December 11, 2012

Georgians Revive Tradition of Sacred Chanting

December 4, 2012

Since the fourth century AD, Georgians have proudly nurtured their brand of Orthodox Christianity. But it hasn’t always been easy. Now young Georgians want to reconnect with their rich religious past.

The Gremi monastery in Eastern Georgia can be seen from miles around. The 16th century stone monument sits high on a hill overlooking the green valley of Kakheti. Inside the monastery, young monks and seminary students perform midday services.

During Soviet times, the Georgian Orthodox religion was discouraged. Many of the seminaries closed. But when Georgia became independent in 1991, seminaries like Gremi started opening again.

19-year-old student Gigla Benashvili says people in his generation now want to know more about their religious roots.

"I have a lot of friends and they are curious to know what I am doing here, what I am studying here," Benashvili told DW.

Benashvili spends a lot of his day learning sacred chant. The three-part chant sounds different, more dissonant, than European arrangements. Benashvili says he didn't like it at first.

"When I was about 12 or 13 years old I didn't like Georgian folk music or chant. And my mother wanted me to study chant and also folk music and I refused. I didn't want it. I didn't like it," he said.

Now Benashvili loves singing these chants that go back to the tenth century. He says it makes him feel more connected to Georgian history and to his faith.

In the old days, master chanters would travel from choir to choir teaching the arrangements. When the last master chanter died in 1967, a lot of that knowledge died with him. John Graham is a doctoral student from Princeton studying chant in Georgia. He says because chant was an oral tradition, the process of resurrecting it has taken a lot of detective work.

"The real advance came when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Anchiskati church choir, which was made up of a bunch of young men in their early twenties who were conservatory graduates by and large, they gained access to the archives and found all of these thousands of transcriptions of old chant and started singing them," Graham explains.

Then choir members transcribed the chants into books and started a chant school in Tbilisi. They want to train a new generation of singers who can teach this music throughout Georgia and share it with the world. John Graham says despite Georgian chant's rich history, it's still not really on the radar of many music scholars.

"It's not that the international community under-estimates it, it's just complete ignorance. There have not been any foreign language books whatsoever written about Georgian chant. It's one of the great sacred music traditions of the world and it really hasn't received its due attention yet."