It’s often been said that Georgian folk singing is out of the world. That’s quite literally the case with one particular song, “Chakrulo.” Forty years ago, it went into space on board the Voyager spacecraft as part of NASA’s message to the universe. With its eye on fame in this galaxy and beyond, Georgia has not missed the chance to mark the anniversary.
A series of events in Tbilisi this week will celebrate “Chakrulo,” a powerful, polyphonic folk battle song included in the Golden Record of 27 selections of world music that traveled with the two Voyagers on August 20 and September 5, 1977. Aside from film screenings and a concert, NASA’s Voyager Project Manager John Casani and Mars Exploration Program Manager Rob Manning are in town for lectures and roundtables about space exploration and science.
“Chakrulo” took off into space over objections from Soviet Moscow, which instead proposed the famous Russian song “Moscow Nights” for the Voyager Golden Record. It was American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, a project consultant, who suggested the polyphonic Georgian melody.
The NASA team was enchanted by the song. “It was extraordinary. The music was penetrating to the soul and the team said ‘This is it. ‘Chakrulo’ is the song,’” said Damian Wampler, cultural affairs officer with the US embassy in Tbilisi.
At first glance, it might appear that the anniversary is an opportunity for some geopolitical point-making. The US embassy and the Georgian government are co-organizing the September 25-28 events, with the government picking up some of the tab.
Yet it was filmmaker Ramaz Bluashvili, son of one of the singers of “Chakrulo,” who pushed for recognition of the song’s voyage into space.
Bluashvili’s father, Otar, told Tamada Tales that, at the time, his folk ensemble, today known as Erisioni, had no idea that their rendition of “Chakrulo” was among the international songs that the Voyagers would carry into space.
“We only found about it later, when we arrived in the United States to hold a concert there,” said Otar Bluashvili, now Erisioni’s director. “Voyager 2 was launched on September 5. We arrived in the US two weeks later, on September 17, and that’s when we were told about it.”
One of the original song’s two lead singers, Rostom Saginashvili, will make an appearance in Tbilisi’s Opera House for a repeat Erisioni performance of “Chakrulo” on September 28. (The other singer, Ilia Zakaidze, is no longer living.)
The only other musical piece from the then Soviet Union to make the Golden Record was a recording of Azerbaijan’s trademark mugam folk music, performed on balabans, a wind instrument with a sound somewhat akin to a bagpipe.
“[C]ompelling and beautiful” folk recordings like the balabans were part of the reason why the 90-minute Golden Record had limited spots for classic Western musicians, project manager Carl Sagan, the celebrity scientist, wrote.
For Baku, ever active in PR, Azerbaijan’s haunting mugam having triumphed over 19th-century French composer Claude Debussy and other greats (according to Sagan) might seem a topic worth promoting. But, though Azerbaijan is the only Caucasus country to ever have launched anything of its own into space (satellites in 2013 and 2015, no commemoration of its role in the Golden Record appears to be planned.