We sat in the old Soviet-looking school gymnasium/cafeteria, with its peeling paint and high windows without any glass, eating our first breakfast in Georgia– kasha cooked with shredded carrot and onion, and a cucumber and tomato salad. One of the other volunteers asked , “You came all the way from America… for this?”
The incredulity didn’t really seem all that misplaced on that Wednesday morning when the dusty field that would become the “town” site of the One Caucasus Festival still looked like this.
Rick and I had arrived at the “Not Perfect Town of Our Dream,” as it had been dubbed by the festival organizer, late the previous night after a couple days of travel from our home in Boston to Tserakvi, Georgia to volunteer at and participate in the One Caucasus Festival.
Thirty hours after our arrival, the school and its grounds looked like this.
The One Caucasus Festival was a free festival of music, art and cultural collaboration that took place in Tserakvi, Georgia from August 28-31, 2014. It is also an ongoing project to connect individuals across the Caucasus region and beyond in music, art, filmmaking, culture and mutual understanding and friendship. It’s like Woodstock, We Are the World and Field of Dreams all rolled into one ambitious, sometimes crazy, ultimately amazing collaboration between dozens of people from all over the world.
The festival is the brainchild of Witek Hebanowski, a human rights activist and president of the Fundacja Inna Przestrzen (The Other Space Foundation) a Warsaw-based NGO with a mission to support democracy, human rights, multiculturism and tolerance by creating opportunities for collaboration between artists, musicians and individuals to undertake cultural and artistic initiatives and projects, often in areas that have never been host to this kind of event previously.
That description of location certainly fit Tserakvi, Georgia. A small, sparsely populated village tucked into a mountain valley, on first (and second) glance, Tserakvi seemed to be perfectly in the middle of nowhere. But it was a strategic nowhere due to its location less than thirty miles from the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, two countries of the Caucasus region that are technically at war with one another. The One Caucasus Festival chose this remote yet relatively accessible location “to create inspirational and safe space for the meeting of young people from the Caucasus region.”
By the time the festival officially kicked off, the “Not Perfect Town of Our Dream” had a Burmese art gallery; an Indian-Nepali café; a Sound Zone that hosted music workshops, a Ukrainian folk dance workshop and live ambient soundscapes produced by a New Zealand-Armenian collaboration; a Kids Zone with activities like origami and Fun-Through-English; a Cinema Zone that we used to conduct a human rights workshop; an information booth with copies of the One Caucasus Daily available in five languages; and picnic tables and other seating for attendees. The main stage, which had finally been delivered and assembled on the morning of opening day, was fully functional with lights and sound. Several pop-up restaurants had set up shop at the festival site, offering freshly grilled food, salads, ice cream treats, and beverages, including draft beer. Monks from a local monastery had a stand where they sold wine and honey. There truly was something for everyone, which pleased the many families and groups of all ages that attended.
Music was the festival’s main, but certainly not only, draw. There was gospel from the UK, a whole new kind of high-energy Ukranian folk music by a band called Folknery, two different Georgian vocal groups, an American blues band, a Senegalese guitarist-vocalist, a Polish string quartet, and local student musicians, all performing both their own sets and in never before heard (or maybe even imagined) pairings, like Afro-Caribbean Georgian gospel, over the course of the festival’s four nights. On the opening night of the festival the cars and the crowds kept coming, eventually numbering around 1,000 attendees. The following three nights saw equally enthusiastic attendance.
The Festival was staffed by a group of international volunteers who arrived two and a half weeks prior to build the infrastructure for the festival and do promotion and outreach in the villages of Georgia’s Marneuli district, a region with much ethnic diversity including Georgian, Armenian, Azeri and Greek villages. Much of the festival’s outreach was in the form of programs for school children that featured art, music, filmmaking and English lessons. These programs and a concerted effort to work with local governments and officials were the keys to the festival’s success. Involving local communities in shaping the festival before it happened and including them as co-creators of and participants in the main events ensured that this felt like everyone’s festival and not something that happened to the region as a result of some kind of foreign invasion of partiers and idealistic do-gooders.
