2 February 2012

The Chuniri Challenge

In an enchanting village high in the Caucasus Mountains last summer, I watched closely as the singer and musician Ana Chamgeliani played a strange instrument.  Looking a bit like a banjo, a bit like a lute but held upright like a cello, this was her chuniri.  Its three strings were bowed simultaneously, producing a warm, rustic sound – at times creating harmonics on the notes.  I was instantly captivated.

I had travelled as part of a group to the republic of Georgia to learn traditional songs in the Svaneti region.  Ana was part of the household in which I was billetted.  Responsible along with her sisters for breakfasts and dinners, teaching songs and looking after the guests, she had scant time to devote to individual tuition.

But, for half an hour on the second last day of our visit, Ana patiently taught me the accompaniment to one of the songs we had learned.  It was deceptively simple.  Simple for her.  Deceptive for me.  Having played violin in my childhood (never fully mastered, but past the strangled rooster phase) I thought the chuniri would be, at least, the peasy bit of easy. 


First of all, you’re not meant to press the strings down hard against the neck of the instrument, but rest your fingers on top of them instead.  Then, sometimes, you need to put your finger in between strings to sound two of them simultaneously.  Thirdly, to bow it using the kind of chopping and sawing movement that on a violin would make an audience homicidal is precisely what is required on the chuniri. 

In Ana’s hands the music from the intricately carved instrument was beautiful and earthy, like home-spun wool.  Playing it involved a wonderful physicality – with the round drum-like part placed around her knees.  I could instantly understand why the chuniri, national instrument of the Svaneti region, has been ascribed magical powers for its ability to draw forth immense sadness in songs of loss, or tenderness in lullabies, or joy when used to support three-part sung harmony. 

Upstairs in my bedroom in the wooden village house, alone with Ana’s chuniri, I began to make a modicum of progress, with recognisable notes emerging at roughly the right pitch.  Just as well, as several days before I had indicated an interest in buying one to take home with me. 

My chuniri was being made in a neighbouring village and would not be ready until our minibus passed through on its homeward-bound journey towards Zugdidi.  As soon as the blue plastic bag with my instrument inside was loaded on the bus, I felt unease.  It looked smaller than I had expected.  Indeed, when we arrived in Tbilisi after a sweaty overnighter on the train from Zugdidi, a proper examination confirmed the chuniri was about three-quarters of the size of Ana’s. 

As far as I know, there is no Brussels-stipulated size for a Georgian chuniri.  My instrument may well be within the bounds of normality.  Yet if I place its body around my knees (why does this remind me of wrestling with a miniskirt) the neck scarcely reaches my shoulder.  If I set it on my lap, the neck is in a better position, but I lose that wonderful feeling of my knees connecting with the instrument.  

“Never mind,” friends have said brightly, glossing over my general ineptitude.  “If you were beginning any instrument, they’d start you off on a smaller one.”

So, this is the excuse for not having made greater strides on what is otherwise a beguiling instrument.  I’m stuck in the musical equivalent of trainer pants.

You can see Ana playing the chuniri here, and singing a lovely song called Mirangula with her sisters:

This is a programme about how chuniris are made.  It’s in Georgian but, fear not, the visuals are good!  (And the guy at the beginning looks like he’s playing quite a small chuniri…)

You can see a range of Georgian traditional instruments being used in a more modern context here:

No comments:

Post a Comment