Polyphony In the North Caucasus

Unquestionably, Georgia is known for its polyphonic folk music but part-singing also occurs throughout most of the North Caucasus. According to ethnomusicologist Joseph Jordania, there are 2 distinct styles of polyphony (2000a; 2006). The one that is found “everywhere” uses drones or ostinatos (sung in unison, 4ths, 5ths, and 8ves) to accompany a soloist. The Gurian women’s song in the post on Georgian polyphony is an example of this. The other is what Jordania labels the “Georgian style,” where a drone styled bass accompanies two leading melodic lines sung by soloists. The Georgian table songs from Kartli-Kakheti exemplify this. It should be noted, however, that not all part singing of the North Caucasus fits neatly into these 2 types of polyphony. The “Georgia style” could further be qualified with characteristics such as: top-voices that sing melodies in parallel harmonies; stable drone bass (i.e. only on 1 or 2 notes in the drone); drone-styled bass coupled with incidents of contrapuntal movement; and possibly other qualifiers.

The following discussion starts with musical examples of parallel drone-styled polyphony from various regions of the North Caucasus, then some examples of drone/ostinato polyphony more distinctly associated with the Ossetians and Adyghe people (including the Karachais). For the Adyghe, this drone/ostinato is known as the zhiu  (also zhu, ezhu or dzju) and functions as a fundamental quality to their music. The Abkhaz have a similar accompanying voice called the argizra. In comparison to the zhiu, however, there seems to be a quality of the argizra that links it to Georgian styled polyphony as well as some South Ossetian songs. Finally, drawing examples from the Vainakh people (the Chechens and Ingush) and Northeast Georgia, I look at a specific “Georgian style” polyphony that features two harmonized leading voices accompanied by a stable, drone styled bass.

(There is also a “Few More Things To Address” list at the end of this post, which touches on some other aspects of polyphony in the Caucasus that I have not yet had time to adequately address.).

Drone-Styled Polyphony

As Jordania notes, this type of polyphony is found everywhere in the North Caucasus. The three examples below present a cross section of the Caucasus, with songs from Georgia, Ingushetia and the Kumyks in Dagestan. Each one features a solo call to set up the drone accompaniment. Interestingly, while each example predominantly demonstrates parallel drone movement, each also demonstrates momentary solo-like qualities and/or parallel movements in the top voices, which satisfies Jordania’s second polyphonic style, the “Georgian Style.” One may also notice that the parallel drone in the first two examples occurs with the outer voices, i.e., the accompaniment to the melody or the melodic voice that starts the piece. The last example, however, demonstrates parallel-drone movement in the bass and melody line while the top voice moves in contrasting motion, resolving to an octave with the bass. (I should also point out that the 3rd sung by the middle voice in this octave is slightly flat which produces the ‘buzzing’ quality of the chord.)

EX 1. GEORGIAN Jvaris Tsinansa from Pshavi (northeast mountains) performed by Anchiskhati
EX 2. INGUSHETI Asup Khudaba 1909 recording (Various Artists 2002)
EX 3. KUMYK (Dagestan) Aya-Duniya 1909 recording (Various Artists 2002)

I should note that the Ingusheti and Kumyk examples above seem to be exceptions to the practices in the Northeast Caucasus. More common forms of Ingusheti polyphony are similar to Chechen, which is discussed later in this post. And existent Kumyk polyphony is hard to come by on the internet. The only traditional Kumyk polyphony I heard was of a chorus of elders singing 2-part harmony, a third higher than the melody. This first YouTube clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecnUustjyQU) is a contemporary remix of this chorus and this second clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NASQPuXHvk) is a short documentary on the choir, which features the same song performed live.

Besides the Kumyks, the Avars in Dagestan use drone polyphony while chanting at a Mawlid celebrations (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyWp18M01gU). This polyphonic practice, however requires more attention since the Avars are not known to have polyphonic practices yet the Mawlid chants involve recitation of the Quran to local folk melodies (Abudelva 2013: 179), which raises the question of sourcing the polyphonic structure.

The Northern Ossetians

The North Ossetians (those in Russia) and the South Ossetians (those in Georgia) are said to have different musical styles (Jordania 2000a; 2006). The former demonstrates more 2-voiced songs and their 3-voiced songs use parallel drones or ostinatos. The South Ossetians, with their historical links to Georgia, feature more of the “Georgian style” polyphony. These stylistic difference can be heard on recordings although they do not always coincide with the North or South labels Jordania reports.

Ossetian two-part songs have a distinct sound to them. The accompanying bass to the soloist is not necessarily a drone nor is it an ostinato. It has a sustained quality with the use of long tones but has more movement with characteristic momentary leaps up of a third then down a second. Also, the bass may momentarily parallel the leading voice, typically when in descent of only one, two, or three notes.

