The Zedashe Ensemble is based in the medieval fortress city of Sighnaghi, Eastern Georgia, which has been home to the Kiziqian wine growers and warriors since ancient times. Directed by Ketevan Mindorashvili, the current incarnation of the ensemble was founded in the mid-1990s to sing repertoire largely lost during the ...
In the country of Georgia, the soil holds history. Around the ancient fortress town of Sighnagi, in the east of Georgia, the soil grows vines that produce delicate wine that’s sometimes buried in earthenware jars called zedashes and brought out once a year to ceremonially toast ancestors. It’s part of the ritual of life, the living cycle of the past in the present.
Zedashe is the perfect name for the ensemble that brings Georgia’s hidden music into the light. Their latest album, Our Earth and Water (Living Roots Music; release: September 18, 2015), distills sonic history to its resonant, soaring essence. They’ll be presenting the music and movement that inspires them live on a four-week American tour in September and October.
“We started this huge thing by bringing liturgical music back into the church,” explains Zedashe founder and stunning vocalist Ketevan Mindorashvili, “and we were very proud, and then we got into folk music. It’s so similar. Everyone wants to prove that one came first, but no one really knows. It’s the same root and harmony.”
Those three-part polyphonic harmonies that characterize the vocals of Zedashe offer a sometimes spare, sometimes lush beauty to Our Earth and Water, filled with elaborate vocal ornamentation. Voices creates layers of sound that flicker and turn like a flock of starlings in the sky. “That’s deliberate,” Mindorashvili insists. “This is a song that needs freedom. The melodies are the beginning. The voices have to be free to fly like a bird.”
“Traditional singers see themselves of bearer of tradition,” observes John Wurdeman, a visual artist, Georgia-based winemaker, and band manager. “Their talent and energy is spent understanding, learning, and passing on what came before them. Some may tweak or even compose their own creations. They channel the energy and somehow bring it into our times. It’s neither ancient nor modern, it’s a living culture. You usher it in, you expose it to people. It’s a sentiment and aesthetics that transcend centuries.”
The energy is palpable in multilayered songs like “Apkhazuri,” a pounding wedding tune that reflects one of Georgia’s many musically diverse ethnic groups, the Abkhazians, who settled in Georgian territory in the 11th century and who have long figured in Russian imperial ambitions. (Recently, Georgia has faced some of the same pressures as Ukraine.) Yet Georgia is no satellite state or recently forged nation. It’s an ancient cultural hearth, one of Europe’s first Christian kingdoms, and a vital crossroads that was once connected to the rest of the world via the Silk Road. (Zedashe was recently featured on the Discovery Channel’s journey over the Silk Road.)
Empires may come and go, but Georgian culture continues. The span of tradition is evident on “Amiranis Perkhuli,” an ancient round dance that refers to the predecessor of Prometheus of Greek mythology, and also the subject of the album’s first video.“Round dances were a form of celebration in pre-Christian times. People still perform them. Amiran was punished for pitying man and giving them fire,” Wurdeman says. “He’s the god of weapon makers and warriors and he was chained to the Caucasus Mountains for his crime. The song speaks to the beginning of Western Civilization. At one time Greek culture was the newcomer, the ancient world was between the Fertile Crescent and the Caucasus.”
To engage with these roots fully, Mindorashvili put the group together in Sighnagi during the mid-1990s. She and her fellow artists began to explore music that had been cast aside during the country’s Communist era. The ensemble is a constant work-in-progress. They moved from arranging well-known songs, to unearthing rare pieces in old manuscripts, in archives, in long conversations with elders whose deep memories sometimes hold long-forgotten tunes and lyrics.
Over the course of six previous albums and countless tours, Zedashe has poured their hearts into the project. The chilling harmonies are always the core, but they’re also accomplished instrumentalist, percussionists, and dancers, using different types of Georgian lutes (panduri and conghuri), the doli (horizontal hand drum), garmoni (accordion from Tusheti mountains), and the local goatskin bagpipes known as chiboni.
For Our Earth and Water, Zedashe chose to record live at the local Pheasant’s Tears winery, holding nothing back, exactly as they are onstage. It’s as full-throated as any punk band, growling and pouncing, yet vibrating with close, gorgeous harmonies. This isn’t folk for the faint-hearted—but folk music was never comfortable or easy, even when at its most beautiful.
Many pieces reflect the seasons of agricultural life. The harvest song “Hero Oga” reflects country life, the rhythm of its joys and backbreaking work. “Orovela” reveals the deep soul of those who earn their keep from the soil. The song is a conversation between a beast of burden and a farmer, who sympathizes with his fellow creature’s toil.
Zedashe’s eerie intensity and arresting beauty flows for an unbroken stream of music-making, tradition in its strictest, most alive sense. “Zedashe isn’t resurrecting traditions from books or museums,” Wurdeman notes. “They’re vessels, conductors. Anyone can come to a Zedashe concert and will come into contact with what may be the foundations of their own culture.”