Chechnya: Recording songs of defiance and survival

21 May 2007
The compilation album ‘Songs of Defiance – Music of Chechnya and the North Caucasus’ was recorded and compiled by music critic Michael Church. In this article which he wrote for BBC Music Magazine in May 2007, he tells the details of how he was arrested while recording a choir in North Ossetia

By Michael Church
Click to read about the CD

Not even the prettifying snow can disguise the fact that Ardon is a drab little town with a sinister atmosphere. A few miles down the road is Beslan, where 176 schoolchildren were recently murdered in a hail of bullets and bombs, the memory of which freezes on people’s lips. But I’m here to record the choir, who are rumoured to be good. Even if their singing is only so-so, it will still be notable, since not much music is made in this war-torn part of the Caucasus, let alone traditional polyphony.

Flanked by my bodyguard – foreigners here are kidnap-fodder – I’m ushered into the local hall, where eight men and two women in martial attire are ranged in front of a romantic mural of the menacing peaks which dominate the surrounding landscape. Smiling their welcome, the Batu Dzugaev People’s Choir of North Ossetian (Alanian) Heroic Song – yes, they insist on that full title, brackets and all – launch into a chanted toast over a gigantic foaming goblet: scrambling to get my kit out, I only manage to record the last 30 seconds of this rare musical outburst, and when I ask if they’ll do it again, they refuse, saying it’s not a performance, and must spring from the heart. Then they deliver a series of songs in which solo voices surge out from moving drones: dead Ossetian heroes – and the dead children of Beslan – are their subject-matter, but they end with a paean to the beauty of their land. Duty done, out comes the vodka, and – just as we begin celebrating a satisfactory session – in walk two policemen who arrest me.

My questioning at the local station goes on for several hours during which – terrified they’ll impound my precious tape – I fake an illness, retire to the lavatory (a hole in the ground on some nearby waste-land), insert a blank tape in my machine, and hide the real one. They’re not very bright – they let my bodyguard sit beside me throughout, still with his gun in his pocket – but they know enough to prove (with the aid of a massive tome) that I’ve committed an offence by recording without government permission; despite my protestations that I’m only trying to celebrate their culture, I’m fined and told to leave the country. It turns out, moreover, that I’ve been followed by the secret police ever since I got off the plane: they’d even watched me record a performance by a dance company the night before in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. Yet if I’d applied for official permission, it wouldn’t have been granted: the Russian government wants the outside world to know nothing about this politically troublesome place, where foreigners are assumed to be spies, and musicology just a blind.

North Ossetia’s indigenous music did once have classical champions: Balakirev, enthralled by what he heard, responded by writing his piano fantasy ‘Islamey’ in homage to the local dance of that name. Rimsky-Korsakov loved the exoticism of Caucasian melodies; Prokofiev, who was evacuated in 1942 to the Kabardino-Balkarian capital, Nalchik, responded by building his Second String Quartet out of Kabardinian folk songs, and by mimicking the sound of the local ‘shichepshin’ spike-fiddle. Today the North Caucasus has just two musical champions, in the form of Valery Gergiev and his sister Larissa who were brought up there: in addition to her duties in St Petersburg, Larissa runs an annual festival in Vladikavkaz. But musicologists have seldom set foot in the North Caucasus: since its indigenous tradition is so rich, and since all the outside world ever hears about are the atrocities committed in Chechnya, making a CD seemed a timely thing to do, and to hell with the difficulties.


North Ossetia now being barred to me, I went west to Nalchik, where I too caught the sound of the shichepshin. I also heard some lovely circle-dances, in which the rattles and shouts had particular significance. The circle itself marks the boundary of a space symbolising protection from the darkness and chaos beyond. The leader 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. In this region, music marks all major events: people sing laments and work songs, wedding and funeral songs, epic and historical songs, rain-begging and hunting songs, plus a special genre designed to attract wild bees into hives. One song is sung to help a child to learn to walk, another to mark its first independent steps. Here there is no division between amateur and professional: in the North Caucasus, everyone joins in.

In Nalchik I also tracked down Tamara Dadasheva, Chechnya’s best-loved singer: she had taken refuge here after being injured in the terrorist blast which killed Chechen president Kadyrov as he officiated at a public event. Did I say tracked down? Only for twelve snatched minutes at the end of the day in a school-teacher’s office: after she’d sung one lovely a capella song, my minders dragged me away, saying they couldn’t vouch for my safety after dark. And we weren’t even inside Chechnya. So much for the ‘peace’ which Vladimir Putin claims to have brought.

Many North Caucasus musicians have taken refuge in Moscow, where all they have to put up with is the average Muscovite’s routine racism (Chechens being referred to as ‘blacks’.) But my most memorable Chechen encounter comes in Georgia, where the tribe from which the Aznach Ensemble is drawn have lived since their ancestors were deported in the nineteenth century. And what Aznach purveys is Chechen music in its purest, most electrifying form. The group consists of four women, including a mother and two daughters, with a balalaika for colour, and an accordion – the Chechens’ favourite instrument – for ballast and momentum. But when mild-mannered 20-year-old Tamta Khangoshvili opens her mouth to sing, she’s as though possessed: her naturally soft timbre hardens to a guttural shout as she launches into the Chechens’ unofficial anthem, with its defiant refrain in which the rest of the group joins: ‘There is but one god, and Allah is his name’.