EX 1. Gezdenti Efsimerte Zareg (Song of the Seven Gazdanov Brothers) a heroic song sung by the Batu Dzugaev People’s Choir of North Ossetia (Various Artists 2007)
EX 2. Heroic Song about Khazbi Alikov (from http://www.ossetians.com)
It should be noted that the 3rd-movement is a little more dramatic in this example than in other North Ossetian songs. (It is also interesting to note that the movement of a third up followed by a step down is common in more complex Kartli-Kakheti songs like Mravalzhamier or Chakrulo. (See the post on Georgian Polyphony))

Many more examples can be accessed from http://www.ossetians.com..

The Adyghe and Karachai

Zhiu (also zhu, ezhu or dzju) is the distinctive drone or ostinato of the Adyghe (which includes the closely related Cherkess and Kabardinians but because the Turkic-speaking Karachai also make use of this form of droning, I also include them). Essentially it is a unison ostinato-like line but it may be harmonized in 4ths, 5ths and 8ves. Some typical progression harmonized this way are bVII-I,  I-bVII-I,  and I-bVII-bVI -(bVII)-I. Some of these patterns are sung very drawn out and drone like, while others may be executed more rhythmically. Zhiu may also involve more complex accompaniment patterns.

EX 1. Pshchymazytkh’e, a ritual song recorded in 1972 (Various Artists 2010a)
This song features a soloist with 3-part choral support through drone-like pattern of  I, bVII, bVIII, I built on parallel 5ths and 8ves.
Many more examples of this type of parallel drone-like accompaniment can be found on YouTube videos of vintage Karachai songs, e.g. the following playlist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCO8mfSnrRk&list=PLF9DD1C7DEB83D9AA)
EX 2. Veg’uedze I Uered (Warriors During The Time Of Labor) recorded in 1972 (Various Artists 2010a)
This song features a more melodically developed ostinato pattern in parallel 5ths.

Zhiu literally means “group of men” or “everybody.” As you just heard, it is something like a background refrain sung with nonsense syllables but it is much more than just a refrain – it is essential to a song and Alla Sokolova, a professor at Adyghe State University, frames its significance within “the culture of zhiu.” In one article, Sokolova reflects on  its survival in instrumental music as a remnant of the ancient Adyghe polyphonic tradition, which has been threatened in contemporary times. Sokolova further reports that:

  • the zhiu is relatively stable – though variants can occur from performance to performance and slight improvisation of it can occur within the performance of a single song.
  • its point is to emphasizes the central tonic as a relief and contrast to an ornamented melody
  • it can be quite a lengthy pattern or a short one
  • the vocal quality is slightly nasal and the mouth is somewhat closed when singing
  • in instrumental ensembles, zhiu usually played by the one playing clappers
  • if  there is no one on stage singing the zhiu, someone in the audience will
EX 1. Mexguashch dance tune recorded 1977, features the shichepshin (a 2-string knee violin, often played with double stops), pkhachich (clapper) and zhiu (Various Artists 2010a)
EX 2. Kh’ag’eoodjim I Zefakiu (Dance Of Hagaudji) recorded in 1977. It features accordion, pkhachich (clapper) and zhiu (Various Artists 2010a).
I also came across a YouTube video of Adighe in a contemporary social dance context where you can hear people singing the zhiu

I personally find the zhiu a beautifully relaxing or grounding experience in the music. It should be noted, however, that there are many commercially recorded instrumental pieces that do not include the zhiu. (On a related topic, Sufian Zhemukhov and Charles King published an article in the Slavic Review on Circassian dance revival (2013), which is very informative of the Adyghe music culture.) .

Abkhaz Polyphony

Abkhaz polyphony represents yet another distinct sound in the North Caucasus. Although Jordania notes that 2-part-drone songs are “the most important indigenous style of Abkhazian polyphony” (2006; 55), I found few examples of these among numerous contemporary commercial recordings. From what I heard, Abkhaz polyphony occupies a space somewhere between Adyghe, Ossetian and Georgian forms. Living south of the Caucasus and sharing so much history and cultural exchange with Georgians, the Abkhaz use some contrapuntal movement in their songs, which is coupled with (and also in contrast to) drones or ostinatos that move in parallel 4ths or 5ths. This is similar to some Ossetian forms of polyphony. The Abkhaz, however, also have the argizra, a melodic accompaniment similar the Adighe zhiu but which is more harmonically developed.

