A Quest for Georgian Folk Music

Folk music has a property of transportation to it. Irish music brings you to the waves crashing against a rocky shore and long fields of emerald grass, bluegrass brings you to a raging river and a clearing in a hilly forest, and Georgian folk carries you to the loftiest, snowcapped mountains and the deepest canyons of raging waters. Just closing your eyes and listening to the rhythmic polyphony summons images of racing horses cutting corners and sending rocks and pebbles skippering down the steep slopes. 

It’s not the most accessible and easy-to-find music online, and no small part of that quandary is because of the name of “Georgia” itself, which often hides any internet search pages deep behind the American state. More rigid searches are always necessary (and can be done more easily if you just substitute the English word for the Georgian word and type “kartuli music”, but then you might end up getting hip hop, rock, or church music).

The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs

6 Samghebro Str., Tel. 032 245 77 21

3 lari entrance, 5 lari for tour

My first experience with Georgian music was with one such search. Years ago, before I originally came to the country, I was struggling to find anything I could on it. Erisioni’s “Georgian Legend” was just about the only Georgian video that had been uploaded to YouTube (today there are hundreds of Georgian folk songs, though few are recorded and presented with such quality as Erisioni’s video, and it’s a real tragedy). Fast forward and now I’m in Tbilisi looking for sheet music for Georgian folk songs.
My first stop was at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs. The museum is easy to find: it’s just behind Meidan Square with lots of signage. Two staircases down into a courtyard and there’s the door. From there everything gets a bit awkward. I opened the door and two mustachioed police officers looked up at me from their desk next to the enrance. It seemed I was interrupting their viewing of the latest Turkish soap opera. The thin one brought me to the back office, where a bunch of ladies and a man seemed to be having some kind of impromptu office feast. Then there was a discussion of how much I should pay. After some confusion of why I was there, it was finally decided I would pay 8 lari (3 lari for the entrance, and 5 for the tour, even with a group it’s just 5 lari).

Anyone who visits the Folk Songs museum should definitely get the tour. There are two large rooms with various instruments hanging on the walls and just about zero information on them. With the tour, they show you a video, which has samples of each instrument and how they sounded.
Before going to the museum, I was only aware of two Georgian folk instruments, the panduri and chonguri, both can be described as differently sized Georgian ukuleles used for wild rhythmic strumming. Those are the only two that even many Georgians know about. But after watching that video and visiting the museum, I learned there was quite a selection of instruments, and that one aspect that varied a lot of the music from region to region was which instruments were in popular use there (and during any one era, popular use could simply be defined as someone in some village in that region who happened to know how to make that kind of instrument).
There are few instruments that are truly native to Georgia, most having been brought in along the Silk Road in either direction, from Asia or Europe, and modified in some manner to the local needs. For example, the piano accordion normally shares the same key layout as a piano: a row of white lower keys and some scattered black keys to be used for sharps and flats. But the Georgian version, the “garmon”, has no second layer of keys, the instrument is just simply tuned to the Georgian scale. They also have a smaller diatonic version called the tsutsu. And let’s not forget their version of a cello, which looks like a large drum with strings over it.

With their winds, they share a lot in common with the other countries in the area. For example, the Egyptian duduk is quite common in Georgian music, especially in their funeral dirges. There are also local varieties of the bagpipe and banjo, and there’s a Svan instrument that looks something like a harp but is much smaller and looks like a ship, complete with ornamental carvings on its bow.
Here in Tbilisi gathered the instruments in their true form, brought in by traders, with the most various influences from all around. So if you hear a Georgian folk song that seems unmistakably Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, then it’s quite likely that it originated from Tbilisi.
The most interesting thing in the museum wasn’t Georgian though. They had a rather large collection of working German barrel organs, which the attendant was quite happy to demonstrate. They had not just the standard variety found in Pirosmani’s paintings of feast celebrations, but also large ones disguised as wardrobes, and even a Russian one that, instead of using strings or tines, used a bellows to make a kind of accordion sound.

V. Sarajishvili Tbilisi State Conservatoire

8/10 Alexander Griboedov Str., Call: 032 298 71 86

The Conservatory is the premiere place to study music in Tbilisi. As you approach its main buildings, just one block off Rustaveli, you can hear the cacophony of sound bouncing off the concrete walls of the buildings lining the street. All at once you hear various operatic voices practicing scales, along with flutes, trumpets, and violins, all doing their own things, creating a truly magnificent auditory whirlwind. The street is largely residential as well, so I can only imagine that people must be quite hot in those apartments having boarded up their windows to at last get some semblance of peace and quiet!
The Conservatory is the first European music school in the Caucasus, opening its doors in 1917 and named after a prominent Georgian singer of the early Soviet period. They occasionally host public cultural events, but for the most part, they operate as any university conservatory does, focused on scholarly affairs.
When I went there on my quest to find sheet music, I was quickly brushed aside. The entry hall is quite foreboding. Indeed, it’s just a stairwell with a desk, attended by an old lady with glasses perched on
the end of her nose. First in my Georgian, I asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Can you help me find some information on Georgian folk music?” I continued in Georgian.
“Do you know anywhere they might sell sheet music?”
“No. Not here. Oh, maybe down in the tunnel under the opera.”
I later found out they actually do have publicly available classes in Georgian folk music. It’s a 10-month course in English and also teaches two folk instruments. The fee is 3 000 USD and some background in music is required. You can find the application on their website.

