The Origin of Albanian Folk Iso-polyphony

Albanian Intangible Heritage in CD


Contributed by Prof. Dr. Vasil S. Tole

“On the Albanian folk Iso-Polyphony” – Introduction

It is commonly known that other art genres such as music, architecture, sculpture and painting were not unknown in Albania, and at some time even reached a high peak, as can be seen from the archeological data. Despite the romantic dressing of the following statement, it is said that in the old times “the Albanians dedicated the city of Apolonia to the Godess of music” and “the locals called their place Myzeqe”. According to Konica, a well-known Albanian man of letters, there is an assumption that the polyphonic music must have had its source in Albania, which did not fail to escape the attention of the Italian visitors. Further on, antiquity authors have mentioned common folk tales on the mythization of the music on the part of the Illyrians (forefathers to Albanians). One of these folk tales is related to the death of Great Pan.

According to Pluto, a ship first announced his death by the Lake Pelod (Lake Butrinti, South Albania), which was followed by moaning in group, as if a number of humans were moaning in chorus. It is yet unclear why the reference is made to the Lake Butrinti, but it is thought that the polyphonic moaning would therefore be the most complete requiem for the famous Pan’s death.

By further looking into the documents from our musical archeology, I would also mention a ring dating as back as the XV century BC, on whose stone was carved the figure of Great Pan, with horns on his head and sheep’s legs, blowing a double-fluted musical instrument. This evidence confirms the existence of the polyphonic instruments right from the structure, such as the type of the double flute, in South-West Albania, in Apolonia, in the IV-III century BC. It has also
been pointed out that the existence of the polyphony among the Arbereshi, (Albanian emigrants in Italy), confirms that in the XIV-XV century, the time when they emigrated to Italy, the polyphony used to be a musical reality common to all in South Albania.

Despite failing to have the evidence of the sound aspect of our polyphony in the ancient times, we may still say that the existence of certain genres in our polyphonic folk music, such as in the polyphonic songs of mythological origin or in the ritual dances, can prove that the polyphony has continually been co-existing side by side with the genre. We can notice in this kind of song, an
ancient layer of mythological origin, a series of calls which bring the echo of the ancient ritual-magical practices. For instance we can mention such stereotype patterns at the beginning of the songs “Oy lia oy” / Vay lia vay / Vay duduk vay ! etc.

Special attention would have to be paid to the ballads as well as lyrical songs which are sung and danced in polyphony. Among the most typical are Dhoqina’s song, to be found in a large area including Durres, Gramsh, Pogradec (its traces can be found in Korca too), Permet, Libohova, Gjirokastra, Berat, Fier, Vlora, Saranda, Cameria; as well as in the polyphonic songs “Scanderbeg, brave like a lion” and that of “Gjorg Golemi” etc.

The south folk culture has retained a number of other non-musical elements, which come from the distant past of these regions. From the clothes’ aspect, we may mention the men’s “fustanella” (kind of a kilt), which used to be widely used all over West Balkan, in particular in Illyria and Epirus.

There is also archeological evidence from an item found in Maribor, Slovenia in the 5th century BC, followed by the figure of a man on a grave stone of the 3d century in Smokthine (Mesaplik, Vlora), a terracotta in the 4th century, found in Durres etc.

Besides the “fustanelle”, we may mention one of the oldest garments for women, which is a kind of suit with a long shirt, a long front and a similar back. In these regions, they also mention the Illyrian “dalmatika”, which used to be a long shirt with sleeves, like the one worn by the master carved on a grave stone found in Drashovica, Vlora, dating in the 2nd century.

Even on another gravestone of 2nd or 3d century, found in Korca, there are to smiths wearing “dalmatika”. Another ancient Illyrian element is the plain local “opinga”, (kind of mocassina). Besides, the unity of the common anthropological characteristics from the Illyrians to the Southern Albanians of nowadays, is an indicator to the bio-communicative continuity and a reason to use the anthropological data as historical source.

