Georgian polyphonic singing
Cultural life in the country of Georgia revolves around an epic meal known as a supra. Food and wine flow all night, and between every course a traditional song is sung: work songs, carols, hymns, love songs, and historical ballads. The Georgian male choir Iberi showcases the wide range of Georgian music with complex harmonies that are at once eerie, hypnotic, and beautiful.
Georgian song dates back to pagan times. In 336 CE the country became an Orthodox Christian state, and by the 10th century the church’s liturgical music reflected the Georgian practice of singing in close harmony with three parts—an interweaving of simultaneous lines of independent melody known as polyphony. For as far back as this distinctive cultural tradition reaches, Georgians have long struggled against assimilation and even existential threats to their identity and ways of life. Situated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Georgia has a complicated and tumultuous history of outside influence. The many regional Georgian cultures were threatened when the country was annexed by Russia in 1801; nearly two centuries later, the fall of the Soviet Union brought a sweeping revival of Georgian chant. Shortly before this seismic change, the tradition reached a new frontier: the drinking chant “Chakrulo” was sent into the outer regions of the solar system when NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1977. In 2001, Georgian polyphonic singing was recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Iberi leader Buba Murghulia grew up in a family of singers and by age seven was singing with one of the many children’s choirs found across the country. As an adult he joined the State Ensemble for Song and Dance while also performing with experimental jazz and rock groups. In 2012 he formed Iberi, which focuses on preserving Georgian songs from many different regions and eras. Besides trading off vocal duties, the group’s members also play lute-like stringed instruments, the panduri and chonguri, and the salamuri and duduki, which are woodwinds.
Along with their astonishing harmonic abilities, the members of Iberi make a strong visual impression with their chokhas, traditional coats festooned with rifle cartridges and daggers. “Georgia is situated between the Black Sea and Caucasian mountains and is surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia,” Murghulia explains. “Because of its geopolitical situation Georgia was always under the pressure of conquerors, and Georgian men were always ready to defend their homes and land. Later it became a national tradition.”
Murghulia says with pride that today in his country “almost all kids are learning how to sing traditional songs, how to be involved with this musical beauty, how to respect and defend it. Everybody is involved in spreading this love of [the culture] to the next generations as much as they can so there is no way that this music will be lost or forgotten.” In the hands of this sublime ensemble, not only does this singular Georgian tradition seem secure; it seems bound to ascend toward a brighter future.