Songs of Defiance - sleeve notes
Music of Chechnya and the North Caucasus (© 2007)
Recordings and compilation by Michael Church
Released in 2007 as Topic Records TSCD934, and now re-released by Proper


The countries of the North Caucasus are part of Europe, but kept in political purdah: this ground-breaking CD lifts the veil on the vibrant musical traditions of a war-torn, secret region. For three centuries, successive Russian governments – Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet – have oppressed its nationalist movements, periodically deporting whole populations; Islam has been the rallying-point for resistance. The music on this CD is magnificent testimony to the resilience of these people, and to their defiant belief that they will one day re-inherit their lands. Their music sparks wild dances and speaks intimately of love, but it’s also living history: accompanied by balalaika, violin, drum, and accordion, their songs celebrate heroes and battles. There are great voices here, made to carry across the mountains.


Foreword by Michael Church

The North Caucasus is part of Europe, but largely terra incognita: travelling there is difficult and dangerous, and most of the information which does filter out – thanks to courageous organisations like Human Rights Watch and Médecins sans frontières - takes the form of atrocity-reports. The Russian government strongly discourages visitors: as I was finishing my recording session with the choir of the North Ossetian village of Ardon, police arrived and arrested me, making it clear that by recording without government permission I had committed an offence. Yet if I had applied for that permission, it would not have been granted. Despite the fabulous beauty of the landscape, there is no tourism; the richness of its culture is almost entirely unexplored. Given the kaleidoscopic variety of its music, it’s shocking how little has been recorded: hence this CD, which can only scratch the surface.

One of the songs the Ardon choir most wanted me to hear was a lament for the 176 children massacred eighteen months previously in nearby Beslan: there’s a seamless continuity in the way North Caucasians - all of whom sing – chronicle their history through music. It’s no surprise that several songs on this CD refer to Stalin’s mass-deportations in 1944: Chechens, Ingush, Circassians, Balkarians, and Karachaevans have had to lament their lost homelands repeatedly over the past two centuries. The brutal Chechen repressions instigated by the Russian government in the 1990s, and now firmly embedded by the psychopathic Ramzan Kadyrov, are strikingly reminiscent of the Tsarist repressions in the 1820s. Russian policy has often been genocidal: probably the first-ever use of the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was by a Tsarist official in 1856, speaking of the process whereby Muslim inhabitants of the North Caucasus were to endure forced migration to Turkey, to be replaced by Christian Russians. The racist prejudice which Chechens encounter on the streets of Moscow today is nothing new: the cyclical dance of death into which Russians and Chechens are perennially locked began in the eighteenth century under Catherine the Great. Imam Shamil used radical Islam as his rallying-point for a twenty-year war against the Tsar in the mid-nineteenth century: as Muslim resentment festers once more in the North Caucasus, he is being remembered and sung about again.

The music on this CD is testimony to the resilience of these oppressed people. When twenty-year-old Tamta Khangoshvili launches into the unofficial Chechen anthem on the opening track, the savage beauty of the words is reflected in her martial delivery: defiance is the keynote. There is majesty in Cherim Nakhushev’s historical salutation, and infectious joy in his dance song. The voices of Valid Dagaev and Sahab Mezhidov carry to the heights, while Shirvani Chalaev evinces a timeless heroism. And when these voices are unaccompanied, we can appreciate the richness of their resonance: Tamara Dadasheva and Lydia Bachaeva need no instrumental support. Nice, too, that they can play mischief and crack jokes, suggesting that there is still – despite everything - some truth in the admiring words of the French traveller Ernest Chantre in 1887: ‘Chechens are gay and witty. Russian officers nickname them the French of the Caucasus.’


Music of the North Caucasus
By Joseph Jordania, with Michael Church

North Caucasia is a land of fast-running rivers and snow-capped mountains, with villages where families still live in defensive medieval stone towers. Its seven states incorporate dozens of separate ethnic groups, and it boasts an incredibly rich tapestry of languages and cultures; however, as a result of its progressive subjection to Russia, half its population is now Russian. Since it was first settled in 6000 BC, hunting, animal husbandry, and farming have been its main occupations; the second major settlement occurred in the first century CE, when the Alan tribe brought their Indo-Iranian language to Ossetia, together with their epic of the Narts – a heroic tradition which has been set to poetry and song across the whole region. Turkish influence in the 17th and 18th centuries had both linguistic and religious effects: this was when Islam spread through the North Caucasus, a spread reinforced when Islam became the rallying-point for resistance against Russian imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the Russian empire swallowed up North Caucasia, the struggle which began with recalcitrant highlanders still continues in Chechnya today.

In 1944-1957, the Balkarians, Karachaevans, Chechens, and Ingush were banished en masse by Stalin to Central Asia, enduring hardships in transit every bit as terrible as those experienced by the Jews under Nazism (tracks 15,23). With the exception of the Christian Ossetians, most North Caucasians are Sunni Muslims, with Sufism (20) playing an important role in their practices.

