Song Collectors by Stuart Gelzer

1

gurian village at night

thomas depenbusch/flickr creative commons

Getting from Tbilisi to the lowland Gurian town of Chokhatauri is easy, just a matter of taking our lives in our sweating hands on the pot-holed two-lane east-west national highway, and Jaba Kekelidze ––“the guy who drives really fast,” whether or not he’s in a car –– is ready to hit the road into the mountains first thing the next morning. But the rest of us insist on paying a social call first: in Chokhatauri the man to see about Georgian folk music is Vazha Gogoladze, leader of a local group that goes by the rather absolute name of Ensemble Guria.

Vazha turns out to be a small, stocky, white-haired man in his seventies with a crooked, mischievous smile and a look in his eyes that can only be called a hangover. By way of introduction we sing him Chven Mshvidoba, a nicely complicated Gurian trio expressing thanks to the host. He gets excited and brings out a decanter of some mysterious cloudy homemade hard stuff to toast our meeting. We knock it back, except for Carl, who never drinks. (It’s just after breakfast, but this is actually our second drink of the day; the first was at breakfast, where Gia officially welcomed us to Guria.) Then we launch into Ali Pasha Adila, the most pyrotechnic Gurian trio we know. Exactly two minutes into this two-and-a-half-minute song, Vazha’s hard stuff reaches our heads, our minds go absolutely blank, and Alan and I both crash irrecoverably at the same instant, leaving Carl singing by himself into a void. It’s not a great start to Trio Kavkasia’s 1997 music-collecting expedition to the mountains of Guria.

Presumably Vazha felt the stuff bite at the same time Alan and I did, because he laughs off our professional disgrace and gets us chatting instead of singing. “How many Gurian songs do you know?” Before the three of us have a chance to confer on a reasonable number I blurt out in Georgian, “Thirty!”

“Wow! Really? That’s very impressive!” Vazha’s bloodshot eyes get very round –– but not nearly as round as Carl’s and Alan’s.

“Thirty!?” they mutter behind their hands while Vazha goes to find a scrapbook of his fifty or so years of performing in distinguished Gurian folk ensembles. “Are you insane? I was going to say maybe fifteen! What if he asks us for a list? Can you even name thirty Gurian songs?”

I’m already wishing my answer back, but all I can do now is say, “Maybe he won’t remember.” It’s a desperate hope and, as it turns out, a misplaced one: for the next week Vazha introduces us in every village by announcing, “These guys know thirty Gurian songs.”

Gia Chkhatarashvili, our other expedition leader, makes his everyday living as a camera for hire: recording President Shevardnadze’s photo ops with foreign dignitaries, handshakes, ribbon-cuttings, celebrity meet and greets, including those crazy foreigners who sing Georgian folk songs. (One evening, when we are all having a late dinner at a sidewalk café after a concert at the Conservatory, a Polaroid photographer comes by and offers to take our picture for a few lari. “My God,” says Gia, “do you know how many pictures I’ve taken of these guys? They have sunburns from my flash!”) He’s good at talking from behind a camera, and while he photographs our encounter with the great man of Chokhatauri he explains to Vazha that we need to leave soon because we are headed into the mountains for a few days to meet village singers and collect unrecorded folk songs.

Vazha looks up from his scrapbook. “What if I go with you?” There is one space left in the cars, and he’s certainly a big cheese in Gurian folk music, and most importantly he’s been pretty entertaining so far: we agree instantly to take him along. Vazha closes the scrapbook and we all get up and walk out the door. His daughter scuttles out after us in her slippers and hands her father a windbreaker for the cool mountain nights, and that’s all he takes with him. Several days later, in a dinner toast to Vazha, I mention how impressed I was by his ability to set off on an adventure on the spur of the moment like that, taking nothing but a jacket. He shrugs. “What else would I bring? That’s all I have!”

2

Our two cars, one belonging to Jaba, the other to Tariel, the driver Jaba hired locally, are both Nivas, a Russian four-wheel-drive jeep based on a Fiat design: sturdy, powerful, high off the ground, mechanically rudimentary (and therefore easy to maintain), and very uncomfortable. The rear wheel wells intrude so far into the cabin space that the rear seat barely holds two people, even squeezed together. Carl and Gia share the back seat of Tariel’s car, while Vazha (smaller but older and more distinguished) gets the front seat. Meanwhile Alan and his wife Becca squeeze cozily together in the back of Jaba’s car, and I take shotgun. Since Jaba speaks no English and Becca no Georgian and Alan less than I do, I am the translator for this car –– an alarming prospect.

