The Bards & Ballads of Dagestan

In times past in Daghestan, bards (only males) would hold contests in eloquence, with the loser reputedly loosing his head, literally. (Colarusso 1997 section 14)

The bardic practice in Dagestan is more easily defined as a monophonic tradition since the Republic, at least as observed via YouTube videos and available recordings, hosts negligible polyphonic practices. Although Jordania challenges this (see previous post), Dagestani musicologist Medina Abudelva corroborates this and suspects that the the lack of polyphonic practices among the people of Dagestan today is a result of Islamic influences (Abudelva 2013: 172). She also suggests that the embracing of Sufi values, particularly those associated with how music mimics the harmony of the universe, has significantly encourage the writing of folksongs (ibid: 176). This may explain why, despite the difficulty in accessing information on Dagestan, I have been overwhelmed by the number of beautiful songs I have heard via the internet. Aduleva also notes that some surviving epics, like On Sharvili (О Шарвили), Party Patima (Парту Патима) and others (see ibid: 172), provide insight into pre-Islam Dagestan. But in current practice, the epic genre seems to have survived and been adapted by different peoples, such as the Avars and their 19th century heroic songs and ballads of Imam Shamil or the Lezgi’s continued ashugh traditions (ibid). As you will note from the examples below, Dagestan traditional music is part of a larger Caucasian music culture but there exist specific melodic, intonational and rhythmic qualities that are specific to the different peoples of the Republic, like the Lezgi, the Avars, the Laks, the Kumyks, etc…

The following will provide a bit of a sonic tour of the people of Dagestan – though it is by no means complete – not only because I do not address sacred or dance musics (which is not relevant to the subject of this post) but also because all the different people of the Republic are not represented. The musical examples highlight a vibrant solo folksong tradition, where singers accompany themselves either with a lute, a knee-violin or a hand drum. Accompaniment on melodic instruments tend to follow the melody as well as provide rhythmic accompaniment. Generally song forms are relatively simple, use diatonic scales, favour minor keys and make use of augmented seconds. The range of the song is usually within a 5th to an octave. Songs are sometimes performed within an ensemble context, in which case they are comparable to the Transcaucasian urban genre discussed earlier. In fact, I have observed some great similarities between some Transcaucasian urban tunes and songs from Dagestan that I hope to address in a future post.


The Lezgis (750,000) are also known as Lezghins/Lezgins/Lezgians and in census statistics usually  include the Rutuls and Tabasarans. Older publications, however, often labelled all people in Dagestan speaking a Caucasian language as Lezgi.

Through their historical and cultural association with Azeris and the great number of Lezgis that live on the other side of the border, there is a school for ashugs located in the Southern part of the Republic (near the border of Azerbaijan). They are the only people in the Republic reported to use the saz and to practice the ashugh art (Abdulaeva 2013: 172, 174). Unfortunately, reports are that the school is in desperate need of repair (see

The Dagestani ashugh performance styles are closely related to performances by Azeri ashiqs.

EX 1. and EX 2. are of traditional solo voice and saz (sorry for poor sound quality in the second clip but I wanted to show a talented young ashug):
EX 3. Demonstration of contemporary remix of Lezgi ashugh performance


The Avars speak Avar, a Northeast Caucasian language and are known amongst themselves as maarulal, which translates to mountaineers. With the related Andi and Dido people included in census statistics, the Avar population is estimated at 800,000, making them the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. The Avars claim descendency from nomadic Avars who settled in the region in the first century , though other accounts report an arrival of up  to 4 centuries later. They were the most powerful Dagestan principality in the 17th century. In the 19th century, they were at the heart of the Muridist movement against the Russian, led by the Avar, Imam Shamil (Krag and Funch 1994: 20; Coene 2010: 62-64). Shamil was renown and even celebrated in Western Europe for uniting warring Caucasian tribes and leading a powerful  30-year resistance to Russian forces (Blanch 2004[1960]; Griffin 2001).

