My Albanian adventures


I have been hiding my head in shame for the past month after committing an apostrophe-crime in the editor’s letter I shared with you, right after the other rant about bad grammar!  Thank you to all the sticklers who pointed this out.

A somewhat shorter version of the following account of my Albanian adventures with be printed in the next issue of “Songlines” magazine.  But with more photos!  (To say nothing of other interesting articles and reviews…)  So buy a copy!


A lute player from Sheffield named Enzo Puzzovio walked into my office at Hannibal Records one day in 1988 with a video of that year’s festival of Albanian music in Gjirokastra. Albania was a closed country then, its only friends North Korea and Cuba. How did he get a visa? How did he manage to smuggle out the tape? His tale has faded from my memory, but the images remained undimmed: a gigantic stage with conical-hatted polyphonic singers in embroidered red vests and tasselled shoes silhouetted below battlements with black-eagle pennants flapping in the wind and snow-capped mountains in the background. Nothing in Europe seemed anywhere near as exotic. I resolved one day I would go to that festival.

My vow was finally fulfilled last month. For seven nights, I joined the throngs walking up the steep cobble-stoned path to the castle, in the city immortalized by Ismael Kadare in his novel Chronicle In Stone:

The city…seemed to have been cast up the valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside… The traveller seeing it for the first time was tempted to compare it to something, but soon found that impossible, for the city rejected all comparisons…


Bryn Albania


It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house – a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks…. In some places you could stretch out your arm and hang your hat on a minaret.

In the fort’s huge promontory, standing guard over an immense and dramatic valley that stretches from Northern Greece to the Adriatic coast, the same gigantic stage I had seen 27 years ago was now bedecked with LED screens showing cheap, clichéd imagery meant to glamourize the music for Albanian tv. Every region sends a troupe selected through local competitions, with three groups appearing each night. The music of the mountainous North sounds rugged and hard-edged, very different from that of the more lyrical South. Diaspora delegations from Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and the U.S. were also invited; as many Albanians live outside the country as in.


Dancers on stage


My friends and I sat through extended actings-out of obscure rituals and mock weddings with scant musical reward, only to be blindsided by a moment of magic: a lone singer with an ancient tale strumming on a cifteli; a quintet of a capella polyphonic improvisers and droners, or a pair of dancers elaborately stepping round a crouching man with a hand-drum keeping intricate time while periodically bouncing it off the floor. There were brilliant clarinettists, violinists, solo singers male and female, dancers in groups, in pairs, individuals. The quality was variable but the variety remarkable. The U.S. contingent was surreal in its alteration of starkly pure authenticity and backing-tracked rubbish. One Albanian friend marvelled at how bloomingly American the hyphenate girls looked, like cheerleaders from a Hollywood film.

At a delicious lunch one day, in a beautiful small square under blossoming trees, a man approached our table and to my astonishment, asked if I was Joe Boyd. A Nick Drake obsessive in Gjirokastra? Impossible, surely! It turned out, of course, to be the 1988 video man, Enzo Puzzovio, back again for more. I’ve begun to realize that once Albanian music gets ahold of you, it doesn’t let go easily.

The week was hypnotically, delightfully surreal: getting used to the idea that this ancient, horizontally-challenged town was, for seven days and nights, home, and that each evening we would trudge the winding road to the castle for another four-hour marathon of Albanian music. Sunsets over the mountains were as variable as the music, turning the dramatic valley blushingly romantic or bloodily ominous. With the wind kicking up those long-remembered pennants, even a few seriously chilly nights failed to prod us to leave before the last note had been sung, the last step danced.

The huge audience (there was no entrance fee) drank it all in, making no distinction between the kitsch and the stunning. For them, it was all about the words, the songs, the familiar melodies known from childhood. Albanian folk music has no post-modern bourgeois revivalists, nor is it, as in Bulgaria, resented for the long decades it was forced down the population’s throats by a heavy-handed regime. Albanians just like their music; at gatherings, people seize any excuse to start singing while Tirana dance instructors do a nice trade teaching urban kids the traditional steps they will need for an upcoming wedding.

Every evening before the show, they screened clips from past festivals. In the Enver Hoxha years, musicians would arrive a week or two before the quinquennial event, rehearse during the day and fill the city’s narrow cobbled streets every night with music. Hoxha evidently loved folk music, so long as subversive or reactionary verses were replaced by lyrics honouring him and the Albanian Communist Party. The footage shows huge, joyful crowds, dancers, singers, pipers, clarinettists – all having the time of their lives.