While the sharp snow-bound peaks of the northern Caucasus range rise higher than the Alps, the mountains of Guria are more like the Appalachians: old, rounded stumps of five or six thousand feet, their steep sides covered in trees, the rumpled ridges separated by tight gloomy little hollows. The road we take follows the banks of the Supsa River, winding up into an ever-narrower valley while climbing gradually higher above the river.

Jaba’s impulse to charge ahead at the same insane speed he used on the flat main road from Tbilisi to Chokhatauri is made easier by his practice of not maneuvering to avoid rocks and potholes; he steers straight at every obstacle with the gas pedal down hard. How he keeps his foot on the pedal at all is a mystery, since both of my feet frequently bounce up into my line of sight, and only the tightness with which the two of them are wedged together keeps Alan and Becca from popping through the roof entirely. Sometimes for brief but memorable moments the only parts of me actually touching the car are the white-knuckled fingers I keep wrapped around the handhold next to the windshield –– fingers that will ache strangely for days after the trip is over.

Jaba produces all these effects while also lighting a cigarette, reflexively tracing three little cross signs on the windshield every time we barrel past fresh road kill, and talking nonstop. He is a combat veteran. He spent three years as a lieutenant in the war against the separatists in Abkhazia. He was wounded in the hip by a Kalashnikov round: six months in the hospital. He went back to the front and was concussed by a hand grenade: another year in the hospital and the permanent loss of all sight in his left eye. He is now twenty-five. He casually adds that his decorations for heroism are mentioned on his identity papers, something that helps him at checkpoints and with traffic police, many of whom are themselves veterans of Abkhazia. He has never gotten a ticket. As the narrow, twisting, sheer-sided road screams by under our feet like a video game, I turn around and translate for Alan and Becca: Jaba is half blind, utterly fearless, and exempt from all traffic laws.

Jaba stops the car. Silence. No sign of Tariel’s car on the half-mile or so of road visible behind us, no sound of a straining engine in the distance. Muttering, Jaba calls Tariel a long string of names, in which two lone words recur: debili (from the French débile, meaning “moron”) and dejenerati. Eventually the other car comes into view, going at a speed appropriate for anyone who values his life and his vehicle on this road. Without waiting for Tariel to join us, Jaba roars off, shouting “Debilia! Dejeneratia!

The road turns away from the river and begins to climb steeply, with frequent blind curves. Abruptly Jaba asks me why we brought along Vazha. I answer that he’s an important Gurian folk singer. “No, he’s not!” shouts Jaba, not even letting me finish my single painstakingly constructed Georgian sentence. “He’s nothing but an old Communist! For fifty years he played the Party game, said all the right things, sang the approved songs at official occasions, took the Communists’ money for being a good boy. He’s a Communist functionary, not a folk singer! He’s never even met a real folk singer! And the people up here in these villages, the real folk singers, they’re going to smell who he is and they’re going to be scared off. You ask me to organize a serious folk music trip for you, and then behind my back you go and invite along a Communist!”

Inwardly I answer that, if devoting his life to music by the Soviet rules was a dishonorable choice for Vazha in the 1940s, what does Jaba think he should have done? Joined some nonexistent underground resistance and dedicated himself to counter-revolution? You can only play the hand you’re dealt, and Jaba himself doesn’t seem to be putting up much resistance to the prevailing ideology of post-Soviet Georgia: xenophobic mystical nationalism. But these thoughts lie far beyond the powers of my Georgian to express, and I say nothing.

Still rising rapidly, the road begins to make switchbacks. Now we can see the hills some distance away across the valley. Farmhouses with their pocket-sized cornfields are scattered along the steep slopes, surrounded by dense woods. The steepest fields look practically vertical. Strangely, the road itself now appears to tire of the effort necessary to cut a flat wedge into the slope, and begins to lean sideways so far that tipping over seems more likely than plunging off the edge. I strain to keep my weight off the door, which, if it opens, will drop me into space like a hatchway. Now the hairpins become so tight that, even running the Niva so far up the bank that we are looking through the windshield at open sky, Jaba still has to make a three-point turn to get around.

In the back seat Becca asks, through me, how far it is to the village.

“Not far!”

“Then I want to walk the rest of the way.” She listens to me translate that, and then urgently repeats the essential Georgian words herself: “On foot! On foot!”

Jaba laughs. “No, no, no, Rebecca! There are bears! Many bears!” And he begins a long, low, hungry “Oooooo!” that lasts through the next three-point hairpin turn, so that now Jaba is on the downhill side of the steeply angled car and he’s the one liable to drop through his own door.

