Iberi is a Georgian men’s choir led by Buba Murgulia, a former rugby player and lifelong singer. That’s the Georgia the country, which coincidentally is in a region that’s very much on everybody’s minds right now. Georgia straddles the very intersection of Europe and Asia, bordering Turkey and Azerbaijan on the south and Russia on the north, and its western edge on the Black Sea.
Georgia has a long tradition of men’s choirs singing folk songs, hymns and other songs in a polyphonic style that’s all their own. Just Google “Georgia men’s choral tradition” and you’ll find links to a number of articles about the topic as well as various groups including Iberi.
The folks at Naxos World do such a good job of explaining the significance of Georgian vocal music in general and Iberi’s version in particular, I’ll just let them do it:
Polyphonic singing is a significant component of Georgian music, and maybe why many consider it so compelling and pleasing to the ear. Mostly sung in three parts – although sometimes in more – this technique is distinctive of Georgia and not found in surrounding countries. The significance of this unique practice is such that it has been placed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.
In Georgian polyphonic singing, the middle voice often carries the main melody. At the same time, the higher and lower parts support or intertwine to create a tapestry of sound that at once can have a rugged quality and still subtle refinement. Perhaps, one of the more exciting facets of Georgian singing is the ever-present opportunity for improvisation – a chance that Iberi never fail to embrace. While they remain entirely respectful to the traditions instilled in them, their impromptu approach brings out the breath-taking qualities of Iberi’s collective voice. It allows for utterly unique performances each time they take to the stage.
Buba founded Iberi in 2012 and in the intervening decade they’ve joined the ranks of top Georgian choral groups. In addition to performing hymn, lullabies, work songs, historical ballads and contemporary urban tunes they also sing songs for feasting, which are highlighted on this release. “Supra” in Georgian is literally a tablecloth but it also is used to mean a feast, and many of the songs here are the kind you’d hear at such a festive gathering. They’re roughly equally divided between a capella songs and those accompanied by acoustic guitars.
One of my favorites is “Varado,” a multi-section song that starts quiet and gentle and rises to quite a party, complete with handclapping, whistling and shouted exclamations!
I tend to prefer the a capella songs, maybe because they center these great polyphonic harmonies to a greater extent. But I’m really taken with one called “Utsinares,” which does incluide a plucked guitar setting a solid rhythm behind this song’s complex melody that sounds close to Bulgarian style polyphony.
Both the first and last tracks also stand out among an album full of notable songs. The opener “Kutaisi Mravalzhamieri” sounds like some sort of a toast or welcoming song, short but very attention-getting, with the bass voices setting up a near-constant drone over which the baritone and tenor voices soar spectacularly. The closer “Saeklesio Mravalzhamieri” is similar in scope and sound, so the two really do act as bookends. In between, some of the other standouts include “Harira,” on which the high tenor singer demonstrates the unique Georgian subtle yodeling style, which also appears on a few other songs; goosebump-raising harmonies on the lullaby “svanuri Nana”; the way the stentorian bass voices absolutely belt out their parts on “Arkhalalo”; and the intricate polyphony on the long notes of the lullaby or hymn titled “Shen khaar venakhi.”
The music of Iberi choir on this album is immensely appealing in a very forward, masculine way. Supra truly is a feast for the ears.
(Naxos World, 2022)