Ilusha Tsinadze, the Georgian-American musician whose group has been making waves in Georgia over their amazing, unique rendition of Mokhevis Kalo Tinao, speaks with Evolutsia.Net about his music, Georgia, and his group’s plans.
While looking at Georgia-related politics and policy is a multifaceted thing, it’s obviously not the whole story of this country. It goes without saying that Georgia has a rich and beautiful cultural heritage, one which radiates far beyond its shores.
Many people who follow Georgia-related stuff have already seen the Youtube video-gone-viral of Ilusha Tsinadze and his group performing the lovely Mokhev folk song Mokhevis Kalo Tinao (or “Tina, the Mokhev woman”) using a blend of jazz and American folk styles. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
Truly some terrific music making. After a neat interview [En] at the great blog TheYoungGeorgians [Ka], we had a chance to have a chat with Ilusha and go into some depth about his art, his group, and his thoughts on Georgia.
Evolutsia.Net: Your first album is called Deda Ena, or ‘mother tongue.’ Obviously, your trip to Georgia and connecting with Georgia’s musical traditions had a great effect on you. How has embracing your Georgian background changed your perception and outlook on your art, if at all?
The first time I went back to Georgia was the summer that I finished music school. I had been studying jazz for years, and though I was curious about Georgian music and had a few CD’s, I didn’t know how to play or sing any of it. The thing that struck me most about Georgia’s music culture was how integrated folk music was into everyday life. The night I first arrived, Marika Deida, one of my closest friends there, started playing and singing Georgian folk songs on the out of tune piano and everyone started dancing, clapping, and singing along. I am a big fan of live music, but it doesn’t have to just be done in a concert setting, with the audience sitting around hungry for entertainment. I love it when everyone participates.
Evolutsia.Net: You’re the only Georgian in the group, right? What did your other bandmates think when you decided to do Mokhevis Kalo Tinao? Take me through the process that brought them on board a Georgian-language jazz folk group. I can only imagine what those early conversations were like.
Yes, I’m the only Georgian. The thing is that I’ve been playing with most of the musicians in my band already for some time. We already had a mutual musical language. So when I introduced the Georgian repertoire to them, they took to it immediately. First I had them listen to some traditional versions, by Georgians, then I said, “OK, here’s what I’m hearing. Richie, you play the pandeiro, Rob you take a bluegrass solo.” Before I knew it, it was magic.
Evolutsia.Net: In the years I have been back and forth between the US and Georgia, I was surprised by the speed and intensity of the reforms in Georgia — both physical and social. I know you’ve back to Georgia a few times since your first big homecoming. What are your thoughts on Georgia’s development over the past few years?
Yes. Wow. It’s like watching a child grow. Every year, the country seems to change. In my view, the changes have their pluses and minuses. Obviously, I am really happy that there are better roads, good police, electricity, etc.. The reason I didn’t get to go back for so long was because my parents wouldn’t let me travel out of fear of my safety. Nowadays, it seems like it’s more dangerous to live in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, I feel that some of these changes act as facades for the real struggles of the country. Many of my relatives there are struggling to make ends meet. Last summer I went to visit someone in a hospital in Tbilisi and the building was falling apart. It breaks my heart to see all the casino’s and the shiny lights when I know that there are still schools that need to be built and parents can’t afford to buy their kids’ books.
Evolutsia.Net: I know what you mean. It seems like the more some things change, the bleaker the underdeveloped portions of the country seem. Trying not to get into politics, but do you see some of these issues being resolved in the next few years? If not, what do you think it will take?
That’s a hard question. If I knew how to fix Georgia’s social and economic problems, I probably wouldn’t be a musician. One thing I would recommend Georgians is not to run towards the American lifestyle too fast. There are many wonderful aspects to American culture but many people here are also deeply unhappy. Too often, my friends and relatives in Georgia don’t realize this. So many Americans live in debt, or they can’t afford to go to a doctor, or they get evicted from their home.
Evolutsia.Net: One thing that really struck me, as an American, was the seamlessness with which you blended Scotch-Irish American bluegrass in Mokhevis Kalo Tinao with the Georgian highland style. How difficult (or easy) was it to bring these two styles together?
This was not a problem for me because I am a big ajapsandal [or, a ‘crazy’ mixture, named after a Georgian vegetable melange –ed] myself. My father is Georgian, my mother is Jewish. I was born in Tbilisi but lived in New York most of my life. I love Georgian music but I also love and listen to jazz, classical, bluegrass, Brazilian music, West African music, Indian music, rock… the list goes on and on. With the blending of bluegrass and traditional Georgian music (as well as Brazilian percussion) in Mokhevis Kalo, I was really just being myself. That’s how the rest of the CD is too… one big ajapsandali of my musical influences. (Hopefully it’s gemrieli!)
The band already had a mutual musical language. So when I introduced the Georgian repertoire to them, they took to it immediately.
Evolutsia.Net: You really need to get in touch with my cousin, Leo Traversa, a master bassist in NYC. You guys would really get along!
He’s played with some big names. It looks like he might be too busy for me!
Evolutsia.Net: The Youtube video of your group doing Mokhevis Kalo Tinao has gone viral in Georgia. Do you guys have any plans to do concerts in Georgia? How about one of Georgia’s innumerable talent reality tv shows?
I am so happy and grateful that Georgians have been watching and sharing the video. I’ve gotten so many of e-mails from people saying how much they like it. I can’t wait to come to Georgia with my band. That’s exactly what I’m working on now… trying to arrange to play at festivals around the country this summer. As far as the reality tv shows, there’s no way I could participate in those. I really dislike competition in music or the arts.
Evolutsia.Net: Well, the reality tv show idea was entirely tongue-in-cheek. I’m not necessarily against competition but let’s just say Georgia may have gone overboard with the concept! But more seriously — if you had a choice of places to play in Georgia, where would you go? And Batumi and Tbilisi don’t count.
The first place I’d go to is Aspindza, a little village town near Akhaltsikhe. That’s where my great aunt, Elza, lives and many of my other relatives. I spent every summer there as a child and it’s still the place that I run to as soon as I get off the plane in Tbilisi.
Evolutsia.Net: Thanks, Ilusha!