EX 1. Kurych-pkha lashva (Song of the Kurych’s Daughter) performed by the Ethnographic Chorus of Abkhazian Long-Livers “Nartaa” recorded between 1970-1987 (Various Artists 2010).
This 2-voiced song makes use of a drone although the drone quality is somewhat disguised with a descending entrance and ascending resolution, which identifies it as more Georgian sounding. In the following 3-part North Ossetian song performed by Kona (http://www.youtube.com/konafolk), the drone quality of the bass is similarly disguised with ascending and descending endings to phrases, arguably giving it a more Georgian quality.
EX 2. Chantari Guagua, a heroic song about Chantari Guagua, performed by the Chkotua family of Folklore Ensemble recorded in 1987 (Various Artists 1993).
This song demonstrates a distinct Abkhaz sound that can be heard even in the opening call (its tonal spectrum and phrasing) and the nature of the 3-part ostinato (which is not simply an ostinato in parallel 4th or 5ths). This ostinato response represents the Abkhaz argizra, which functions similarly to the Adighe zhiu but, as you can hear, it is more harmonically developed. The repetitive chorus of the argizra, like the zhiu, may also be more melodically developed than an ostinato. For heroic songs, it can be far more solemn while in dance and labour songs it can be short and energized.
EX 3. Sığırlara Yem Vermek (Feeding the Cattle), a shepherd’s song performed by Sergey Chkotura on the archapin (flute) while also singing the argizra, recorded in 1991 (Various Artists 1993).
More tracks featuring the impressive knowledge and skills of Sergey Chkotura can be found on The Golden Fleece CD (Various Artists 1993). He also plays the apkhertsa (a 2-string knee violin). Interestingly, even when he sings solo you can hear the polyphonic structure of the song since whenever the phrasing allows, he inserts the argizra. 

Future research may consider studying the differences between the zhiu and the agrizra. Instinctively, I seem to think such study would offer perspectives on the nature of Georgian polyphony as well. (For an already published comparison between Adighe, Abkhazian and Georgian music see Zumbadze and Matiashvili (2010).).

A specific “Georgian Styled” Polyphony

A common song style of Northeast Georgia (Tusheti, Pshavi, Mtiuleti, etc.) and the Central North Caucasus (Ingushetia and Chechenya) makes use of a stable drone styled bass that accompanies a melody predominantly harmonized in thirds. With a verse structure and repeated use of a short melody, these songs can be described as ballads. The drone may be sustained with long-tones or rhythmically/syllabically executed. The following are the underlying harmonic progressions that my western-biased ears hear, which may also be applied to solo songs accompanied by panduri (Georgian lute), pondar (Chechen lute) or accordion. The movement, however, functions more modally allowing the harmonized melody to result in dissonant chords, like those built on the root, 2nd, 5th, or the root, 4th, 5th, which are characteristic of both Georgian and Vainakh songs.

I-minor – bVII-minor – I-minor (rare if non-existent in Georgia)

I-minor – bVII major – I-minor

EX 1. Deda Mogikvdesa Simghera (Mother Would Like to Die) from Tusheti, Georgia performed by Mzetamze (1996)
Based on the I-minor – bVII-major – I-minor structure, this song genre is also very popular with garmon accompaniment, an instrument introduced to the region in the 19th century. It is possible that this and other songs of this genre could be sung solo with just instrumental accompaniment.
Text: Mother would like to die for you, my child, / she is destroyed, your own mother. // My child, where did you go with pack and shepherd’s coat, / where did you leave the shepherd’s staff, which was at your side? // My child, I will throw / the black bridle over your horse, let it out into forest and field. // Mother would like to die for you, my child, / she is destroyed, your own mother.
EX 2. Guros Cikhe (Guro’s Castle) performed by the Gogochurebi sisters Khevsur song  I-minor – bVII-major – I-minor
EX 3. Malika is labelled a Chechen illi (heroic/epic) song, performed by Ahmed Eldarkhanova
It should be noted that contrary to what you hear above, Jordania identifies Chechen illi songs as only heroic, which are related to epic songs but make more use of recitative-styled singing and less use of melody (2000a). On the other hand, Amjad Jaimoukha, author of Chechens: A Handbook (2004; 184) does not make this exception and, apparently, neither do YouTube video labels. The epic/heroic song, however, is usually associated with historic or heroic themes and not about love, which is the subject of this song.
The illi, which appears to date from the late middle ages, would also have been performed solo – the context of which will be discussed further in the post on Ballads and Bards in the North Caucasus.
Underlying the solo-chorus form is the typical Chechen harmonic movement:
I-minor – bVII-minor – I-minor.
To be more clear, the solo is all on I-minor chord but at the start of the chorus, the top voices (in parallel 3rds) momentarily interpolate a IV-major chord with the I still on the root before it then resolves again to the typical progression.
I-minor – IV-major/I – I-minor – bVII-minor – I-minor.
The final cadence resolves to an open 5th (2nd voice resolves down and top voice resolves up). Also, the alteration of a natural 2nd from the solo section into a flatted-2nd in the chorus is a common occurrence in Chechen music, as is the resulting augmented second that occurs between the 2nd and 3rd note of the scale.
EX 4. Can Nana (My Mother) performed by the choir Illi
This song, like the one above, demonstrates an underlying harmonic structure I-minor bVII-minor I-minor.  But even from the introductory accompaniment you can hear the suspended chords inserted after the bVII-minor, with a second occurring between the root and the 5th of the bVII-chord that resolves to a suspended fourth chord on the I (root, 4tf and 5th).  It is hard to clearly hear the top voice in this recording, but it appears to resolve to a fourth rather than a fifth, while the middle voice resolves down to the tonic.

