2007 Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD, 21 minutes
Reviewed 11 May 2010 by:
Jack David Eller <email@example.com>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Dirges - Georgia (Republic) - Svanetia
Funeral music - Georgia (Republic) - Svanetia
Chants - Georgia (Republic) - Svanetia
Svanetians - Music
Music - Georgia (Republic) - Svanetia
Funeral rites and ceremonies - Georgia (Republic) - Svanetia.
ABSTRACT: In a short but entirely unnarrated film, the chant style of a Caucasus ethnic group is presented, raising issues of ‘meaning’ in religion and ritual.
Perhaps because death stands at the outer limits of what Geertz called man’s capacity of interpretability—“at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight” (1973: 100)—death then is an occasion especially ripe for religion. Or more accurately and inclusively, for symbolic action and what we might generally call ‘art.’ One particular form of symbolic/artistic action that is especially meaningful, without necessarily conveying meaning, is music.
In the Caucasus, the Svan people sing a funeral chant at the death of a loved one. “Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus” opens with scenes of older male singers standing under a tent surrounded by food (another near-universal component of death rituals: someone really should make a film about funeral food). The caption/text of the film explains that “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.” Even more, these “zaer chants use no words but a series of syllables that follow a set pattern.” That is to say, the chants do not carry ‘meaning’ in the discursive sense—there are no ‘lyrics’—but consist of conventional vocal sounds that are not in any familiar sense ‘symbolic’ and certainly not ‘propositional.’
Over still scenes of their village, the viewer learns that Svans comprise 1% of the Georgian population, with their own language. Theirs is a syncretistic religion fusing Orthodox Christianity and pre-Christian influences. At the funeral, men are shown making toasts with drinks, while women sing in background. Interestingly and significantly, the ‘funeral chants from the Georgian Caucasus’ of the film include only the men’s chants; whatever the women are singing, or otherwise doing in regard to the ceremony, is completely unexamined here. Men are portrayed in mourning, with females providing a sort of antiphonal call. The corpse in displayed in its coffin; women surround it and grieve, many touching and kissing body.
The senior men begin their funeral chant. The coffin is carried from the viewing site to the burial site, as chanters walk along and continue their song. Several minutes of the film are committed to the funeral procession. The funeral party enters the cemetery, which is followed by graveside mourning and chanting.
In text, the film asserts that “the exclamations of pain, the sobs and the words of individual laments are sublimated by these choirs in a unique vocal art which expresses deep emotions.” It concludes, “Without cries other than stylized ones and without any words, these male funeral choirs convey the helplessness and the inexpressible grief of Man faced with death.” Two points bear mentioning. First, these words are transmitted by text because there is not one word of spoken commentary in the entire program. While there is no doubt a choice here to present the chanting in as authentic and unblemished light as possible, there is also little doubt that some explanation and analysis would enhance the experience. Second, the analysis that we do receive in these printed comments seem a bit overbearing and romantic: do the men feel helpless and inexpressibly grief-stricken? There is no particular reason to think so, and the sentence is a rather serious overinterpretation of the data.
Finally, some additional context on Svan music and art would be welcome. Happily, the filmmaker has prepared a useful study guide for the film, available at http://www.der.org/resources/study-guides/feast-day-funeral-chants-guide.pdf, including some insight into the process of making the recordings and the film. Even without the guide, though, “Funeral Chants from the Georgian Caucasus” is a unique document about a little-known society and a little-known art form. At a mere 21 minutes long, it could easily and profitably be integrated into a discussion of religion or music/song, particularly raising the issue of ‘meaning’ and the problem of what Tambiah once called “the virtue of listening without understanding” (1970: 195). Indeed, anthropology has too frequently privileged the ‘understanding’ over the conventional ‘doing’ in culture.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion, anthropology art/ethnomusicology, and Central Asian studies, as well as general audiences.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Tambiah, Stanley J. 1970. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. London: Cambridge University Press.