Ensemble Riho
Polyphonies Vocales de Svanétie


01 - Murza I Bekzil
02 - Lile
03 - Lazhgvazh
04 - Didebata
05 - Vitsbil - Matsbil
06 - Riho
07 - Gergili
08 - Sozar - Tsioq
09 - Jguragish
10 - Lemchili
11 - Kviria
12 - Lashgari
13 - Dala Kojas Khelgwazhale
14 - Shairi Misha Khergianze
15 - Kojre Makhvshi
16 - Gaul - Gavkhe
17 - Mirangula
18 - Tamar Dedpal



Located in the remote mountains of northwestern Georgia, the province of Svaneti has retained more of its local language and ancient cultural traditions than anywhere else in the country. Compared with other musical forms in Georgia, Svan singing has been the least affected by hybridization and cross-cultural musical evolution, and is characterized by unusual scales and vocal timbre. The Svan language is the oldest and most-endangered of the four main languages in the Kartvelian language family, with only 30,000 native speakers. 15,000 speak the dialect of Upper Bal, from the Upper Svaneti region. This region is home to Ensemble Riho, directed by Islam Pilpani,  and includes many older musicians whose memories of local music, language, and stories may disappear with their passing.

Svaneti is located North-West of Georgia, on the highest slopes of the Caucasian range. It is said that the Svan people already existed when Jason, looking for the Golden Fleece, reached the shores of Colchis. Because of their isolation, the Svans, whose early history is revealed in the writings of Xenophon, cultivate an ancient vocal repertoire, sung yet with raw sonorities, but in a very elaborate polyphonic style. Pre-Christian ritual songs, historical/epic songs, praises and folk religious hymns are performed by the Riho Ensemble, composed of the best singers from Mestia surroundings.

 Svan songs retain some of the oldest and most startlingly non-Western tuning, and feature a very powerful performance style. While folk song texts from all parts of Georgia address themes of work, family, love, friendship, hardship, and warfare, among other topics, songs from Svaneti also preserve some of Svaneti’s pre-Christian religious traditions.

The villages of the Svaneti province are located in north-western Georgia, in the valleys that lie between the mountains of the Caucasus. The Svans represent about 1% of the Georgian population. Their language differs from the Georgian language, and their religion is a syncretism of Orthodox Christian faith and pre-Christian beliefs. The polyphony of the Svans appears as one of the major styles of the Georgian vocal art. It consists of two soloist voices and the bass of the choir.

In their funeral rituals, the Svans combine three vocal expressions which are rarely found nowadays in other parts of the world: women's individual laments punctuated by collective wails like in Ancient Greece, men's individual laments, and polyphonic chants by male choirs. While the individual laments are aimed at the deceased and the souls of departed people, the men's polyphonic chants use no words but a series of syllables which follow a set pattern. With chords partly dissonant to a Western European ear, and without any cries other than musically stylized ones, these collective chants of great intensity manage to convey the helplessness and inexpressible grief of Man faced with death.

The Riho Ensemble is a well-known regional choir of Upper Svaneti, directed by Islam Pilpani. This rehearsal, filmed in 1991, is especially interesting since it shows how the chords are composed of the three melodic lines, and how the songs are learned and rehearsed, at least by a semi-professional choir.


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