What should be mentioned concerning the study of polyphony, relates to the fact that the Albanian polyphonic folk music used to be almost unexplored until the 40s in the 20th century, because “ …prior to the country’s liberation, nobody had ever been involved in musical research, hence we inherited no scientific materials from the past”. The reasons to this fact may be various, but it should be pointed out that the Albanian folk music had not yet become a subject for research, and neither had the iso-polyphony, which still remains one of the most elite phenomena of our folk music.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of genuine research on the folk polyphony, there used to be a general interest in the Albanian folk singing with many voices, often present in various works,
either in fiction, visible arts or other genres or aspects of letters, which, as far as we have explored until nowadays, dates back as early as the early decades of the 17th century. This interest came from and was related to the fact that “Medieval Albania had the view of rough mountainous country, a typical zone to shelter “relics”, retaining archaic attributes of tangible and spiritual culture of the social organization”.

First of all, some important data for the identification of the polyphonic singing in South Albania, was given by Evlija Celebi Sejjahatnamesi, in his travel descriptions in 1660-1664. He wrote that “…the local people in Gjirokastra have another strange custom: they moan the people who deceased even 70 or 80 years before. Every Sunday, all relatives, assemble in a house to pay homage to the deceased, hiring moaners to moan with great grief and loud painful voice, with tears pouring from their eyes. On this day, the man can hardly stand
the moaners’ agitation. I baptized Gjirokastra as the moaning city

From the Albanian authors, we mention the fresco painted by David Selenicasi, in 1715, which can be found in the monastery “Great Laura, virgin Kukuzelisa’s hat”, in Mount Athos. The fresco presents four women dancing accompanied by a small orchestra with two aerophones and two cordophones. According to F. Hudhri, in this work, you can notice a lively way of treating the figures, leaving aside the dogmas imposed by the Byzantine canons. After this, there is a single sentence taken from Marie Wortley Montague’s work, “Letters and works”, where, following her visit in Albania in 1817, she wrote about the Albanians that “They are all dressed and armed on their money, some really stately men, dressed in clean white linen, holding very long rifles as if not feeling their weight at all, with their leader giving off a rough, not unpleasant singing, and with the others making the chorus”.

Voyage en Moree, a Constantinople, en Albanie


We find polyphony traces in the arts even in two frescos painted by Albanian painters in 1744. The first presents a little shepherd playing his flute, painted by Konstandin Shpataraku, in the church of Saint Vasil in Voskopoja, and the second, painted by Zografi, presents two shepherds, with the second in the background, with the sheep around, also playing the flute in a typical background. In the works of F.C. Pouqeville “Voyage en Moree, a Constantinople, en Albanie (pendant les annees 1789-1801), the author remarks about the dance in singing, writing that “… the people living by the
mount Akroqerame, associate this dance with singing, which comes from the well known time of Scanderbeg, using it to provoke the Omans’ vanishing
”. In the other work, “Voyage de la Greece”, published in 1826, he explains among others his impression from a song he had heard near Lukova, with the words: “…the Albanians sang with so loud a voice, that it could pierce your ears”, which we think is nothing but the singing in group of a polyphonic song.


A journey through Albania and other provinces of Turkey during the year 1809-1810


Personally speaking, I think that the most adequate literary description of the Albanian polyphonic folk music is to be found in the work of J.C. Hobhouse “A journey through Albania and other provinces of Turkey during the year 1809-1810”.

Polyphony has been referred to even in fictional works of autobiographical nature – by George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), in his work “Child Harold”.


Travel in the Ionian Isles, Albania, Thesaly, during the years 1812-1813


More general remarks for the polyphonic singing in the South and among the Arvanitas can be found in the work “Travel in the Ionian Isles, Albania, Thesaly, during the years 1812-1813”. Very interesting data with remarks on the polyphony in the first half of the 19th century, comes from the travel to Albania, actually in Ioannina, in the period September-October 1830 from the well-known Benjamin Disrael, who would later become the British Premier for 12 years. In one of his letter from Iannina to his father, he wrote “…, one night, Mehmet Aga brought a group of singers who sang a ballad with iso about the murder of Veli Bey and other rebels”.


