Classical: When two or three Labs gather together

After years of persecution Albanian musicians still suffer shortage and hardship, but their art - and unique Lab singing - thrive. Sight Readings
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The Independent Culture
A YOUNG Albanian violinist told me last week: "You would be mad to go to Vlora - but if you must go, take a gun, because everyone else there has one." This pretty Adriatic port is now the bandit-capital of the Balkans, with huge fortunes being made through drugs, gun-running, and illegal immigration. The racketeers race around in giant Mercs, the police wear balaclavas and nobody walks in the streets at night.

But Vlora has another claim to fame: Europe's earliest form of polyphony originated there, and can be heard there still. Periodically the singers - descendants of the original Laberia shepherds who created this pentatonic style - come down from the hills to convene in Vlora. Last Sunday, without a gun but escorted by the formidable young woman who runs the British Council in Tirana, I met and recorded two of these groups.

It is said that when two or three Labs get together they start singing in polyphony, and that was certainly how it seemed in the theatre where the first group, Cipini, were rehearsing: little musical huddles kept developing wherever I looked. Was this, as Lab champions claim, how Homer's heroes hymned their woes and triumphs? Very possibly. While the lower parts produced a muscular battery of drones, the lead singer wove a melismatic descant above. Each chorus was a hard blast of sound which ended in an abrupt, spine-tingling silence.

I found the second group at Vlora's job-centre, but their music, while following the same tight form, could not have been more different. Where Cipini had been ruggedly virile, Bilbili - "the Nightingales" - were beguilingly sweet, with accompaniment from a shepherd's double-flute. They first sang a love-song, then they did a scarf-dance, then they sang a lament of piercing sadness: a mother's song for the son who had sailed away and never came back.

"We sing with the same spirit Princess Di showed for people in danger," explained their spokesman, without irony. "The spirit of Lab music is self-sacrifice." Why was this such an affecting moment? From the window we could see the speedboats waiting to ferry their nightly human cargo to death or prosperity, while directly over the singers' heads loomed Vlora's unemployment chart. Yet what we were hearing had a timeless nobility and innocence.

Next summer, if the British ambassador to Tirana has his way, these singers will perform in Edinburgh.

Albania, still jittery after the latest attempted coup, is in desperate straits. The 30-year-old prime minister and his team face a land permeated by the mafia, bankrupted by pyramid schemes, awash with weapons and destabilised by war on its border. Almost every educated young person I met was planning to emigrate.

When I asked the minister of culture, a painter called Edi Rama, what he wanted to achieve, the reply was pitiful. "Even living in this hell, we cannot give up hope. We have to try, by doing small things, to induce change." His initial project is to build a cinema, because there is none in the land. So much for the legacy of President Hoxha and decades of cosying up to China.

That legacy is writ large in the souls of Albania's classical musicians, for Mao's proscriptions had their counterparts here. Until 1990 it was against the law to play decadent modern music such as Ravel and Debussy, with Prokofiev and Stravinsky even further beyond the pale. Bach and Handel were banned on religious grounds.

From Nora Cashku, the pianist who is dean of music at the arts academy, I learned the extent of this persecution. The conductor of a choir she sang with in the Seventies was imprisoned for seven years for having the temerity to perform Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, and on his release got a further period of enforced manual labour. So was Baroque music a samizdat pleasure? Cashku sighs. "We had no records, no sheet music. And anyway, if it had been heard, we would have been condemned." According to the academy's vice-rector, violinist Bujar Sykja, "radio was our only window on the culture we were starved of".

When Communism collapsed, says Sykja, "a new world opened for us"; Cashku's conductor can now present Pergolesi whenever he chooses; singers at the Tirana opera can deliver Mozart in German rather than Albanian. But now they are assailed by a different kind of poverty. "Only after 1990 did we know what a good instrument was," says Sykja. Few had ever had one - and many had never even heard one. Now they could not afford one.

Hardly any of the excellent players at the opera house own the instruments they play: they borrow them from the state. Tuition at the academy may be superb, but the pianos are abominable: the only decent one, a gift from the German embassy, remains locked except for special occasions. Sykja and Cashku have accordingly asked me to pass on a plea to Britain's conservatoires: rather than simply throwing out their used records, sheet music, and instruments, could they throw them in the direction of Tirana? "If they will give them to us, we will pay the cost of transporting them," says Sykja.

Musicians are resilient creatures here as anywhere else. Trombonist Romeo Mano - who makes ends meet by translating evangelical literature - told me of the pride the orchestra felt when touring Italy in September. "While television was showing riots in Tirana, we were showing that there were still Albanians devoting their lives to art." But he still thinks he and his family will have to leave, as does his friend the cellist Ilir Merxhushi. Where will Ilir go? "I hope to Zagreb. They have a few problems in Croatia, but nothing like ours. These are very dark days for Albania."

Sanctuary in Croatia? That, I fear, puts it all in perspective.