“I want to thank each musician who took part in Kavkaz Jazz Festival. In spite of politics, conflicts and possible negative feedback, they come and play along. They show great example of being human. They stand on stage together with absolute respect towards each other. Every joint concert is a celebration of humanity. We feel united and we are definetely stronger together. This is our message to our multicultural societies, nations and authorities. Maybe we cannot influence the politics but we use cultural diplomacy to strengthen mutual understanding among the conflicted, we break stereotypes, and after all, we symphatise with each other. I am so grateful to musicians who support our idea and make their contributions. They are not only jazz ambassadors but also peace ambassadors. In a world with dominating negativety, we create modern positive narratives, share happy memories and this is priceless.”
This statement is from the speech, Helen Mechitova, the creator and director of the Kavkaz Jazz Festival in Tbilisi, gave at the festival’s closing dinner. It sums up everything. Helen is the most determined and strong-hearted promoter I have ever met in this business. It’s not an easy job that she does. As a young and missionary woman, she has been realising her goal of building human bonds through music, for 9 years since she was only 24, leaving more permanent marks every passing year. Her effort gets surely supported but is her mission sufficiently adopted by her supporters with big commercial competitors being in the arena. Next year will be 10th year of the festival, hereby I interviewed Helen; how much of her dreams could she realise, what difficulties does she have, is there anyone she’d like to call out to? But first, I would like tell you about this year’s festival.
We have returned from another Kavkaz Jazz Festival, leaving our heart behind. Personally I can say that, every year I realise more about the magic created there. Beautiful music, eye-catching city, exquisite dishes, delicious Georgian wine, yes to all of them, but the magic comes from ‘being one’. There are no identities there, music and love do the talking. We are like a family, growing every year.
An Azeri, an Armenian, a Georgian and a Turkish musician who came together for the first time last year, after three or four days spent together, they had shared so much in both humanistic and musical sense that when the festival was over they were calling themselves Kavkaz Jazz Quartet.
Salman Gambarov from Azerbaijan on piano, Armen Hyusnunts from Armenia on saxophone, Şentürk Öztaş from Turkey on bass and George Melikishvili from Georgia on drums. These four musicians had never seen each other for a year, but one hour after they met, they were playing on stage at the Turkish ambassador Fatma Ceren Yazgan’s unofficial festival opening reception, as if they were never apart. Such a great joy to hear them play again, I can see it is for them as well. Our ambassador’s opening speech cheer us all. Meeting with a diplomat, who is art-sensitive and aware of the importance of cultural diplomacy, moves us deeply, not only Turks, but all invited.
Everyone is very happy, but the three day marathon for Kavkaz Jazz Quartet begins the day after. They will play the closing concert of the festival, but this time with guests from 4 countries. Qanun from Turkey, duduk from Armenia, polyphonic vocals from Georgia and saz-vocal from Azerbaijan.
While they’re rehearsing, let me tell you about the other Turkish project that took part in the festival. The organization wanted another project from Şentürk Öztaş who participated in the festival this year as a member of Kavkaz Jazz Quartet. So Şentürk and his ‘master’ qanun player Mustafa Olgan’s production of behind the closed doors had its new form with the participation of guitarist Bilal Karaman and came to daylight. They had only time to do a few rehearsals together. I will listen to them in Tbilisi for the first time also, I am very excited.
They will play on the first day of the festival, on Wednesday, June 7th, at the famous Jazz Cafe Singer. There are two bands before them. Kanudosi from Georgia and New Quintet from Armenia. Tbilisi is a jazz-loving city and we are in a very busy and touristic area. The tables in front of the cafe are full of people from every nation. During the soundcheck, there was a mild rain, which can be pretty bad in Georgia, but the air is clear and jazzy now. Whenever I can spare time from my managerial duties, I put my journalist hat on and try to pay attention to the music.
The first group, Kanudosi, is from Gori, where Stalin spent his childhood and where his museum is today. Instrumental pieces that are more progressive, especially when solo guitarist Ramaz Nadiradze takes the lead and saxophonist Tornike Lomsadze’s playing directs to avant-garde are pleasant but the ensuing section with vocal reminds me that I am a manager. My guys will come from the hotel soon. Stage time approaching!
