Terms for Georgian Traditional and Medieval Professional Polyphonic Singing in Alphabetical Order

Numerous traditional terms, connected to the tradition of polyphonic singing (names of the parts, their function, ways of performance), had been recorded by Georgian ethnomusicologists from the second half of the 19th century. These terms comprise all 15 Georgian musical dialects (or ethnographic regions) from east and west Georgia. Number of terms are also known from earlier written sources, from the writings of the 11th century brilliant Georgian philosopher Ioane Petritsi to Ioane Bagrationi (18-19th centuries) and David Machabeli (19th century). Some of these terms survived only in written sources and are not in use any more. The exact meaning of some terms is unclear today. Some terms are widely spread throughout Georgia (terms like “Mtkmeli”, “Modzakhili”, “Bani”) but some are only used locally in some regions.

As this article is dedicated to the terms used in Georgia for vocal polyphonic tradition, we need to mention here that most of the terms for the instrumental polyphony (for example, names of the strings, or the names of the pipes of a panpipe) are using terms from (and designed primarily for) the vocal polyphony.

Georgian scholars from different fields contributed to the understanding of traditional terminology. Historian Ivane Javakhishvili, music theorist Shalva Aslanishvili, ethnomusicologists Grigol Chkhikvadze, Mindia Jordania, Otar Chijavadze, Kakhi Rosebashvili, Kukuri Chokhonelidze, Edisher Garakanidze, Natalia Zumbadze, Lia Gabidauri, and many others contributed to the study of this important sphere of Georgian traditional musical culture.

Otar Chijavadze and Lia Gabidauri independently compiled special Lexicons of Georgian traditional terminology. Both Lexicons are still unpublished. Authors of this article acknowledge the importance of the contribution from these two works.

> Download all terms in alphabetical order (PDF)


AELEBA [აელება]


The old Georgian term, only known today from the “Glossary of Georgian Language”, compiled by an influential Georgian politician and scholar Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani (18th Century). The term means “nicely concordant (polyphonic) singing of the flock of the birds”. See also terms chrinva and galoba.


AKIDEBA [აკიდება]

lit. “put a luggage on someone/something”)

According to Chijavadze’s Lexicon, this rarely used term denotes starting a song.


AMODZAKHEBA [ამოძახება]

lit. “calling out”

Term from Racha (mountainous region of western Georgia), means to make sound, to starts singing.


AQVANA [აყვანა]

lit. “to handle”, “to take control”

Another not so often used term for starting a song.


AQVANA [აყვანა]

lit. “to handle”, “to take control”

Another not so often used term for starting a song.


AVAJI [ავაჯი]

(meaning is not clear)

Medieval Georgian term for the older and simpler church-singing style where each syllable was tied to one musical sound (more of a musical reciting of the text).


BAMI [ბამი] or BAM [ბამ]

(meaning not clear)

the oldest known term for the bass, the lowest voice in Georgian church-singing. The term was famously mentioned in works of Ioane Petritsi, Georgian philosopher, follower of Neo-Platonism (11th-12th centuries). See also bani.


BAN LIGHRELASH [ბან ლიღრელაშ]

in Svan language “bass of a song”

According to Ivane Nizharadze’s Lexicon of Svan Language this term was used (quite controversially) for the leading middle (!) voice in Svanetian three-part songs.


BANI [ბანი]


The most popular name of the lowest part of Georgian traditional two, three- and four-part polyphony. The word “Bani” in Georgian language means “flat roof”. Anther possible understanding of this important term comes from the term “bma”, dabma”, lit. “to tie”, “to connect”. It is well-known that bani is not only a term for the lowest part in Georgia, but is a generic name for accompanying someone’s singing (both by voice/voices or by the instrument). For example, the term “Magali Bani” (“high bass”) was often used for the highest melodic voice, which was also considered as the accompanying voice for the leading (middle) part. Words of a traditional song “Play my panduri [long-neck lute in eastern Georgia], give me a good bani“ indicates that instrumental accompaniment could also be called bani. According to traditional aesthetics, bass adorns singing (“song is adorned by bass, like the garden is adorned by a red apple” – words of a traditional song).

