The Bards & Ballads of the Northwest and Central North Caucasus

The following post explores the bards of the Vainakh, the Adighe, and the Ossetians and takes a brief look at a Georgian bardic tradition.

As is reported by Joseph Jordania (2006; 2000a), Amjad Jaimoukha (2005) and the website for the International Centre for Circassian Studies (ICCS) (, the bards of the Vainakh and the Adighe had the very important role of historians, moral guidance councillors, and keepers of traditional values for the general populous as well as the elite. As versifiers, these professional minstrels were known to be influential with their words and functioned in many capacities, including performing acquittal songs to defend those accused of wrongdoings. It would not be too terribly far fetched to assume that such characteristics also applied to the other bards of the Caucasus.

Chechen Ch’oedargoi

Bards in Chechnya were called ch’oedargoi or chunguroi. They composed and performed songs, including illi which Jaimoukh states are “epic legends and heroic ballads depicting struggles of freedom, the principal theme in the Vainakh ethos” (2005: 184). Jordania, however, distinguishes the illi from epic songs as being related to them but sung solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. He also notes that they make more use of recitative styled singing and less use of melody (2000a: 864). The literal translation of the ch’oedargoi or chunguroi, references the player of an instrument (a 4-stringed lute similar to the Georgian chonguri) which I have not heard nor seen in commercial or YouTube recordings. Jordania also mentions the adxoky-pondur, a three-stringed knee violin similar to the Svan chuniri, which I have also never come across. Instead, they are playing the pondar (also known as the dechikpondar, a three stringed lute similar to the Georgian panduri) or the komuk which also known as the kekhat-pondur (the accordion).

EX 1. Vorh1 veshin yisha (Ворх1 вешин йиша) performed by Iles Kasimov (Илес Касумов)  
As you can notice, this illi is performed solo with pondar accompaniment and uses a recitative style, which would satisfy Jordania’s description of the song genre. (But, as already observed in the previous post (see  MUISC EXAMPLE OF DRONE BASS AND PARALEL TOPs EX 3) the illi label is not consistently applied to such songs on YouTube.) Notice how before the recitative section, Kasimov sings a few more melodic phrases starting with a long tone on the 5th of the scale. The recitative style that follows makes use of a little pause between the recitation of text, giving it an odd metric sway. The melodic range of the recitatives hovers around the 3rd and 2nd degree, which varies between a natural- or flatted-2nd, and resolves to the tonic using the flatted-2nd as part of the cadence.
EX 2. Nana (Mother) performed by Sharpudi Ismailov 
This song, in contrast to the recitative style, represents the “ballad” stream I mentioned in the introduction and is a genre we already looked at but in a polyphonic context in the post on Polyphony in the North Caucasus (see MUSIC EXAMPLES OF DRONE BASS AND PARALLEL TOPS). The underlying harmonic/melodic development rests on a I-minor – bVII-minor – I-minor progression; however, as sometimes occurs in Chechen songs, there is an interpolated major modulation of the I-chord before progressing to the bVII-chord.

Adighe Djeguako

The Adighe call their bards djeguako (or djegwak’we or jegwak’we), who perform solo or in ensemble. If solo, the primary accompaniment instrument was the knee violin, called the shichepshin. There are many ensemble performances of the epics and heroic or historic songs. The website for the International Centre for Circassian Studies (ICCS) ( is an excellent resource for musical examples as well as translations/interpretations of the songs. (I suggest visiting the “Music and Musicology” as well as the “Narts Epos” and “Minstrel” pages.) Some performances are quite long (over 10 minutes) though they are typically strophic, with identifiable repeated verses and choruses (or zhiu accompaniment). Solo performances are very rare.

