Young Georgians are reviving a lost tradition of hymns and folk music as they strive to reestablish their country's cultural identity and historical tradition as something distinct from Russian or Soviet influence.
In recent years, Georgia has seen a surge of interest in preserving traditions that predate the country's 1804 annexation by the Tsarist Empire and 1921 re-annexation by Bolshevik Russia - an interest in national identity partly stimulated by the uncertainties of the present.
Among teenage and 20-something Georgians, born not long before or after their country's 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, that interest in "Georgian-ness" plays a particular role.
Beka Kemulania, an 18-year-old business student who sings in a volunteer choir at one of Tbilisi's largest churches, explains that his ancestors' music -- both sacred and folk -- is part of who he is.
"[F]or me, it is everything," he said. "These Georgian songs are our life."
Kemulania's choir, Agsavali ("Ascension") made up of six men aged 18-32 years old, meets at least two times a week and practices for up to three hours. The members -- mostly business and banking professionals -- have so far recorded one CD of chants from the Georgian Orthodox Church.
At 1,683 years old, the Church easily functions as a focus point for young Georgians' exploration of their cultural past. In recent years, its traditional influence has metastasized, with observance of Orthodox rituals and holidays increasingly de rigueur. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
As the Church gains in popularity among the young, so has the notion of preserving its original polyphonic chants. Some choir members say that going to church first sparked their interest in performing the music.
Malkhaz Erkvanidze, who now teaches chants at Tbilisi's Higher School of Chanting and Folk Songs, started the movement to revive Georgian Orthodox chants and music over 20 years ago when he began attending masses as a Tbilisi State Conservatory student.
The music sung in churches at the time -- when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union -- was unfit for church services, he recalled.
"I had the feeling that this music does not suit the Lord's soul," he said. Georgian polyphony, one of the world's oldest polyphonic traditions, is known for its complex harmony and structure.
Under Soviet rule, it was "not possible" to talk about or to promote reviving traditional Church chants, but as the Communist Party's influence began to crack, Erkvanidze set to work.
Erkvanidze and other scholars have so far released six books of polyphonic chants, transcribed and edited from versions found in the Georgian National Center of Manuscripts' archives. The archives contain an estimated 8,000 chants written in European scales - a format that Erkvanidze believes does not capture the "unique" harmony and timbre of the original chants, which had been passed on orally for centuries. The scales were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
John Graham, a Princeton University PhD candidate in musicology who is writing his dissertation on the process of transcribing the archives' chants, states that Georgians have managed to recapture an art form that was lost. "It has gone from being blacklisted and something that was not allowed -- even known about -- to being something that is widespread and valued," Graham said.
The phenomenon embraces secular music, too. New Georgian choirs now usually perform at least one or two of the revised Church chants, as well as polyphonic folk songs recorded at the beginning of the 20th century, and "sing in the particular mannerisms" of folk singers from that time, said Graham.
During the Soviet era, the government supported the creation of folk music ensembles, but the folk songs were compressed to fit a large choir format. No place existed for improvisation, which was part of the original art form, Graham noted.
Understanding that original art form is an integral part of Georgians' search for their identity, commented Tamaz Gabisonia, a Georgian polyphony specialist at Tbilisi State Conservatory. "Everyone hears from childhood how unique Georgian music is, that it is a worldwide phenomenon," Gabisonia said.
For Kakha Jangashvili, a young member of Tbilisi's Didgori choir, which sings both church chants and folk songs, performing both types of traditional music is a way to honor his ancestors. "This brings us satisfaction, first of all," he said. "With these songs, we are bringing our ancestors to life."
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Tbilisi.