Amongst all the musics of Dagestan, recorded performances of Avars songs are the most accessible, which makes sense given their representation of Dagestan’s population. Avar songs most often feature a male voice with a lute-like accompaniment but they may also be accompanied by knee-violin (chagana) or frame-drum (chchergilu). There are 2 different lutes, the pandur also known as the tamur which is a 2-stringed long trapezium-shaped lute and the agach-kumuz (also called the agach-khomuz or komuz) which has 3 to 4 strings and is also shaped like a thin trapezoid. Many of the songs fit the 2-chord, reduced structure I already discussed for Northeastern Georgian and Vainakh songs in the post on polyphony in the North Caucasus. Some songs feature sections of repetitive short melodic phrases that fit the recitative style and are thus useful for depicting heroic stories. Sometimes the performance style also makes use of a rubato-like quality for the singer, such that the regular rhythm of the accompanying instrument may slow slightly or even stop altogether as a singer sings a phrase, which would include melismas and/or sustained notes. Both these observations suggest some relationship with the Iranian-urban and Azeri traditions of xananda and ashiqs. I was surprised at how moved I was while listening to compilations of Avar singers. For most part, the songs are very entertaining featuring catchy melodic hooks and rhythms.

A great introduction to Avar songs and the music of Dagestan can be found on Compilation of Avar Pandur. The four discs feature excellent performances by four pandur players, 3 of whom also sing beautifully. (Abdulah Magomedmirzaev, Rasul Magomedov, and Said Magomedov sing and play while Abdulla Sachadinsky only plays pandur.) (Click on the image below to download.)
Some beautiful tracks of solo singer/accompanist which also demonstrates the drum and chagana accompaniment are available on Janos Sipos’ compilation, Folk Tunes from the Two Sides of the Caucasus (Various Artists 2003). Unfortunately, Sipos does not list tune names. Here are 2 samples:
EX 1. Qallayev Fayzulla Müslüm Oglu singing and accompanying with pandur
EX 2. Dadayev Mähämmäd Ibrahim Oglu singing and accompanying with pandur
EX 3. The Sayat Nova Project (a very worthy project aimed to collect and publicize the diversity of musics from the Caucasus has a YouTube playlist of Avar music, within which is a fair collection of “folk” performances
EX 4. and EX 5. Feature women singers in ensemble contexts
More ensemble examples can be found on the CD Ay lazat Oh pleasures (link below)More examples of solo performances of Avar songs, especially solo instrumentals, can be heard heard from the link below to the Tsamuri festival..


Kumyks (369,000) are the only Dagestani people reported to have traditional multi-voiced singing tradition, which is rather curious given that they speak a west-Turkic language and see themselves as descendants of Turks, who are known for monophonic musical practices. In the 15th and 16th century the  Kumyks formed a powerful state and theirs was a second language used for communication and commerce. Compared to other people of Dagestan, they have lost many traditional structures as they assimilated into industry and port-oriented commerce (Kragg and Funch 1994: 22; Coene 2010: 76).  Kumyk polyphony was already discussed in the earlier post. Their monophonic songs are quite varied and most feature komuz  (3- or 4-stringed lute also known as the agach-khomuz). Some YouTube examples below demonstrate the variety.

EX 1. features recitative-styled singing with komuz accompaniment
EX 2. features a clear verse-chorus structure (voice and komuz)
EX 3. and Ex 4. are instrumentals, solo komuz
EX 5. features voice and accordion accompaniment and demonstrates quite a different style/feel than other songs. Perhaps it is due to the accordion, but there seems to be some more Western European flavours in this song. In general, accordion accompaniment in the Caucasus is very popular and its almost ubiquitous use, its replacement of traditional instruments, and its effect on tonal structures and song forms are fodder for much ethnomusicological research.
A few more samples are available on the Ay lazat Oh pleasures CD (link below). The following link is a documentary about domestic activities among the Kumyks, which includes some singing and playing.


The Laks (147,000) are an indigenous Northeast Caucasian people that speak a Northeast Caucasian language. I have found little reliable information on the Laks, except that they have been subject to Russian resettlement policies on 2 occasions since 1944, leading to tensions with Chechens and Kumyks (Krag and Funch 1994: 22).

Lak songs strike me as some of the most beautiful, representing quite a diverse number of styles. Women performers seem to be better represented in traditional Lak music than the other peoples of Dagestan. Though as of yet I am no expert, it seems Lak songs have a more distinctive quality with respect to the melodic development and melismas. Some songs featuring women singers (see EX 2, EX 5, and EX 6, as well as 17 minutes into EX 1) explore a higher range, timbre and melismatic quality that are slightly reminiscent of Hindustani singing.

The links below attempt to demonstrate the variety of song styles and accompaniment, which makes use of different lutes, drum or knee-violin.

