About the author
Matthew Knight is a Canadian ethnomusicologist (PhD U. Illinois Urbana-Champaign 2019) whose research focuses on the polyphonic vocal music of the Republic of Georgia. As part of his research, Knight lived for an extended period in the remote highland region of Svaneti with his family.
Svaneti’s culture is famed in Georgia for being archaic and harsh, with Upper Svaneti often described as a “living museum” that offers insights into the worldview and customs of ancient Georgia. Its villages were isolated for many centuries among some of the highest peaks in the Caucasus range, and they still contain many medieval stone towers built for defense against enemies—primarily other Svans, due to an exacting local moral code that mandated blood feud. Svanetian culture was clan-based, and extended families lived together with their livestock in large stone houses. Even in the 1930s, it was not uncommon for thirty or forty people to be residing in a single house, a site for intergenerational music transmission. Svanetian music, full of three-part parallel motion, close interval harmonies, non-tempered intonation, round dances, and a stolid vocal timbre, is said to mirror the landscape, and is regarded as ancient and weighty.
Due to its challenging highland topography, Svaneti was Christianized several centuries after most of lowland Georgia. Christianity became deep-rooted there, and by the 11th century, Svaneti was home to an icon-painting school and more than three hundred frescoed churches.
Nevertheless, Svanetian religion retained many aspects of animist practice, and the region is somewhat infamous for customs that are regarded as syncretic or pagan by the devoutly Orthodox. The situation was exacerbated by centuries in which there was little lowland ecclesiastical oversight. In the vacuum, paraliturgical practices developed that drew on the language and form of the Georgian Orthodox liturgy but altered it, sometimes significantly, to fit local understandings. Between the end of the medieval Georgian kingdom and the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of ordained Orthodox clergy in Svaneti was very low; some ritual responsibilities were handled by lay priests called bap, while other spiritual practices, primarily in the household, were led by women. The bap served as employees of the village, not the Orthodox Church, and could be removed by the elders if they performed unsatisfactorily. These religious specialists still exist, and even today, animal sacrifices or prayers to the sun are not uncommon. Notably though, most Svan practitioners see no conflict between their religious customs and Orthodoxy, and regard themselves as fully Christian. This distinguishes them from the followers of similar customs in neighboring Caucasus regions such as Abkhazia and Ossetia, where practitioners consider themselves to be pagans, not Christians.
In a sense, Svan songs all bear the musical mark of pre-Christian ritual—the Georgian ethnomusicologist Dmitri Araqishvili stated “All Svan songs together… constitute a single enormous solemn and dark hymn to the gods and nature.” Some hymns, like Lile or Lazghvash, still contain largely animist texts, although many Svans today interpret them through a Christian lens; others like Kviria or Jgragish feature similar musical material sung to clearly Christian texts, suggesting that they may be re-texted versions of very old songs. There are also a few locally-composed chants meant to be sung during the Orthodox liturgy or during paraliturgical celebrations connected to the Orthodox calendar but celebrated by lay ministers outside of a church. A few song texts are impossible to reconcile with a Christian worldview, such as “Dala Kojas Khelghvazhale,” which describes a pre-Christian nature goddess giving birth on a mountain. However, such examples are relatively few.
The Lamproba festival is linked to the Orthodox liturgical calendar on the festival known as “Candlemas” in Western Christianity, but in Svaneti accompanied by syncretic customs relating to the fertility of the harvest.
Some Svan songs are secular—historical narrative ballads, songs praising famous heroes for their exploits, and entertainment songs—but they can not always be easily distinguished from sacred chants. It is often hard to determine the genre of a Svan song by its musical material. The hymns held to be the most ancient, like Lile or Kviria, tend to be unmetered and slow. However, some of these hymns also exist in metered form, and can be performed as a round dance. One ethnomusicological theory holds that originally all songs in Svaneti would have been performed with a round dance, a very important ritual form in the region, pointing back to the inherently religious nature of Svan music.
In general, the musical language of Svan chants is quite different from that of lowland liturgical chant. It hews very closely to the usual system of Svan folk music: three-part chords in close harmony, frequently spanning no more than a fifth between outer voices; parallel motion and a preponderance of 1-4-5 “suspended” chords; largely stepwise melodies unfolding within a very narrow range; and a closing unison rather than a fifth. Further, many of these songs were created for ritual contexts that were primarily outdoors, requiring a very robust vocal quality rather than a more subtle approach appropriate to singing inside a resonant cathedral.
Svanetian hymns and round dance songs make a powerful impression upon many listeners, and for this reason they are favorites of many folk revival groups throughout Georgia. They have also earned significant interest from ethnomusicologists and folklorists. In the past two and a half decades, they have even captured the hearts of many foreign students of Georgian song, who prize them for their archaic nature, spiritual solemnity, and robust dissonant chords. Interestingly, foreign students of Svan music are often drawn to the pagan aspects of the hymns, although this is something most Svans downplay. Foreigners also often find that the parallel block harmonic motion and relaxed tempos allow them to experiment more successfully with Georgian intonation systems than the quicker, more contrapuntal songs characteristic of other parts of Georgia.
Like most of these foreigners, I had the great privilege of studying Svan music from the choir director and songmaster Islam Pilpani of the town of Lenjeri (1934–2017). Islam was highly respected in the folk music community for his knowledge of Svan songs, as well as his mastery of the Svan bowed string instrument called the ch’unir. I was particularly lucky to spend the summers of 2015 and 2016, as well as the intervening winter, in Svaneti, much of the time living at Islam’s house. During these months, and on other shorter visits, he taught me most of the local repertoire he knew—about 40 songs in all three voice parts, with the accompaniment of the ch’unir and chaeng (Svan harp) where appropriate. Besides Islam and his family, I also studied with singers in the Upper Svaneti communities of Etseri, Latali, and Mestia, particularly befriending the Chamgeliani family of Lakhushdi village. It was a deep honor to attend numerous religious festivals and funerals, where I got to experience Svan sacred chants and laments in person. While I make no claim to authoritative inside knowledge, I write about this repertoire with deep respect and affection, recognizing the power it continues to hold over practitioners and listeners.
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See another article by Matthew Knight on GeorgianChant.org here: Kviria – Svan Ritual Chant
Article published in MUSICultures (2019): Folk Polyphony Goes Viral: Televised Singing Competitions and the Play of Authenticity in the Republic of Georgia
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