As the leader of a folk group, Bela Mutoshvili is an unusual entrepreneur.
The Pankisi Ensemble is a traditional musical group in the village of Jokolo in Pankisi, a picturesque valley surrounded by green mountains in eastern Georgia, south of the border with Chechnya. The valley is just eight miles long and two miles wide, with a population of about 15,000 people. Yet is a variegated mosaics of ethnic groups, the biggest being the Chechen-speaking Muslims.
A Christian Georgian, Mutoshvili hails originally from a nearby village of Zemo Alvani where Georgians from the mountainous region of Tusheti resettled in the first half of the 20th century. She is also a native speaker of the critically endangered Tsova Tush language, which is distantly related to Chechen. Despite not being Kist, Mutoshvili is the only specialist on Chechen and Kist musical folklore in the valley.
The music of the Pankisi Ensemble connects the Kist and Chechen folklore with music from Tusheti and other regions of Georgia. The group doesn’t shy away from using non-traditional instruments, such as Russian balalaika, guided by the principle that music can transgress borders and pre-established assumptions on what folk music should be like. The group also performs Kist religious a capella songs called nazam.
The history of the Pankisi Ensemble began in the early 2000s, when a large number of refugees arrived at the gorge fleeing the violence from nearby Chechnya. The refugee crisis attracted a number of foreign aid organisations, including the French Doctors Without Borders.
“French from Doctors Without Borders lived in my brother-in-law’s house,” Mutoshvili recalls. The aid workers rotate, when one group left, a new one would arrive and I would help to organise a goodbye supra (‘feast’). I would also bring my friends and we’d sing for them. They loved it and one doctor, Eric Comte, vouched that soon he’d bring us to France. That gave us the idea to create an ensemble.”
The ensemble indeed ended up touring in France soon afterwards, performing fifteen concerts in different cities, and it also met Chechen refugees in the country.
With an array of instruments, including balalaika, panduri, Chechen dechig-pondar, and a drum called doli, Bela tries to find balance between being able to make her family’s living with music and ensuring the music’s survival.
In 2008, the Akhmeta municipality, where the valley is located, decided to officially register the ensemble and support it financially. Mutoshvili soon became the leader. Members of the ensemble come and go — some young members leave to study or get married, others migrate abroad. The lack of opportunities and low salaries drives people away from the valley, as well as the ensemble.
“The group has disintegrated many times, and each time I managed to resurrect it by recruiting new members. I will always struggle for the existence of the ensemble,’ Bela says.
She is the family’s breadwinner. But with a monthly income of GEL140($54) she struggles to make ends meet and, apart from managing the group, she engages in a range of additional activities, such as teaching and catering for tourists. It’s hard, she laments.
“I teach music in two different schools and I lead a singing class in another one, but to be honest, I can hardly see any positives. I’ve been teaching Chechen folklore for thirty years and at this point I’m tired and I am worried for the future,”
She manages the group and is in charge of recruiting the musicians who will later perform with her on regional and international music festivals as well as give private concerts for tourists.
The ensemble’s youngest members are 18-year-old twin sisters Lana and Linda Gunashashvili. For Mutoshvili they are the only hope for the future of the group.
“If they receive a musical education, then they will carry on the musical tradition of Chechen folklore in Pankisi and educate future generations”, she argues. “I dream of a producer who would show up and give them the motivation to continue. Having a foreigner interested in our music would be a great incentive for them and for others in the valley and it would be a chance for us to recruit new members among local youth.’
For young Kists, they understand that a career in music is problematic to support a family. Salaries of the performers granted by Akhmeta municipality are low – Gel100 ($43) for the singers and GEL140 ($60) for the manager – as is the wage for a music teacher at a public school like Mutoshvili — GEL250 lari ($108) a month.
The schools also suffer from the lack of instruments. What’s more, there are no clubs where children could practice music after they finish their classes and Mutoshvili lets pupils practice at her place. It is a dire situation and she openly blames the municipal authorities.
Cultural and religious factors also play a role in the slow decline of music in Pankisi valley.
Traditionally, the population of Pankisi valley adhere to the Sufi dimension of Islam, which places a lot of weight on the mystical aspect of the relationship with God and the perfection of the form in which God is worshipped. This relationship is often expressed through music and singing.
In the recent years however, people have increasingly embraced the Salafi doctrine of Islam. The more radical and austere call for a return to what they perceive as ‘pure Islam’ based on a careful study of the Quran and the Sunna. The Quran is the holy book of law defining Islam’s commands, while the Sunna is the daily practise of these laws.
Based on one hadith, which is a collection of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, members of the movement claim that the use of musical instruments is as unlawful as drinking alcohol — which until recently also used to be a common occurrence in the valley. Instead, they advocate for a capella singing, such as nashid — religious songs.
Contrary to common misconception, members of the Salafi movement don’t try to fully forbid music in the valley. Salafis and Sufis reached an agreement not to hold concerts or musical practice during prayer times.
“Some of us don’t listen to music. God forbids it,” explains Khizir Gumashvili, an active member of the Salafi community.” There are followers of traditional [Sufi] Islam for whom music is allowed according to their traditions. I have a good attitude towards people who work on boosting the popularisation of music in Pankisi. They do their thing and we don’t disturb each other. We only decided that when there is an adhan (‘call to prayer’) they should take a break from their rehearsals. We all live in Georgia, so different people have different lives and cultures and we don’t have any problems with that’, Khizir said.
A smaller group of radicals who identify with the politics of the Islamic State have recently emerged igniting tensions both with the Sufi and Salafi communities. A couple of years ago they protested against Mutoshvili’s work and tried to intimidate her, although the situation has been calm since then.
One consequence of the changing religious setting is that less and less children are allowed by their parents to study music at school which intensifies the decreased interest in music following the difficult economic situation in the valley.
“The children of people who embraced radical [Salafi] Islam don’t take part in musical education. We’re not trying to force anyone, neither at school nor in the village, and we don’t have a tension about it. Whoever doesn’t want to sing or dance is free not to do it,” Mutoshvili explains.
She stresses that the tension results mainly from the lack of employment and, by large, opportunities, low salaries, and the inaction of the authorities, who argue that the budget for cultural projects is limited and cannot provide more financial support.
“I already stopped reminding them of my low salary and I know that no one else is ready to do my job for this little. Still, I can’t leave my work. That would be a great injustice for the people from my side,” she contends.
“There is a Georgian saying that describes my situation: “a drowning man clutches at moss.”