Book review: Traditional Songs and Music of the Korçë Region of Albania

When I visited Albania for the first time, I was surprised when I heard wonderful Greek bouzouki rebetiko songs renowned in Greece, from a pair of heavy loudspeakers  in the central square  of Korce – an Albanian  street seller  had put them on. It was only after reading Eno Koço’s book that I realised how far back the Albanian people’s love  of the Greek bouzouki went.  In one of my later journeys to Albania in around 2000 and afterwards, I was  struck by the way Albanian people in the little towns of  Southern Albania enjoyed a waltz and tango dance inside local restaurants or at family feasts. A thriving cosmopolitan social life from the past unfolded before my eyes. This small-scale cosmopolitanism was apparently uninterrupted by the years of political isolation – or, rather, the persistence of this cosmopolitanism lasted through political isolation.

The little town of Korçë, or the legendary “Korytsa” in Greek, or “Kortšauă” for the Vlachs, a place where the mutual affiliation of the Greek Epirots with the Southern Albanian people affirmed their common past, was a thriving small city where cosmopolitanism, tradition and education met each other in the way unfolded in the narrative of this book. Korçë is a town that, despite the contradictions of the final formation of the Albanian borders in the Balkan Wars and World War I, embraced its Greek Epirot communities and welcomed the Greek Army in World War II. They did so with a shared enthusiasm, honoring the triumphs against Mussolini’s fascist attacks in the Balkans.

After many years of no formal relations between Greece and Albania due to the dictatorship that governed the country, this book reveals the musical culture of a place that used to be a great cultural center in Southern Albania. In the pages of the book a small-scale cosmopolitanism is described that does not deny tradition, but which simultaneously keeps an eye on new trends and adapts what is familiar, personal and characteristic to form new ideas. The people of Korçë experienced their own shared community life and time. It is a small town that keeps its provincial traditions while adopting new music and this was a characteristic of many towns of the 20th century, or many towns of the Ottoman Empire. These towns continued to thrive and develop a long-lasting small-scale cosmopolitanism from their Byzantine past, sometimes in difficult circumstances.

In order to reveal this process of small-scale musical cosmopolitanism in such a provincial urban center, Koço uses three different methodologies. The first is a methodology performed in ethnomusicology including fieldwork and interviews with the families of distinguished personalities that contributed to the musical life of the town of Korçë in Albania or abroad. The second is historical musicological research, looking at different historical sources including bibliographies, archives, newspapers and other data such as musical scores, early recordings or photographic material. All this data is found in the chapters of this book.

Last but not least is musical analysis. Koço reveals the different transformations of musical characteristics hidden in the different stages of the musical life of the little town, showing the ways historical processes are depicted inside musical form. While dipping into the historical past of the town of Korçë and its musical life as well as the musical compositions found in scores or recordings, Koço classifies the urban musical creation of the town of Korçë into three main categories:

The first is what he calls “The Urban Song Tradition of Korçë”. This is an urban tradition that is based, on the one hand, on the pentatonic provincial Epirot tradition which in some cases becomes bilingual (both Albanian and Greek), while on the other hand it assimilates maqam traditions that derive from the Ottoman Courts (in Jannina for example). But as Koço notes, these urban songs, which in many cases are love songs and are widespread in many towns or present similarities from town to town, are not direct products of Middle Eastern influences. Most of them have commonalities with Eastern elements, although in an Epirotic singing tradition, some Western elements are also found due to the influence of Greek Kefallonian songs. The local carriers of traditions assimilated the Eastern maqam to make a personal musical mood which is at once local and cosmopolitan.

Another important contribution to the formation of the Korçë urban tradition and 20th century urban music in Albania was the instrumental bands called Saze. This might refer to the kind of instruments involved, but essentially it meant the semi-professional wandering musicians who were flexible and could experience and transfer different styles to the areas they moved to and from. At the same time they kept the polyphonic tradition of the provinces in a more urban way. These instrumental groups developed the pure provincial vocal experiential style in a semi-professional way. A similar phenomenon in Greece was the instrumental Koumpaneia.

The third category is the “Urban Lyric Song”.  The main characteristic of this category is the training of musicians and singers in notated music. The “Urban Lyric Song” is part of an educational musical song style which intervenes in small towns, inspiring their experiential powers. It keeps some traditional Eastern or local Epirot characteristics but it orientates simultaneously to Europeanization.

These three urban traditions along with the Kefallonitika and the Kantadha of the Greek Ionian islands are major factors in the creation of what is called “Korçare distinctive song”. These last two styles (Kefallonitika and Kantadha) affect the Korçë song because of the affiliation of the local Albanian population with the Greek musical styles developed in the Ionian Islands. These traditions brought the mantolinata to Korçë and later bouzouki style instruments. They were blended again with local traditions, and due to the experiential cultural and social life in the sokaks (the stone made pedestrian routes of the town) of Korçë  and the Pareas (“company” in Greek) they developed as a special local musical style.

The next chapter of the book is dedicated to the distinguished though neglected personality of Thoma Nassi and his contribution to the popularization of the Korçare distinctive song with his Vatra band: his compositions were widespread in both Albania and America. His music again pays tribute to the local pentatonic style or to the Eastern style as well as to Western traditions freely elaborated with various harmonies and orchestration.

Finally, Koço refers to the personality of Neço Muko, an extraordinary musician, and his contribution to the elaboration of the local polyphonic style of the Himara region. Professionalism as a kind of urbanisation of these styles was part of their popularity and rewarded them with even more popularity by means of certain personalities of the musical life of the provincial towns of Southern Albania. The main texts of the chapters are accompanied by 39 (thirty nine) notated examples representative of the different categories of the musical repertory.

In summary, Eno Koço’s book is a space-specific ethnomusicological and historical musicological approach, a work that clarifies the process of an experiential musical creativity over time, in an historical long-lived urban center of the Southern Balkans.

Reviewed by Athina Katsanevaki


Traditional Songs and Music of the Korçë Region of Albania is available to purchase directly from Cambridge Scholars by clicking here.

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