EX 1. is a half hour YouTube video simply labelled “Old Lak Songs” and features 6 songs.
The first few songs are solo voice and frame drum (chchergilu). A number of songs, including the first, feature the recitative style similar to the first Chechen example, with an opening phrase followed by a series of recitative lines, enabling the reciting of a detailed story. (Wish I knew what it was about!)
I believed all the songs are performed by the same singer. Having subsequently found this 12-minute documentary on Patimat Alieva, I believe Alieva to be the singer in Ex 1.
EX 2. and EX 3. feature mandolin accompaniment, EX 2. with a woman singer and EX 3. with a man.
EX 4. is of Said Guseynaevich Huseynali, an elder WWII veteran performing a 9-minute song with chagana (knee violin) accompaniment and a recitative-singing style.
EX 5. and EX 6. both feature legendary Lak singer Mariam Dandamayeva in an ensemble context (doli, chagana, komuz/pandur). With the instrumental accompaniment the performance takes on an urban flavour that is comparable to the Transcaucasian urban songs (see earlier post on the subject).


A Note on the CD Ay Lazat and the Nogai

Ay lazat Oh pleasures offers a compilation of Avar, Lak and Nogai melodies in ensemble contexts. In a rather visceral response to what I heard on this CD, I would say the Nogai songs, in terms of melodic and harmonic development, sound a little more Russified. This makes sense given that the Nogai, who speak a Turkic language, are late settlers in the region (13th century) with large populations in the Russian province of Stavropol as well.

Festivals in Dagestan

A final mention should be made to music festivals that not only are celebrating the musics of different peoples around Dagestan but also are a testament to the importance of the performance of songs. “Shunudag” festival started in 2002 solely as a festival of Lak songs but in recent years has expanded its mandate to included all the people of Dagestan. The YouTube clips of “Tsamauri” ( demonstrates an abundance of skilled musicians, featuring solo lute playing as well as solo singer-instrumental performances.  (Some nice pictures can be found here From the above video, however, it would seem the Avars and Kumyks dominate the performance. The “Highlanders” festival held in the capital of Dagestan also includes international representation. There are also Mawlid festivals which have something of paraliturgical function, since the text of Quran are performed to popular music in secular settings – though the “popular” music characteristic is outside the scope of this blog.

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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. 
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The Bards & Ballads of the North Caucasus


The next two posts return to the bards of the Caucasus but this time focusing on the practices in the North Caucasus and crossing over a little into Georgia. Because of the difficulty in accessing information, the following is a piecemeal account of whatever I can find on bards or ballads,  from the Vainakh, the Adyghe, the Ossetians, the Lezgis, the Avars, the Kumyks, the Laks and a brief mention of the Nogai – the latter five being from Dagestan, a region of the Caucasus this blog has hardly touched upon. Unfortunately, the details are spotty and for Dagestan almost non-existent. Moreover, some aspects of the bardic practices described in publications do not always coincide with musical examples I have – which may reflect the published accounts being outdate with current practices and/or a lack of accessible musical examples. Some of the details I struggled identifying concern: whether and/or when bards perform solo or in ensembles; whether the songs are monophonic or multi-voiced; the bards’ use of accompanying instruments; the role as historian and/or cultural gatekeeper; the difference between epics, heroic songs, historical songs, and other ballads; and the mythical and legendary sources they may share.

So the next post explores the bards of the Northwest and Central North Caucasus (i.e., the Vainakh, the Adighe, and the Ossetians and takes a brief look at a Georgian bardic tradition) and the following post then addresses the musics of Dagestan.

I have noticed (in a crassly reductive sort of way) 2 streams of bardic styles that cross over the region: one which is more ballad like with a predictable verse or verse-chorus format while the other makes use of sections of recitative styled singing of text sandwiched between more melodic phrases that typically feature sustained tones and a descending line. Before getting into the details, I do want to acknowledge that adequate accounts of the bardic tradition would require more attention to the lyric and thematic content but this is beyond the scope of this blog, which is primarily concerned with musical material. Also, because barely any of my other posts have addressed Dagestan, and because little information exists on the region or its music (it does not even make its way as a subheading into the Encyclopedia of Music’s entry on the “North Caucasus” (Jordania 2000a)) I provide a short general overview of Dagestani music before tackling the details of the individual music cultures. As you will also notice for the music posted about Dagestan, many of the examples lack details concerning who is performing and even the name of the song being performed.

