Centres of Polyphony

North Caucasian minorities

North Caucasia comprises peoples living on the northern slopes of the Great Caucasian Mountain Range (neighboring with Georgia on the other side of the Caucasian mountains). Linguistically North Caucasia is one of the most diverse regions of the world. Speakers of three language families live here: (1) Indo-European family of languages (Ossetians), Turkic family of languages (Balkarians and Karachaevis), and indigenous Caucasian family of languages (Abkhazians in Georgia; Adighis, Chechens, Ingushes, and Dagestanians in Russia). Islam, introduced in 17-18th centuries, is the leading religion of the region (interrupted in the middle by mostly Christian Ossetians). Vocal music is dominating in all North Caucasian traditional cultures. Tradition of vocal polyphony is widely spread throughout the whole North Caucasia.


Abkhazians (Apsua in Abkhazian; population was about 70 000 in the beginning of the 1990s. New data are not available) are the only people among the group of North Caucasian peoples, who live south off the Caucasian range only, in the northwestern corner of Georgia. Abkhazians are autochthonous of the Caucasus. Ethnically and linguistically they are close to Adighis (Cherkesses and Kabardinians, living in the northwestern part of the North Caucasus) and together they form Abkhazo-Adighian branch of Caucasian language family. In the world of linguistics Abkhazo-Adighian languages are known by the biggest number of the consonants known today in any of the languages of the world. Abkhazian traditional culture retained many archaic genres and rituals.
Polyphony plays a crucial role in Abkhazian traditional music. Polyphony is present in all genres where the social environment provides more than one singer to support the melodic line. Readers might remember (from the very beginning of this book) the recollection of I. Zemtsovsky, when a dozing Abkhazian started singing a drone to support an unknown to him singer. Abkhazian two and three-part polyphony is based on a drone (sometimes a double drone). Two part drone songs are considered by Abkhazian and Georgian scholars the most important indigenous style of Abkhazian polyphony. Two-part drone songs are dominating in Gudauta district, the core region of ethnic Abkhazians. Millennia of cultural, social and economic interactions between Abkhazians and Georgians on this territory resulted in reciprocal influences, and in particular, creation of a new, so-called “Georgian style” of three-part singing in Abkhazia, unknown among Adighis. This style is based on two leading melodic lines (performed by soloists – akhkizkhuo) singing together with the drone or ostinato base (argizra). Indigenous Abkhazian style of three-part polyphony uses double drones (in fourths, fifths, or octaves) and one leading melodic line at one time. Abkhazians use a very specific cadence: tertrachordal downwards movement, ending on the interval fourth.

The first scholarly works about Abkhazian music appeared at the beginning of 20th century (Araqishvili, 1916) and few others followed during the 20th century (Kovach & Dzidzaria, 1929, 1930; Akhobadze, Kortua, 1957; Khashba, 1977, 1983; Asuba, 1986; Shamba, 1986), although none of them were published in Western European languages. The article of the author of this book in the Garland encyclopedia of the World Music seems to be the first available for the western readers publication about this very interesting polyphonic tradition (Jordania, 2000a:851-854).


“Adighis” is a Russian term for several ethnic groups living in the western part of the North Caucasia (population about 120 000). To Europeans they are more known under the name “Cherkesses” (or “Circasians”. Circasians are in fact a small group within Adighis). Polyphony plays an important role in musical traditions of the Adighis. Drone polyphony is leading, although among Adighis drone is generally more movable and sometimes has its distinguished melodic line (sometimes it is closer to ostinato). The traditional term for the drone is “ezhu” (means “everybody”). Blaeva mentions three types of Adighian traditional polyphony: (1) two-part drone polyphony, (2) Responsorial alternation of the soloist and the ezhu, and (3) overlapping alternation of the soloist and ezhu (Blaeva, 1988:10). Term ezhu is used among neighboring Balkarians and Karachaevis as well (despite their languages belonging to different family of languages). Two-part polyphony is dominating, although among one of the Adighian groups – Kabardinians three-part singing (with double drones in fifths or octaves) is quite usual. On the other hand, according to the available information, part of Adighis – Abadzekhs and Circassians have monophonic singing traditions and they sing in unison.
Many ancient rituals are still present in Adighian traditional culture. The central figure of Adighian society and culture is djeguako, who comprises the highly respected roles of the community historian, composer, and the keeper of the traditional values and institutions. The first notions about the Adighian traditional music and polyphony appeared in the 1850s. The publication of three volumes of the “Folk Songs and Instruments Tunes of Adighis” (Gippius, 1980, 1981, 1986) is considered as one of the best ethnomusicological publications of the Soviet Union. Together with the Ossetian polyphonic traditions, Adighian polyphony came to be known the earliest (out of all North Caucasian polyphonic traditions) among the Western scholars. (M. Schneider used the examples of Kabardinian polyphony in “History of Polyphony”).