Chechen polyphony seems to be highly celebrated as observed in the abundance of YouTube videos. Though Chechen song forms tend to be short and simple, they do not always follow a symmetrical verse structure. Minor to major modulations and vice versa can occur. Interpolated western harmonic movement can also be found. Some songs have an obvious Russified choral sound, as I have also noticed this with Abkhaz and Ossetian songs. Some Chechen traditional choruses, especially of young women, feature more contemporary harmonies, at times resembling modernized Balkan choruses. Jordania does note that Chechens make more use of dissonances than many other parts of the North Caucasus and there are cadences built with 2nds and 4ths. Unfortunately, much of Jordania’s information is based on dated transcriptions and little else seems to have been written on the subject since it is quite a turbulent and difficult to access region of the world. Yet there remains a wealth of examples on YouTube and elsewhere on the net that can now be investigated and analyzed. I have included a few below.

This men’s choral number features  a slightly different progression. It is still a drone styled bass but top voices alter (raise and lower) some key notes, shifting the modal reference. On top of that there is a momentary third drone on the II-minor chord.

How I hear it: I am assuming the start of the form occurs with the start of the soloist. In the first four bars there are a Bb an Eb and A-natural with a G-drone, establishing a G-aeolian mode. Bar-6’s E-natural and the A in the bass alters this, however, with an A-minor chord not normally found in G-aeolian but which does occur in G-dorian. Interestingly, the shift between G-aeolian and G-dorian is not consistent with repeats, i.e. on second repeat, what was a G-aeolian the first time becomes a G-dorian the second time. The other modal shift is more common with Chechen music, which involves the lowering of the second degree (in this case an A to an A-flat) resulting in the bVII-minor chord.

Film maker Vincent Moon produced the following CD featuring Nur-Zhovkhar, a women’s chorus. http://petitesplanetes.bandcamp.com/album/nur-zhovkhar-songs-from-chechnya

A Few More Things To Address…

  • Polyphony is Dagestan is an issue that needs further attention. Jordania reports sources that suggest it to be an active practice amongst many peoples (2006: 61-2) though Dagestani musicologist Medina Abudelva confines its use only to the Kumyks (2013: 171), which I have already reported to be very limited – at least in the virtual field. Besides the Avars singing drone-based polyphony in Mawlid services, there is also some interesting polyphony occurring in zikr rituals. Even in the first 30 seconds of this footage from 1995 you can hear a 2-part polyphony resulting from the main chanter’s calls mixing with the responsive chorus of “allalla” by the other participants.

    Here is another zikr example, this one of Andi women singing 2-part drone polyphony. (Andis are believed to be ethnic group that broke off from the Avars sometime after the 4th or 5th century. Their language is related to the Avars and in census statistics they are usually assumed as Avars (Coene 2010: 62, 64).)

  • There are also Cossacks, who first appeared in the North Caucasus in the later half of the 16th century, who sing polyphonically. It would be interesting to review some of their polyphonic forms with other North Caucasians. These YouTube links show some affinity with Adyghe, Abkhaz and even Megrel songs. (A comment/posting by a YouTube viewer in the second link reaffirms this opinion.)

  • Another interesting thing to research would be how instruments are used in making or supplementing polyphony. A more obvious start would be a cross study of the panduri/pondar/pandur and other lute instrumentation from Georgia and the North Caucasus. Another direction to consider may be the Adyghe shichepshin from this Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/jeguako/videos, and similar knee-violin instruments from other parts of the Caucasus.
  • There is a 2-voiced Georgian singing tradition in a region of Northeast Turkey. This region was historically part of Georgian, known as Tao-Klarjeti. Peter Gold conducted field work in the region in 1969 and published his field recordings (Georgian Folk Music From Turkey Ethnosound EST 8002 1972). The songs demonstrate a 2-part polyphony with a distinct West Georgian character . A contemporary group from the region called Machakhela seems to have kept alive or revived these polyphonic practices and has produced CDs as well as toured. Among other things, it may be interesting to conduct musicological comparative analyses of this region’s music with that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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