we try to give.”

Anyone wishing to explore the music of the Caucasus can check out these two excellent world music labels, which have compiled a wonderful source of Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani music on a number of recordings: Arc Music.co.uk and Harmonia Mundi.ca.