Our first visit to Latali village in October 2010 unexpectedly coincided with a village funeral.
Madge describes what we encountered:
In the crisp mountain sunshine of the mountain valley I can hear faint echoes of ancient harmonies carried on the wind. Drawing us in. We must wait, says Kakha, and approach in a group when more people arrive to pay their respects.
We proceed slowly with care, tiptoeing and slithering our way uphill through muddied potholes rutted with hooves of oxen and countless pig trotters. We are overtaken by families arriving en masse, women clad in black, and men in grey Svan hats.
This is a Svan funeral in the Georgian High Caucasus village of Latali, one of the few singing villages left in Upper Svaneti. The deceased, Pridon Gvichiani was once the village doctor. Facing illness himself, his family had taken him to the capital city, Tbilisi, for treatment. In accordance with tradition, his body has come home to be laid to rest.
The homestead is perched on the edge of the hillside. A throng of men are congregated in the yard. .We pause by the gate, gathering breath. As if on cue, the mourning ritual harmonies begin again. The men are singing a funeral” Zari”.
One word. Vai vai, repeats itself, over and over Vai! vai!
The men are not singing in Western scales but on the outer edges of their own quintave tuning system. The sound they make is laced with a salt and vinegar which sets the teeth on edge. A collective encounter with grief reverberates across the mountainside. And, welling up in waves, it ebbs and flows through the nooks and crannies of the psyche, leaving something more transparent – more serene in its wake. Music described by at least one accomplished Western music scholar, as “The hardest song to sing.” Indeed I am later assured, no Svan would describe this as” singing” for its impetus lies not in music making. This is part of worship.
Georgian polyphony is described by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”. Over generations it has served as an invisible glue holding together the social fabric of a proud and ancient culture, destined to occupy its historically precarious position, on the cutting edge of East and West. Against often insuperable odds the country has survived. Here today its music survives, almost intact.
Georgia is considered by some to be the geographical cradle of polyphonic chant. This pulsating musical heartbeat has accompanied village daily life functions from the cradle to the grave since time immemorial. In Svaneti, cut off due to its remoteness, for the winter months, old traditions take longer to die. “Zar “is the Georgian word for a bell.
Today the bell tolls for Pridon.
Excerpt from article published in Caduceus Magazine July 2011. [Madge Bray]