The second band is on stage, New Quintet from Armenia is making a music that makes you say “Wait a minute! Something serious is happening here!” from the first note. The performance, arrangements and the energy makes the whole thing very impressive. This is saxophonist Artur Grigoryan’s band, he is well-known in Tbilisi. The saxophonist, who participated in last year’s festival with Artur Grigoryan Quintet, has the same choice of instruments but the music is new as the name of the band, we are not listening to last year’s repetition. A delicious fusion, saxophone solos are modern and sharp, sometimes hard, ethnic touch comes more out of trumpet’s melodies, drum and bass give the solo instruments a comfortable base to lean on. Music is always dynamic and swinging between styles. The increasing crowd is very pleased and the applause is strong. It’s was a pretty solid performance, but hey, it’s my guys turn. I’m even more excited now!
New Quintet has raised the pulses a lot. They make a quiet start to the concert with Past Tense, a composition by Şentürk Öztaş. While they warm up, the audience is trying to figure out what’s happening on stage. Qanun tells the story on the bass groove and the guitar joins him with tiny phrases. They perform the following song, classical Turkish piece, Mahur Saz Semaisi with Bilal Karaman’s arrangement. Qanun and guitar are engaged in a sweet talk; they either duet or complete each other’s saying. The bass is not off the conversation, he also has some things to say. There are so many interlaced phrases that sometimes you can not follow which one has taken the lead. I think what is exciting is exactly this, their ‘playing together’. Otherwise all three are individually impressive musicians but this joint creation impresses me the most. This is not a music that all musicians play the melody together then take turns with their solos, both the arrangements and the transitions between different playing styles are adventurous and surprising.
The concert continues. The audience is getting more and more into music with its ups and downs, arrangements and performances. The ordinary circulation of the street had begun to turn into a crowd covering the concert area towards the middle of the night. Now our surrounding is completely full. We are approaching the end of the concert. Next is Indian Ghat, a piece by Mustafa Olgan. Mustafa plays an electric qanun of his own design. He has lived in India for some time and learned to play sitar, then he created his own style by applying some sitar techniques to qanun and developed it in various types of music. He has a very wide range, he does not always play qanun like qanun; he sometimes turns into a rock guitarist, sometimes a funk bassist. The variety in his playing has been noticeable since the beginning, but mostly in this song. Bilal Karaman is also a guitarist who likes to talk in different musical languages and he shows his mastery in every form effortlessly but I think the ears are more accustomed to the style richness in guitar than qanun. Tempo goes up, people dance, applause, whistles and screams…
The concert comes to an end with Ivailovsko Horo, a piece by Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papazov. The interpretation that I can describe as ‘Balkan-funk-flamenco-jazz’ is a real world music fusion. After the delicious solo played by Şentürk Öztaş, who has kept the spine of music steadily throughout the concert, they rise together and the concert ends with a peak. The crowd is enchanted, everyone is very happy. There is a huge smile on the faces of the audience as well as the festival team and the participating guests.
Thank you so much gentlemen, for your creation in such a short time and more importantly for ‘not playing as, but playing yourselves’.
And here we are, approaching the end again. Does the time pass too fast here? The first night was great but the festival had more musical and emotional peaks to offer.
On June 8, we are again in Old Tbilisi, in Abanotubani by the ancient sulfur baths, in a square overlooked by Narikala Castle, surrounded by cafés and traditional Tbilisi houses. We are in an extraordinary historic environment. The rain had a brief visit this afternoon also but fortunately it passed quickly. In front of the stage starts to fill up, people find their place on the domes of the baths. Kavkaz Jazz Quartet is on stage. Salman, Armen, Şentürk and George. Only a 4-5 hour rehearsal was added to last year, but the guys seem to have been playing together for years.
Kavkaz Jazz Quartet reflects the spirit of the festival beautifully. The musicians in the band have different backgrounds and musical expressions and they all add their own touch to the music. Maybe they do not speak the same language but they are creating their own language together. Nobody is saying “me, me me!”. They play together in respect and harmony, preserving their own colours. The love on stage penetrates the audience through the notes. I am a living witness once again. Not only a very solid music is played there but we are being transformed all together.
After 8 pieces (2 from each musician, compositions and arrangements of traditional songs), we come to the section with guests that I could only witness some at the rehearsals. The first guest is Mustafa Olgan, I was there, so I know what to expect. They interpret the classical Turkish song, Kürdili Hicazkar Longa. During Mustafa’s intro, I have my eyes on the audience, trying to catch the reaction. The song is slowly starting to gain tempo; melody, solos and the excitement is increasing. After the piano’s teasing response to qanun, the music starts rising with qanun turning it into an immediate call-and-response duet, at the end they play the theme with a faster pace at every turn and there it is, a big bang! Seeing the enthusiasm in the audience adds to the pleasure given by the music. This feels like pride, I think, it was there last night also.
