Not long after my presentation at Tbilisi State University I was on the Republic of Georgia’s main east-west highway, the guest of Dr. Vakhtang Licheli, an affable man with a white moustache who has been a professor since Soviet times. He took me around the site — a Persian-influenced village from the 4th century B.C., with Zoroastrian shrines, sacred fire areas, pottery fragments, and human remains. After my lecture he invited me to a traditional Georgian feast, a supra, that they were having at an archaeological site west of the capital.
At the supra that evening, the women, all middle-aged and working at the university’s music school, puffed on tiny thin cigarettes throughout dinner. Men and women were seated on opposite sides and between us plates were stacked on plates, with meats, fish, olives, salads, tomatoes, breads, cheeses, and pitchers of wine.
Dr. Licheli made a sincere toast to archaeologists all over the world and afterward, as is custom, a woman on the other side of the room gave a sort-of counter toast, more or less on the same topic. The toastmaster and his lieutenant waxed poetical while one of the students quietly translated for me. To finish, everyone cheered, “Gaumarjos!” Other toasts followed, about nature and love. During the love toast, the custom is that each glass must be full. Though they were adamant about this tradition, no one explained why or where it came from. Since I don’t drink, each time we cheered I raised a full glass of wine, clinked it, and set it down.
Then they burst into the first song of the night.
The men sang long, single-note lines and another man brought in a melody over their harmonies, liturgical-sounding. Their song echoed off the room’s high ceilings and overpowered the dinner’s scattered conversations. It was about forever, the student told me, leaning closer. He started to say more but couldn’t find the words. To explain, he made some hand signals and I smiled — we both nodded and left it at that. At the end of the song, the women applauded, “Bravo, bravo!”
Soon came more songs, many folksy: the women joined in for the higher parts, each time loud and hearty. They sang that song “Hallelujah,” in English, and used a smart phone for the lyrics, looking at me expectantly to see if I could understand the words.
It reminded me of songs from other travels: I sang an old Hank Williams song for people in the Czech Republic and my own music for a group in Guatemala, both of which went well. Once, though, in Chile, the song went terribly but I had to finish it anyway. I had also sung way too loudly at a party with colleagues once, which didn’t go over well.
They ran through more songs and gave more toasts. These toasts were often punctuated by didi madloba, Georgian for “thank you” and usualy the only words I understood. The songs ranged from a love song about a man who never wanted his woman to leave him to folk songs about Georgia and a haunting 10th century liturgical song. These traditional songs were like nothing I have ever heard in my life.
Then Dr. Licheli gave me a toast, in English. He hoped it would be the start of a friendship, maybe even some collaboration on archaeological projects. When he finished, we all said, “Gaumarjos!”
He asked me if I wanted to sing and I got this strange feeling of anticipation, like I was a kid who was about to be left out of the fun — I remember from singing in my band that my voice could have two personalities: one soft for ballads and one so loud and from the heart that I could feel my tear ducts vibrate But, I hesitated, because I thought maybe I should make a toast instead. So I did. I talked my trip and thanked everyone at Tbilisi State University for their hospitality and the great feast.
They sang a few more songs, and soon it was time to go. Before everyone left, I turned to the man with the guitar standing next to me and I asked to play.
When they had performed the other songs, conversations kept flowing underneath. But as I sat down with the guitar, everyone stopped talking. One archaeologist picked up her iPad to take a video.
It had been a couple of years since I sang in front of anyone. I strummed the guitar and it was out of tune except for the three highest strings. I played those and left the rest alone. I sang “Baby,” a song I wrote a long time ago. I began it the way I normally do, with the verse softer and the chorus louder, but when I reached the verse the second time, I sang it all nearly as loud as I could. Everyone was watching, so I kept my eyes focused on a spot in front of the guitar, just beyond the neck because I was getting it right and I didn’t want to break the spell.
When I was done I got one of the best rounds of applause of my entire life. They all clapped and women with lit cigarettes yelled “Bravo!,” because I sang so loud that I could feel my tear ducts vibrate, and the Georgians loved that because they do the same thing.