Ensemble Mzetamze Traditional Songs of Georgian Women, Vol. 1
(Face Music Switzerland, 1996)
Folk music has become a flexible term, a catch-all for everything from acoustic storytellers to traditional dance music. What's often left out is the actual music sung by, well, folks from every region. Lullabies, children's chants, chore songs -- the tunes that every member of a community learns in childhood and the songs that tie them together through life -- are usually the first to be forgotten. Perhaps not coincidentally, these also tend to be songs known and transmitted by women. Ensemble Mzetamze helps to highlight at least some of this custom with Traditional Songs of Georgian Women, Vol. 1.
Try to remember more than two verses of a favorite lullaby and you'll likely come up blank. Most of the songs on from Ensemble Mzetamze are similarly brief, running one to three minutes long, but with 39 tracks the collection is still a respectable length. The songs seem to be chosen for cultural significance and variety rather than musical value. Few of the songs on the album are unpleasant, but anyone who has sung to themselves during housecleaning or fallen asleep to a mother's lullaby will be familiar with the sort of simple melodies and repetitive lyrics that make up most of these tracks. They're songs that would be easy to overlook without a knowledge of their significance.
Ensemble Mzetamze provides detailed liner notes, giving information on both the performers and the often surprising uses of the song within Georgian culture. Unfortunately, songs are discussed by type, and sometimes seemingly at random, which can make it hard to match the track to the song. Still, there are fascinating bits of information to be found here, from ways to sing off a demon to the proper way to carry a work song. With the proper rhythm and teamwork, it's clear that chasing away evil or churning butter can be, if not quite fun, at least diverting.
The lullabies and work songs are interesting, but the collection's most lasting impression comes from the wide selection of dirges. Georgian women's dirges are collective affairs, with a lead singer and a wailing chorus honoring and lamenting the one passed on. The organization required for the song is easily overlooked, as the rough sobbing of the chorus and the grief sharpened ones of the lead singer combine to form a sense of ungoverned sorrow. It's a haunting effect, evoking both empathy and a slight chill from any listener.
Mzetamze notes that the importance of the songs has caused some of their themes to bleed over into more daily music, and indeed that effect can be heard in many of the tracks here. When the final track, the long and heart-tearing "Iavnana: to be sung at God's gate" ends, the disturbing echoes of the piece will sink into listeners as deeply as it has Georgian culture.
While the dirges are the most affecting, the other songs are perhaps more pervasive. Work songs, lullabies, or songs to heal distress, they have all had to survive transmission from unskilled teacher to half-listening audience and have become a part of a culture's life. Don't be surprised if one or
written by Sarah Meador
published 18 September 2004