This Europe: Dissonant choirs in tune with the Albanian tragedy

By Michael Church in Vlora, Albania
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The South Albanian port of Vlora is the smuggling capital of the world, with guns, drugs and dangerously overloaded boatfuls of people. Albanians call it the City of Sorrows, because this is where civil war broke out after the collapse of the "pyramid banks" four years ago, and it is still desperately poor.

The South Albanian port of Vlora is the smuggling capital of the world, with guns, drugs and dangerously overloaded boatfuls of people. Albanians call it the City of Sorrows, because this is where civil war broke out after the collapse of the "pyramid banks" four years ago, and it is still desperately poor.

But Vlora has another more romantic claim to fame, as the cradle for a kind of choral singing that may go back 3,000 years. This wildly dissonant music has no parallel on earth.

I found Vlora's best choir – Bilbili, 'The Nightingales' – rehearsing in the employment office. Their female lead, a stunning fortysomething who is a vet, welcomes me with the warning that no nightingales ever sounded like these. She throws out the melody, and a male voice catches it with a sort of musical sigh; a third man makes a high-pitched clucking noise, while a fourth provides a drone. This music accompanies weddings and funerals: for its survival, thank the isolation of the Hoxha years.

Their subject matter is love, dead heroes and that mournful Albanian staple, emigration. But these ancient songs can be adapted to topical ends.

They sing a lament for 100 emigrants who drowned on a boat that sank between Vlora and Otranto, and they even compose a ditty to mark my visit: these songs are the peasant equivalent of newspapers. The price they extract from me (in addition to a modest fee equivalent to £7 per head) is a feast at a local restaurant, but as they sing throughout the evening, I put my mike on the table and extract my bonus too. My plan was to record several choirs, including the celebrated one from nearby Laparda, but Laparda refuse to share a radio programme with Bilbili. Instead I'm taken to a tiny mountain village called Dukat.

A male-voice choir is ready to sing but, when I explain that our recording will be drowned by the noise of a generator, I'm told that if it's turned off the whole village will be without electricity. Impasse? No, their desire to be heard by the outside world prevails, and the village is duly switched off.

This polyphony doesn't figure on the musical landscape of the urban young, whose only aspiration is to emigrate. I found just one CD of it in Tirana's best record shop. Vlora's choirs don't want to leave, yet are desperate to spread their message by touring abroad. That can only happen if foreign backers pay. At least they can take comfort from the Albanian proverb: one traveller is lonely, two will quarrel, but three will sing.

Michael Church's documentary series 'Albanian Blues' can be heard on the BBC World Service

Comments