Balkarians and Karachaevis

These two groups are closely connected to each other. In fact, Karachaevis are Balkarians, who migrated to a new territory (not far from their initial homeland) in the 19th century. Total population of Balkarians and Karachaevis is under 200 000 (70 000 and 120 000 respectively). Balkaria traditionally consisted of several communities living in different gorges, and the name “Balkarian” initially was used only for a specific population of so-called Balkarian Gorge, same as population of the Chegem Gorge was called “Chegemians”, dwellers of Baksan Gorge – Baksanians, etc. The uniting native name for all the related populations was “Taulala” (mountain dwellers) (Rakhaev, 1988:21). Living between the Caucasian-language speaking Adighis from the west and Svanetians (Georgians) from the south, and Indo-European Ossetians from the east, Turkic-speaking Balkarians were believed to be culturally closely connected to Turkic-language speaker populations that brought Islam to the North Caucasia. This belief was the result of dominating position of linguistics in ethnogenetic studies. Following the trend, musicologists tried to “bring” the musical traditions of Balkarians and Karachaevis closer to the musical traditions of the Turkic world by all possible means. For example, musicians were writing about the chromatic scales in their music (Taneev, 1947 [1886]) although Balkarian and Karachaevian traditional music scales are diatonic. More paradoxically and importantly for our topic, collectors of Balkarian and Karachaevian songs were publishing their traditional polyphonic songs as one-part, monophonic songs (in an attempt to bring their musical traditions close to monophonic cultures of Moslem Turkic peoples).
Despite this tendency of negligence towards their polyphonic traditions, Balkarians and Karachaevis have one of the most developed traditions of polyphonic singing among North Caucasian peoples. Three-part singing is widespread here. The melody, as elsewhere in Caucasia, is performed by a soloist, and the drone (or “drones” in case of double drones) by the group of singers. Interestingly, the melodic part has a Turkic term “zhir baschi” (“head melody”, or “main melody”), but the term for the bass part is non-Turkic (possibly because polyphony is mostly absent in Turkic musical cultures). For the base part Balkarians and Karachaevis use the indigenous Caucasian (Adighian) term – “ezhu”.
There has been an insufficient study of Balkarian and Karachaevian traditional music and polyphony, particularly in terms of availability to the western readers. Although Balkarian polyphonic songs were among the very first among the North Caucasian songs to be transcribed (in 1885, the Russian composer Taneev, teacher of Tchaikovsky, had a fieldwork here. See Taneev: 1947), Balkarian tradition of vocal polyphony was very slow to reach the western reader. The first publication on European language, containing information about Balkarian polyphony was a small article in the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (Jordania, 2000a:856-859).


Ossetians (Iron in Ossetian) occupy the central part of the North Caucasia. They live from both (northern and southern) sides of the Caucasian range, respectively in Russia and Georgia. They are the only representative of the Indo-European languages in North Caucasia, and the only Christian people (or mostly Christian) in North Caucasia. Ossetians were usually considered the descendants of the Medieval Alans, carriers of Indo-Iranian language. Later archaeological and physical anthropological studies revealed, that despite the fact of the change of the indigenous Caucasian language into Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family of languages, the newcomers (Alans) did not have much influence on the indigenous population of Ossetia (Alexeev, 1974a:197-200). Musically Ossetians are very close to other North Caucasian peoples, sharing most of the characteristic feature with them. Most importantly for us, polyphonic tradition is as important to Christian Ossetians, as to their Moslem neighbors. Ossetian polyphony is based on the wide use of drone (and double drone). Songs with a drone mostly represent two-part polyphony. In case of double drones, these drones are the interval of fourths, fifths, or octaves apart. In such cases (together with the main melody, always sung individually) the result is three-part drone polyphony. There is another type of three-part polyphony in Ossetia as well (in southern Ossetia, within Georgia), with only one drone, but with two individual singers, singing together two top melodies on the background of the drone. This type of three-part singing is considered by Ossetian and Georgian scholars as the result of the influence coming from Georgian polyphonic music. The name of the base part in Ossetia is kirnin, of sometimes – fersag. Male singing is dominating. Besides the drone, Ossetians widely use ostinato formulas in the base part. Rhythmically Ossetian songs are not very strict. Quite often they use complex meters and free rhythm, mostly following the reciting style of the singer of the main melody. Cadences quite often finish on the interval forth.
Arguably the most important musical legacy that medieval Alans left in Ossetian traditional culture is the tradition of epic songs about the Nart heroes. Interestingly, these songs (called here kadeg) are performed arguably in the original Indo-European performance style: by a solo male performer (kadeganag), accompanying himself on a string instrument. Epic songs about the Nart heroes became very popular among Ossetian’s neighbors and are currently spread throughout the whole North Caucasia, although in all other North Caucasian cultures (apart from Ossetians) epic songs about Narts are performed by a group of singers, in a traditional polyphonic style with a drone.
In contrast to the most of the other North Caucasian polyphonic traditions, which were mostly unavailable for European scholars, Ossetian polyphonic tradition became known among European scholars quite early (Lach, 1917, 1931). The 1964 volume “Ossetian Folk Songs” (Galaev, 1964) is still the best published source of Ossetian traditional songs.

