Magic Carpets

Ben Wheeler

Sounds of the Valley


"Sounds of The Valley" is an artist residency program for international and Georgian multidisciplinary artists. The residency is a part of the larger, “Magic Carpets” family, which consists of 16 European organizations that exchange artists every year in order to work with local communities.

The residency is located in Pankisi, an area in the Kakheti region in the eastern part of Georgia. This valley, bordered by the Caucasus mountain range and situated on the banks of Alazani river, is inhabited by a mostly Muslim community known as the Kists.

Pankisi is a beautiful and somewhat magical place. There's something in the air that makes you think that often time is passing differently—you may see shades of green that don't exist elsewhere and sounds that are familiar but at the same time unrecognizable. Although it's one of the most picturesque regions in the country and a popular tourist destination for many foreigners, most Georgians have never been there. For the rest of Georgia, Pankisi is shrouded in mystery and rumors; people speak of it carefully and information is fragmented and often misleading. The Kist community is among the most isolated groups in the country—close geographically yet distanced socially.

This distance is one of the main reasons we chose Pankisi as a location for our residency and the Kist people as the community with whom we wanted to work.

For the Kist community, the invisible wall between them and the rest of Georgia has a considerable effect on their daily lives. For years now, in order to break the stigma and shorten this distance, Kists have been encouraging their fellow Georgian citizens to visit Pankisi.

Within the framework of the residency, the Tbilisi Photo Festival sent three artists to spend up to three weeks in the villages of Pankisi. We knew from the beginning that this residency was not about finding solutions or detecting problems—instead, the main focus was on creating new human relationships, connecting people to people and people to places.

As a result, introduced in this publication are three encounters that have been transformed into three stories, each bringing you a different side of the sounds of the Pankisi Valley.


Ben and Bella

It's been ten years since Ben moved to Georgia and nine years since his first visit to Pankisi. As an ethnomusicologist, Ben drives all over Georgia listening to and gathering folk songs that often only exist only in the memories of their performers. When we first met, I understood that he knew much more about Pankisi Valley than I did.

“I know where I want to stay,” he said. “I have a friend there.” This was the first time I'd heard of Bela Mutoshvili. Bela is Ts’ova-tush (an ethnolinguistic group with historical roots in the nearby mountains of Tusheti) and married to a Kist man. They live together in the village of Jokolo village and Bela teaches music in two of the local schools.

She also owns a small guesthouse called Folk House and often hosts musicians and people from all over the world who are interested in music. She sings in three languages (Chechen, Ts’voa-tush, and Georgian), plays Georgian and Chechen folk instruments, and has her own women's choir, Pankisi Ensemble, which consists of herself and three Kist girls.

Fascinated by their singing and the melodies that were both unique to Pankisi, Ben decided to record the songs and publish their album online. Bulat and Timur, two Circassian ethnomusicologists and close friends of Ben (who also travel around the Caucasus gathering folk music), happened to arrive in Tbilisi just in time for the residency and accompanied Ben on his trips to the Valley.

The album you can hear when you follow the link is the result of their work with Bela and her Pankisi Ensemble. This is a gift to music lovers, who otherwise may have never heard these sounds of the Pankisi Valley.
The songs performed by Pankisi Ensemble tell stories of love, friendship, despair, war, and freedom— almost universal themes in other songs all over the world, but expressed in a style and manner unique to the Valley.

We asked Bela to translate one of them for you. 

text: Ana Gabelaia, curator of the project