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A’capella, Georgian polyphony

Blokes in black coats and boots, with rows of cartridges on their chests, long knives on their belts. Not an invasion force, but singers. Gorgeously rich, shifting blocks of improvising harmony, sometimes with wild, crowing falsetto over the growling basses and soaring tenors.

As Georgian culture has become more city-centred and pop-influenced its unique polyphonic singing has been seen as threatened, and it’s on UNESCO’s list of Oral and Intangible Masterpieces of Humanity, but a new wave of singers are embracing it.

An outstanding example, the vocal group Iberi (in ancient times Georgia was called Iberia) perform songs from across Georgia’s ten regions.

Singing for them isn’t just dramatic and intense stage performance, it’s a social thing; at the long table of a supra, a feast that’s at the centre of Georgian life, the many courses and Georgian wine just keep on coming and so do the toasts and songs – work songs, carols, hymns, love songs, historical ballads, a praise song for the 12-13thC Queen Tamar (so powerful she was canonised by the Georgian Orthodox church as King Tamar), and very old songs from the pre-Christian era.

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