In Georgian zemravalkhmiani (lit. “super-polyphonic”, consisting of six parts) church-singing bani was not the lowest voice, because two other low parts (dvrini and gvrini) were placed lower (presumable an octave or a fifth lower from the bass). Apart from the detailed written descriptions, no written examples of the six-part religious singing survived.

Bani is the only part that is traditionally performed by a group of singers, and at large social events (weddings, religious feasts) every member of a community was expected to contribute to the bass part. Bass is the most “democratic” part to join in singing, as it is often either a drone (pedal or with words), or is based on repetitive ostinato formulas. “He can’t even sing a bass” is a traditional saying in Georgia about a person who can not sing in tune.

Despite obviously common character and shared features, Bani is quite different in eastern and western Georgian traditional polyphony. The most widely spread forms of bass, present in every musical dialect of Georgia, are rhythmic drone and ostinato. In the most developed so-called “long table songs” bass is a pedal drone, and it is sung in unison sometimes by few hundred individuals, gathered at the social event. On the other hand, in the most developed contrapuntal polyphonic songs in western Georgia (particularly in Guria and Achara, but also in Imereti and Samegrelo) bass is melodically very active and is often performed by an individual singer. This is particularly clear in so-called “trio songs”, three-part compositions performed by three singers. Because of the creative freedom and wide possibilities of changing harmonic structure of the song, the bass part is often considered in Guria to be the most complex and interesting part to perform. Interestingly, unlike eastern Georgia, where the bass singers did not have much opportunities to be well-known, the big part of widely known and respected Gurian traditional and church-singers were bass singers. At the meeting of distinguished singers in Guria the most revered singer would be offered to sing a bass part.

Singing the bass part in unison by a large group of singers always offers a possibility of the appearance of heterophonic elements. For example, the line between the pedal and rhythmic drone is sometimes blurred as in the same group of the bass singers some might be singing a pedal drone, and others – rhythmic drone. Sometimes the same singer might change from a pedal to rhythmic drone and vice versa during a song. Besides, there are also instances when the different bass singers sing different pitches. For example, if the bass line in a song needs to go from “C” to “D”, some bass singers might go there straight (C – D), while others might go from “C” first to “E” and then come down to “D” (C – E – D). Major and minor (as well as neutral) thirds between the bass singers are the most usual in such cases. Another possibility for the simultaneous appearance of two versions of the bass is when some bass singers start singing a fifth lower from the original bass line. In such cases, for example, instead of the three-part chord C-F-G, very popular chord in Georgian polyphonic songs, you will hear four-part chord F-C-F-G. Singing different versions of the bass part is never haphazard, and thirds and the fifths are almost exclusively the two intervals between two versions of the bass. Division of the bass part is a relatively rare occasion, and is more usual for western Georgian traditional polyphony. There are more than twenty traditional term for the bass part in different regions of Georgia. See: dabali bani, bami, dvrini, bokhi, bukhvi, ertiani bani, bani ertnairi, banis mtkmeli, damjdari, mebane, mebanave, pentela, shebaneba, shemdegi, ubanebs, zruni. See also terms shemkhmobari and magali bani.


BANI ERTNAIRI [ბანი ერთნაირი]

lit. “similar/same bass”

This term is known from Achara and is possibly connected to shemkhmobari, the specific pedal drone in the middle of the four-part harvest songs from Guria and Achara (see the pedal drone in a middle range in four-part harvest song “Naduri” in a musical example in an introductory part of this article).


BANIS MTKMELI [ბანის მთქმელი]

lit. “the one who sings, or “speaks” bass”

This is a widely known term for the bass singer/singers. “Bani mitkhari” (lit. “tell me a bass”, or “support me with a bass”) is a popular address to others when a person is going to start a song.


