The One Caucasus festival
ARTS AND CULTURE

The One Caucasus festival

Since 2014, Georgia’s Marneuli region has hosted the annual One Caucasus festival, in the village of Tserakvi. One Caucasus (then not under such name) started to develop as a concept in 2011 and in July and November of 2013 two research trips were conducted to find a suitable venue for the festival in Georgia. The festival line-up includes musicians and bands from the South Caucasus, Europe and further afield. Although music is a large part of the festival, One Caucasus is more than just a music festival. It hosts the ‘One Caucasus Town’ which is co-created by architects, international volunteers and local volunteers which offers a wide range of interdisciplinary activities to festival-goers. The festival is unique in that it brings people together from all three countries of the South Caucasus. Furthermore, beyond the region, it seeks to encourage active participants from all over the world. Rather than an exercise in peacebuilding, the festival offers a safe space for a meeting between people from all over the Caucasus without the pressure of expectations or outcomes. However, in terms of publicity, the festival is not as well known in Armenia than in neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan.
 

Text : Charlie Rose  /  Photo : Onnik James Krikorian

 

Over the border
On the journey from Yerevan to Georgia I was accompanied by an Armenian friend of mine. Part of our route ran alongside the sometimes hostile Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Our driver said that every time he travels close to the border he worries about the threat of gunfire coming from the Azerbaijani side of the border. He told us that his friend’s car was shot at from the Azerbaijani border, just two weeks before. The danger of being on the receiving end of gunfire is a daily reality facing those who live and travel close to the border.
When we crossed into Georgia we boarded the free transportation provided to the festival. Bearing in mind that me and my friend had no knowledge of the situation across the border in Marneuli, we were in for a pleasant surprise. We were the first two passengers on the minibus and our first stop was an Azeri village. Me and my friend were worried as we seemed to stop at this village for more than 20 minutes. A group of Azeris gathered around the minibus and asked me where I was from. The Azeris did not ask my friend where he was from but they somehow knew he was Armenian. My friend was noticeably apprehensive and so was I.

We got back into the minibus with our new passengers and proceeded onwards. A few minutes later we made a brief stop at a shop and our new passengers left the minibus. They returned to the minibus with some bags and before we knew it we were handed beer, chips and a generous portion of fresh bread. We felt less apprehensive after this kind and hospitable act. We were unsure what was going on and wanted to know when we would arrive at the festival, as it was getting late. The passengers spoke little English so my friend started to speak Russian with them. My friend would intermittently translate what they were talking about as I had no Russian language skills to speak of. My friend assured me that the conversation was friendly and he was no longer worried. We stopped at another village and let some more passengers on, but this time our new passengers were not Azeri. Our fellow Azeri passengers, much to our surprise, started to speak Armenian with the new passengers, and of course the village we had just arrived in was Armenian. My friend was relieved as he could then converse in Armenian, rather than continuing to struggle with Russian. It was at this moment that we realised Armenians and Azeris co-exist peacefully over the border in Georgia.

We both knew that Armenians and Azeris would be present at the festival but we hadn’t given much thought as to what that would actually be like, bearing in mind the things you hear about Azeris in Armenia and the perception of Armenians in Azerbaijan, but also the fact that both countries are locked into a conflict with each other over Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite this, the experience at One Caucasus was extremely positive, meeting Azeris (both living in Georgia and from Azerbaijan) who were eager to make friends with Armenians and enjoy the festival together.

My experience at last year’s One Caucasus
The Yerevan-based band I was playing with at the time (1243k) had the pleasure of playing a set at last year’s festival. We played a 20-minute set which was going smoothly until we suffered a momentary loss of power halfway through our set. It was then my job to continue playing percussion to keep the crowd entertained as my instruments didn’t require electricity to be heard. After a minute, power was restored and we finished our set to an enthusiastic applause from the audience. Before we performed our set, the festival’s music director Pako Sarr approached us and told us that he’d like to take one of our songs (‘Jehovah's Robot’) and rearrange it under his direction, adapting the song for a performance on the main stage.

We gladly accepted his invitation and were also told that we’d be playing the new arrangement with additional musicians from the Baku-based band, the Snails. Before our performance, we rehearsed the new arrangement with the Snails, taking around an hour for all of us to get the new arrangement nailed down. The new arrangement differed from our usual performance. At the time, 1243k comprised of three musicians: a keyboardist/vocalist, an acoustic guitarist/vocalist and myself on percussion. Our live performances had more of an acoustic flair rather than the sound you get from a conventional setup of electric guitar, bass guitar and drum kit. However, the new arrangement amplified, projected and accentuated the drama of the song with the addition of the aforementioned instruments. Performing the song was an incredible experience and the reaction we got from the audience was electric! This was not only significant exposure for our band but it also marked the largest audience any one of us had performed in front of. Before arriving at the festival, we never expected to play on the main stage, never envisioned playing one of our songs with other musicians and we also never expected to play with a band from Azerbaijan!

A short interview with Witek Hebanowski, program director of One Caucasus
It seems that the Marneuli region of Georgia is best suited as a location for a festival that aims to appeal to all nationalities and ethnic groups of the Caucasus. This is not only important to attract festival-goers but also to attract those who come as active participants to the festival. But in your opinion, what is so special about the Marneuli region?
“In a way the Marneuli region is a laboratory for development and coexistence. It takes a lot of work, but I consider it much more effective than all of the similar projects we have undertaken in Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan or even in other regions. For the festival itself, I believe we need to bring more open-minded people from all of the countries of the South Caucasus and also from the North Caucasus, to give them the chance – not only to enjoy together but also to work together and with international colleagues also.”

It seems hard not to think about the One Caucasus project as some kind of peacebuilding project or perhaps a project with a political agenda. Is One Caucasus either one of these?
“I believe that anything you do as part of a public project is political. So of course One Caucasus is no exception. My educational background is in mediation, negotiation and conflict management and I have worked on a lot of projects in other regions (not only in the Caucasus) where we have worked with communities that have been affected by ethnic or religious conflicts (including working with the Rohingya in Myanmar). So I am happy to say that our agenda at One Caucasus is clear: One Caucasus is about creating a space for a meeting, working together with young people from the Caucasus and it is not a peacebuilding program or some sort of reconciliation effort.”

“I don't believe that peacebuilding or reconciliation are processes that can be effectively started by any project, it should be started by the people. So the paradox is that Armenians and Azeris are so similar to each other, it is often just the case of providing the right space, the right conditions for working together – and you really can see that One Caucasus works better in building bridges than many of these ‘peacebuilding’ initiatives. Of course I am very happy to see such moments happen at One Caucasus. So in a way One Caucasus is an experiment, but not emphasising ‘peace’ as the key word: it’s more of an experiment to see if we can build something modern and inspiring together – that our differences are the strengths – not the reasons to start another fight.”
The One Caucasus festival will take place again this August and will have participants from over 15 countries including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Kenya and Nigeria. If you would like to attend this year’s festival, please check www.onecaucasus.org for the finer details and follow their page on Facebook for regular updates.