La Turquie d’Europe


Further on, in the visible arts, we shall find other examples of the Albanian polyphonic folk music. In those years, (1820-1840), there were also three foreign painters with their oil paintings on this topic; A.Deka (1803-1860), in his work “Albanian dancers”, which was also explained in the work of T.S. Huges, “Albanitico” or the national dance of the Albanians palikaris, L. Zherom (1824-1904) and K.Udvil (1856-1927), both having a common title for their paintings “The singing Albanians”. In the work of Ami Boue “La Turquie d’Europe” published in Paris in 1840, we find the explanatory notes on the ways of singing of various peoples. Among others he pointed out that “the Greeks and zinzars sing better than the Slavs and the Southern Albanians are in between”.

From the lot of the foreign collectors and publishers of the polyphonic folk music, I would mention J.G.Hahn with his work “Albanesischen Studien” in 1854, which includes the well-known song of “Qabeja’s bridge”. In his article “On the Albanian poetry and music”, the Albanian man of letters Zef Jubani (1818-1880) was among the first to notice the polyphonic music of Myzeqe. He
remarked that the local people still keep that name for the place, as this name means that these people have an inclination for music, which is still confirmed nowadays. When they feel touched and full of inspiration they can be seen as if drunk, murmuring excitedly and then is the moment that they compose songs about the taste of the marriage, with very serious and strange concepts, adjusting the sweet pathetic music in an original way. From this point of view, the Central Albania’s songs, i.e. in Myzeqe, are the best and the most required of this country.

Among the Albanian folk music collectors, we mention Thimi Mitko with his work “The Albanian bee”, prepared for publication in 1874. The polyphonic songs take an important part in his collection, and “relying on the generosity and the loyalty of my compatriots” he said, “I will make an effort in the second collection, to shed more light on the substance echoing all over Albania”. Even Faik Konica, who used to say in 1887, that what might offer some new interest , are the moaning, the grievous loud lament, lamentations and screaming as rhythmed by the women who used to improvise on the deceased’s grave, with the casual visitors passing by greatly surprised at the sight.

In 1879, it was A. Dozon with his work “Manuel de la langue Chkipe (Albanian)”, where, in one of the songs, “Marriage customs at Permet” we find for the first time, some explanation about the town songs of the polyphonic music of the polyphonic music group of shaire-saze (instruments), together with the poetry behind the songs.

In the introduction of his work “The sea waves”, published in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1908, the folk music researcher Spiro Dine, explained the way he proceeded with the collection of the folk music from the Albanians: “…everywhere I found Albanians, I would beg them to tell me just the way they might know. Fortunately there were a lot of Albanians in Egypt. Cairo’s clubs were full of Southern or Northern Albanians and the dances and songs never seemed to end”.

The same situation has been described in a creation “The song” written by Lumo Skendo in Istanbul on 20.10.1910: “Meci, despite his leaving his 40s and approaching his 50s, started singing with the other joining according their specific voices, having thus the Laberia song echoing in this small shop of vast Istanbul.”

In the 1930s, there was some interest shown by the Albanian composers in the iso-polyphonic folk music. Thoma Nasi (1892-1964) composed several works with this alignment such as “Lamenting”, “The shepherd’s flute” or “Four dances”. Whereas the composer Kristo Kono (1907-1991) attempted to make music “.. with
an inspiration from the folk music of our region (Korce actually), in particular from the one based on the pentatonic pattern. I had started to collect the folk music and study its patterns since I was in Gjirokastra, either the ones on melody, or the ones on polyphony

In 1935, in an article not related to music, Mehdi Frasheri pointed out that : “when we hear a Lab or Tosk (in South Albania) song, it rings a dear bell from within, bringing back old times to us, when these types of songs used to be in the agenda; we view them in connection with the old green years, whose memory brings back thrill and excitement.”