Selectively edited or not, the images don’t fit the world’s notions about Albania in those years. We only knew that it was dark, closed and friendless. Private cars were illegal. Once I saw a photo of the vast expanse of Tirana’s Skanderbeg Square at rush hour with a scattering of bicycles and a few nervous pedestrians scurrying across. The countryside was dotted with oddly shaped air-raid-shelters looking like what Oscar Niemeyer might have doodled on a pad when he was starting to think about Brasilia. One morning in the early ‘70s after a red-eye from L.A., I was thrown from one side of my JFK-to-Manhattan cab by a crazed driver who turned out to be an Albanian refugee a few weeks into his new American life. He had scaled mountains and clung to the undercarriages of Yugoslav freight trains until he reached a refugee camp in Italy. Getting his visa was a doddle; the US had quotas for every country in those days and no Albanians had applied for ages. About the only sighting of Albanian culture we had in those years was the rumour that John Belushi’s grandad’s hat had inspired The Coneheads.


Men dancing and mountain


The street-party atmosphere of the past has mostly disappeared; the budget only allows for the regional all-stars to stay the night of their performance. We managed to find a few after-parties in sterile hotel bars at the edge of the town, but the streets were largely devoid of music. Those nocturnal jam-sessions were certainly a high point; veterans told of drunken dos lasting until dawn as recently as 2009. On our next-to-last evening, I found a small café down a side street with outside tables. A group of eight men were seated around a few bottles of rakia and some glasses. They talked quietly until one simply started singing; the rest joined in with a drone. Against this basso ‘bed’, two or three singers perform largely improvised lyrics and melody. There is similar music in Epirus in Northern Greece and some of the harmonies reminded me of singing I’d heard in the mountains of Southwest Bulgaria, but there is something in the mournful scales and tone of Albanian harmony that creates an unmatchable atmosphere. Perhaps it was the acoustics of the cobblestones, or the quickly re-filled glasses of rakia at our own table, but the music that night was completely mesmerizing. When I moved closer, one of the men gestured to an empty chair; leaning my head into the circle of voices was an experience ‘5.1 Surround-Sound’ could never have matched.

Following a tip from the hotelier who organized our guest rooms, we drove down the valley one day and through a pass into a more remote one. A few miles outside the musical town of Përmet, we fell in behind other vehicles on a winding dirt road towards what looked like an observatory atop a high mountain. All we knew was that there was a religious ceremony going on and music would be involved. I imagined a small rural stone church with, say, a polyphonic sextet performing a sacred variation on the traditional songs we heard every night at the castle.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The green dome atop the mountain turned out, after 40 minutes of arduous bouncing, climbing, backing up in the face of downward headed vehicles and gawping at the ever more spectacular views, to be a shrine of the Bektashi sect of Islam. Many dervishes (whirling and non-whirling) have been devotees of this group founded in the 13th century by Persian and Turkish Sufis. They shifted their base to Tirana when Ataturk expelled them from Turkey in the 1920s. Like most Sufis, the Bektashis are tolerant, a quality very much on show that afternoon. Once through the gate of the shrine, it was peaceful, quiet and prayerful. Pilgrims and intruders wandered easily from one simple and elegant building to another. The views were breath-taking.




Outside the gate, on the other hand, was cacophony and chaos. Two competing outfits provided ear-splitting, high-energy music: clarinet and voice backed by drum machine and keyboard bass. Beer and soda cans lay everywhere while young men and girls circle-danced beside grills where freshly slaughtered lambs were being charred. The trip provided a memorable diversion, but that evening we were, once again, early-birds at the castle, making sure to secure good seats. The concerts had become addictive and hypnotic; the idea of missing one of the regions was completely out of the question.

If the Bektashis were, in musical terms, a long way removed from Gjirokastra, my prelude to the week lay at a conceptual distance almost as far and in a completely different direction. My Russian friend Sasha Cheparukhin was, by coincidence, producing a ‘world music’ festival at Budva, a beach resort just up the Adriatic coast in Montenegro the day before Gjirokastra’s opening night.

What can you say about a man who has managed both Pussy Riot and Tuvan throat-singers Hun Huur Tu? Having escorted them around celebrity parties in the Hamptons and Hollywood, Sasha has put together a band built around Russian rock veterans and legendary New York guitarist Marc Ribot for Pussy Riot’s 2015 Rock Festival Summer. But he won’t be travelling with them; he has more important fish to fry now.

