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Echoes of the Ancestors Life, Death and Transition - Georgian traditional polyphony

This article is provided courtesy of Caduceus Magazine (

In the crisp mountain sunshine of the mountain valley I can hear faint echoes of ancient harmonies carried on the wind, drawing us in. We must wait, says Kakha, our host, and approach in a group when more people arrive to pay their respects.

We proceed slowly with care, tiptoeing and slithering our way uphill through muddied potholes rutted with hooves of oxen and countless pig trotters. We are overtaken by families arriving en masse, women clad in black and men in grey Svan hats.

This is a Svan funeral in the Georgian High Caucasus village of Latali, one of the few singing villages left in Upper Svaneti. The deceased, Pridon Gvichiani, was once the village doctor. Facing illness himself, his family had taken him to the capital city, Tbilisi, for treatment. In accordance with tradition, his body has come home to be laid to rest.

The homestead is perched on the edge of the hillside. A throng of men are congregated in the yard. We pause by the gate, gathering breath. As if on cue, the mourning ritual harmonies begin again. The men are singing a funeral ‘Zari’; one word-sound ‘Vai’ repeats itself, over and over… Vai! vai!

The men are not singing in Western scales but on the outer edges of their own quintave, tuning system. The sound they make is laced with a salt and vinegar that sets the teeth on edge.

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