Zedashe Spotlights the Traditional Sounds of the Republic of Georgia

Intangible Pearls
Multaflora ECR-710
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Folk music scholars generally divide those performing traditional songs and tunes into two categories: tradition-bearers and revivalists. Tradition-bearers are those that grew up within a specific folk culture and learned the music in customary and informal ways; revivalists are those that professionalize older music–it’s part of their repertoire, not their identity, if you will. Where one classifies a group such as Zedashe renders such distinctions problematic.

This ten-member group hails from the Republic of Georgia and specializes in music from loads of small villages wiped out by war, Soviet cultural hegemony, and modernity. Some of them grew up with memories of the old ways, though most are too young to have grown up in them. I suppose technically they are revivalists, but their approach to the music is more folkloristic than commercial. It’s certainly not like anything you’re used to hearing. Traditional Georgian music is polyphonic, meaning there are two or more dominant melody lines going at the same time, not just the one found in most Western music. This gives the music a primal, raw quality, a mood enhanced by various voice modulations, keening, and the chant-like structure of many songs. The closest thing in American music is shape note singing in that both styles are stripped down, feature unusual harmonies, and sport unexpected tonal shifts. A lot of the songs are rendered a cappella and what instrumentation there is trends toward sparse and spare. You will hear the chongur, a sort of ukulele/lute hybrid and a button accordion called a garmon that’s often used for its drone-like effects. The garmon serves drone duty because the region’s bagpipe, the chiboni, is a double-chambered affair with a bell-like chanter that has no drones; instead it produces a shrill sound whose sound is roughly like that of a Breton biniou. North American audiences will thus find that even dance tunes such as those heard on the track “Ajarian and Khorumi Dance Melodies” challenge the ear more than the feet.

When encountering music so far out of one’s own tradition it’s important neither to romanticize nor exoticize. You can rest easy on the first score–even casual listening reveals that Zedashe is made up of enormously talented musicians. As for the second, the music is indeed exotic and unusual for Westerners. The CD is 25 tracks long and that’s probably too many for most listeners for one sitting. I recommend that you dip in and out of this one so that you can appreciate it more thoroughly. And it doesn’t hurt to Google some of the things you encounter so you can learn about Georgian history and culture as well. --Rob Weir

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