North Caucasian society is patriarchal, with respect for ancestors and the elderly being paramount, and folk music being central to its culture. Vocal music – above all multi-part singing – predominates, the commonest form being a melody accompanied by an ostinato bass or moving drone, both provided by a group consisting of everybody present; North Caucasian society is not divided into performers and listeners. Most songs are performed by men, but women sing lullabies, laments, work songs, and lyric songs often accompanied by the accordion, which in this region is predominantly a female instrument. (In Ossetia it was traditionally a gift from groom to bride, and on the woman’s death was often buried with her.) Scales are diatonic, and metre – particularly in folk songs – often complex. The shepherd’s flute and single-reed pipe have become ubiquitous, as have plucked and bowed string instruments. Over the last century instrumental music has been in the ascendant, often at the expense of vocal music; the European violin and Russian balalaika - and also recently the keyboard - have become popular accompaniments for song and dance at weddings. Indeed, European culture - as imposed by the Soviet Union - had many musical consequences: music colleges were set up, religious activities were banned, artificial orchestras (using chromatic variants on traditional instruments in different sizes) were created, and state dance and folk-song ensembles established; meanwhile rock and pop made their incursions. This CD focuses on the surviving indigenous musics.

Chechens, who call themselves Nokhcha, and who are closely related to the fewer-in-number Ingush, are by far the biggest ethnic group in the region. Now numbering roughly a million, their population has at several points been savagely reduced: repression and deportations cut it by three quarters during the war with Russia between 1847 and 1860; Stalin’s policies, culminating in the mass deportations of 1944, decimated it further; the new wars initiated first by Boris Yeltsin and then by Vladimir Putin have created a fresh exodus of refugees. The Aznach Ensemble, living in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, just south of the Chechen border (1,4,20-23), are descended from Chechens who were forced to emigrate in the 19th century. The Chechens’ struggle for independence, which continues unabated, has always permeated their music.

Chechen musical genres include a cappella singing for circle dances, religious chants known as nazmi (20) and zikr, and historical songs known as illi: these are still being created, with new texts fitted to old melodies (15,23). Since the Chechen language’s first orthography was only devised in 1923 - prior to that, Arabic was the only literary language known to Chechen-speakers - oral tradition has always been the key. As with most other Caucasian cultures, Chechen traditional culture retains many pre-Islamic elements, including motifs like Almas, an evil forest-woman, and the giant cannibal-woman Gorbash. Pre-Islamic and pre-Christian gods still worshipped in song include many besides the principal deity Miatsela: Tutir, protector of wolves, Tusholi, goddess of fertility, sun-god Dela-Molkh, and moon-mother Chech-Kini are among them.

Circassians – or as they call themselves, Adighis - comprise several ethnic groups including Kabardinians, and are linguistically related to the Akkhazians who live south of the Caucasus in Georgia. Most Circassians now live outside their fatherland in Turkey, their ancestors having been driven out by Russia after their failed war of independence in 1864. Healing songs are a major part of their traditional repertoire, as are songs of self-justification (2), laments, work songs, wedding and funeral songs, epic and historical songs, rain begging songs, hunting songs (including a special genre designed to attract wild bees into hives built for them). One ritual song was performed to help a child to learn to walk, another to mark its first independent steps. Their lullabies for the elderly are thought to reflect ancient euthanasia rituals. Circassian historical songs were performed by the djeguako, a poet-humorist-composer who was a key figure at weddings; serving as community historian, he was often present on the battlefield to record heroic deeds. Traditional solo dances like kafa (8) are very popular today, and the rattles and shouts which accompany circle dances (6,18) have particular significance. The circle marks the boundary of a protected space: darkness and chaos lie beyond. The chief shouter cracks jokes, and urges the dancers on by name; the rattle – a spray of short wooden slats fastened with a leather thong – becomes a quasi-theatrical adjunct.

The Orthodox Christian Ossetians were traditional allies of the Russians in their fight against the Islamized North Caucasus, but heroic songs are central to their music. While Ossetian epic songs retained their original Indo-Iranian form – solo singing with string accompaniment – Ossetian heroic songs are performed polyphonically, with everybody present singing the accompanying drone (9). And here, too, animism rules: one Ossetian circle dance is performed on the spot where a person has been killed by lightning.

The Balkarians and Karachaevans are closely-related groups who adopted Islam and the Turkic language in the 17th-18th centuries, but the pre-Islamic deity Teiri is still accorded greater importance than Allah. Moreover, their epic tradition has matriarchal elements: it’s appropriate that in our Karachai love-song (16), the female character should be absolutely dominant.

The music of Dagestan, like the music of the other North Caucasus countries, is largely unexplored by musicologists, and with a territory harbouring one of the world’s densest concentrations of languages – over a hundred of them - it’s exceptionally varied. This north-eastern tip of Caucasia was its first Islamic region, and it remains its prime Islamic stronghold. Dagestan was the birthplace of Imam Shamil (1796-1871), who held the Tsarist army at bay for two decades, and who is now once again revered as a hero across all North Caucasia. The arresting Dagestan song on this CD (14) gives a hint of the musical riches still awaiting discovery.

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Songs of Defiance (tracks 1-12)
Songs of Defiance (tracks 13-23)