Traditional Caucasian chants charged with electronica resonate across a provincial Georgian market. Between the vegetable stalls manned by elderly women, Lasha Chapel has installed his own DJ set, his face moving between pain and joy as he sings in a traditional Georgian style, his arms moving to the beat.
The Tbilisi-based techno DJ is currently touring the bazars of small-town Georgia to shoot a film featuring his latest project, Tamada. “I am creating a completely new kind of Georgian folk combined with electronic music,” explains Chapel, who is trying to find inspiration in Georgia’s more traditional periphery.
Chapel’s new work is inspired by the music he grew up with, the songs which Georgians have been singing for centuries at family gatherings
Formerly based in Berlin, the musician used to be known for his minimal beats overset with bluesy vocals, which he performed at major festivals around Europe. Sometimes, he played traditional Georgian songs towards the end of his sets, or for his friends. “It was more like a joke, but people loved it, and eventually I realised that this was my true passion,” says Chapel. “We are nothing without our roots”.
Chapel’s new work is inspired by the music he grew up with, the songs which Georgians have been singing for centuries at family gatherings and in restaurants. His new stage name, Tamada, stands for the traditional toastmaster at Georgian supras, or feasts. Famous for their emotional singing and excessive toasts, these table masters determine the ambiance of a meal just like a DJ shapes the atmosphere on the dancefloor.
Old-style Caucasian instruments such as the doli and the duduk also play a major role in Chapel’s new direction, which he hopes to shape into a Caucasian equivalent of Balkan beats. Even his lyrics are filled with archaic words rarely used by anyone apart from poets and the Georgian Orthodox Church. Chapel combines such traditional elements with different types of electronic music: a distinctive new style he calls Deep Duqan. In his first EP, “Frühstück mit Tamada”, released in September, he experiments with disco and funk.
But while the language may be old-fashioned, Chapel’s lyrics don’t look back. Instead, they maintain a laser-sharp focus on the main issues of contemporary Georgian society: the clash between tradition and liberalism, between the Georgian Orthodox Church and techno culture, between the Soviet-educated older generations and the country’s youth. He sings about gay love, the persistence of a Soviet mentality, and how people become atheist in a religious country such as Georgia.
In doing so, he is certainly hitting a nerve in a country that is still grappling with its identity, 30 years after obtaining independence from the Soviet Union. A religious, traditional majority is at odds with the young, ultra-liberal, and western-oriented urban youth which has turned Tbilisi into an international techno hotspot.
But according to Chapel, many Georgians agree that bringing these two groups together is what the country needs. Chapel is trying to do so with his music, which engages both sides in this cultural conflict. With his often-ironic lyrics he holds a mirror up to groups such as corrupt Orthodox priests and politicians. But he does not want to fight with conservatives: “I love their music. Now, they can enjoy dancing to my music, but get a different message at the same time.”
He also intends to connect the young generation to their roots: “I put the traditional Georgian restaurant in the Georgian techno club. People who take MDMA will dance to old-school Georgian restaurant music and I am proving to them that this music is really good!”
While Chapel wants to build bridges within his country, he also aspires to connect the young people of the Caucasus. The region is still mainly making headlines with war and interethnic conflict, such as the current hostilities between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh. “I grew up in war,” stresses Chapel, who hails from a Georgian family that was expelled from Abkhazia during the region’s violent breakaway from Georgia in 1992-1993. Chapel’s father fought, his uncle died in battle, and their neighbours were massacred. Like all Georgians fleeing Abkhazia, they have been banned from their former homeland ever since.
“Young people from Abkhazia, Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan are still very far away from each other: we are even closer to Germans than to our neighbours,” Chapel points out. Alongside his music, he is also creating a “Deep Duqan” music label for modern traditional musicians from all over the Caucasus. After its launch, planned for January 2021, he plans to invite Abkhazians to Tbilisi to play and record with him, something he hopes could break the ice and help develop a better relationship between the two peoples. “We have been living apart for 27 years. Abkhazians don’t know anything about Georgia apart from bombings. We cannot wait for politicians to bring us together,” he says. Music, he hopes, will prove the uniting force where so much else has failed. “There are a lot of commonalities in our music [across the Caucasus],” Chapel says. “Everyone in the Caucasus understands its soul.”