JOHNSTOWN, PA. -- Even at rest, Edisher Garakanidze, a tall, slender member of the Soviet Georgian male choir Mtiebi, cuts an imposing figure. Dressed in a black ceremonial costume, sword and silver scabbard draped across his waist, he's relaxing in a hospitality suite reserved for performers who took part in the National Folk Festival here this past weekend, surrounded by some of the musicians who will join Mtiebi for "The Voices of the Soviet Union" concert at Lisner Auditorium on Friday night. The entire troupe has just completed an afternoon concert in sweltering heat, but the weather hasn't dampened the enthusiasm Garakanidze and his tour mates have for their traditional music.
"I hope I don't offend anyone," he tells an interviewer through a translator, "but when most Europeans listen to American music, it's very hard to trace it back very far -- maybe a hundred, at most 200 years. Whereas if you listen to these women," he says, pointing to three elderly members of Myzhiteno Women's Choir seated next to him, "you feel the music going backward into the abyss, so far back into time. You feel proud that you are singing something that has been there for thousands of years."
Also seated nearby is Oleg Kuular, a diminutive "throat singer" from the Tuvan Autonomous Republic in Siberia. Earlier in the day, Kuular had enthralled the audience at the festival's main stage by producing two distinct tones with his voice -- a droning tone and a higher melodic one -- and adding subtle variations to each to create an eerie choral effect. Only the second Soviet throat singer ever to perform in the United States, Kuular learned the art from his grandfather and is teaching it to his 9-year-old son. Yet like many of the ancient vocal and musical traditions that will be heard at Lisner, its future looks bleak.
Indeed, the three women, all in their early to mid-seventies, giggle at the notion that their grandchildren might be interested in following in their footsteps. Their eight-voice choir, drawn from a collective farm near the village of Myzhiteno in northern Russia, specializes in high harmony singing, Slavic songs and traditional peasant dances, including a three-leg variety performed in pairs.
"All the children want to do is watch TV," says Suarpha Dsipova, the oldest and most outspoken of the three. She pulls herself forward on the couch and begins shaking her head and hips. "They like to dance like this," she says, laughing. "Not the way we dance."
Alexander Maltsev, a choreographer and consultant with the Soviet Ministry of Culture who's accompanying the troupe, agrees that many rural folk traditions are dying out. "But there is still great authenticity here," he insists. "When we're talking about the north of Russia, represented by these wonderful women, it's the area that has suffered the least from the penetrations of cultures. Unfortunately, the people who are carriers of the tradition are already grandparents. There's nothing to keep the young people in the villages now. There was a time when a peasant had everything -- food, shoes, clothes -- but now the work life is specialized and the young people are moving to the cities."
Even in Georgia -- where, as Maltsev puts it, "any time there are several people gathered, it's called a choir" -- traditional songs based on labor, seasonal and spiritual themes are rarely heard in the cities anymore. A pity too, because Georgian male choirs are known for precisely the kind of robust sound the 12 members of Mtiebi generated in Johnstown Saturday afternoon -- a richly textured, polyphonic blend of voices that combined improvised parts with dissonant harmonies and complex melodies and rhythms.
Still, there is a revival of sorts going on, says Garakanidze. "Some of the students from the cities are now going into the country in the summertime to make field recordings. There are also state ensembles that sing traditional music, but whether you get paid for it or not, it's always good to have song and dance in your life."
In addition to performances by Kuular and the male and female choirs, Friday night's concert will feature performances by two shepherd's horn players. The women from Myzhiteno live in such a remote area that they still awake to the sound of a shepherd gathering livestock together with a sinuous melody.
The instruments that these two musicians play are more advanced models, made by masters who work in a certain style, explains Maltsev. "When the shepherds were tired of playing the same tune ... they began to experiment with different size horns and new melodies. These instruments eventually migrated into the Soviet folk symphonies, which have helped to keep at least part of the tradition alive."
"The Voices of the Soviet Union" concert is a cooperative effort of the National Council of the Traditional Arts, the Office of Folklife Programs of the Smithsonian Institution, the Ministry of Culture of the Soviet Union and George Washington University. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 565-0654. Richard Harrington's On the Beat column will return.