The savage beauty of the words sends shivers down the spine:

    • ‘The night the wolf-mother gave birth
    • we came into the world
    • In the morning, when the lion roared
    • they gave us names
    • In eagles’ nests
    • our mothers fed us
    • On the rocks
    • our fathers taught us to fight
    • If hunger torments us
    • we shall eat roots
    • Parched with thirst
    we’ll drink dew in the meadows.’

When she sings this for fellow-Chechens, her mother says proudly, the auditorium is always awash with tears. The group goes on to sing about the mass-deportations which Stalin ordered in 1944 – the Chechens’ sufferings in transit to exile in Central Asia were as bad as the Jews’ under the Nazis – and to sing searingly about intimate love and loss. Their voices are extraordinary, with the resonance to carry across mountain-tops, and if the music is rough-hewn, their artistry is refined, putting delicate embellishments on its basic minor triads. They drive an impressively hard-nosed bargain before departing for their eyrie in the mountains, but since they’ve given me one of the least expected musical thrills of my life, I’m more than happy to stump up.

In Tbilisi

What made my encounter with Aznach particularly poignant was that it had taken place in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi: the driven austerity of their music was in stark contrast to the confident ease of performers on these southern slopes of the Caucasus. The musics of north and south do have elements in common – a penchant for accordions, lutes, and circle dances – but otherwise they are as different as you’d expect. While the Northern states are a Muslim region governed by tribal loyalties, Georgians are proud descendants of a glittering medieval empire whose dominant music was the polyphony of the Orthodox Christian church – a polyphony still sung today. Sunday Mass at Tbilisi’s Sioni Cathedral is a marathon blur of bells, candles, incense, tear-stained faces, and soaring human voices – always in those three parts which were compared by the 11th century Georgian philosopher Ioane Petritsi to the three-in-one of the Holy Trinity.

But that three-in-one is an over-simplification: Georgian polyphony, which is as perfectly evolved as North Indian raga music, takes a multiplicity of forms; the only safe generalisation is that Georgians never sing in unison. When there are three voices, the top is regarded as second in importance to the middle one, which begins and leads the song; the bass, which is often sung by a group, is in no way looked down on, as witness the local saying, ‘The song is adorned by the bass, the garden by the red apple’. Georgians sometimes liken their part-singing to aelebra – the harmonious singing of a flock of birds – and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the vertiginous four-part counterpoint of the yodelling harvest songs which Stravinsky so admired.

That medieval Georgian church polyphony should survive today is remarkable. The Muslim invasions of the 14th and 15th centuries were followed by the Russian hegemony in the 19th, when the independent Georgian patriarchate was abolished and Georgian singing suppressed. In 1860, as the nationalist fever sweeping Europe spread to Georgia, a Council for the Resurrection of Georgian Church Song was created, and enthusiasts transcribed what could be remembered of the old liturgy – an astonishing 5,000 hymns. Then came the Soviets, who failed to suppress the Georgian language and its unique orthography, but in turn drove Georgian church music underground: since Communism’s demise, Georgian musicologists have worked unremittingly to restore their heritage to its pristine glory. And as in the North Caucasus, no distinction is made in Georgia between amateur and professional. Virtually everyone sings: in church, in the fields and streets, and round the family table.

Michael Church’s new field-recording collections, ‘Songs of Defiance: Music of Chechnya and the North Caucasus’ and ‘Songs of Survival: Traditional Music of Georgia’ are released in May 2007 by Topic Records.

This article was first published in BBC Music Magazine, May 2007. Republished on with permission from the author.


History of the North Caucasus

Chechnya is not the only North Caucasus country to suffer under the Russian colonial yoke: the whole region – from Dagestan in the east to Adygheia in the west – has been subject to treatment which has at times been explicitly genocidal. Ingush, Circassians, Balkarians, and Karachaevans have had to lament their lost homelands repeatedly over the past two centuries; the Chechen repressions instigated by Yeltsin and Putin are strikingly reminiscent of the Tsarist repressions in the 1820s.

Moreover, 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 be deported en masse to Turkey, to be replaced by Christian Russians. The cycle of violence between Chechens and Russians has been uniquely terrible, with the deportation of the entire population to Kazakhstan in 1944 – as punishment for ‘disloyalty’ to Stalin – coming as its climax.

The privations on that journey were as bad as those of the Jews being transported to the gas chambers, with 30 per cent of the Chechen population perishing in transit. This was the defining experience for the Chechen people, and its memory permeates their music today.



The BBC Music Magazine – May 2007:

Other sources

BBC News – 5 April 2007:
‘Regions and territories: Chechnya’

BBC News – 4 March 2007:

‘Timeline: Chechnya’

BBC News – 7 November 2005:

‘Chechnya puts on music festival’

Related reading

‘Chechnya: The Case for Independence’ by Tony Wood, Verso Press, 2007
Review: ‘Failing to prove a case for Chechen independence’ – 2007:

‘The Media in Chechnya – Interview with Mainat Abdulayeva’

Related articles on
“September 11” has even affected musicians, festival- and tour organizers in different parts of the world. Visa problems, threats, disrupted tours, changed play-lists, nationalistic concerts and withdrawal of covers are just a few results. This session reveal and discuss the effects and suggest possible actions.

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Please note that sections of this conference have been edited in order to protect individuals.
  The panel

Kutay Derin Kugay (USA)
Clara Hsu (USA)
Isabel Soffer (USA)
Phil Stanton (UK)
Gerald Seligman (USA)

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