The Bards and Ballads of the Northwest and Central North Caucasus →

The Bards and Ballads of Dagestan 

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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 ( is a contemporary remix of this chorus and this second clip ( 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 ( 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
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

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
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 (, 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.

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, 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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Polyphony in Georgia

More so than Azerbaijan or Armenia, Georgia has many different vocal-based musical dialects, most of which are polyphonic. Georgians are known for their part singing and have over 60 traditional terms to describe the different vocal parts and their functions (Chkhikvadze and Jordania 2014). The regional styles of polyphony vary from simple antiphonal vocal lines over a two-note drone, to complex melismatic or contrapuntal three-part forms. Many commercial performance recordings are available, a result of a recent renaissance that has led to ensembles researching (via archival work and fieldwork), performing and contributing to traditional Georgian songs, although most of these ensembles feature the more complex polyphonic forms (see Through international partnerships and support from UNESCO, the International Research Centre for Traditional Polyphony ( based out of the Tbilisi Conservatoire has issued a large number of archived field recordings and hosts an online database.

The discussion on Georgia starts with a brief description of the solo singing tradition which then follows with musical styles from the East (where more of a solo singing practices occur) to the musical styles in the West. While the tradition is an aural-oral one theoretical models postulate the scale system is based primarily on a pentachord, though tetrachords are found in musics of the eastern regions of the country.

Map of Georgia (Kuzmich)

Regions of Georgia. Note: 1) Mskheti would more properly be labelled Samtskhe-Javakheti; 2) the map is missing South Ossetia, a break-away region that is located at the top of Kartli, just east of Racha. Ossetia along with Abkhazia are discussed in the posts on the North Caucasus.

Solo Singing and Songs of East Georgia

Georgians typically do not sing in unison but an across-the-nation exception to polyphonic practices occurs in solo songs – such as mothers lulling a baby to sleep or other solo work songs, usually the domain of women. I would also say that simpler 2- and 3-part polyphony also spans the country, mainly through women’s genres, presumably because the nature of domestic work does not allow women to settle and spend time on more complex musical forms. Generally, however, the eastern side of the county features more solo songs and more simple 2- or 3-part polyphony. Solo songs are often accompanied by panduri (traditional 3-stringed lute) or accordion and have parallels with North Caucasian ballads (which I will discuss more in the post on Bards and Ballads of the North Cacausu). In particular, the Georgians of the eastern mountains (the Khevsurs, the Pshavs and the Tushs) are known for favouring poetry and the composition of verses over music and songs. The opposite is true in the west.

Presumably this tendency to solo musical expression and simple polyphony comes from sharing borders with neighbours who have a solo singing tradition or from the influence of foreign political rule. For instance, there is a large Azeri population on the Georgian side of the Azerbaijani boarder; there are lots of Avars in the borders between Georgia and Dagestan; also high in east mountains (especially Tusheti) Georgians, as shepherds, spend a lot of time in the North Caucasus with their sheep. Another example to consider is Samtskhe-Javakheti which does not practice polyphony. Historically, huge populations of Georgians in Javakheti were displaced by muslims when it came under Ottoman rule in 16th century. In the 1800s, under Russian rule, this region was cleansed of muslims and resettled with Armenians who were fleeing Turkish occupation. Both Muslim and Armenian musics are monophonic and thus explains the lack of part-singing in the region.

EX 1. Lomo Shen Lomis Moklulo from Tusheti, solo voice and panduri (3-stringed lute) performed by Lela Tataraidze (song’s imagery concerns a lion killing another lion).
EX 2. Nana (lullaby) from Achara solo voice performed by Nana Valishvili
Text: There is one merciful God, / sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s sunny. / Nobody remembers me / poor me. / Ninai, nanina, ninai, nanina, / Ninai, nanian, ninaina. / Do not cry. / Ninai,nanina, ninai, nanina, / Ninai, nanian, ninaina. / The sunflower always turns towards the sun, / but don’t trust ergani (another kind of flower) / it turns the opposite way / Ninai, nanina,ninai, nanina, / Ninai, nanian, ninaina.
EX 3. Panduro from Kartli solo voice and panduri performed by Ilia Zaqaidze
A few notes on this one: similar to Azeri music, listen to how the initial melodic development centres around the Bb and uses stepwise development in a rather limited range. It’s also interesting to note how parts of this performance can come across as recitative in nature, a quality found in the music of Azeri ashiqs but also some music of the North Caucasus (though these may further be traced to Central Asian practices). Interesting melodic development (featuring intricate ornamented passages), however, occurs at the 2:30 mark. (More examples of solo voice and panduri performances by Ilia Zaqaidze can be found from under the “kartli” region page.)

