samzeo, 2009  (L-R: Angus Ward, Jukian Marley, Ben Walker, Helen Curtis, Jenny Smith, Sarah Cobham)
All those nights I spent listening to European football competitions in the 1970s and 80s, in which British teams would be faced with daunting away matches against the likes of Dynamo Kiev and Dynamo Tbilisi, had not been totally wasted. When I travelled, as part of Samzeo, a six-piece choir from Leeds, first to Kiev, Ukraine, then on to Tbilisi, Georgia recently, I reflected on all those intrepid footballers who had gone before.

Over the next few days I became quite friendly with a Turkish accordion player who was part of the same travelling show as we were. I say ‘friendly’, but in fact the only words he said to me were ‘Leeds United’, ‘Harry Kewell’ and ‘Galatasary’. It’s just that he said them several times a day and with a smile.

I’ve heard it said that the British are obsessed with sport, that football has become an urban religion, a breeding ground for tribalism. Whatever the merits of that view, I can’t think of a public activity other than sport which gives us more national identity.

Perhaps there is a counterpoint to this in that small, beautiful and fiercely proud country on the edge of the Black Sea. The Turks were driven out of Tbilisi around the year 1100 by the army of King David II, or ‘David the Builder’ (a huge statue of whom stands on the edge of the city) only for the Mongol invasion of 1220 to result in Georgia’s enforced regression into the separate kingdoms from which it was formed. Add to that the domination of the Russian empire from 1783 to 1991 and you have perhaps a strong historical basis for the desire to celebrate and express national identity, which seems Useimmista peleista on vielapa tarjolla eri versioita, kuten vaikkapa ruletista eurooppalainen ja amerikkalainen ruletti . best done through the arts.

One night our group ended up in a situation which was not part of the itinerary. Our kind host at the hotel, Nana, arranged for us to be driven to somewhere, anywhere, where we could get food. We ended up at what might be termed a good old Georgian knees-up. The room was full of food, drink and merriment, and on stage were 4 men singing to a backing tape at an extraordinarily loud volume. Diners would break off from their meals to dance to Georgian mutations of western forms of popular music like acoustic pop, rock and rap.

But occasionally that would stop and suddenly the men would break into the rousing and haunting a capella folk songs which we in Samzeo have been striving to learn for the past few years. This seemed to confirm how important the ancient music is to this culture, as is the amazing dancing, enormous meals and the willingness to help and entertain guests, such as we encountered in abundance from our friend and liaison Irakli.

In our effort to provide an example of English song for Irakli, all we could manage was a half-remembered version of ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’.

6 comments on “Tbilisi Does It (for me)

  • Lovley piece of writing Ben. Like you, I remember nights listening to football macthes involving the great Dynamo Tbilisi. All on Long Wave and always commentated by Alan Parry.

    What was the food like?



  • I remember a similar occasion – a wedding in Croatia. The after-meal entertainment was a beautiful unaccompanied choral rendition of traditional music. When pressed to offer something from the UK, we brits desperately tried to think of anything we all the knew the words to. Hey Jude is what I think we ended up with. Shocking really. That’s what a century of commercial pop charts has left us. A million tunes and not one we can all sing together.

  • hi ben, you have written a superb bit of memory writing from Georgia, it really is evocative for me thank you
    love Helen

  • Epic piece of description there, Ben.

    I have been in that sort of position in foreign lands many times when a mere commonality of football team knowledge saves the day.

    Seems an interesting alternative place to go, Tbilisi.

  • It must be universal, had similar conversation in Milano Northern Italy with a mrket stall seller of T shirts who was an obsessed Man U fan, he thought I might know one of the players (as I came from Leeds a neighbouring town!) OO Good job I wasn’t a Leeds fan

    It is very enlightening visiting countries before they get soiled too much by Western culture, was lucky enough to see Poland and Slovakia before Mac Donalds invaded and more recently Albania (but it was are already in flux)

    Enjoyed your piece

  • My first day working in France was during the grape harvest and I didn’t speak any French. The boss was a shouty wanker who thought that the louder he shouted in French the more likely I was to understand, which of course wasn’t the case. I must admit I wasn’t feeling too happy. Luckily one of the Moroccan blokes working for him spoke English and being friendly asked me where I was from in England. Thinking that he would never have heard of my home town I attempted to explain that I was ‘from a small town about 100km North East of London called ‘Ipswich” to which he replied: ‘Ah, Portman Road’. He then went on to list practically all the players from the ’78 FA cup winning team. I couldn’t have even told you the name of one Moroccan club side. He’s now one of my best mates, we occasionally go and watch Barça together and I’ve just got back from Morocco where we spent time with him and his family. Good ol boy.

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