Prospero’s Books

34 Rustaveli Ave., Call: 0322 92 35 92

I went down to the tunnel in front of the Opera. Nothing there but a souvenir shop. It did appear that there used to be an assortment of shops there, but all their windows were closed and graffitied over. It then occurred to me that I was right near the famous English language bookstore, Prospero’s, so I thought I’d give them a shot.
“Do you have any sheet music for Georgian folk songs?” I asked.
“Not now. I think we used to. We have some CDs.”
No luck there. But it’s worth a shot while you’re in town.
That left me with one last idea of where to get information about Georgian folk music, short of showing up at a dance studio.

The Folklore State Centre of Georgia

68 Aghmashenebeli Ave., Call: 995 32 957 503

After visiting here, it doesn’t seem to me that they really exist for the general public. It’s more of an institute that works on their own documentaries and research, with little available for anyone coming in as a guest, especially if you only speak English (Russian speakers will have a bit more luck)—they do have a series of great events though, but outside that… A discussion with one man there led me to his office where he had stacks of books. There he found some Soviet-era volumes: each book was a huge collection of folk songs from one region each. Apparently, there are hundreds of songs from each region, and sheet music! I asked where I could buy a book like that. He shrugged, saying that was from the Soviet times. But in typical Georgian fashion:
“I know a guy though that could get you a book like this.”
“Does this guy have a store?”
“Not so much,” the man replied. “But if you want, I’ll call him. I know he has a book of music from Guria.”
“What about church music? Do you know any places with good choirs?” I asked.
“Maybe a good place to start,” he replied, “would be Sameba Cathedral and Anchiskhati next to the puppet theater.”

Welcome to Georgia

1 Vakhtang Gorgasali Str., Call: 593 74 80 08

A performance full of kitsch and cheesiness, it still does a solid job of giving you a display of all the best parts of Georgian culture without the nuance of the bad, and that more than especially means a show loaded with folk song and dance. The show is mostly in English, though they do take the time to teach you some key Georgian phrases.

Sounds of Georgia

Tickets are 24 lari at various locations.

Call: 599 88 33 99

This is a group that arranges various folk music gatherings across Tbilisi, 4 times a week at 5:00 pm. Their website is unfortunately only in Russian, but if that’s no problem for you or you’re good with Google Translate, then have it. Alternatively, you can try the ticket site which has an English translation function at the top right of the page.

Brewery Alani

1 Vakhtang Gorgasali Str., Call: 593 74 80 08

Technically an Ossetian restaurant, but they have a Georgian kitchen plus a few other tasty items. Easily the most “folksy” of the restaurants on this list and they also have the most approachable prices. Order the house wine and get a true taste of the Georgian supra (meaning the wine is on the vinegary side). Dances go on about every 20 minutes after 8:00 pm.

Old City Wall

2 Shota Nishnianidze Str., Call: 599 30 51 71

For something a bit more upscale and in the old town, Old City Wall is a great destination. With incredible live folk “table music” from 8:00 every night, it also features some of the best food and service in the touristic neighborhood, but expect prices to match.


40/2 Akaki Beliashvili Str., Call: 032 200 55 55

If you want to know where the Georgians themselves go to watch some dancing and have a nice meal, then head out of the center to Tsiskvili. In fact, there’s a whole row of restaurants alongside the river near metro Digomi, well outside of the touristic areas. These restaurants themselves look like they would be touristic, full of flashy or interesting decoration (indeed, one looks like a cruise ship), but they actually form the center artery of much of local restaurant preferences. Tsiskvili is one of the best, and guaranteed to have high quality song and dance every night. Call ahead for reservations or to make sure it’s not booked for a wedding or other event.

In the Shadow of Metekhi

29 Ketevan Tsamebuli Ave., Call: 032 230 30 30

One of my favorites for a more upscale dining experience. Across from the Sheraton and perched high up on a cliff over the river, the place has great atmosphere and stellar views. Though it’s pretty tempting to sit outside, stay inside and enjoy the music and dancing! The better views of the stage go to the larger tables though, so you might end up having to get up to watch.

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