3

Our two expedition leaders, Gia and Jaba, don’t really get along and mostly stay out of each other’s way. They’re opposites in almost every respect: Gia playful and ironic where Jaba is blunt and earnest, Jaba a doer where Gia is an observer, Gia turned outward to the wider secular world –– especially to Western Europe, where his photography has won him gallery shows and some acclaim –– while Jaba keeps his one good eye fixed on Georgia, particularly on a vision of a pre-Soviet religious Georgia that he and many others are working to rebuild in the post-Soviet ruins. We ourselves may find Gia a closer fit with our own culture but, as singers of Georgian folk music, we spend most of our time in the company of people like Jaba.

On one thing they agree, however: the last day of our Gurian expedition, when we come back down out of the mountains, will conclude with a trip to the beach for a swim in the Black Sea. The black sand at Ureki is warm and the water is mild and good, and as the sun sinks toward Bulgaria we can see the hazy mountainous coast of northeastern Turkey far off to our left.

The ride back to Chokhatauri has barely begun when Tariel’s car breaks down with some impressive hammer-on-anvil noises. We sit on rocks by the side of the road, surrounded by fields of tea bushes (Guria exports tea), while Tariel and Jaba work on the car. We’re not concerned: it’s a Niva, after all, and supposedly you can take apart and rebuild a Niva as fast as a Kalashnikov. But this time the taking apart is as far as they get: Tariel crawls out from under the car holding what looks like the main drive shaft. He and Jaba examine it briefly, then Tariel throws it into the trunk.

Jaba will have to tow Tariel, but they have no rope, and there’s nothing visible in any direction except tea. We watch as each of them cuts free from his own car the single unused vestigial seatbelt hanging limply by the door –– a seatbelt that has never done anything except tangle up the person trying to climb into the back seat. They tie the two seatbelts together and then tie the free ends to the bumpers of the two cars. Gia, watching with the rest of us from the late-afternoon shade, shakes his head with a mixture of resignation and amused admiration. He says, slipping as usual from language to language, “Mein bruders, this is Georgia; always improvizatsia!

At first the two seatbelts provide a span of about six feet between the cars. But within the first couple of miles we have to stop half a dozen times because the rotted old straps keep breaking –– the natural result of having the impatient driver with the heavy foot in front and the habitually cautious driver only six feet behind him (and Tariel’s brake pedal still works fine). Every time Jaba hits the gas and Tariel hits the brake, the tow strap parts, Tariel coasts to a stop, and Jaba has to slam into reverse and back up to retie, muttering “Debilia!” and words I don’t recognize. But each break in the strap makes the remaining usable length of seatbelt shorter. By the time Jaba and Tariel have worked out a coordinated driving system to preserve what’s left of the strap –– the negotiation mostly consists of Jaba yelling a lot –– the sun has set and the span of seatbelt connecting the cars is about two feet long.

We set off again. So now it’s dark, and the cars are two feet apart, and nobody has a seatbelt on because there aren’t any left, and Jaba is driving exactly as fast as he always does. Apparently the plan he yelled at Tariel is that Jaba will do what he feels like, and Tariel will follow him at a distance of two feet or less and –– the key to the whole plan –– not touch his brakes until he sees Jaba’s brake lights come on. And now it begins to rain… hard.

Jaba’s wipers don’t work, and soon the windshield is thick with water. Jaba mutters something that I later figure out from context means the wiper fuse is blown. Without slowing down, he feels around under the dashboard until he finds the fuse box. He pries off the lid, extracts a fuse (How does he know which one? Does it happen that often?), and throws it out the window –– all this in the dark, with one hand, since the other hand is thankfully on the steering wheel. Watching him, I wonder whether the designers behind the Niva actually meant for the driver to perform repairs, solo, without even stopping the car. My respect for their outside-the-box engineering vision keeps going up.

But now Jaba needs another fuse. The rain is still bucketing down, the unwiped windshield is still swimming, Tariel is still two feet behind us, and Jaba is still determined not to touch the brakes –– rightly so, since he would immediately be rear-ended. He pulls his pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and passes it to me, along with a request in Georgian.

I laugh. “No thanks, I don’t smoke.”

He repeats what he said, but now he also takes both hands off the wheel to mime a tearing motion. Apparently the verb “to tear” hasn’t come up in my Georgian lessons. I pull the foil liner of the cigarette pack far enough up out of the paper wrapper to tear off a piece of the size he’s showing me. With one hand Jaba rolls the scrap of foil into a tiny cylinder and shoves it into the slot for the wiper fuse, in the fuse box hidden somewhere in the dark under the dashboard behind the steering wheel.

From the back seat Alan says, “If this works I’m buying a Niva.”

