57092 mountain of song

1. Svaneti

The road from Zugdidi to Mestia lies in the valley of the river Inguri, entering the Greater Caucasus mountain range from the south. It is a restless, tormented road, slithering like a swimming serpent in the February muck, keeping the frothing river as its close companion. In following its many switchbacks and swerves, the forces of motion pull on the passengers of our marshrutka (minibus), causing them to lean first to the left, then to the right, in the fashion of an inverted pendulum. We pass through brown and green valleys readying themselves for a fulgent spring, still weeks in the future, its promise is buried under mud, wet rocks, and leafless woods. We look, bedazzled, at the shining mountains, becoming ever higher, ever whiter as we ascend. The driver must often dodge the scattered rocks, and occasional boulders, that tumble at random onto the road from the slopes above. Once in a while, we passengers are obliged to step out and help clear the road of stones so that the journey can continue.

A narrow patch of gravel and a wooden house appear at the side of the road as we make our way around another hairpin turn. Our driver abruptly comes to a stop there. We are at a roadside eatery, pressed between the winding highway and the mountain face, right next to a raging stream in rapid descent to the valley floor. “How long do we stop?” we want to know. “As long as it feels good!” is the reply. We go in, ask what is available, and order dishes of rich mutton stew. At the next table, the driver sits with friends, and is soon joined by another man, his daughter, and her boyfriend. Georgian khachapuri, a cheese pastry (here in Svaneti it also includes meat) and little glasses of chacha (strong liquor distilled from grapes) are served. At their encouragement, the daughter begins to play and sing on her panduri.

songs in the roadside inn

Songs in the roadside Inn, between Zugdidi and Mestia

A few days later, we leave Svaneti, traveling by marshrutka from Mestia to Tbilisi in a single long day. The journey makes a broad loop to the west, through Zugdidi and south to Kutaisi, before finally catching the main highway east that leads to the capital.

We wake early, and in the weak morning light, make our way carefully down the steep icy lane from our lodgings up on a hill, down to the main road through Mestia, where the minibus awaits us. We are among the first passengers, but there is a man already sitting in the back, carelessly smoking a cigarette. We ride for a few hours in the semi-darkness, and the headlamps occasionally pick out figures standing next to the road. If they signal, we may stop to pick them up as passengers, or perhaps the driver takes only large parcels from them, stowing them in the luggage area in the back. Evidently, the markets of Tbilisi are served by these minibuses bringing in local products from all over the country in small quantities like this.

About mid-morning, we come upon a crossroads where two men are standing in the mud next to some bulky bundles and some luggage. They signal the driver to stop, and then board the marshrutka, naming their destination, Tbilisi. Then they squeeze their way through the narrow aisle to the remaining empty seats in the back. One of them, a tall young man, wears a typical gray Svan felt cap, shaped like a bowl and stitched crosswise twice, forming black cross over the crown. He wears thick eyeglasses and carries a panduri.

We ride for a few miles down the road, and each time we round a corner, it’s as if a curtain is pulled back to reveal a new mountain scene, each one seeming more splendid than the last. The early morning light picks out sudden details; a patch of white snow atop a blue peak, a shining mountain, radiant in the contrast of a gray cloud, or the glint of a rushing stream falling down the mountain side, making the black rocks beneath it shine. Black and white sheep and goats cluster in grassy valleys as we approach the lowlands. Reddish cows wander the fields and villages as they please, and often stray onto the roads, and the driver, ever alert for these obstacles, must slow down to avoid hitting them.

Suddenly, from the back of the bus, the young Svan stops aimlessly strumming his panduri, and begins to sing.

songs on the road from mestia

Songs on the road from Mestia

შენმა სურვილმა დამლია
შენზე ფიქრმა და სევდამან.
შორს წასვლამ, ხშირად გაყრამან
გულის თვალებით ხედვამან

ცაზედ მოდიან წერონი,
მწკრივადა, ჯარის-ჯარადა
ვერა ხედავთა ტივლებო,
ცრემლი ჩამამდის ღვარადა

შენ ჩემს გულს ვეღარ მაიგებ,
ჩემი სათქმელიც ის არის,
გადამაგდე და დამკარგე
როგორც ჩერქეზმა ისარი.
Desire for you has drained me.
My thoughts do not stray
From my heartache, and I see you
Only with the eyes of my heart.

The cranes fly to the waters
of the Adjaran lowlands.
My eyes, so filled with tears
no longer see the mountain.

You’ve lost my heart,
I say this to you,
You threw me away and I fled
Like a Circassian arrow let fly.

Here is another version of the second song, performed by the Georgian folklorist Lela Tataraidze and her ensemble.

shenma survilma damlia

ლელა თათარაიძე & ანსამბლი კელაპტარი : შენმა სურვილმა დამლია

2. Tbilisi

We spend four days in Tbilisi, exploring its crumbling old town, visiting its churches, ancient and new, sitting in its cafés, and wandering its neighborhoods. In an underground pedestrian passage, we come across two young men singing for coins at the foot of the steps leading down into the damp corridors.

Buskers in an understreet passage, Tbilisi.

During our stay in Tbilisi, we are greeted at the entrance of the State Museum of Folk Songs and Instruments by one of the curators, who eagerly walks us through the exhibits, consisting of regional instruments, as well as European ones. While we are there, a group of school children arrives with their teachers, and are sat down before a slideshow presentation that explains a bit about each instrument, with recordings of how they sound. When the panduri appears on the screen, and the recording of it plays, a small boy, perhaps 8 years old, spontaneously rises to to his feet and dances what the Russians call the lezginka, a traditional Caucasian dance, to the great approval and encouragement of both his teachers and his classmates. They clap along as the panduri plays.

At the Museum of Folk Songs and Instruments, Tbilisi.

3. Kakheti

We journey through Kakheti by car, traveling for a time alongside the river Alazani, which seems as much filled with white stones as running water. Around a bend, a bridge suddenly appears with a thick rope stretched across its road bed, pulled taut by a group of people in crude masks and ragged costumes. They shout and wave their arms, and our first impulse is to throw the car into reverse and quickly get away. But it soon becomes clear that they mean no harm, they are only revelers, and when approached, they ask only for a symbolic toll for crossing the bridge. We offer them a few lari, perhaps 50 kč, and we are allowed through. But I immediately sense a missed opportunity, so we stop the car, and I go back to them with my audio recorder, and, groping for the Georgian word simghera, I ask them for a song. But it soon becomes clear that they are not musicians, the accordion they have with them is just for show.


Revelers at a bridge between Sanavardo and Velitshike, Kakheti.

More about the journey to Georgia can be read here.

Part of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 8th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

Part of text has been published on the blog Poemas del río Wang in English and Hungarian.

The following filecasts are connected geographically:

57063 tbilisi metro, sounds from the Tbilisi metro
57072 marks, collection of Tbilisi walls
57080 sentinel, includes a field recording from Tbilisi
57092 mountain of song, music along the road to Mestia
57121 road to ushguli, from Mestia to Ushguli in winter
57167 roof of the world, sounds at the Jvari Pass
57275 lost recordings, suggestive missed opportunities