Music from Albania

Various performers

Rounder CD 5151

Vocal Traditions of Albania

Various performers

Saydisc CD-SDL 421

As a lover of Bulgarian bagpipe music I didn't think you could get much more obscure.  But then I hadn't found this CD … a completely new sound world, and a fascinating one, that absolutely no one seems to know about.

Albania is a fascinating country for the musicologist, as it has been cut off from the rest of the world for more than forty years under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (a Communist who couldn't get on with the Russians ... or even with Tito … though he did not last quite as long as the notes imply - a marvellous typo has his rule lasting "from 1867 to 1990").  Unlike other areas of the Balkans, Albania was never much urbanised, and the mountain ranges across the country formed a massive barrier to trade and travel, and have helped preserve regional differences.

The recordings on this CD were made in 1993, only two years after Albania opened to the west, and would constitute an interesting musicological archive even if they had lower musical quality.  They're comprehensive in representing the different regions and ethnicities - Cover picturetwo Lab, one Tosk, three Aromun, two Çam, two Gheg and four Roma pieces.  The circumstances of recording are dutifully set down, and in most cases full names are given (there's one exception, which I'll come to later).

The music of each region has different characteristics.  There are two basic divisions of Albania, into the Ghegs in the north, Kosovo and Montenegro, and Tosks in the south.  There are also Labs and Çams near the coast (at Vlora and Gjirokaster), as well as Aromuns, who speak a different language and are related to the Romanian Vlachs - and of course the Roma.  The Roma, as one might perhaps expect, have a more cosmopolitan music than the Albanians, with both Greek and Turkish influences, though its essence remains Albanian.

play Sound ClipThe most startling sound on this disc is the Albanian 'polyphony' sung by the Tosks and Labs (sound clip).  It's purely a southern tradition - the Ghegs, on the other hand, sing mainly monophonic songs.  'Polyphony' is probably the wrong word to use - the harmony is based on a drone, the iso.  It's intriguing that the word iso is not Albanian, but comes from the Byzantine Greek for a neume (note sign), implying the prolongation of a single note.  There are theories that this style of singing imitates Greek church bells; on the other hand, some theorists have suggested that the Greeks copied their bellringing from the Albanian singers …  However, the effect, with some suggestions of overtones at points, is strangely similar to bellringing - order within chaos.

This is not simple drone music.  Above the drone are two or three different soloists - the first soloist is called ia merr ('he begins'), and the second soloist replies, in a deeper range, with predominantly cadential formula rather than a complete melody.  The third soloist sings only a few syllables, but creates both harmonic and rhythmic complexity.  Below all this is a solid drone; one musician quoted in the notes says that has to be "held with such certainty that not even a bullet could go through it".

The structure is similar, whether the music is instrumental or vocal.  A clarinet is often doubled with a violin, and in one track, a 'bagpipe chanter' (mysteriously, with no bag, though the title of the piece, Melodi gajdexhiut, means 'song of the bagpipe') plays the top line, while a clarinet echoes it some way below, creating a rather mysterious sound mixture.  The drone part usually goes to the guitar.

The kaba is the main non-dance form of instrumental music, featuring a free metre improvisation by the lead instrument, usually a clarinet.  As in klezmer, so in Albanian music, the clarinet gradually took over from the native wind instruments; the playing makes great use of portamento and is highly expressive.  Trills are used extensively - unusually for a bagpipe tune, the Song of the Bagpipe seems to use trills more than cuts and other ornamentation.  The violin kaba is particularly fascinating, turning from something that with its free melodic outline, play Sound Clipmeandering tonality and steady drone sounds similar to an Indian raga, into a dance tune that could almost be a re-rendering of a good English one (sound clip).  But to describe this music in terms of something else does it a disservice; it's quite unique.

But the 'polyphony', both vocal and instrumental, is only one form of Albanian music, and there are other interesting genres - among which the epic and the lament figure largely, particularly in the northern traditions.

The recording of a lament is the 'real thing', recorded by Tereze Dede Djoni in memory of her dead son, who had died a few years before.  Even though it was not sung in a ritual context at the time of the death, she evidently believed it was still potent, and would not sing it in the same room as her surviving son; "A song such as this can bring evil and misery, even death."  It is structured around a recurrent vocalise refrain, always on the same three descending notes; musically it is unmemorable compared to some of the other tracks, but the words (on which the focus falls squarely in this recitative-like style) are simple and moving.

