The Social Voice of Instruments

Interviews With West Georgian Luthiers

1 Whether a human’s or an instrument’s, the voice is always an inherently social concept. As Mladen Dolar points out, the voice “holds bodies and languages together”. Just like a person’s voice enters one into a social relationship with the outside world, creates both a break and a unity within the individual, so, to a certain extent, does the voice of an instrument. Unlike the human voice, which belongs to a person and exists simultaneously within and outside that person, an instrument actually lends its sound to whoever plays it, and cannot make itself heard otherwise. Its voice relies on it being possessed, yet the instrument’s ownership of its voice originates not in the moment of play, but in the time of its making. The instrument is given a voice by its maker, a voice that is then discovered by its player. The instrument is an intermediary, a kind of simultaneous interpreter and interpretee between two people: the maker and the player, who may neither know each other, nor ever cross paths, nor inhabit the same temporal space at all.

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My chonguri introduces me into a community of people who all own chonguris made by a particular person. When I start speaking with Demuri Jalaghonia, an instrument-maker from the village of Sarakoni in Samegrelo, one of the first things he mentions is that his instruments live all over the world. “I have never been to America,” he says, “but my instruments are there.” Demuri’s instruments are actually played on several continents – a fact he is particularly proud of. Demuri does not have a workshop, so to speak, – he says it is too expensive to maintain one, and he does his work around the house, or outside in his yard. 1 It takes about eight or nine days, he tells me, to make a chonguri, a little less time for a panduri. The body (deda) of Demuri’s instruments is made from hollowed-out half-trunks of timber, with the neck attached later. When he shows us the process, it is clear that he’s done these sorts of demonstrations many times before. 2 In fact, when we arrive and I reach for my camera, one of his grandsons has already, so to speak, beaten me to it: his camera has been on since we first pulled into the yard. And so we are filming each other: I am watching the maker of my instrument tell me about his process, while he films me as a member of a community he is, in a way, responsible for creating.

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Tamaz Panchuladze, who lives in the village of Chkhari in Imereti, has a very different story. Tamaz’s main passion was playing rock music with his band in the 1980’s, but after the collapse of the USSR and the civil war that followed, he says he lost the taste for it, the band broke up, and he turned to instrument-making as a way to earn a living. Unlike Demuri, who only makes Georgian folk instruments, Tamaz also makes guitars – classical and otherwise-- and even electric instruments 3 ; in fact, he has made electric folk instruments too, panduris, for example. Tamaz says it can take him a few months to finish an instrument; the hardest to make, he says, is the classical guitar, but it’s also his favorite one to work on. At the same time he tells me that the chonguri has the most beautiful voice. Tamaz also restores instruments in his workshop: the already small room seems to contain several even smaller rooms, with a myriad of tools hanging everywhere.

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 4 Tamaz does not show me his process, but he has several panduris and guitars that have not yet been assembled, as well as a giant contrabass panduri from the 1960’s, which he is restoring. If you wanted to buy an instrument, Tamaz tells me, you would have to order one very far in advance – every instrument I see in his workshop is spoken for, is going to a specific person. There are many copies of his panduris sold at different markets in Tbilisi – a fact he seems relatively unfazed by – so long as it is clear that these “copies” are not actually his instruments. “I go to Tbilisi sometimes,” he says, “and I go into an instrument shop. Of course they don’t know who I am, and I ask them if they have any Panchuladze instruments. They always say “Oh, no, those you have to order months in advance.”” This kind of “quality” control is something Tamaz seems to enjoy, and, jokes aside, take rather to heart – while his instruments, like Demuri’s, are played in many countries throughout the world, he is more concerned with the kind of exclusivity or rarity even, implied by the ownership of one of his pieces

 5 It is interesting that while Georgian folk music culture is often very much concerned with lineage and family, with particular skills transmitted between generations, neither Demuri nor Tamaz learned their craft that way. Both of them took up instrument-making as a way to provide for their families. While Demuri is interested in passing on his skill to his family members, Tamaz says he doesn’t want his son, Saba, to take on the trade. Tamaz shows me his right hand: three fingers are missing the top phalanges – a result of a workplace accident. “I don’t want this kind of thing to happen to my son,” he says. The two, do, on occasion, work together: they show me an 6 electric guitar they are making for Saba.

Both Demuri and Tamaz have had students, usually organized groups, but neither is particularly hopeful about these students – both men echo each other in the sentiment that most of these students lack the kind of enthusiasm and devotion necessary to become a great instrument-maker. Tamaz’s childhood friend, who’s come to join us, chimes in at this moment and tells me that Tamaz gets so consumed with his craft, that nothing else exists; he is obsessive and perfectionistic, and will spend entire days on end in his workshop.

Though I never part with my camera and voice recorder, neither conversation feels like an interview exactly: both with Demuri and Tamaz, the locus of our exchange inevitably shifts towards a supra. 7 Taking a meal together is, of course, a thoroughly communal experience, and the Georgian supra, however small or impromptu, is a quintessential example thereof – from the prescribed order of toasts so as to include all the relationships a person may have in this world, or the next (with God, family, place, and so on) to the continuous emphasis on the joys of having guests. As a first-time guest in these men’s houses, I enter the community of all their previous guests, and within that, a subset of foreign guests, interviewers, and so on, and they of course enter the community of all my hosts. Just as the instrument mediates the relationship between its creator and its player – the giver and the producer of voice – so do my hosts, these creators, give me a place in their homes, at their tables, and I, in turn, pass on the experience of having met them through the written word – another object, one can say, that is to be voiced by any number of people, be it inside their heads or out-loud. 8 To, each, I suppose, their instrument, to each, a voice to give and share.

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Marina Kaganova is an anthropolgist, singer, and poet living and working in New York and Tbilisi, respectively.