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'This is our jazz': The Basiani Georgian State Vocal Ensemble keeps a tradition alive

'This is our jazz': The Basiani Georgian State Vocal Ensemble keeps a tradition alive
Basiani, the State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Singing, is making its third visit to the U.S. with stops scheduled for Oct. 22 in Santa Monica and Oct. 23 in Santa Barbara. (George Demetrashvili)

In many cultures, it's common during festive dinners for one or more guests to stand, raise a glass and speak a toast.

In the central European country of Georgia, however, the tradition is thrillingly different: One or more guests will spontaneously stand and sing, often one of many "table songs" such as "Mravalzhamier."

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Other singers quickly join in, adding complex harmonies and counter-melodies for this musical toast. The sentiment behind the song? "Many happy returns" or, literally, "Years and epochs of happiness to you."

It's a practice that leaves a humble "Cheers!" n the dust.

"This is our jazz, our classic music," said Zurab Tskrialashvili, director of Basiani, the State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Singing, which recently undertook only its third visit to the U.S. Southern California stops are scheduled Saturday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, and Sunday at UC Santa Barbara.

Tskrialashvili has led the group since 2002. He began singing his country's distinctive harmonic folk music as a boy growing up in the Kakhetian region of eastern Georgia. He later moved to the capital of Tbilisi, where he lives today and where Basiani is based.

"Georgian harmony is unique in the world," he said.

The group's program while in the U.S. will touch on different styles of Georgian vocal music representative of the mountainous regions in the north bordering Russia, to the Kakhetian area on Georgia's eastern border with Azerbaijan, to the western portions adjacent the Black Sea.

What distinguishes Georgian folk music from that of other cultures is the use, cultivated over centuries, of polyphony — the combination of different yet complimentary harmonies and melodies within the same piece.

Basiani, the State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Singing
Basiani, the State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Singing (Levan Chkartishvili)

In all-male ensembles such as Basiani, bass singers often sustain drone notes while baritones and tenors weave complex melodies over that foundation using adjacent intervals not common in Western folk music. It creates a richly complex and hauntingly beautiful sound.

Thematically, songs address the full range of human experience. Some are spiritual; others serve as work songs or songs of healing. There are dance numbers, humorous pieces, lullabies and love songs.

"There are hundreds and thousands of songs," Tskrialashvili said. "But for this program, we cannot sing the thousands — we just have one hour. So we have chosen the masterpieces from Georgian tradition.

"There are many different types, so we try to show all the richness of the small country," he said. "Songs from the western, eastern and mountain areas. The Kahketian songs, songs for a soloist, traditional chants — all are different from each other with their harmony and polyphony."

In the West, interest in Georgian folk music was fueled in part by the research of early 1990s Georgian ethnomusicologist Edisher Garakanidze, also founder of the Mtiebe traditional vocal ensemble.

He approached the Centre for Performance Research (CPR) in Wales to help him compile and publish a volume Georgian songs — not as a academic treatise, but as a practical workbook for singers.

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Garakanidze, his wife and one of their two children, however, were killed in an automobile accident in 1998. His work was completed by his partner in the project, Joseph Jordania, and other colleagues at the CPR.

The first edition of his "99 Georgian Songs" was published by the CPR's Black Mountain Press in 2004 and proved so popular that a second edition, revised and expanded with 11 additional songs, was published last year.

"Everybody without exception has the ability to sing, just the same as to laugh, cry, and run. It is from God," Garakanidze once wrote. "Singing together is completely different. Singing in common gives the occasion to take into consideration another person, to give him or her something but at the same time also find pleasure oneself. And my and your pleasure together — it is a happiness."

Vocal ensembles that specialize in Georgian polyphony have spread to England, Wales and the U.S.

Georgia covers about 27,000 square miles, making it larger than West Virginia but smaller than South Carolina.

The country was annexed by Russia in 1801, remaining a province for more than a century, until it regained independence briefly at the end of World War I. That lasted until 1921, when Georgia was again annexed into the newly created Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It became an independent state once again in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The majority of young people show a keen interested in the full range of modern Western popular music," Garakanidze wrote. "However, the 'musical food' of the majority of the population, including the younger generation, is traditional Georgian music, particularly vocal music.

"Despite losing ground somewhat in the rural communities in the second half of the 20th century, this music is still lively, full-blooded and strong."

Tskrialashvili said that still holds true.

"Many, many young people, children, are becoming more interested in traditional music," he said. "Of course, the world is full of music, all different kinds of music, so there is the globalization problem. It is like it is against the traditional music. But Georgia keeps the singing tradition very strong, especially in the villages, and also many choirs and ensembles keep that tradition very strong.

"It makes us proud and honored because we know we are performing this music that is unique in the world," Tskrialashvili said. "We are doing the best Georgian singing, one of the best things Georgians have created: Georgian polyphony. We are honored to be one of the performers of that treasure."

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