The epic is part of both Serbian/Montenegrin and northern Albanian traditions, and the historical background to the main theme (the struggle against the Ottoman empire) is common to both.  Needless to say this common tradition has been subject to both politicisation, with Serbs and Albanians making claims and counterclaims to be the "true and only begetters" of the style, and romanticisation - both of which are neatly caught in leading Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare's The File on H.  (Kadare is, I think, one of the world's most exciting and capable writers working today - his Broken April and Palace of Dreams also take Albanian history and culture as their themes, but show different approaches to the traditions through prismatic narrative focusing on multiple characters and their highly differentiated views of a common object.)

The musical style of the epics is, like the lament's, rather recitative in texture, but has more melodic variation than the lament, though the range is similarly limited to a fifth or sixth; cadential figures give it a strong feeling of structure, while each line is capped by an instrumental figure (often just a simple turn, but occasionally a more extensive motif).  play Sound ClipThe performance by Lekë Celaj, accompanying himself on the traditional lahuta (one-stringed fiddle), is another lament, but this time contained within the epic structure, again with a text based on the interjection He o' (sound clip).  According to Celaj, only Christians play the lahuta - an interesting aspect given the anti-Turkish stance of most of the epics (and also serving to remind us that though Albanians are identified in the news as Muslims, there's a very strong Christian - mainly Catholic - tradition).

Another northern strand is represented by a recording of a 'Shepherd's song on the flute', which particularly interested me in using a similar instrument to the Bulgarian kaval, being an end-blown flute.  The tone is breathier, and the melody appears less structured than in Bulgarian kaval music; play Sound Clipcircular breathing is used to create continuity of tone.  As with the other northern Albanian music, the melodic range seems sparse and the melody itself has a great deal of repetition and focus around particular tones and cadential figures (sound clip).

The CD closes with a set of Roma music that is engagingly brassy.  Here, also, is an authentic response to the challenges of the twentieth century, in the shape of a song about emigration - To traketi meklino ('I went in the ship').  play Sound ClipAs with the lament, it's a traditional response to a personal situation - the singer and composer's sister emigrated from Albania 'for economic reasons' and the song was written to commemorate her departure (sound clip).

The notes to the CD are extremely full (quite difficult to take out of the jewel case, they're so thick).  In each case the circumstances of performance are fully described - place, date, the placing of singers and instrumentalists, and personal details.  (In fact, placing appears to be of great importance in the Tosk and Lab tradition of polyphony - the participants are arranged in a semicircle, with the soloists standing in the middle and the bourdon singers on the outside).  There's also good detail on the various traditions - for instance, the notes point out the differences between Lab and Tosk singing (Tosk singing is three voiced rather than four; the chorus doesn't stop when the soloists do, but continues; the melodies are longer and more melismatic).  There's a good bibliography, too, though most of the references are in German (three in French, and three in Albanian…)

In a couple of cases there have clearly been accidents.  One track does not include the names of the players.  The explanation is worth noting.  "At the time this recording was made, the electricity failed in Tirana", so no names could be written down.  In another case the lyrics are missing - apparently because the singer could provide neither orthography nor translation (and was not singing in Albanian anyway, but in Aromun).

Albania is a treasure-house of well preserved, even archaic musical traditions.  One wonders what may happen to it now that the country is open to foreign cultural influences.

There are a number of answers.  First of all, of course, Albanian music under Hoxha was by no means 'pure'; the tradition was homogenised by barring specific ethnic traditions such as Aroumanian or Roma, and made to serve a propaganda purpose.  Some Albanian music is just being revived - for instance, the Bektashi religious songs, which were banned under Hoxha.  Another decade or so of totalitarian leadership and that tradition could have died out, one presumes.  So the opening up of the country is an opening up to new internal, as well as external, influences.

Secondly, the tradition has so far shown itself extremely adaptable to new circumstances.  I mentioned the 'emigration' song on this album; apparently there are also epic songs written on battles of the two World Wars, and even on the career of Enver Hoxha.  (There were also Central Asian epic singers at the court of Stalin…)  The tradition is strong enough that new circumstances prompt a traditional response - that is, a reply that is based entirely within the tradition.  Meanwhile, I suspect Albanian music could be the new 'discovery' area for world musicians everywhere.