After Mustafa, Armenian descent Georgian duduk player Ivane Mkrchyan joins the band. They perform Qele Qele by Armenian composer Komitas with Armen Hyusnunts’ arrangement and the soft, deeply touching interpretation of duduk. The next guests are Mikheil Javakhishvili, George Abashidze and Bidzina Murgulia from IRIAO, the polyphonic vocal group that represented Georgia in Eurovision. They perform Georgian composer Jansug Kakhidze’s Oghond Shentan Mamkopina with the arrangement of George Melikishvili. But what a performance! Georgia is a country known for its polyphonic vocals, but I listen to it live for the first time. We are all moved deeply and get the goosebumps. The last guest is on stage. Azerbaijani descent Nargile Mehtiyeva, the only female ashugh living in Georgia is up with her saz and vocal. She’s apparently a strong performer, but there are timing issues due to her usually performing alone and having a little practice of playing with a band. However the band’s attentive follow-up and the awe we were in minimise the damage.
Here it is the grand finale (at least this is what we think). All guests will perform together Yellow Bride (Sarı Gelin / Sarı Aghjik), a very familiar folk song for the people of the region. Armenian descent Georgian singer Anna Badalyan joins them too. After the soft intro of the piano and duduk, the singers take turn in singing the lyrics in their own languages then the song starts escalating with the polyphonic vocals of IRIAO and slowly turns into a ritual. We are all part of it. And during the up tempo section after the drum attack, our bodies surrender to the music. There are people crying, hugging each other when the song is finished.
The concert is over, but the audience does not seem to be leaving. Cheers and applauses continue. I’m thinking that there isn’t a song prepared for the encore, then I see Kavkaz Jazz Quartet coming on stage with Mustafa Olgan. I think they will play the same song again, but no, the starting piece is another classical Turkish song, Nihavend Longa. Such a solid performance with no rehearsal at all. Besides, the other musicians had never played this song before. Teasing, call-response dueting, exquisite solos again but for this song I take my hat off to Mustafa. We must have listened to Nihavend Longa’s dozens of classic and fusion interpretations, yet his playing was still original and exciting. I love it when he alters the main melody with his syncopated playing, he can still surprise in even such a familiar piece.
It’s time to say goodbye again. Gone like the wind and it’s surely unforgettable. We are already very excited for the 10th year.
I would like to thank on behalf of the whole Turkish delegation; Yunus Emre Institute in Tbilisi for enabling the participation of Turkish musicians to the festival for the fourth time, Turkish Airlines that has become one of the festival’s supporters first time this year and Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA) for hosting Turkish journalists in Georgia so well. And a special thanks goes to our ambassador Fatma Ceren Yazgan, who watched the ‘Kavkaz Jazz Quartet and guests’ concert with great pleasure from the front raw, then joined the closing dinner and chatted with all participants, not just with us. She fascinated everyone with her sincere interest and sophistication.
TOWARDS THE 10th YEAR: INTERVIEW WITH HELEN MECHITOVA
What’s the aim of this festival?
Kavkaz Jazz started as a peace-building platform for artists from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, especially for the last two that have a military conflict since the beginning of 90’s. The festival includes educational elements as workshops and master classes by experts and professionals, and round tables for music critics and journalists from South Caucasus and other countries. The aim of the festival is to foster intercultural dialogue, support cross-border and regional cooperation, promote young talents, and provide informal jazz education. The festival serves as a cultural bridge and provides an opportunity for audiences to hear diverse styles of music by emerging artists from the region and all over the world.
Where does this festival get its strength?
Every positive feedback or new outcome gives us motivation to work on the festival. We are enthusiastic for our work, but it is not easy to keep it only on emotions, we often struggle with finances. In Georgia, commercial events are funded by public money and non-commercial festivals have much less support. The funding system including taxes, sponsorship and government subsidies is tough.
Do you get enough support from the government and commercial sponsors in order to leave a lasting impression in what you do?
The main sponsors of the festival since 2011 are state organisations like Ministry of Culture and City Hall. I am thankful to the state for their support. But I must say it is not enough for developing. We have the same budget for the last three years while currency is falling down, prices getting higher.