A later post on the Bards and Ballads of the North Caucasus briefly touches on the harmonic-structure of the solo-panduri examples.

Polyphony of Eastern Georgia

There also exists some remarkable polyphonic structures in the Eastern Kartli-Kakheti region which features 2 soloists in the upper voices, stretching out melismatic text over a slow-developing unmetered melody with the accompaniment of a drone styled bass. In most cases the drone bass is limited 2 or 3 notes though there are examples (such as “Kakhuri Mravalzhamier” or “Chakrulo”) where the bass if much more elaborate. In all cases, resolution points occur on the tonic, most often in unison and more rarely on the 5th. Links can be made with these songs and the monodic music of Armenia and Azerbaijan, a subject of Nino Tsitsishvili’s 1989 dissertation. All three countries share similar solo fieldwork songs (e.g. horovela in Georgia and horovel  in Armenia). In the Kakheti-Kartli songs, the 2 soloists are often trading ornamented melodic lines, which Tsitsishvili describes as a “tendency for solo (monodic) performance in a polyphonic context” (1998, 97). Furthermore, 3-part polyphony in archived recordings from this region exhibit drone-like tendencies of the non-leading upper voice and/or parallel harmony of simpler melodic passages in the top 2 voices. While this description fits some moments in some contemporary performances, 3-part polyphony in contemporary Kartli-Kakheti songs tend to be more complex, demonstrating more independence in the ornamentation and embellishments of the upper voices.

EX 1. Mze Shinada (Sun Within) from Guria performed by Mzetamze (1996).
This ring dance that celebrates the birth of a son is a 3-part song but because 2 of the voices are trading lines, there are only 2 voices singing at one time. It is interesting to note the contrast between this simple 3-note drone-styled bass and the extreme contrapuntal style for which Gurian songs are known (see Gurian example, Vakhtanguri, below).
Text: Sun within, sun without, sun please come in. / To us is born a son, sun please come in. / The baby’s father is not at home, sun please come in, / is in the city looking for a cradle, sun please come in. / The sun laid down and bore the moon, sun please come in.
EX 1. Shen Bicho Anagurelo (You Boy of Anaguri) performed by Basiani, recorded by A. Kuzmich at the 2002 Opening Ceremonies of the First International Symposium on Traditional Polyphony, Tbilisi, Georgia.
This song initially demonstrates two voices trading ornamented melismatic lines over a drone-styled bass. The 3-part harmony that follows is more complex than what is described of the archived recordings.
EX 2. Satamasho (dance/game) 1959 field recording from Tianeti, recorded by G. Chkhikvadze.

Transcription of Satamasho, from field recording in Tianeti, Georgia 1959

In contrast to the previous example this song presents a less complex version of the Kartli-Kakhetian songs.

Because parallels can be drawn with the polyphony in the North Caucasus, more musical examples from Northeast Georgia can be found in the post on polyphony in the North Caucasus.

West Georgian Polyphony

The emphasis of the music over the word/text is quite fundamental to the songs of West Georgia (as well as parts of the Northwest Caucasus). West Georgia can be distinguished musically between its plains and mountains. The plains make more use of contrasting polyphony – there is more rhythmic and melodic independence – while the mountains (Racha and Svaneti) display more parallel harmonies – especially of dense triads and can feature parallel movement of 2nds in the top 2 voices. Some harvest-work songs (known as naduri) have four parts.

The greatest amount of independence occurs in Gurian songs, where a regional style of yodeling in the top voice arguably features polyphony in a single voice and adds to the exploding quality of the region’s music.

While some songs from Samegrelo share the same energy as ones from  Guria, others are appreciated for their lyrical qualities which feature minor modes, light melodic lines and a combination of softer harmonies mixed with harsher ones. Imereti is similar to both Samegrelo and Guria, though more Europeanized harmonies (such as parallel thirds) have filtered in through Kutaisi, the largest urban centre in western Georgia situated in Imereti.