As with the Rounder CD, this Saydisc issue features a mix of vocal styles from both north and south.  However, the format is quite different; whereas the Rounder CD was a collection of field recordings made over a period of two weeks in November 1993, this is a recording of a single event - the final concert of the Berat festival in 1995.

The mix of music is slightly different from that on the Rounder CD.  There are more women's and mixed vocal groups - and of course, given the title, less instrumental music; Cover picturethough the accompaniment to much of the northern music is lively, it doesn't often have much independent musical value.  There also seems to be a more Turkish tinge to much of the music than is evident on the other recording; and there are more examples of northern music with cifteli and sharki (lute) accompaniment, including the opening song Shqiptaria bashke gjithmone (Albanians forever together) with its overt patriotic appeal (and incidentally, claiming Kosovo as Albanian territory).

There are some excellent tracks.  Kenge vaji, a lament performed by 'a women's group from southern Albania', is more austere than anything on the Rounder CD - for part of its length just call-and-response without the drone part.  Smarte moj!, another lament, shows how instruments are used interchangeably with voices in the southern Albanian tradition, occupying the same roles in the polyphonic structure [track 3].  Instruments in the southern Albanian music do not appear to have evolved specialist roles, but are similar to voices in taking any part of the ensemble.

The big problem with this recording is the quality of the notes provided.  There are no full lyrics, just synopses, and in most cases this is the only information provided about a track.  There is no attempt to illustrate how each song fits musically within its tradition, or thematically within the context of an Albania emerging from its long isolation.  We are also left wondering why in one track (Qaj moj zemer, an emigration song) individual lines of the song are applauded by the audience - is there a special point that we're not getting?

The notes also state that the 1995 Berat Festival was the first time that original lyrics (not rewritten lyrics to suit the political expedience of Hoxha's regime) could be performed, as well as the first time that ethnic Albanians from outside the country had been invited to perform.  But the notes do not identify these issues with regard to the tracks performed on the disc - nor is there a single example of an emigré artist on the recording.

The notes also miss the fact that, reading between the lines, the whole programme of this concert is a nationalistic statement.  It begins and ends with patriotic songs - the first song with its claims on Kosovo, and the last song with its statement (to quote from the notes) that "All Albanians from Kosova to Cameria are wedding hosts today".  The prevalence of emigrant songs in the programme, then, might well indicate a political purpose (perhaps 'recalling' those exiled by Hoxha's regime?), rather than being representative of their place in Albanian traditional music as a whole.

However the emigrant song does also appear to have become a major facet of Albanian music and, to some extent, literature.  Kadare's novels are, in a way, all about alienation, featuring foreign or 'civilised' characters who display a complete lack of understanding of the 'ur-Albanian' characters, who themselves begin to experience alienation from their own culture in a complex world of mirrors.  A sense of alienation naturally reflects the disparity between truth and propaganda in a communist state, and is expressed in various forms in the different post-Communist countries - is the prevalence of the emigrant song perhaps a reflection of this deeper level, as well as reflecting the necessities of the economic migrant? The song of the emigré - or rather, songs addressed to the emigré - have become in a way an emblem of modern Albanian life.  Another area the notes could have addressed - but don't.

You might be wondering why I haven't mentioned any of the artists by name.  Let me quote from the notes: "The boxes housing the master tapes contained no information other than the date and location of the recording and so it has not been possible to credit individual performers".  It doesn't sound as if much additional effort had been made to find programmes from the event, or track down performers known to have been at the festival to define their contributions.  After all, the CD is copyrighted 1997 - only two years after the festival.  I can't help thinking that most folkies I know make more effort analysing the lineup of progressive reincarnations of the Albion Band than seems to have gone into finding out who performed at the Berat festival.

Musically, I'd say the disc is pretty much the equal of the Rounder CD.  However, since Albanian music is so little known, the quality of the notes is of more than usual importance.  It's a pity, but Saydisc have really missed an opportunity here.

Andrea Kirkby - 29.7.99

(I'm afraid that I can't include any of the sound clips Andrea specified for this second review - it may sound unlikely, but my CD drive steadfastly refuses to play the Saydisc record.  This is not a conspiracy - honest! - Ed.)

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