At our first meeting, the 85 year old folk musician and kamancheh player Sergo Kamalov, once the head of Tbilisi’s Sayat Nova Ensemble, a virtuosic performer of traditional genres from the Caucasus, and a fount of experience and wisdom, pulled an old cassette down from his shelf to play us a recording of his favourite musician. We listened in anticipation as the tape’s reels begin to turn, waiting to hear a precious bootleg of an unknown master, while Sergo crossed his arms over his chest to indicate that this great musician had recently passed away. The warbling track began to play and what we heard was not a lost, folkloric treasure; it was “I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston.
If you’ve had any introduction to folk music in the Caucasus, it’s most likely you’ve heard the duduk, a melancholy double-reed instrument most often associated with Armenia, Azerbaijani mugham trios or solo bards from the ashiq tradition, and the complex and regionally varied vocal polyphony of Georgia. These musical practices have all received recognition from UNESCO and are often supported by the state in various forms. But in reality, the musical culture of the region is not so neatly defined or categorized, a reflection of the varied and intersectional nature of identity in the Caucasus. It was this realisation, triggered by a spontaneous recording session with Azeri bards in the Southeast region of Georgia, that led to the formation of Mountain of Tongues.
We began as a recording project with the goal of preserving lesser known music from the South Caucasus. Our focus was on the music of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities that had not received the same attention or recognition as state supported traditions. Sergo’s music, along with 18 other tracks, is featured on our first album of collected field recordings released by the LM duplication label in 2013.
But it was experiences like the Whitney Houston episode that caused us to rethink the scope of our attention and the way we approached the promotion and preservation of music in the South Caucasus. Limiting both ourselves and the musicians we worked with to performances of “folk” or “traditional” music forced us to exclude some of our greatest experiences — Avar crooners backed by Yamaha keyboards, Azerbaijani guitarists heavily influenced by flamenco, and interviews with performers that were eager to expand on the incredible variety of influences and global interests that had informed their musical character. As our work continued, we also became more engaged with the club and underground music culture in all three countries; unrelated as it was to our focus on folk music, the process was totally engaging, watching as the scene began to broaden, gaining momentum and notoriety.
Over time our focus has shifted from ethnographic recordings to finding new ways to support the incredibly diverse range of musical practices in the region and examine the ways they sometimes overlap and mix together. This has meant broadening both the framework and the practices of Mountains of Tongues; to take a holistic and inclusive approach that considers the role of music in the everyday life of people in the Caucasus. We founded the Caucasus All Frequency Festival, a concert and workshop series that brings together experimental/electronic artists and “folk” musicians to exchange knowledge, collaborate, and form a wider musical network. We’ve made a film called Gitara, focused on the history and culture of the relatively unknown world of Azeri wedding guitarists. We’ve begun providing tour support for musicians from the Caucasus, trying to books them shows with independent artists and festivals around Europe. And we’re halfway through the first season of our Caucasus All Frequency podcast, structured around broad themes (Music and Food, Music and Celebration, for example) that hopefully provide listeners with a new way of listening to music in the region.
On the Caucasus All Frequency podcast we’ve started a series of episodes meant to draw attention to musicians, collectives, venues, and institutions that could use your support during the Covid-19 crisis. The Pandemic has had particularly devastating consequences for music scenes and musicians of all sorts in the region, with clubs closing, classes and workshops cancelled, and musicians who typically work on a gig by gig basis left with no form of income. We’re asking listeners of the podcast and readers of The Calvert Journal to help support music in the Caucasus by buying albums on Bandcamp, liking Facebook pages, and sharing, commenting, and encouraging the scene in whatever way you can. The list below is by no means a comprehensive one; it’s meant to serve as an entry point into the many activities happening within the Caucasus musical world, all exciting and worthy of attention regardless of genre or demographic.
Listen to more podcasts from Mountains of Tongues here. Read on to discover more music from the Caucasus.
An essential part of the musical infrastructure in Georgia, Creative Education Studio was one of the first places to offer classes in audio engineering, DJ-ing,electronic music production, modular synthesis, and Graphic Design. They’re also one of the first labels in the Caucasus to release material on vinyl, with an emphasis on female artists. Read about their inaugural compilation Sleepers, Poets, Scientists here, and listen to their latest release Halfie by Anushka Chkheidze.
A choir founded and directed by Zoe Perrot, who is originally from France but has spent the last 12 years in Georgia researching and practicing polyphonic singing to the point that she has become a well known and highly respected performer within the Georgian folk scene. Uniquely, the group sings not just regional folk but mixes in a variety of french repertoire, illustrating the choir’s talent and versatility.
A mysterious collective of faceless musicians (they were sporting masks and bandannas for live performances pre-COVID19) that release excellent compilations and also organise some of the best gigs in Tbilisi, taking remote rehearsal studios and transforming them into packed, multi-stage all night parties. Check out their show on Mutant Radio and buy their stuff on bandcamp.
Founded by Levan Shanshiashvili, aka Kid Jesus, this long standing concert series has gone online for a run of shows that feature intimate performances by some of the best contemporary Georgian artists.
Bohemnots epitomises the distinctly dark, noisy, and eclectic DIY nature of the Armenian underground music scene. This collective puts on some of the most far reaching and far fetched shows you’ve never heard of. Whether they’re stringing electric wire over a highway to power the sound system in an abandoned restaurant in Gyumri, renting out a strip club in Vanadzor to host a one off show, commandeering a Soviet era artist’s collective on the shores of lake Sevan, or streaming an unpredictable mash up of tunes on their radio, Bohemnots are doing it right — tune in to their stream and support them through Patreon.
Based in Yerevan, Plug-in has been offering classes in music production and hosting a variety of workshop series. Just before the quarantine they were forced to stop activities due to a lack of space and funding but we’re hoping in the future they can resume their activities. For now they are hosting a quarantine challenge, asking local musicians to contribute home-made tracks to be released as a compilation.
DKTSK is the record label and project of HOV (Hovsep Aghjian), a Beirut-born electronic music producer who has become incredibly active in Yerevan since the return to his homeland a few years ago. He frequently performs at Poligraf, one of the city’s best clubs, teaches interactive online Ableton courses, and is producing albums for groups like Jrimurmur.
An Iranian composer based in Yerevan, Azadi has a rich and varied discography that includes avant-garde pieces for tape, electronics, and acoustic instruments, guitar driven industrial ambient soundscapes, and audio visual experiments featuring the Iranian setar. Follow his work and collaborations here.
Salaam is quite possibly the hardest working and most inclusive artistic community in all of Baku, their activities housed in a historic Molokan prayer house in the center of the city. Salaam has exhibitions, film screenings, concerts, and in the near future will start a music school and workshop series that will work to bring young and old generations together in dialogue.
Online radio coming to you via the home of Anar Keytarman, music producer and engineer. The show features local musicians giving on air interviews and performances and it’s for sure the only independent radio of it’s kind in all of Azerbaijan. It’s not streaming 24/7 so best to follow on facebook where broadcasts times will be announced.
The metal scene in the Caucasus doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves and with groups like Pyraweed it’s a real shame. This Sleep inspired Stoner Doom Metal band is one of the heaviest live acts in the region, touring more than most and selling out a recent show in Tbilisi — find them here on Bandcamp.
She is a native of Georgia but performs and sings in the style of the Azeri ashiq tradition. She has toured the world, performing at Tusk Festival, Womad festival, and has a record out on the Cafe Oto label. She was preparing for her show organized by Richard Dawson as part of his sold-out series at Barbican before it got cancelled. Her newest album Qərib Həyat (Strange Times) is being released on our own Mountain of Tongues label.