Listening to Albania
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"Don't take ugly pictures of Albania!" I was in the capital city, Tirana, pointing my camera at a dilapidated old school when I realized that the shouts of the angry man on the bicycle were directed at me. The voice of that man echoes in my ear each time I attempt to describe my experience in Albania.
I hear him warning me, reminding me that the flow of information between his country and mine has been rather one-sided. For all the glittering Hollywood images of America that invade Albanian living rooms daily, there is no reciprocal barrage of Albanian representations of Albania in the United States. Since the fall of the totalitarian communist government in 1991, foreigners like me, with cameras and notebooks and limited language skills, have been representing Albania to a world which still knows very little about the land Victorian travelers called "Tibet in Europe." There have been a lot of ugly pictures. News reports tend to focus on the chaotic aftermath of political collapse, and recent films such as Before the Rain and Lamerica portray Albanians as vindictive, backward, and broken.
If the pictures of Albania are superficial, perhaps listening to Albania could add another dimension. As an ethnomusicologist, I wanted to begin to map the musical landscape of Albania for myself and to try to assess the post-communist state of music-making and scholarship. I was interested in the traditional polyphonic singing of the south—a style employing several simultaneous musical lines—which I had only been able to hear on the few field recordings that have trickled out of Albania since the borders shut tight in 1945.
Even more, I wanted to talk to Albanians about music. Discussions of music in Albania do not leave aside questions of politics or infrastructure, those parts of Albania which are typically the subject of "ugly pictures." But focusing on music in Albania brings the discussion down to the level of individuals, illustrating how recent economic, and social change have affected performers, listeners and scholars.
I heard Albania long before I ever saw it, in the speech of my Arbëreshë grandparents, members of an Albanian ethnic minority in Italy. The Arbëresh fled the invading Turks in the fifteenth century and have preserved their Albanian language in isolated Italian villages ever since. This connection served me well in Albania where origins seem more important than present location; I was introduced everywhere as an Arbëresh and received by everyone from post office employees to government researchers as a long lost daughter of Albania. When I thanked one prominent ethnomusicologist for taking time out from hosting an international conference to talk me, he shrugged his shoulders, "You are Arbëresh."
This Albanian concern for origins is reflected in music and folklore scholarship as well, which, during the communist era, sought to separate "true" Albanian folk culture from the influences of 500 years of Ottoman occupation. In a nationalist booklet, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare once described the Turkish influence on a particular Albanian ballad as "a superficial film of corrosion which can be easily scraped off, and must be scraped off" ( On the Lay of Knights, 1979). Ironically, to some Albanian scholars, his description might now apply to the new layer of "corrosion" imposed by the Communists, under whom national musics were politicized and reinterpreted—often with new lyrics eulogizing Enver Hoxha (HO-dja) and the Communist Party—and aggressively promoted in their new form.
Musicologists in post-communist Albania must confront the legacy of this appropriation as they continue their scholarship into Albanian musical traditions. This former marriage of totalitarianism and folk music also presents new financial problems for music researchers, who were once well-supported by the government, but now lack reserach funds to continue their work.
Listening to Tirana
What does Albania sound like? Tirana, the capital, sounds like a collision between the old and the new. The market economy has come blasting through, littering the city with hundreds of open-air cafes, moneychangers, honking automobiles, and boom-boxes blaring disco music. Popular dance music from Turkey and the Middle East floats out of hastily constructed kiosks and open car windows. Rows of tiny satellite dishes dot the walls of apartment buildings and feed newly acquired televisions which are left on all day long.
These newer sounds of the city compete with the muezzin's call as it rings from the minaret of the reopened mosque in the city center; the street vendors selling pirated cassettes thoughtfully lower the volume on their stereos (a little) for the duration of the prayer. These sounds fill a space formerly occupied by silence—great empty boulevards devoid of private automobiles, an extreme external order maintained through fear.
Tirana's interior, domestic soundscape is quieter than its exterior—less exuberant, still fearful. Politics and history are discussed in lowered, tentative tones. While many people were eager to speak about their experiences before and after communism, not everyone would permit our interviews to be taped, including one ethnomusicologist who had been jailed by the Communists.
As for music, young Albanians in Tirana generally expressed more interest in listening to the newly available cassettes of American and Italian popular music than to live Albanian music and seemed somewhat baffled by my interest in it. Michael Jackson and George Michael were particular favorites among teenagers, while Whitney Houston, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles, and Italian opera made an impression on their parents. One young woman told me that folk music reminded her too much of the Communists. Çesk Zadeja, a classical composer who has been called the "father of Albanian music," compared the musical climate in Albania to the economic one. He saw the interest in American popular music as symptomatic of a national desire to emulate America. "It's hard to wake up after being asleep for fifty years, " he told me.
Yet folk music has not been completely forgotten in the cities. Despite their purported lack of interest in such music, many young Albanians I met planned to attend the newly-revived National Festival of Folklore. Originally instituted by the Communists as a national showcase of Albanian folk music, it attracted outstanding performers from every region of Albania as well as musicians of the Albanian diaspora. Until 1988, the Festival was held every five years in the southern city of Gjirokaster to coincide with the birthday of native son Enver Hoxha. In 1995, the Festival moved to a new month and a new home in the northern city of Berat.
Listening to Fier
The first live folk music I heard in Albania was in a borrowed Mercedes-Benz winding along the coastal mountain roads. My friend Petrit was behind the wheel, attempting to demonstrate the complex workings of Albanian four and five-part singing: "First the leader starts," he explained, launching into the solo line, "then the helper joins him." He sang the same the same line one step higher. "Then this part sings, 'Po, po, po...' " Petrit sang these last words in low, muffled tones, letting the pitch fall like a sigh at the end of the line. "Then the other parts murmur the words, and swallow their consonants." He demonstrated this last technique, murmuring on various pitches to simulate simultaneous drone-like lines of melody.
Arriving at his parent's house in the village of Fier, we sat down with Petrit's family for a special meal in our honor. A succession of heaping plates were set in front of me. "Please, continue eating while we sing." Petrit implored. At the head of the table, his father, Mustafa, a former officer in the Albanian army, started up a song. He banged his hand down on the table at irregular intervals and shook his foot frenetically as he sang. Other voices joined him from across the table as Petrit's father, transported, threw back his head and cupped his hand behind his ear. The table shook with the force of five adults singing, almost shouting, full voice, everyone on a different note. This was a family sing-along, Albanian style. Petrit's father was clapping now, out of time with the music, like a coach on the sidelines trying to fire up his team. "There are people who, when they sing, sing with their whole spirit. My father is one of them." Petrit explained, unnecessarily. After each song, toasts were raised, and the role of leader passed from mother to sons to sisters-in-law as the songs changed. At the end of the meal, Petrit's parents presented me with a recording of all that had transpired at lunch that afternoon, captured for posterity on their new cassette deck. "Only now that I am old and my voice is gone do I have a tape recorder." Petrit's father lamented.
Petrit has a sister Ela in Philadelphia. Dismayed by the one-dimensional portrayal of Albanians her North American friends see, she finds herself thinking about the extraordinary music she grew up listening to and singing. I've heard it now too, around her parent's table. Sometimes when I listen to the cassette of Ela's family I wish I could broadcast those astonishing sounds on both Albanian and American television. It could pre-empt some rerun of Santa Barbara or Magnum P.I., and serve as a reminder that while Albanians may have been missing a lot in the last fifty years, so have we.
Suzanne Camino visited Albania last summer with support from the International Institute and from the School of Music, where she is a doctoral student in Ethnomusicology.