BOKHI [ბოხი]

lit. “thick voice”

This general Georgian term for “thick voice” is sometimes used for the bass. There are also dialectal versions of this term in northeastern mountainous part of Georgia: BOKHVI [ბოხვი] in Pshavi, and BUKHVI [ბუხვი] in Khevsureti (antonym of bukhvi is mtskepri – a “thin” voice].


CHAKRULO [ჩაკრულო]

lit. “embraced”, “tied”, “intertwined”

the title of arguably the best known Georgian long table songs from Kakheti, East Georgia. The exact meaning of the title was hotly debated in Georgian ethnomusicology. Different possible explanations were expressed. One of the explanations connects the term Chakrulo with the history of vocal polyphony in East Georgia. According to this suggestion (Jordania, 1984) this term, as a name for the specific group of table songs, came into existence to mark the important stylistic feature of polyphonic singing of a group of East Georgian table songs. East Georgian table songs (as well as some other genres) are always performed by two lead singers against a pedal drone. In some songs lead singers sing alternatively, while in other songs they sing simultaneously (in most table songs both alternating and simultaneous sections are present). It was suggested that the term Chakrulo was possibly used for the songs where the lead melodic lines were singing simultaneously, or “tied” together, “embraced”.


CHAMKOLI [ჩამყოლი]

lit. “the one who follows after”

One of the rarely used names of the highest melodic part in three-part singing in Guria. This part follows the leading middle part.


CHAMORTMEULI [ჩამორთმეული]

lit. “taken over”

Term used in Achara for antiphonal alternation of two choirs. Same as gamortmeuli.


CHARTULI [ჩართული]

lit. “inserted”, “added”

term for a specific part in contemporary urban tradition of polyphonic singing. This term is mostly used for the added (fourth) part that is inserted between the leading melodic (middle) part and the lowest part (bass) in three-part urban singing. Recorded examples of songs with chartuli come from the 1950s, although the trend could have started earlier. (Due to the archaic character of many facets of Georgian traditional polyphony, the first generation of Georgian ethnomusicologists did not pay much attention to the urban singing traditions). After appearance of chartuli Georgian urban singing became four-part, although three-part singing is still more prevalent. Sometimes, particularly if a urban song is accompanied by a guitar, the lowest voice in three-piece singing group actually sings chartuli, not the bass part. Unlike bass part, which mostly sings the harmonic basis of the chord progressions in urban songs, chartuli does not follow the harmonic basis of the song, but instead sings melodically more free line, often following top parts in parallel movement, and widely uses the fifth of the European-style triadic harmonies (for example, when singing a C major triad, bass would be singing C, while chartuli would be singing G instead).


CHRELI [ჭრელი]

lit. “colorful”, “striped”

Medieval term from church-songs performed in a specific singing style. Georgian musicologists are still discussing the precise meaning of this term, although most agree, that the term chreli was used to differentiate the singing in a “simple mood” from the more developed, beautified, “colorful” (chreli) way. Church-songs, performed in this, more developed, improvised style, were called chreli. Chreli was also widely used as a generic term in Medieval church singing tradition, as the name of melodic formulas that most of the church-songs were based upon. Couple of lists of chreli survived from the late Medieval times, most importantly, the list from Fitareti from the 18th century, listing the names of the 24 melodic formulas, is among them. It was widely believed that system of chreli replaced the earlier system of neumas (few manuscripts of Medieval Georgian chants with neumatic signs from 11-12th centuries survived). The research of the last decade suggested that neumas and chreli were used in the same epoch (at least from the 13th century) and the system of chreli survived longer as more practical system (see Andriadze, 2003:458).


CHRINVA [ჭრინვა]

(meaning is unclear)

According to the Lexicon of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, this term denoted “pleasing harmonious singing of the flock of the birds”. See also aeleba.


DABALI MELEKSE [დაბალი მელექსე]

lit. “the one who is saying the lyrics in a low range”

The name of a middle part, leading melodic part who sings with words. See mtkmeli.