The political atmosphere in Russia has holed his musical and entrepreneurial agenda below the water-line. Businessmen and local government officials who backed Sasha’s festivals and concerts are subdued or have moved abroad. One favoured Russian destination, either for holiday homes or as a refuge for those no longer comfortable in Moscow, is Montenegro. All along the coast, billboards in Russian advertise real estate, restaurants and casinos.

Dukley, a property development company in the port of Budva, asked Sasha to organize a beachfront festival with the aim of building up the town as an off-season cultural destination. Sasha duly set himself the task of bringing local musicians together with ‘world music’, not an easy task in a country with almost no sense of its own musical identity.

Montenegro’s journey towards a modern European destiny couldn’t be more different from that of its neighbour to the South. Some have suggested Montenegro is simply a cigarette-smuggling enterprise that has astonished itself by becoming a nation. Today, it is very much ‘open for business’, with beachfront developments dotting the spectacular mountainous coast. Albania, with its ancient language un-related to any other Indo-European tongue, trails in the wake of Montenegro and other Balkan lands in its trek towards EU membership, a bit insular and strange but very strongly itself.

The evening was a triumph for Sasha; the show was beautifully put together, it ran precisely on time, the sound was excellent (all highly unusual in the Balkans and certainly not true of Gjirokastra) and the crowd loved it. My own experience began brightly with a serenade of local Montenegran a-capella harmonies, followed by my old favourite Inna Zhalanaya, a Russian Sandy Denny figure, whose folk-rock manages to sound modern, ancient, adventurous and conservative all at the same time. I could listen to her sing all night, but the next act was waiting in the wings, the sun was setting exquisitely over the sea and as the crowd grew, my enjoyment faded.

The electronic effects of Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen were followed by a collaboration with some ex-members of King Crimson, then the new stars of the ‘world music’ circuit, Darkha Brakha from the Ukraine, with their huge woolly hats and dramatic show. The climax was “Montesteppe”, a collaboration involving a rock rhythm section, a Montenegran bard with his ancient guzla, a throat-singing Tuvan and a Buryat flautist. It was all brilliantly executed, virtuosic stuff and beautifully produced by Sasha. The crowd of Russians and locals seemed astonished by how much they loved this exotic stew and cheered it lustily.

Some evenings in Gjirokastra may have had an equally low ratio of musical thrills to tedium for me, but I felt more at home in the fortress than on the Budva beach despite the excellent supper and perfect seats arranged for us. I have come to realize that I’m doomed to find myself ever farther off the main pathways of even the minority tastes of the world music crowd. I would willingly have sat for hours in front of the guzla playing bard (preferably in a small room with no microphones), or listened to the Buryat flautist or the Tuvan throat singer. Or even, perhaps, to the talented Ukrainians of Darkha Brakha if they took off their silly hats, ceased trying to put on a show and just sang folksongs. But that would hardly have pleased the beach crowd at Budva.

I confess to being (mildly) affronted by the assumption behind placing singers and instrumentalists from exotic cultures in front of pounding rock drumming and electric keyboards or next to turntable-wielding deejays; without such presentation, goes the thinking, no one will listen. Or at least no young people will listen. And on the beach at Budva, this was no doubt correct. But despite everyone’s headlong rush into the maw of ‘fusion’, history tells a different tale.

My heroes are those eccentric Argentinians Hector Orrezzoli and Claudio Segovia; they brought a troupe of tango singers, players and dancers from Buenos Aires to Paris, then Broadway, then the World in the 1980s. They put “Tango Argentino” in bright lights, charged high prices, had perfect sound and staging and ran for two years on Broadway. The music remained untouched and undiluted, not dumbed-down in any way, while most of the dancers were in their 50s. The pair did the same for flamenco, Brazilian maxixe and the vaudeville blues of the 1930s before Orrezoli passed away in 1995. Then there was a brilliant concert tour of Central Asian music in the 1990s, organized by Dartmouth professor Ted Levin and the Aga Khan Foundation, that filled halls in Europe and the US with exquisitely curated and presented Silk Road music with not a Yo-yo in sight.

And what about the Buena Vista Social Club, or Cesaria Evora, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo? All the big “hits” of world music have been dressed up and made shiny by producers from outside the home culture, who kept the music un-altered and fusion-free. Don’t get me started! I’m plotting to bring some un-fused Albanian virtuosi to Britain next year. Watch this space – and when I do, you had all better buy tickets or there’ll be trouble!


1st photo by Bryn Ormrod, the rest by Andrea Goertler