Once a year, a village in southern Georgia stages a festival attracting thousands from across the region, and beyond.
Every August since 2014 the One Caucasus Festival, or “a festival of the next generation” in the organizers’ intention, brings to the 250 families in Tserakvi, in the municipality of Marneuli, a peaceful invasion of concerts, film screenings, workshops, and art to shape an event like no other in the region.
In the organizers’ intention, One Caucasus is not only a music event, rather a feast of friendship and cultural diversity - essentially a cross-border project aiming to create a peaceful environment for young people living in a region which has long suffered from a cycle of conflict, tensions, and hostility.
Lado Mextiyev, the festival’s coordinator in Georgia, maintains that the musicians are neither philosophers nor politicians, they work on their art together regardless of politics.
“It is getting better and better every year,” he says adding that the 2016 editions involved more than 70 volunteers from more than a dozen countries. “The major challenge for us remainsfunding, but we are trying to attract more donors, like the US embassy which this year covered the expenses to bring the Huntertones.”
In addition to the US embassy’s support, this year the event was funded by the Ministry of Culture of Georgia, the Ministry of Culture of Poland and the Marneuli municipality. The latter, according to the festival website, allocated $650,000 for the festival in 2014 and 2015.
The event is a colorful mosaic of people from all walks of life. Shepherds wander among sunflower seed vendors, children mix with foreign backpackers, while Georgian, tattooed teenagers mix among the elderly people, Armenian, and Azeri music-loving teenagers patiently wait for the bands. Families with kids flock from the nearby villages to watch films, buy balloons, taste barbeque and grilled corn, and jump and dance.
When the music starts they all squeeze in front of the stage for the music to start.
On stage, artists from across the Caucasus and the world afar, perform separately or experiment through collaborating with other bands. In the 2016 edition traditional Georgian folk musicians jammed with the New-York-based jazz band “Huntertones”, while performers hailing from Senegal, Nigeria and Poland, played alongside Armenian and Azerbaijani ensembles. Music rules it as Baku-based “Snail’s” joined on stage Yerevan-based “1243K,” leaving the long-lasting conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan off stage.
“Great music is played here. You will see musicians from Africa, Asia, Europe,” says Solomon Gogashvili enthusiastically, who sings bass and plays the national stringed instrument “panduri”, from Georgian folk band Chveneburebi. “We played with the Huntertones, did you heard the song? You know what? We met today for the first time and rehearsed that same morning.”
The key message is that music knows no barriers as it is a universal language, bridging differences and uniting communities.
Even age is not a barrier as children joined in, drumming and singing.
From 2016, the festival also assigns the One Caucasus Freedom Award, a prize for the courage and work done in order to improve providing protection of human rights in Caucasus.
The first award was granted to Rahman Badalov, a philosophy professor working at the National Academy of Science in Baku, for his human rights advocacy in Azerbaijan. Badalov also gave a talk about freedom as it is seen in the Caucasus, America, North Africa and Asia.
Marneuli was not a casual choice for the organizers. Sitting at the junction of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the municipality features an Azeri population majority but it is a varied mosaic of ethnic and religious communities living peacefully side by side.
Getting to Tserakvi is far from being an easy ride. From Marneuli a rough strip of tarmac unravels for about 35km to reach the festival location which extends next to the village school, an old building with cracked walls and worn off paint, but neither the damaged road nor the unforgiving summer heat stop the festival fans.
It certainly did not stop Armen, a young man from Iran, who traveled across Georgia over the summer, who tirelessly sang to entertain passengers on the free minibus provided by the organization to and from Tbilisi, Marneuli and the two border crossing with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“When I first got there I was like – where the hell am I?” states Katarzyna, a young exchange student from Poland. “But then I’ve met those guys from Azerbaijan and some volunteers, all awesome people. I love the simple environment here, mind-blowing music, and the tasty and cheap food.”
She, however, complained about the transport as the minibus arrived one hour late and people had to wait in the heat.
The event unfolds; re is a tent-zone, children-zone, art and education zone, food zone and concert zone in the field.
The smell of barbeque is in the air, beer, and veggie food from Kiwi Cafe; almost everyone eats sunflower seeds, while walking around.
The organizers gather up to two months before the event begins. Volunteers and organizers slept in sleeping bags inside the school, where the classes were turned into dormitories for men and women, while next to the school in pine trees, a camp city was organized, where the guests were allowed to set up their tents for free or to rent them for $5-7. Volunteers help to set up the area while trainers and artists hold a variety of workshops with children ranging from architecture, where children were able to understand basics of architecture during lectures of professional architects and also help building those basic wood constructions on the festival area; including workshops of photography to English language, from film-making to art and crafts. The final works of the so-called “Academy of Informal Education of Marneuli Region” are then displayed or screened during the festival.
Volunteers play a key role in the event. Birendra, a medical student in Tbilisi who hails from Nepal, has been a volunteer since the first edition helping in setting up the infrastructure. He then suggested to a musician friend of his from Kenya to join the festival and this year Tolu Emiayo performed on the stage alongside two other African bands, Pako Sarr from Senegal and Skadiktator from Algeria.
“I like it [One Caucasus], because it gives the opportunity and platform to me to sing with great musicians,” Tolu, who now studies in Ukraine told us during the festival.
Chemtai, a fellow Kenyan who had been teaching English in Georgia for a few years, is also a regular volunteer at the festival. She stayed in Tserakvi for a month with her newborn and her Polish husband, mainly helping with minor logistic tasks.
Krzysztof Zwirblis, an artist and curator, came from Poland to work on a project he called the Social Museum. He visited schools, families in different villages around Marneuli collecting visual artifacts to illustrate the ‘concept of memory.’ His work resulted in a video screening and an exhibition with books, flasks, paintings and posters.
“What I wanted to show is that all of us may keep a little museum at our homes without really realizing it,” he explained. “Little everyday items can tell lots of interesting stories.”