Even in the State Central Archive, there are a number of documents of the 1930s, which show an increase in the interest on the Albanian folk music and polyphony, particularly on the part of the foreign researchers and media. In a letter dated 7 January 1930, sent by Heinrich Schatz, Innsbruc-Hotting Riedg 8, he asked for gramophone disc with Albanian folk music, to be presented in a conference on Albania, to be held at the University of Insbrook, at the end of that year. The same was required by a German folk music researcher and the Czech one Artus Cernik, in 1931.

In 1934, we learn of the official visit of an American musician to study Albanian music and in 1935, there is some correspondence between the Foreign Ministry and the Albanian representations in Athens and Paris, concerning the interest shown by the French researchers in the Albanian folk music. In this year, “L’Institute International de Cooperation Intellectuelle” in Paris, requested cooperation with the Albanian authorities, concerning the delivery of comprehensive documentation on the Albanian folk music and songs, which would share a place in the world encyclopedia “Musique et Chansons populaires”. Besides, J.Arbatski published an article “The music in Albania” in the Albanian press in 1939.

Interest in the Albanian traditions and folk music, was shown by the foreign film companies in the first decades of the 20th century, which produced several documentaries, revealing Albanians’ ethnographic and ethnomusical theasurus. The first were the brothers Manaki in 1906 who shot a film “The game of folk costumes”; they also did similar shootings in Korce, Permet, Kelcyre,
Iannina. In 1913, the American William Hovard shot a documentary about the customs, traditions and folk costumes. The German Kabinet film shot a voiced documentary in 1932 with original folk music accompanying it. In 1936, the German film director Karl Gelbermen shot the documentary “A dream travel through Albania” with views from Korca, Ohri etc., showing folk costumes, traditions, songs and dances. We should also mention the long documentary “The brethrens”, shot by the Germans too, full of folk tales. Further on, there is a documentary, “Luce”, in 1940, revealing a group of young women from Hocisht, dressed in folk costumes.

References and more comprehensive reviews of the polyphonic folk music, can be seen in 1939, in the work of Prof. Eqerem Cabej “On the genesis of Albanian fiction” published in the magazine “The Light’s Star” (“Hylli i Drites”), which widely identifies and deals with the polyphony, without claiming its strictly technical-musical analysis. Faik Konica offers a more general consideration on polyphony in 1939, when he wrote that “the songs themselves are somber and monotonous, but they are the only example of the old folk music with various reciting parts, as in some other parts the folk songs are sung harmonically. The songs are commonly divided in three parts: with two men singing in different voices, although combined, and the group supporting with a sostenuto similar to point d’orgue”. We continue with Mitrush Kuteli, who, in 1944, presented the polyphonic songs’ verses in his work “Songs and screams in the burnt town” accompanied by a simple transcription in the musical publication “Albanian Lyra” of Pjeter Dungu in 1940. Hence, until the 40s, despite the lack of genuine research and musical transcriptions on the polyphonic folk music, the polyphony itself used to be a musical universe spreading from birth to death in the life of Southern Albanians, as such being present in all the joys and sorrows.

The first research on the folk polyphony was conducted by Ramadan Sokoli in 1959, in his work “Our folk poliphony”, first published separately and then as part of his book “Albanian folk music”, Tirana, 1965. Despite its being but several pages, it did set the first clues concerning the study of our folk polyphony. In a few words, the author describes its geographical spread, the peculiarities of building the multi-voice, the pentatonic pattern of the Southern polyphony and other interesting data about it, together with some transcriptions of the polyphonic folk music. In this publication about the Albanian folk music, from the classification viewpoint, the polyphony takes a central part and is then treated besides the other aspects of our folk.

