At first listen, The Shin may sound like your average rocking band from Georgia. After all, they play the good ol’ strings from way down South. And, of course, the funky drums from up North. But listen closely and you’ll catch the crunchy consonant clusters of the Caucasus instead of a Southern drawl.
The Shin flies in the face of the purist revival ensembles that dominate in Georgia today, tweaking staid notions of what it means to be traditional. Born and raised in a country famous for its elaborate vocal polyphony, The Shin’s members have burst out with their own brand of scat—inspired by a traditional approach to singing the consonant-heavy Georgian language—and with a passion for South Indian and flamenco styles. Their hope: to dust the cobwebs off the gems of Georgian and Caucasian music and launch them into the wider world of today.
The Shin will tour the United States in late May, showcasing their approach to new Georgian traditions in music and dance. Concert cities include New York City, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia.
Georgian music has experienced a passionate revival since the country’s independence in the early 1990s. Many around the world are now hearing Georgian music for the first time, and most are enamored. In the last ten years amateur Georgian music ensembles have begun popping up all over the globe.
In The Shin’s performances the flashy costumes, careful orchestrations, choreographed acrobatics, and colossal ensembles associated with the Soviet-era stage give way to a more subtle celebration of Georgian vocal, instrumental, and dance tradition in a pared-down format and with a decidedly relaxed attitude. In an effort to restore Georgian tradition to its unpretentious roots, The Shin places a premium on experiment and improvisation, spotlighting each ensemble member as an individual artist and performer. The Shin melts rather than mixes the traditional sounds of Georgia’s diverse musical dialects with styles already in global circulation. Here the Persian-inflected melismas of the eastern Georgian regions, the rich polyphonic textures of the West and the fiercely proud rhythms of the mountainous North are woven with musical threads of India, the Iberian peninsula, jazz, and even European classical music.
Georgia’s instrumental tradition has been largely overshadowed by the hype about vocal polyphony, but The Shin creatively embraces traditional string, percussion, and reed instruments as tools for virtuosic improvisation. In The Shin’s music, the traditionally accompanimental panduri lute shreds alongside the guitar. The goatskin chiboni bagpipes again dance across the stage at full blast.
Most strikingly, the non-lexical lyrics on which lead vocalist/percussionist Mamuka Ghaghanidze frequently showcases his vocal pyrotechnics are rooted in Georgian vocal tradition yet morphed here to resemble South Indian solkattu and scat. The band members are convinced there’s a method to the seeming phonetic madness. “Their improvised vocables capture Georgian drum or dance rhythms,” explains ethnomusicologist and long-time fan Lauren Ninoshvili. “Part of it is about being able to produce more sound, and therefore to be able to sing faster and more complicated things than if they stayed with the consonant-heavy Georgian language. Part of it is because so few audiences outside of Georgia would understand anyway, so that’s not how they expect to communicate.”
The Shin’s witty, defiant take on tradition sprung from decades of playing around with the possibilities of the old Georgian songs they had sung growing up. “My family was always singing traditional songs when I was small, especially my grandma and her sisters. I loved that very much,” recalls singer and bassist Zurab Gagnidze. “But when I was young and in ninth or tenth grade, I switched to the Beatles and jazz-rock, fusion stuff. And I studied it. But later, tradition came back to me again. Because I was older I was thinking, ‘What am I doing? If I am doing music, I have to do something from me, a new generation for this old music.’”
Thanks to John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, musicians of The Shin discovered inspiring coincidences linking Georgia with some unexpected places: Spain and the Indian Subcontinent. Georgian music has a common rhythm in 5/8. Whereas the Turkish and Bulgarian five-beat rhythms emphasize beats one and three, the Georgian and Indian five-beat cycle emphasizes beats one and four. “Of course, Indian music has just about every rhythm,” says Gagnidze with a smile.
“Oddly enough, Georgia’s old name is Iberia. And surprisingly we share more than you would expect with the region. Language specialists see a tie to the Basque language. Some of the dishes of Northern Spain are the same. But the real giveaway that we are connected is the fiery temperament of the people,” Gagnidze laughs. Flamenco’s spare, subtle intensity of music and movement, and its focus on individual expression, were a tremendous influence on The Shin’s back-to-the-basics approach to Georgian music performance. Zaza Miminoshvili keeps the flamenco sound—and attitude—ever-present from his perch atop a stool with his nylon-string guitar.
The way back to their musical homeland—“shin” in Georgian means home—is improvisation, a way of recapturing the spark and spontaneity of tradition. The group took a traditional horse-riding song from western Georgia, humorously translated it as a “song about a Caucasian cowboy” called “Born in the Saddle,” and turned it into a lightning-fast instrumental ditty peppered with light-hearted scat solos. Elsewhere they trade percussion licks with their voices, whip through Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland” in seven, and bust out solos on the panduri.
The Shin spent years figuring out the best way to incorporate dance into their performances, and to restore the element of improvisation, individuality, and spontaneous expression to traditional Georgian movement. “Dance in Georgia in the Soviet period wasn’t real dance, it was all flashy show: Spring up in the air and then jump and fall on your knees,” Gagnidze laughs. “Sometimes this is very effective. But we didn’t want to do a big Broadway show. We were trying to find dancer who ‘sings’ like us. A more personal expression.” Like the other members of the ensemble, The Shin’s dancer is a true soloist who emerges organically and spontaneously from among the seated musicians, adding an improvised visual melody to the mix.
While some in Georgia have objected to their wild and witty vision for a global Caucasus sound, The Shin’s musicians are unfazed. “We do what we like,” Gagnidze states. “This is the main thing for me. I want to perform Georgian traditional music so that it is alive for today and people can enjoy it and dance to it or sing it every day. Not just to keep it in some museum.”
The Shin’s music reinitiates a peaceful dialogue between East and West, old and new, “ours” and “theirs”—a dialogue which has existed in Georgian culture for centuries. One can experience it in the works of famous Georgian masters—the poetry of Shota Rustaveli, the paintings of Niko Pirosmani, the architecture of Tbilisi, the choreography of George Balanchine, the films of Otar Ioseliani, and yes... the music of The Shin.