We are already named a traditionally annual festival, that means a specific amount is planned in the budget, but I can’t get the Ministry of Culture to increase that budget. As a culture manager, I know that we should not depend on state funding but the situation is not very optimistic, cause even commercial projects are funded by the government, taxation system of arts and sponsorship is not flexible, and it is very difficult to find commercial sponsors for non world famous names.
On the verge of a decade, how would you evaluate the past 9 years of the festival? How much of what you dreamt could you realise?
I will evaluate these 9 years very positively. We created a safe space for musicians of the region, where they meet and create together. It is very important that we broke informational vacuum lasted for about 20 years after Soviet Union’s collapse. Living next to each other, we had no clue about our peers and colleagues from our sphere. But now Kavkaz Jazz is a place to meet, to celebrate friendship thru music. And we became a big Kavkaz Jazz family. Musicians are eager to come back to Georgia again. Isn’t it awesome? Now I can say that, yes, my dream came true. I dreamt about when I, myself, was a student violinist. Seeing musicians from Armenia and Azerbaijan coming to Georgia for classical concerts, I was curious. Why don’t we communicate more? I wanted to explore their culture, to get closer, but it was impossible during regular competitions or festivals. I offered my idea to U.S. embassy in Georgia and was very happy to organize my first festival with them.
Is it getting easier or harder?
At this moment, organisation wise, I would say easier. 9 years of experience helps. We learn from our mistakes and are always open to listen to critical opinions. Musicians themselves inspire us to do more. Financially still struggling, but I am sure we will find solutions and challenges that will force us to do so.
What are the highlights of the festival for you over the past 9 years?
The first memorable highlight was at the very first festival gala concert when Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian musicians played together for the first time after a long break. Same year, we hosted Justin Dicioccio, professor of Manhattan School of Music and jazz ambassador, who taught young musicians during one week . Another highlight was 2-weeks educational programme with professors of Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies of University of Louisville, KY, USA. It was an intensive course for the students of high music schools in Tbilisi. Kavkaz Jazz and its educational program appeared in the October issue of DownBeat. Later two Georgian students have visited Jamey Aebersold school in Louisville and took part in a local jazz festival. This year’s highlight was Kavkaz Jazz Quartet and guests from 4 different countries performing a regional song, Yellow Bride (known in Azerbaijan and Turkey as Sarı Gelin and in Armenia as Sari Aghjik). There is a dispute over the ownership of the song between Armenia and Azerbaijan but musicians decided to play it together. Instead of dividing, they shared it. Their performance put tears in our eyes, I even could not record the video because my hands were shaking. It was a great moment.
Then what happened?
Unfortunately there has been a quarrel about the origin of the song in Armenian and Azerbaijani press. Obviously they did not understand a thing about why that song was chosen. And the Georgian singer of Azerbaijani descent made a statement about why she took part in that performance, as a response to the accusations for singing the song with an Armenian descent singer, as if she was forced to do so that is far from the truth. I understand she must have felt under pressure. Still, it is sad that we have to deal with such reactions but these things happen.
Have you had any disappointments or discouragement along the way?
Actually yes and a lot. I never felt a real interest from local authorities to support the festival in a serious way. It feels for me that they are not sensitive to what we do. Probably they simply don’t understand the magnitude of what we do. This is not just a music festival, it has real and long term outcomes in cultural diplomacy, cultural dialogue and informal education. I don’t know any other long term project who does it successfully for so many years. We don’t pretend to shout about it, the appreciation coming from the audience and the participants is enough for us. Another pity thing is that, festival can’t offer its team well paid salaries, so we mostly work with volunteers, but to do a quality project, professionals should be paid. I even feel that the festival gets more appreciation abroad than in its home town. We have offers from quite famous jazz institutions for long or short term cooperation and it is difficult to raise funds on our side.
What do you dream for your 10th?
I still can’t realise that so many years have passed. Now we need a little break after the 9th festival, sum up everything and rethink our strategy to set up new goals for next decade. I have too many dreams and don’t know how to fit them in one year, but… of course, we should celebrate! We will celebrate friendship, tolerance, freedom, music and make toasts with Georgian wine, of course. The festive mood of the festival should be spread in the city. More musicians, venues, and a longer festival including other activities like educational events, roundtables, exhibitions etc. We also want to invite producers and agents for musician and band showcase.
What would you like to say to potential sponsors / supporters?
Supporting the festival and its programs, potential sponsors will invest in the new generation of musicians, new productions and hopefully their mobility to other countries. We need to grow professionals to develop our music scene.