EX 1. Didebata (round dance) from Svaneti performed by Riho
EX 2. Vakhtanguri (table/drinking song from Guri) performed by Anchiskhati.
The song is in trio-choir format. The top voice in the choir is singing krimanchuli a regional style of yodeling quite specific to Guria with similar variants heard in Achara and Imereti.
EX 3. Maglonia (Magnolia) lyrical song from Samegrelo performed by Polikarpe Khubulava’s choir Odoia. (Khubulava is a renown master singer from Samegrelo. He is most likely in his early 80s.)
EX 4. Nanina feast song from Imereti, field recording from Vani Region recorded by Malkhaz Erkvanidze in 2000.


Across the country, dance and harvesting songs make use of ostinatos, similarities of which can be traced to the Adighe zhiu and the Abkhaz argizra (see next post on the Polyphony of the North Caucasus).

For more on regional styles of Georgian polyphony see

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Polyphony In Georgia & The North Caucasus


Part singing occurs through most of Georgia and the North Caucasus. In general, the upper voices are sung by soloists while the rest accompany on bass in the limited range of baritone-tenor. More often than not, songs usually start with the solo middle voice. There is no imitative polyphony. Much of it is ostinato or drone based. The most diverse and developed polyphony is found in Georgia, which is the topic of the next post. The post after that then discusses the rest of the North Caucasus.

Polyphony in Georgia 

Polyphony in the North Caucasus 

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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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Armenian Lyrical Songs

The following is based primarily on the “Armenian” entries in the Encyclopedia of World Music (Manukian 2001) and the Grove Music Online (Pahlevanian et al 2014).

map armenia hight 189-63 arm_tihran

In some way, what defines Armenians is not just the fact that as a people they have lived on the Anatolian plateau for over 2500 years, but for economic and political reasons, some of which are extremely tragic, sizeable Armenian communities as early as the 5th century have developed outside of Armenia. This, in turn, has developed a strong immigrant or diaspora identity. Today, the Armenian diaspora is estimated at 7 million while the population of the country itself is less than 3 million. The Armenian American musician Richard Hagopian reflects on the implications this has for the recognition of Armenian culture in his CD Armenian Music Through the Ages (1993). “As an ethnic minority spread out through many countries, much of [Armenians’] contribution to the arts, architecture and music was seen as ‘Persian Art’ or ‘Ottoman Architecture’ [and] deciphering the Armenian element in these contexts is sometimes difficult.” Thus, while mugham and ashiqs are defined as Azeri, the Armenians were well known performers of these musics. Armenian ashiqs are known as gusans and ashughs and I will discuss them in context of the Transcaucasian urban style in a subsequent post. What I want to focus on in this section, however, is what I found to be the most unique part of traditional Armenian music, the lyrical quality of their folk songs.

Armenian folk songs, like many other traditional musics of the world, feature songs for a variety of calendric and life rituals. This music is relatively accessible through iTunes, Naxos Music library, and even on YouTube. Face Music (an independent Swiss label and Celestial Harmonies produced a number of CDs with informative liner notes that were very useful for my research and offer a good starting point for new listeners of Armenian folk music. It should be noted, however, that none of these CDs are field recordings. Rather they are staged performances of field transcriptions or recordings. Most striking is the abundant sing-song quality of the work songs and other genres that is not as evident in Georgian or Azeri folk songs. This lyrical expressivity has a distinct flavour in Armenian music. According to Manuka Manekian, author of the Encyclopedia of World Music’s entry on Armenia, lyrical songs form the richest branch of Armenian music. They represent a musical form which over a millennia has developed in a reflective relationship with sacred music to define Armenia’s most unique musical genre.

Musically speaking, the lyrical song typically develops within the narrow range of a 4th to a 7th, based on simple diatonic scales. They often feature beautiful tunes, modal nuances, verse structures and interchangeable use of cantilena, recitative, and song and dance rhythms – as shown in the notated musical examples below. Lyrical songs exist as lullabies, some children’s and work songs, and nostalgic songs, which in Armenia are known as pandukht or anduni. They are also known as secular tagher (plural for tagh – more of which I discuss momentarily). Among these, “Kroon” (the Crane) and “Anduni” (Homeless) are the most well known. From commercial recordings and YouTube uploads you can see there are numerous versions of these.

Sacred tagh developed out of the reflective secular-sacred musical practice which blossomed in 10th to 11th centuries, a period of political stability for all of Transcaucasia. Sacred tagher (plural for tagh) differed from other sacred chants with their richly ornamented and long-phrased aria-like melodies. Pahlevanian et al. (2014) attribute the virtuosic structure to urban influences. The secular branch of tagh developed in the 13th-18th centuries, after which tagher merged partially with folksongs and ashugh songs. In comparison to peasant lyrical songs, this lyrical form shows greater melodic development. Under Soviet cultural policy of the early- and mid-20th century, this lyrical vocal form became the basis for much duduk music – the double reed cylindric aerophone (also known as the Azerbaijani balaban) that became Armenia’s national instrument. (For more on the duduk see Nercessian (2001)).

