Sacred chants make a comeback as Georgia's cultural history resurfaces

Young men sing Georgian sacred chants at Gremi Monastery in Kakheti, Georgia.
Andreas Reeg

TBILISI, Georgia — With her gray hair tucked into a black knit cap and a grin stretched from ear to ear, Lia Salakaia stands with a group of children inside the entrance of a Tbilisi church. As the Georgian Orthodox service finishes, Salakaia raises her hands and the children begin to sing slow, mournful chants, their eyes closely following Salakaia's every direction. The harmonies these children struggle to sing are notable both for their complexity and their rarity.

Georgian sacred chants, with their unusual three-part harmonies and minimal vibrato, date back to the 10th century. But the sounds are relatively new to modern Georgia. Georgian religious traditions like sacred chant were suppressed under Soviet rule. Only since Georgia regained its independence in 1991 have the old songs been resurrected.

Now a movement is underway to reintroduce traditional religious chants to Georgian youth, hungry for a deeper connection to their country's cultural past.

Salakaia is the first stop for many children eager to learn the music. The petite 66-year-old earned the title “godmother of Georgian chant," for her passionate teaching and the gentle way she coaxes children to learn these difficult, often dissonant-sounding harmonies.

“I say to them, 'No one taught you how to speak. You just listened to your parents, and you started to speak. So you can listen to me sing, and step by step you will learn how to sing,'” she says. “And most of them do.”

Salakaia travels constantly, bringing these chants almost single-handedly back to Georgia's network of small towns and rural villages. “I don't want to miss any child,” she says.

After graduating from Salakaia's introductory choirs, some students continue their studies with Malkhaz Erkvanidze, director of the Sakhioba Ensemble and one of the chief scholars of the sacred music movement.

Following Georgia's independence from Soviet rule in the 1990s, Erkvanidze was one of the music scholars who pushed to bring sacred chant from obscurity back to church services. He and others unearthed a small cache of sacred chant recordings from the state archive. It was an important find, given most of the chants had only been passed down orally.

He says the last recordings were made in 1966 by an 80-year-old master chanter who sang all three parts by himself to demonstrate how the voices work together. “He was the last master who was still alive,” Erkvanidze says, adding that the man died a few months after the 1966 recordings were made.

Erkvanidze transcribed the chants into songbooks and opened Tbilisi's first chant school where young men, most sporting trim dark beards, attend classes Monday through Friday. Only a few students have completed the new program, but those who have already plan to teach.

“It's become a debt that we've studied, and now it's important for us to teach the next generation,” says recent chant school graduate Giga Jalaghonia.

Since Erkvanidze's chant school only allows men to enroll, the young women like Baia Zhuzhunadze who want to pursue sacred music head to Tbilisi's conservatory. Zhuzhunadze is studying cultural musicology at the conservatory. She says that at first, European classical music was easier for her ears. But when she and her friends began listening to Georgian traditional music, they felt as though they rediscovered their identity.

“We think European music is great,” Zhuzhunadze says. “But Germans and French can research their own culture's music. We Georgians, we are too few, we must do something to preserve this music.”

This hunger to connect with their country's roots is common among young Georgians, says Timothy Blauvelt, country director for American Councils in Georgia and a professor of Soviet studies at Ilia State University. He says Zhuzhunadze's generation has the time and opportunity to explore their Georgian identity because, although the unemployment rate is high, times are better than during her parents' or grandparents' youth.

“You have the parents who grew up at the tail end of the Soviet period or the bad years of the 1990s, when there was a civil war and no electricity. That generation wanted very material things—food on the table and a car in the garage," says Blauvelt. “This generation has grown up with more stability. They have less materialistic values, and their interests are expanding beyond basic survival.”

Zhuzhunadze says the communism and atheism of Soviet times prevented many elder Georgians from passing on cultural traditions to the younger generation. “Now the younger generation, my generation, are discovering it on our own. And we are getting our parents interested in it too,” she says.

At least one elder Georgian is sharing her knowledge of old traditions. The gray-haired Lia Salakaia continues to make her rounds through Georgia's small towns, with no cell phone, just “a pair of iron shoes,” she says.

“It's like if Georgians couldn't speak the Georgian language without going to classes. I want to help children understand their country's music,” she says. “My job is to unfreeze their ears.”

Research for this report was supported by a 2012 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University 
of Southern California's Knight Chair in Media and Religion.