DER Documentary

Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus

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by Hugo Zemp
color, 21 min, 2007

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The villages of the Svaneti province are located in north-western Georgia, in the valleys that lie between the mountains of the Caucasus. The Svans represent about 1% of the Georgian population. Their language differs from the Georgian language, and their religion is a syncretism of Orthodox Christian faith and pre-Christian beliefs. The polyphony of the Svans appears as one of the major styles of the Georgian vocal art. It consists of two soloist voices and the bass of the choir.

In their funeral rituals, the Svans combine three vocal expressions which are rarely found nowadays in other parts of the world: women's individual laments punctuated by collective wails like in Ancient Greece, men's individual laments, and polyphonic chants by male choirs. While the individual laments are aimed at the deceased and the souls of departed people, the men's polyphonic chants use no words but a series of syllables which follow a set pattern. With chords partly dissonant to a Western European ear, and without any cries other than musically stylized ones, these collective chants of great intensity manage to convey the helplessness and inexpressible grief of Man faced with death.

This film is also available as part of the Music of Georgia (Caucasus) Series.

Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus is an important ethnomusicological project and a rare video documentation of music and social practices in the Caucasus... The film will also interest scholars who study the genre of lamentation as an expression of social protest, gender ideology and cultural identity, especially in wider Mediterranean scholarship.” — Nino Tsitsishvili, The World of Music, 49(3), 2007
“(The film) offers an important lens into the musical traditions of highland rituals in the Caucasus, and more globally to issues of music in oral tradition, ritual, gender, and the maintenance of traditional identities in the modern era.” — John A. Graham, Ethnomusicology, 53 (2), 2009

Related Videos
Svaneti: Rehearsal of the "Riho" Ensemble (8 min) on YouTube
The "Riho" Ensemble is a well-known regional choir of Upper Svaneti, directed by Islam Pilpani. This rehearsal, filmed in 1991, is especially interesting since it shows how the chords are composed of the three melodic lines, and how the songs are learned and rehearsed, at least by a semi-professional choir.

Svaneti: A Wedding in Nakhra (11 min) on YouTube
Members of the local choir and some of their friends perform the songs and dances at this wedding filmed in 1991. The chordal three-part polyphony of the Svans appears as one of the major styles of the Georgian vocal art.

Svaneti: Saint George Festival in Hadishi (5 min) on YouTube
Usually, at this yearly summer festival in the mountain, people perform profane songs and dances after the morning ritual in the sanctuary. In 1991, the clan who was in charge of the festival organization was mourning, so that the only song performed was the hymn to Jgurag, Saint George. The chordal three-part polyphony of the Svans appears as one of the major styles of the Georgian vocal art.

Related Resources
Study Guide (PDF)
Anthropology Review Database's review of the film by Jack David Eller

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