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A Renaissance in Georgia

Long lost sacred Tradition is Revived

by Molly Corso

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On an overcast weekday afternoon, six young men gather in a modest, drafty apartment in the historical district of the Georgian city of Tbilisi to practice the music scheduled for Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. The men, whose professions range from students to bankers, belong to the Agsavali Choir and sing the medieval haunting melodies of the Orthodox Church of Georgia at churches and other venues around the capital of the Caucasus republic — a nation that is neither Asian nor European, eastern nor western.

“Chanting serves the Lord,” says Guja Narimanishvili, a local business manager. “I first came to church like any average person, but later I became interested in chanting.” Drawn to the melodies, he says, he and his friends decided they had to learn more.

Mr. Narimanishvili began learning the ancient liturgical psalmody of the Georgian Orthodox tradition in 2003. He did not know the first thing about the church’s musical heritage — especially its medieval past.

“It is not a normal type of music … the chants were hard for everyone to listen to,” he recalls.

Nor are the chants easy to learn. Medieval Georgian chant utilizes a system of three–voice polyphony and differs in organizational structure from the more familiar Byzantine– or Russian–influenced chants of the contemporary Georgian church.

The Agsavali Choir meets a few times each week — and sometimes every day — to rehearse the difficult chants, to learn new ones or to make recordings. Learning the intricate harmonies, explains Mr. Narimanishvili, is a labor of love and faith.

“Our motivation is our love for this music,” he says. “It is a great treasure and when we touch it, it means a lot to us and we are proud we have this chance.” In recent years, medieval Georgian chant has experienced nothing short of a renaissance. The Agsavali Choir is in fact one of many such choirs that have spouted up across the country in the decades following Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The first, Anchiskhati, is based in a sixth–century basilica of the same name and tours the international concert circuit. The Tbilisi Conservatory of Music has added a graduate program in chant and a new school for chanting and folk music, sponsored by Georgian Orthodox Catholicos–Patriarch Ilia II, has opened its doors to eager students in Tbilisi.

Today’s youth especially have taken interest in the ancient art form. Unlike their parents and grandparents, the Millennial Generation is coming of age in a post–Soviet, independent Georgia — a nation still grappling with its national identity after more than a century of sustained cultural, economic and political oppression. In this context, traditional cultural expressions, such as ancient Georgian chants, have gained unprecedented popularity among the youth, who are embracing such discoveries with fierce enthusiasm.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church Revival/restoration