A Z of world music

"I was born twice," said the great Russian bass Chaliapin. "In Kazan I opened my eyes to life, and in Tbilisi to music." Indeed, Georgia's capital is one of the most musical cities on earth. Where else would you find classical sheet music being sold on the pavement, or impromptu huddles of middle-aged gents singing on street-corners in immaculate three-part harmony? This isn't done for tourists, because in this poverty-stricken land such beings are rare. Georgia's indigenous music is now its only export, but as the Georgian harmony groups proliferating round the world attest, this particular trade is thriving.

Sunday mass at Tbilisi's Sioni Cathedral is a blur of bells, candles, incense, tear-stained faces, and soaring human voices - always in three parts, compared in medieval times to the three-in-one of the Trinity. And this music has been Georgia's cultural hallmark for a thousand years. Russia's 19th-century invasion was accompanied by a liturgical invasion - Georgian church music was supplanted by Orthodox chants from St Petersburg; under Soviet dominion, Georgia's ecclesiastical life went underground. Now it's back in the open, the churches are packed, and the ancient hymns resound. Often accompanied by their panduri three-stringed lute (pictured below), Georgians sing to survive.

Georgians claim this music is in their genes, and when I watched a children's choir being taught a tricky piece full of awkward jumps and dissonances I saw the truth in this: within an hour - and without a score - they had not only mastered it, but learned all three parts rather than just their own. When sung as it should be, this music strikes the Western ear as flat and off-key, but that's because it's based not on octaves but on intervals of a fifth. Once attuned to it, however, you're liable to get addicted.

CDs of this music are hard to come by, but choirs to listen out for are Mtiebi and Rustavi, with their exhilarating mix of sacred and secular. For the best source of information about singing groups in Britain Email: MichaelBloom1@compuserve.com

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