Transcaucasian Urban Folk Songs

For more information on the subject see Kavtaradze and Buchukuri (2012); Tsitsishvili (2007)

Transcaucasian urban folk songs are often labelled “Old Tbilisi Songs” because, until Baku took over with the oil boom of the 1880s, Tbilisi was the cosmopolitan and economic hub of Transcaucasia. Tbilisi’s multicultural community included Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Jews, Persians, Russians and probably a host of other people from the north Caucasus as well as elsewhere in Europe. Historically, the city (known as Tiflis) was identified as an Islamic centre. In the 18th and 19th century it had become the home of the largest urban population of Armenians and economically, they ruled the city and arguably a large part of Transcaucasia (Sunny 1994). It makes sense then to start the musical discussion with the foundations of the Armenian ashugh tradition and relate it to both the Azeri and Georgian urban musical forms.

The Armenian ashughner (plural of ashugh) are not simply the Armenian counterpart of Azeri ashiqs. They evolved from the gusanner (plural for gusan), which are entertainers (poets, musicians, actors, dancers) with roots dating back to the 5th century (Pahlevanian et al. 2014). By the 13th century, a time when the Iranian urban population was influencing Armenian elites and city dwellers alike, the gusanner began to specialize as poet musicians. In the 17th century, it is said that the gusan art synthesized with rural folk music and developed into the ashughAshughner used string instruments (sazk’anon (zither), sant’ur (dulcimer), and kamancha (knee violin)) for accompaniment but the poetry was most important and themes were similar to those of Azeri ashiqs.

Pahlevanian et al. (2014) report many schools of ashugh unique to Armenia as well as Azeri and Persian schools, though, to be honest, I am not sure I have come across any performances of these schools. Besides a 1907 recording made in Tbilisis (…), the recorded performances I studied (e.g. Hagopian (1993), Various Artists (1991a) and Various Artists (1997) among others) were contemporary reinterpretations featuring duduks, kamancha, kanon, dhol, and voice. In comparison to Azeri ashiqs, they do not use recitative singing style nor do they break into mugham like sections, though sometimes an unmetered mugham-like introduction is featured. Typically, they developed more clear verse-structured music with melodies that fit major-minor modes and clear metric divisions.

A variety of styles are present in these contemporary-performance recordings and all feature singable and/or attractive melodies. Some, like the 1907 recording posted above, have similarities (in terms of tune structure and mode) with music I heard from Dagestan (see the post on Bards and Ballads of Dagestan), while others are more distinctly Armenian, demonstrating the ornamentation and melodic development I discussed in the previous section on Armenian tagher and lyrical genres.

According to Marina Kavtaradze and Ekatarina Buchukuri (2012), it is difficult to trace the transition from ashiq-like form into the more melodic and rhythmically defined form of sazandar ensembles. Sazandar was the name given to the Transcaucasian ensembles in the late 19th early 20th century but they may also be referred to as duduki dasta – the use of the word dasta possibly stemming from the Azeri mugham cycle dastgah.  (For more on origins and etymology see Tsitsishvili (2007: 247, fn14)). According to Nino Tsitsishvili, contemporary repertoire “consists of a variety of vocal-instrumental genres and hyrbid styles of Azeri-Persian-Turkish and Armenian derivations” (2007:45). They are known as kalakuri song [lit., “urban” in Georgian] and/or mughambazi (ibid).

Following Kavtaradze and Buchukuri’s argument, the Tbilisi school of Armenian ashugh evolved to reduce the stringed instruments and rely primarily on 2 or even 3 duduks and a singer who also plays the dhol and some ensembles eventually included the accordion as well. The style of these songs do not demonstrated the complex form of tagher. Similar to the Armenian contemporary performances I discuss above, they may feature non-rhythmic mugham-styled improvisations as an introduction. They also feature verse-structured music, major-minor modes and clear metric-rhythmic structure (usually 6/8 or 4/4). One of the most distinctive developments of Old Tbilisi songs, however, is their departure from the monodic modes upon which they originated, to embrace a polyphonic structure found in both Georgia’s traditional music as well as the rising influences of professional Russo-European music. Typically, this polyphony manifests in the melody harmonized in 3rds.

An interesting issue concerning sazandari/duduki dastsa ensembles is the question of nationality. For Georgians, it seem difficult to identify this music as Georgian when so much of the sound (particularly the use of augmented 2nds) is Middle Eastern, a topic explored in a number of articles by Nino Tsitsishvili (2007; 2009). Yet this view point is challenged by Georgian duduki players on a number of grounds, not least is the difficulty with which non-Georgian musicians struggle with the ability to play harmony or even recognize the difference between intervals like a third and a fourth (ibid: 268-70). Despite the fact that Old Tbilisi songs do not meet standards of Georgian purity and thus have no institutional support, they survives in the expressive culture of a significant part of the Georgian population (as can easily be exemplified on YouTube videos).

Future study of this music could follow many paths. It could further the direction Tsitsishvili started but I also think it would be very fruitful to consider the relationship between archived and contemporary performances of Old Tbilisi, ashugh (Armenian) and ashiq (Azeri and Lezgi) performances, as well as some of the music from Dagestan.

The examples below are limited in stylistic scope to demonstrate similarities between the Azeri, Armenian and Georgian urban songs.
EX 1. Excerpt of Azerbaijani urban song Shashanqi performed by Vüqar Mahmudoqlu (saz, vocals), Bakhish Bunyadov (balaban), Ramiz Soltan- muradoqlu (naghara), Mahir Niftaliyev (qosha naghara) (Various Artists 2008).
EX 2. Armenia urban song Esor Arazn es Gnastel (Today you were at Araz) composed by Gusan Sheram performed by Shoghakan Ensemble (Various Artists 1997)
EX 3. Georgian Urban song patara gogo damekarga (I’ve lost a little girl) performed by Sionari (Various Artists 2003a)
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