EX 1 Pandukht Song Transcription by Komitas (Pahlevanian et al. 2014)
Komitas trans pandukht or emigrant song from OxfordThis transcription of “Pandukht Song” demonstrates a beautiful melody built mostly within the range of a 7th, featuring melismas, some chromaticism and an unusual melodic developments. Except for the 4 bars repeated in lines 5-6, no other melodic theme/phrase repeats. The melody begins on a C-natural but then all other instances become a C#, seeming to be the 3rd degree of hijaz scale starting on A. The last line extends the range down to an 11th and seems to reset the tone of the piece, displacing the A-hijaz tonality. (You can find musical examples for Komitas’ transcription of “Pandukht Song” on YouTube.)
EX 2 “I Saw You” Transcription by Komitas (Pahlevanian et al. 2014)

Komitas trans ex 1 Lyrical song in Oxford

The transcription of “I Saw You” offers a more simple song. It is clearly within an A-aeolian mode, the range of a 7th but mostly concentrating within a 5th. The form is interesting: after repeating a 4-bar section, the resolution is 10 bars long and uses neighbouring notes and variations that sort of hide the basic resolving descent.
EX 3 Kroonk Song – contemporary remix of Flora Martirosian singing in memory of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
EX 4 Sareri Hovin Mernem – contemporary recording performed by Lena Chamamyan
Admittedly, I am unsure whether this was a composition by the renown Armenian folklorist Komitas at the turn of the 20th century or whether it was a field transcription by him. Even if it is his own composition, all of his work was inspired by the thousands of folk songs he transcribed.
Would die for the coldness of my mountains
Would die for the coldness of my dear mountains
Die for the coldness of my dear mountains, die for the coldness of my dear mountains;
Would die for the loftiness of my dear,
Die for the loftiness of my dear, die for the loftiness of my dear,
One year passed as I haven’t seen him,
Would die for the one who has seen him.
The rivers stopped flowing, stopped flowing, stopped flowing,
Their waters do not bring any news about my dear,
Any news about my dear, any news about my dear,
What if my heart would become cold,
Unless you inflame it with your love.
Stand halted, cannot walk, cannot walk,
Cannot drop any tear for him, any tear for him, any tear;
One year passed as I haven’t seen him,
Would die for the one who has seen him,
My dear is always in my heart,
But won’t tell his name.
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Azerbaijan: final thoughts

The subsequent posts on Azeri music provided detailed description and examples of the three streams of Azeri music –  the mugham system linked to Iranian urban influences, the ashiq art connected to Turkic bards, and the rural folk music. 

I do believe more attention should be give to the relationship between the three musical streams. Listening back to back to these different streams, it is not hard to follow the evolutionary perspective proposed by Kerimova (1996) and Sipos (2004), and to imagine the origins of mugham in folk music – though I do not eliminate a reflective relationship in which folk music may have been influenced by the urban musical and mugham genres as well. Underlying the resemblance is how the music draws from similar tonal material, using primarily stepwise motion of just a relatively small set of notes – a tetrachord or less. Yet, this description can also describe a layer of the folk musics for the rest of the entire Caucasus. There were some songs among the 111 Azeri folk songs I heard which reminded me of some of the more simple Georgian and Armenian folk songs and it would be an interesting yet intensive study to try to identify these similarities in a cross-Caucasian context.

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Azerbaijan: Rural Folk Music

There is a lack of information on the rural folk music of Azerbaijan. I found only 2 compilations of field recordings (Women’s Love and Life Female Folklore from Azerbaijan PAN2008; and Azeri Folksongs At the Fountain-head of Music 2004) and no studio or staged performance recordings of this music as one may find in Armenia, Georgia (including Abkhazia and Ossetia) or other peoples of the Northwest Caucasus. Little research has been conducted on this stream of Azeri traditional music and researchers (Oldfield 2008; Sipos 2004; Kerimova 1996) are calling on studies to focus on the relationship between folk music, ashiqs and mugham.