Following this pioneer work, we noticed a gradual increase of the interest of the researchers in the phenomenon of the Albanian folk polyphony. We also mention several research articles on the vocal and instrumental polyphony; Benjamin Kruta’s monography “The South Albania’s two-voiced poliphony” and Spiro Shtuni’s “The Lab poliphony” published in 1989, as well as several publications with polyphonic musical transcriptions. The main tendency in the ethnological works on the the study of our polyphony, was to proceed from the total to the details, which is the analysis of the folk iso-polyphony even in a strictly technical way.

It is clear that this period, (1950-1990) is the most intensive concerning the study of our folk polyphony and the interest in it, was revealed not only in the number of the works and articles on it, but also the extent of the polyphonic matter collected, studied and transcripted. At this point we should mention our remarks concerning the level of the polyphonic musical transcriptions, which at a great extent were unsatisfactory, as on the other hand we should praise the great volume of professional work in the collection, recording and storing of the polyphonic musical matter in the musical archive of the IKP and RTV (The Folk Music Institute and the Radio-Television). We also really evaluate the activities, which in the last 50 years supported the awakening of the polyphony and the polyphonic groups.

The studies on the Albanian folk polyphony were further enriched when the foreign ethnomusicologists acknowledged the fact that the study of the folk polyphony in a wider sense, could not be conducted without the Albanian ethnomusicological factor. This fact might not have been present or undervaluated until the first decades of the 20th centuries, but later on helped to lead a number of foreign researchers into getting further deep into the significance of the Albanian folk polyphony as the key to many of their theses.

It would be common for much of the interest to come from the Balkan ethnomusicologists but even farther, due to the fact that “…in the Albanian folk music, we notice old forms and practices surviving until nowadays, which allow us to draw conclusions concerning earlier development stages”. It is unquestionable that the direct interest of the foreign researchers in the Albanian folk music polyphony, started with the first Albanian-German expedition in 1957. As a result of the publication of the records together with the associated studies, in a number of the most important European ethnomusicological press, there began a new era in the study of the Albanian folk music polyphony.

In these years, and only for the Cam music for instance, it was acknowledged that “.. its analysis (Cam music), may give an impact to further explain the inner Albanian relationships, among the vocal practices of the various folk groups in South Balkan, more than it had been done that far”, as well as to offer new material to comparative studies “.. concerning the complex of problems of the folk polyphony in Europe”. However, despite the studies conducted so far, the remark made by A. L. Lloyd in the 60s that the Albanian folk music has been less studied than the songs of the Eskimos or the highlanders in New Guinea, seems to be right.

With regard to the recordings of the Albanian folk musical polyphony, it should be said that they are not earlier. Until the moment of the musical recordings, “…orality used to be the way of the existence and its essential mechanism to convey the artistic information, either vertically, from one generation to another, or horizontally, among the contemporaries.”

From what we know so far, the polyphonic folk music recordings (vocal and instrumental) date back to the first decades of the 20th century, which were done by the Albanian and European recording companies, to be later followed by full intensity recording. It serves to indicate that the folk music polyphony first presented itself rather than be studied.

In these years, as a result of the pressure of the demand from a great number of common people, a lot of western recording companies made hundreds of discs with Southern polyphonic folk music, among the most outstanding being the folk singer Q.A. Ruka and the polyphonic group of the Coast’s nightningale, Neco Muka. It was later further intensified with polyphonic groups increasing and their singers being affirmed, for instance the Tosk polyphonic group of Demir Zyko or the Lab one of Xhevat Avdalli, the group of Gjirokastra’s old men, the Coast group of Dhimiter Varfi, Smokthina group of Hysen Ruka; Benca group in the 70s, Lapardha-Vlora group and that of the youth in Gjirokastra in the 80s, the Lab group of Vezhdanisht in the 90s etc.

A CD of Albanian music recorded in the 30s in Albania by foreign recording companies is under preparation to come out into the world market.

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