I was able to find a single solo performance believed to be by the bard Hezhdal Qwizch.
EX 1. Dakhezhan a ballad about a beautiful girl, Dakhezhan, performed solo voice and schichepshi. 
EX 2. Bedinoqwe yi Pshinalhe (Melody of Bedinoqwe) performed a cappella by Ziramikw Qardenghwsch’ with zhiu accompaniment. 
The complete track is over 6 minutes and presents an example of a Nart tale concerning the warrior Bedinoqwe. Regularly metered, the song’s form is based on a call using nonsense syllables followed by a series of recitative-styled lines (between 3 and 8 lines) which the zhiu responds to using nonsense syllables. The melodic range of the opening call is within a 5th but the melodic range of the recitative sections and the zhiu response only uses the first three notes of the scale. Interestingly, sometimes the zhiu is in unison, sometimes in octaves.
The following text about this Nart tale is originally from Z. Qardenghwsch’ (1979: 16-19; cited in
Bedinoqwe was the son of Bedin and a Nart female warrior who fought the Chint (generic term for the enemies of the Narts) incognita in men’s war costume. Bedin and his wife lived on the bank of the Don River. Whilst a Nart was being hosted by Bedin, the sound of Bedinoqwe crying was heard from his mother’s womb as she brought in the food table. The Nart was freaked out, and he hurried to the Narts and relayed what had transpired in Bedin’s guest-house. The  Narts fell into great consternation and they resolved to murder the child the moment it would be born a male. When Bedinoqwe came to the world, the Narts kidnapped him from his parents house, but they did not have the heart to kill him, seeing how extraordinarily handsome he was, so they placed him in a hole in a tree and left him to his fate. He was found by the Nart gooseherd, who brought him up with his wife in the cellar so that no one amongst the Narts would know about this. When Bedinoqwe came of age, the gooseherd went to Bedinoqwe’s parents and told them that their son was still alive. Bedinoqwe became a man in full measure. He came out of the cellar and fought the Chint, as his mother did in earlier years, and he inflicted woe unto them, and then went back to the cellar.

One of the central themes for the bards are the Nart sagas, which are a series of myth-like tales that form the basic mythology of the people in the North Caucasus. The term nart (meaning ‘heroes’) and the tales are believed to stem form the Ossetians and their lineage with the ancient Iranian-speaking cultures of the Alans, the Sarmatians and the Scythians. While the Nart sagas may originate with the Ossestians, the Adighe and the Vainakh have their own versions. Interest in the tales not only exists for their testament to the cultural history of the North Caucasus but also for the “striking parallels” with Indo-European, Turkic and Mongolic folklore (Colarusso 2002; 5-9).

Ossetian Kadeganag

According to  Jordania, the Ossetians perform heroic and historic songs in groups, with all participants accompanying the soloist. These differ from epic songs, which are known as kadeg and are performed by a soloist (kadeganag), who sings and accompanies himself on an instrument.  Moreover, Jordania states that the Ossetian solo performance of epic genres is unique for the Caucasus (2000a: 861). This statement, however, requires more qualification given the Vainakh solo performance of illi already observed .

EX 1. Ballada o nabege Badilata na Kurtatinskoye ushchel’ye (Ballad of a raid on Badilata Kurtat gorge), a historic heroic song sung solo with kissyn pandur (knee violin) accompaniment (full sound file can be accessed here)
This song was the only solo performance song I could find. It is labelled as a ballad rather than an epic. The song is quite long, over 7 minutes. The instrument functions as drone accompaniment while the singer sings the verses but then echoes the 2-phrased melody of the singer in between verses. The melodic range of the first phrase is within a 5th. The 2nd phrase extends the range to an octave, downward to the fifth below the tonic.

Georgian Mestvire

As was already discussed in the section on Georgian polyphony, Georgia has many solo balladeers in the east though they do not seem to have the same role as the bards of the Ossetians, Vainakh or Adighe. Furthermore, except for the Northwest province of Svaneti (where epics are sung polyphonically) there is a peculiar absence of the epic genre. But in the Northwest province of Racha, a unique bardic singing tradition exists. The bards, called metsvire, were essentially poets that would travel around, compose verses, and accompany themselves with the gudatsviri (bagpipe). According to Georgian Wikipedia, the tradition originated from the eastern province of Kartli in the 9th century and spread to Racha. The questions I still have for mestvirebi (plural of mestvire) concerns their past popularity and mobility, especially outside of Georgia.

EX 1. YouTube Rachveli Mestvire
With lyrics in Georgian, the performance is of a recitative style. Like the other examples, it features a very limited range by both the singer and the instrument accompanying. Similar to Ilec Kasimov’s performance from Chechnya, there seems to be a pause at the end of phrases, creating a slight rhythmic pull in the performance. This melody, upon which the mestvire sings the text, is the same or a slight variation of all the other examples I have heard of mestvire. 
This entry was posted in Bards and Ballads, North Caucasus and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s