About a year ago, I posted a rare example of Albanian dance music (closely related to Epirotic music from Greece) recorded in the United States by Albanian-Americans. Now it’s time for some music from the same period, this time recorded in Albania ca. 1929. If you are unfamiliar with this particular type of Albanian music, it could turn out to be one of the most powerful musical experiences you may have – it certainly was for me.
Many have written about how the landscape of Albania must have contributed to the preservation of such a varied and musically unique (sometimes even jarring) group of folk musics. The word “isolated” is often used to describe the country, largely because of the rugged mountain ranges that surround it (such as the Bjeshkët e Namuna, or “The Accursed Alps”). To this day, the majority of the Albania’s mostly Muslim population live in rural areas – quite the opposite of other European nations.
The music of Albania, however, is so spectacularly different than the rest of Europe (with the possible exception of Epirus in Greece, where there is considerable overlap), that it seems to an outsider to be born of a different age altogether. Rodney Gallop, reviewing several 1930 Albanian discs for the Gramophone Company, called the music “uncouth” overall, yet was completely captivated enough, at that early date, to write positively about a series of discs with pressing numbers as low as 200 copies!
A year before the Gramophone Company recorded in Tirana and Shkoder, the Columbia Graphophone Company made nearly 300 recordings across Albania, and had already recorded many Albanian discs in Istanbul in 1928. Some of these records – a total of 49 to be exact – were pressed in very small amounts in the United States, specifically for the Albanian immigrant population (in 1920, the Albanian-speaking population of the United States numbered a mere 6,000). This is one of those discs.
This is the music of the Tosks, in southern Albania, and this piece was performed by an ensemble that appears to have been from the city of Fier in the southwest of the country. The most obvious (or maybe captivating) element of the music of the Tosks is the drone-like polyphony of the male vocalists in the background, who augment the lead singer with extended, nasal accompaniment on syllables such as “ay” or “e.” Another standout element is the halting and seemingly erratic rhythm of the string intrument (possibly the çiftelia) and the everpresent Albanian-style qernëte (clarinet), which sometimes seems to push the very limits of the instrument. In terms of the group, I could find nothing about them, though I believe the “Z.” in the title indicates that it is some kind of ensemble (all other Columbias of this type I have seen have “Z.” in front of the group name) and that ”Kjuj” may be a different transliteration of the name “Gjergj.” Further information is always welcome. At any rate, I hope this rates high.