Ukranian artists Olesja Sekeresh and Yulia Lashchuk traveled with Azerbaijani photographer Aysel Amirova to several villages in the Marneuli district to hold body-painting workshops and learn about the history and identity of the residents they met. Chemtai Yegon, a Kenyan woman who lives in Tbilisi and teaches English at a university there, conducted English-Through –Fun workshops for kids in Marneuli region towns and villages. Legendary choir director and gospel singer Clive Brown from the UK was one of the headlining acts of the festival and came early to conduct Georgia’s first-ever Afro-Caribbean Gospel vocal workshops in Marneuli and Tserakvi. The music workshop participants later performed on the main stage with Clive and his band and on their own, to enthusiastic audience response.
Children from local Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani villages of the Marneuli region got the chance to work with filmmakers Lude Reno, Ella Shtyka and Dmytro Tiazhlov, and Natalka Dovha to produce three short films; a narrative of an original story, a documentary tour of the village of Tserakvi, and an animated folktale, that were screened on the first night of the festival following the evening’s musical offerings.
The film screenings took place at the Transformer, a truck combined with a shipping container with a side that folds out to become a stage, cinema, exhibition space, camping space, what have you, that was created and is operated by a collective of Armenian artists and activists. The Transformer was the site of daily “Drink and Draw” sessions and Loqsh exhibitions (Loqsh loosely translates as “hanging out”) and nightly film screenings and dance parties.
Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham of Pansodan Gallery Art Space in Rangoon, Myanmar created an outpost of their gallery in Tserakvi and ran several programs that introduced Burmese culture to festivalgoers. They held workshops where participants could learn the Burmese alphabet (which happens to look remarkably similar to the Georgian alphabet), learn traditional thanaka face painting and try pickled tea. Their space included a playground for kids and was always full of activity.
As one of the volunteers, I can tell you that nothing came together easily or necessarily on schedule at the One Caucasus Festival, but it did all come together. Accommodations were rough. We slept ten to a room on top of thin camping mats and sleeping bags splayed out on the floors of the classrooms of the school that was festival headquarters. Modest meals were served twice a day. Drinking water was carried in bottles from the spring that was a quarter mile walk up the road and the running water in the school was out of order at least once a day. The closest town with shops was almost an hour ride away down bone-jarring bumpy roads.
There were parts of the experience, beyond the rough conditions, that were less than ideal. Word had apparently spread around the area that the exotic spectacle of a gathering of young foreign women could be found in Tserakvi and groups of men, both younger and not so young, were drawn to the event perhaps primarily for that reason. The most innocuous but still uncomfortable end of that spectrum involved a lot of blatant staring. At the other end were blunt and inappropriate solicitations for sex. In discussing the situation with other volunteers, and later acquaintances back home, I can only conclude that it’s not a situation specific to Georgia, but something that seems to happen to almost everywhere to young women who travel independently in a place where they are obviously foreign, and hence “exotic”. I dealt with it when I was a young, single woman in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s and my non-American friends have told me they faced similar attitutudes here in the US more recently. Unfortunately, it seems like independent, adventurous female travelers are targets for that kind of attention anywhere they might be in the world.
Other festival attendees came for more wholesome reasons. Some were residents of Tserakvi village and surrounding communities who had seen the festival site grow over the previous week or had been visited by festival volunteers in the outreach programs. Others had come to watch friends and family performing on the main stage or in the student-made films. A spoke to several travelers to Georgia who came because they saw information about the festival on Facebook, which is also how more than a few volunteers ended up becoming involved. The first day of the festival fell on Mariamoba, or Saint Mary’s Day, one of the major national and religious holidays in Georgia. There was some concern that attendance might be sparse as a result, but it turned out that the festival drew lots of families that night, maybe even creating a new Georgian tradition.
As we met and become friendly with local residents and other festival volunteers during the time we spent in Tserakvi, more than one person asked, “You really came all the way from America…just for this?”
We did. And it was worth every penny, every minute and every lost hour of sleep to be part of an effort so hopeful, so aspirational, so inspirational and ultimately, so successful in all it attempted to do. We plan to do it again next year when it’s time for the second One Caucasus Festival.
If you are interested in becoming involved in the One Caucasus Festival in 2015, keep an eye on the festival’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/OneCaucasus) for information about how to volunteer next year.