Jaba turns on the wipers again: nothing. “Stupid car!” he yells in Georgian. The rain pours down.

He reaches into the back seat and pulls the big bath towel off Alan’s and Becca’s legs, the towel they dried off with at the beach and have wrapped around them because it’s a lot colder now, in the dark and rain, than it was when we first walked off the hot black sand and got into the car for the drive home. Jaba rolls down his window; rain and cold wind pour in. Next he finds one end of the towel in his lap, gets a good grip, and flings the towel out the window. It streams backward, snapping like a flag, then comes back in the window and flaps around his face. He throws it outside again, and again. The three of us just watch, teeth chattering, by now beyond the capacity to be surprised.

Finally Jaba throws it out just right, and the towel flaps across the windshield, held there temporarily by the wind. Now, where there used to be just a lot of rain, Jaba has an orange-and-white flowered beach towel blocking his view of the road. But still he doesn’t slow down. He yells at me and mimes turning a crank frantically. I roll down my window (rain pours in), reach out and around as far as I can, until my armpit is pressing against the corner of the door frame, and grab hold of the loose end of the tangled, flapping towel. I pull it toward me. Now, each leaning forward with one arm out the window, we hold the towel between us, stretched taut across the windshield.

Jaba yells “Up!” (he has to yell, with all the windows open) and we pull the towel up to the top of the windshield. “Down!” and we pull it down to the bottom. “Up!… Down!… Up!… Down!…” If we get even slightly out of sync, we risk having the towel get yanked out of one of our hands and go flapping off into the wind, and having to start all over again.

A beach towel makes a great windshield wiper. Even at high speed in a hard rain, we don’t have to wipe constantly. After half a dozen iterations of “Up!… Down!…” Jaba yells “Roof!” We pull the towel all the way up the windshield and onto the roof of the car, where not only is it not in his way but we can rest while holding the towel with only our hands still exposed to the wind: the combination of rain and wind has quickly made our bare wet arms numb with cold –– a numbness that paradoxically only adds to the intense pain in thumb and fingers from our prolonged relentless grip on the two ends of the towel. And soon enough it’s time again for, “Aba, Stiuart! Down!… Up!… Down!… Up!… Down!… Roof!”

The ride back to Chokhatauri takes two hours. Tariel never once either rear-ends Jaba or makes the two-foot seatbelt strap break again; no debili he.

Days later, on our return to Tbilisi, when we are telling the story of our ride back from the Black Sea, I notice how the focus changes depending on the teller. From the front passenger seat of Tariel’s car, Carl couldn’t see any of the towel business. His story is about two hours of sheer life-flashing-before-your-eyes terror, driving at high speed, in the dark and rain, two feet away from the car ahead, with Tariel, sweating, white knuckles gripping his steering wheel and foot trembling just above the brake pedal, staring out at Jaba’s brake lights for the first flash of red.

When I hear Gia tell the story, it’s about Georgian ingenuity in making a towrope out of those pointless seatbelts. Apparently Gia just curled up in the back seat of Tariel’s car and slept the whole way back to Chokhatauri.

“You mean you weren’t afraid at all?”

“Afraid? No –– I’m a Georgian, this situation is normal. I was much more afraid of what would happen if someone in a Gurian village found out you don’t know thirty Gurian songs!”

stuart geltzer in istanbul, long beardStuart Gelzer grew up in West Africa and India and wanted to be an archeologist. Instead he’s been a screenwriter, a film editor (check out his work in the indie Fallout), and a high school drama teacher staging weird dark plays, but these days he’s mostly writing novels. Through all those years and careers he’s also been a singer specializing in folk music from the Republic of Georgia, and he’s got some stories. “Song Collectors” comes from a memoir in progress, about music and adventure in post-Soviet Georgia. Another excerpt, “Guns and Dogs,” will appear in the August edition of Hippocampus.

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  • Rachel Peterson

    Brilliant, simply brilliant… and having lived in Georgia, known and loved the Georgians and their polyphonic music and their collective cultural death-wish while sitting behind a steering wheel… this wonderful piece made me laugh, and at the same time, not miss being in one of those sh*tty Nivas or Ladas being driven by a Georgian who believes, truly, that whenever it’s his turn to die, oh well!

  • David Anderson

    Wonderful writing Stuart!

  • John A. Graham

    Stiuart, this has to be the best piece of Niva adventure writing I’ve read to date. I’ve even had recourse to try my own hand at the genre, having been in similar situations over the years. Fantastic, and hilarious. Please write more!

  • Carol

    Loved it! I hope we can read the entire memoir soon.