Chechens and Ingushes

Chechens (Nokhcha in Chechen) are arguably the most populous in North Caucasia (about 1.2 million lived here before the recent Russian-Chechen war. Contemporary estimates are nor available). Together with the closely related Ingushes (Galgai in Ingush, population is around 200 000) they call themselves vainakhi. Their languages are a part of so-called Nakho-Dagestanian group of Caucasian language family. Chechens and Ingushes became Moslems in 17-18th centuries, and they are believed to be the autochthonous residents of the Caucasian mountain ranges.
Both Chechen and Ingush traditional music could be very much defined by their tradition of vocal polyphony. As in other North Caucasian musical cultures, Chechen and Ingush polyphony is based on a drone. Unlike most of the other North Caucasian polyphonic traditions (where two-part polyphony is the leading type), Chechen and Ingush polyphony is mostly three-part. Middle part, the carrier of the main melody of songs, is accompanied by the double drone, holding the interval of the fifth “around” the main melody. Intervals and chords, used in Chechen and Ingush polyphony, are often dissonances (sevenths, seconds, fourths). This is quite usual in all North Caucasian traditions of polyphony as well, but in Chechen and Ingush traditional songs more sharp dissonances are used. In particular, a specific cadence, where the final chord is a dissonant three-part chord, consisting of fourth and the second on top (c-f-g), is quite unique for North Caucasia. Only on the other side of Caucasian mountains, in western Georgia, there are only few songs that finish on the same dissonant chord (c-f-g).
Although still very much alive and functioning in the society, Chechen and Ingush traditional polyphony is one of the least studied among the North Caucasian traditions – the inheritance of almost constant hostility and wars against Russia for the independence during more that 150 years, including their ban from Caucasia to Central Asia (1944-1957) by Stalin and the current unstable situation.


Dagestan (or the Republic of Dagestan) is the region in eastern part of Caucasian mountain range, between Azerbaijan on south, Caspian Sea on the east, Chechnya on the west, and Russia on the north. Part of Russian Federation, Dagestan shares many features of traditional culture with the rest of the North Caucasian peoples. It has already been mentioned that North Caucasia is known for its kaleidoscopic variety of regional traditions and languages, but Dagestan brings this diversity to the utmost. Linguists distinguish more than 100 languages on the territory of Dagestan. Some of the languages are currently spoken by few native speakers only. Some of the most populous peoples are Avars (in Avar – Maarulal 545 000), Dargins (Dargan 330 000), Kumiks (Kumuk 255 000), and Laks (lak 110 000).
Unfortunately, the information about the traditional vocal polyphony of Dagestanian peoples is very sporadic and incomplete. According to the available information (I am particularly grateful to Georgian ethnomusicologist, late Edisher Garakanidze, who conducted a short but very important fieldwork in Dagestan in 1991, and to Manashir Iakubov, one of the best experts of North Caucasian music), drone polyphony is quite well-known among all major Dagestanian peoples (particularly among Avars and Kumiks). The tradition of three-part drone singing is present at least among Kumiks. In Kumik three-part drone singing, as in other polyphonic traditions of the North Caucasia, the main melody is accompanied by the double drone (in interval fifth apart). Virtually nothing has been published about the polyphonic traditions of Dagestanians even on their own languages. The article of Manashir Iakubov about the parallels between the musical traditions of Dagestan and Bulgaria is a rare publication that contains some materials about Dagestanian polyphony. Among other elements of traditional music, the article discusses the parallels between the Dagestanian and Southwestern Bulgarian traditions of polyphonic singing (Iakubov, 1972).

Share it on