DABALI BAMI [დაბალი ბამი]

lit. “low bass”

According to David Machabeli (1860) this is another old term for the low voice (bass). Currently the term is not used by traditional singers. Se also dabali bani.


DABALI BANI [დაბალი ბანი]

lit. low bass

This term has two different meanings. (1) From the description of Ioane Bagrationi (or Ioane Batonishvili, beginning of the 19th century) we know that dabali bani was one of the parts in six-part professional singing in Georgian churches. According to Bagrationi, dabali bani was the synonym of shemdegi and was placed lower than usual bani. (2) The use of this term was recorded outside of religious singing, among traditional singers as well in 19th-20th centuries, in the context of usual three-part singing (in Kakheti, upper Imereti and Achara). As we know, the term bani was a general term for accompanying voice (not only for the low voice), and we know that there were terms “high bass” and “low bass” from different parts (the top and the bottom parts of three-part singing, both accompanying the leading middle part). So this term among traditional singers must have been referring to the usual bass. See also bani, dabali bami.


DABMA [დაბმა]

lit. “binding”, “connecting”

Term widely used for performing a round dance (expression “let us bind a round-dance” is still widely used in Georgian villages). See also shekvra.


DAMDZAKHNELI [დამძახნელი]

lit. “the one who calls”

Rarely used Imeretian term for the top melodic part.


DAMJDARI [დამჯდარი]

lit. “sitting”

Meskhetian term for a pedal drone. The term was mostly used together with bani, as damjdari bani (“sitting bass”). Interestingly, polyphonic singing disappeared in Meskheti during the 1950-1960s.


DAMTSKEBI [დამნყები]

lit. “the one who starts”

Traditional popular term for the voice/singer who starts a song (it is always a single voice that starts Georgian traditional polyphonic songs. Starting together is a feature of church-songs). The middle part (see mtkmeli) starts most of Georgian traditional songs, although the top part (see modzakhili) also starts some songs. In western Georgia some songs are also started by the bass. There are numerous terms to indicate the voice (or singer) that starts a song. See: akideba, amodzakheba, aqvana, datskebiti khmai, datskili, gemachkapali, metave, motave, tsina khma, tskeba. See also tavkatsi, tavkali.


DATSKEBITI KHMAI [დაწყებითი ხმაი]

lit. “the voice that starts”

Less known term for the voice that starts the song in Achara, southwestern corner of Georgia.


DATSKILI [დაწყილი]

from “datskeba” – “to start”

The term for the voice that starts a song in Achara. According to the 19th century Georgian poet Akaki Tsereteli (author of the lyrics of the widely known urban song “Suliko”) this term was also known as one of the tunings of Chonguri (west Georgian four-string long-neck lute).


DVRINI [დვრინი]

Old Georgian word, meaning a low intensity, “trembling” candle fire. This term was widely used for the extremely low voice, basso profundo

This term is known from the description of Ioane Batonishvili (Bagrationi), David Machabeli, and David Guramishvili of the six-part professional singing in Georgian churches. This tradition existed in Georgian churches at least until the end of the 18th century. According to the existing sources, dvrini was placed lower bani and fewer than bani (bass) singers were performing it. Dvrini is often mentioned as a synonym of dabali bani (low bass). When the tradition of six-part church-singing started disappearing in the beginning of the 19th century, dvrini (and four-part religious singing tradition) was the longest to survive in the 19th century (possibly until the second half of the 19th century).


DZNOBA [ძნა]

from “dzna” – “haystack”

One of the best known medieval Georgian terms for a group activity – singing and (particularly) dancing. It is generally accepted that this term was denoting dance (most likely a round dance) accompanied by a group singing. The term has not been recorded during the 20th century fieldworks. See also mtskobri. According to the Lexicon of Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani (18th century), who uses the term DZNOBI [ძნობი] this term denotes well-agreed and harmonious singing. Singing with dznobit means “singing in harmony”.