Taira Kerimova, an Azerbaijani women’s folklore specialist and Janos Sipos a Hungarian ethnomusicologist are the authors of the two compilations listed above. With an underlying evolutionary perspective to musical development (i.e. that simple forms of music and monophonic music have to evolve into more complex and polyphonic forms), they believe that Azeri folk music is the “fountainhead” of all other Azeri musics, and Sipos even suggests it may shed light on the primary sources of all other Turkic music (also see Oldfield 2008: 75-6). Sipos who worked closely with members of Baku’s Music Academy and the Conservatoire, collected over a 2 month period 650 tunes in 1999 from 140 singers and musician in 46 settlements from around Azerbaijan. As a sort of quality control, he then compared his collection to 3 Azeri publications that feature 247 songs, which satisfied Sipos’s expectations for tune representation. Kerimova’s collection come from field recordings she collected between 1979-1990. She positions women’s folk music as most authentic and archaic because “the privacy of a woman’s surroundings, the intimacy associated with their music making and the absence of specific artistic innovations means that they successfully preserve some of the oldest and most stable features of Azerbaijan music” (1996).

I do not share Kerimova’s and Sipos’ definitive sense of evolution but their research has much to offer. Kerimova classifies songs into 3 types:

  1. songs of free rhythm (mugham style) which include some laments, work songs and lullabies
  2. songs in set rhythm, usually for ritual and sung by a group
  3. recitative style, which may be solo or group sung, and involves primarily nursery rhymes and dances.

The tonal system in Azeri folk music is based on the mugham modes but usually focuses on the lower tetrachord using mostly stepwise motion. As Sipos points out, this means there is no pentatonicism in Azeri music, which differs from other Central Asian Turkic cultures. Sipos also speaks of the modes in western terms as either ionian, aeolian and locrian with a relatively equal stock in each mode. Metrically, songs are usually 6/8 or 2/4 and the structures of songs are short in length and simple in form, usually displaying a descending or dome-shaped phrase. The instrumental music, which features mostly zurna (conical double reed aerophone) and rhythmic accompaniment, is similar in tone and structure to the vocal musics discussed above; however, with men as the performers, the music is subject to more outside influence. (I may also note that zurna and drum is a staple across the Caucasus for outdoor events and celebrations.)

Having listened to about 111 field recordings of folk songs collected by both Kerimova and Sipos, I can attest to a degree of homogeneity in the music, as reported in the literature. Certainly, it is not like Georgia where there are dramatic regional differences. In a preliminary way, I did note some stylistic differences which were not discussed elsewhere. For instance, the musical style from the Nakhichevan region (a region which is physically separated from the rest of Azerbaijan, borders Armenia to the north and Iran to the south) is very sophisticated, featuring mugham styled inflection, more ornamentation, and greater melodic range. The central eastern style (Absheron, Shirvan, Shamakhi) seem to be mildly more sophisticated with respect to the above qualities. Zaqatal region has a definitive Northeast Caucasian style which makes sense since Zaqatal is a protruding northern part of Azerbaijan that borders northeast Georgia and southern part of Dagestan. Many Avars live in this region and if you search on YouTube “Zaqatal music,” many results show Avars dancing lezginka, the well-known cross-regional dance in the Caucasus.

EX 1. Excerpt of a 2-note plaintive song from Shamakhy (see Sipos 2004)
Great is my sorrow, oh the streams have gone dry,
when i mourn over my grief sadly, oh, All who had trouble
EX 2. Benek, work/shepherd’s song from Shusha, Garabakh (see Kerimova 1996)
Ai, ag goyun, ei, dolandy geldi, ei, ei, ei
(Hey, white sheep, who went away and came back, hey, hey, hey)
EX 3. Lyrical Bayati from Absheron (see Kerimova 1996)
Lyrical couplets, sung during handiwork at home (Mashtaga village, Absheron district).
Deryada fanaram men (I’m a lamp, standing in the gully)
Od tutub yanaram men (I take fire, catch fire)
Gel gash altyndan goz oinatma (Do not wink at me)
Arifem, ganaram men (I’m wise, I understand everything).
EX 4. Lullaby from Nakhichevan (see Kerimova 1996)
Lai-lai deyim, yatasan (Bye-bye I say, sleep my baby)
Gyzyl gyule batasan (Drop into pink flowers).
EX 5. Excerpt Song from Zaqatala (see Sipos 2004)
Come, let’s go to the spring gushing from the rock,
Yillo, fools, to the spring

Map from Atlas of tradition music of Azerbaijan

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