This is a momentous collection of folk music. Not least because it’s the first project produced by the renowned Joe Boyd in 17 years (and also apparently resulted in his getting married to one of the participants). This album of songs in the style called saze by an ensemble of modern masters lives up to its subtitle, “The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song.”
The saze (two syllables) music of southern Albania is “iso-polyphonic.” That means it has two melodic parts in close harmony (the polyphonic part) over a multi-voiced “iso” or drone – here typically either percussion or a lute of some kind. The two melodic parts can be vocal or instrumental, but one is the lead called the “taker” and the second is the “cutter.” Typical instruments include violin, clarinet, flutes and pipes. Songs are sung in the same manner, with two or more voices singing contrasting parts over a droning element.
The generous 28-page booklet that comes with the CD has lots of information about the history of this music, notes on each of the songs, and photos and biographies of the musicians. According to that booklet, for centuries Albanian folk music was entirely vocal, with the polyphonic vocal lines sung over vocal drones by an ensemble. When large numbers of Albanians (like other peasants and farmers all over the world) moved from the country to the cities beginning in the late 19th century, they took their music with them, where it met with imported instruments like oud, clarinet and violin, and thus saze was born.
At the beginning of the 21st century the music and its practitioners are dwindling, replaced by folk-pop hybrids and who knows what else. However, it’s still played but rarely recorded. And it apparently has never been recorded with top musicians by top producers with modern techniques in a suitable studio. That’s what Boyd and his co-producers Edit Pula and Andrea Goertler, and this group of singers and players they gathered, have done.
That we’re in for something special is evident right from the opening of the first song, a traditional tale called “Tana.” It’s about a shepherd about to be killed by thieves who uses his flute to tell his lover in the valley below about his impending fate, which expresses the idea that folk instruments can talk and tell tales. It’s introduced by an improvised instrumental section, the clarinet as “taker,” violin as “cutter” with frame drum and lute as drone; then two singers, female taker and male cutter, take over the song, their voices strident and filled with emotions; they alternate verses with the instruments providing commentary. Those familiar with Balkan music or klezmer might find in the clarinet especially some resemblance with those forms.
Part of the Albanian tradition is an instrumental form called kaba, consisting of a slow, improvised tune, in some cases followed by a fast ensemble dance tune. There are two here, one with the violin in the lead and one with clarinet. They fall into saze‘s general pattern of a lead voice and backing voice with drone. Both of these examples are moving and exciting and feature virtuosic playing by the instrumentalists – including the lutes and percussion that provide the drone. I particularly love the violin kaba; the fiddle work is entrancing, but the subtle, ghostly commentary provided by the clarinet is remarkable! And the transition to the dance section is masterful.
The album also has a tune called “Avaz,” which is another separate style within the tradition, an entirely improvised sort of kaba. This one adds a keening flute to the mix, which might just make the hair on your arms stand straight up like it did mine; plus the lute and drum get to come out from the drone role and play solos while the other instruments drone.
Still, what’s truly remarkable about saze is the unique polyphonic vocals, and the bulk of the album’s 15 tracks feature it. This music is a wonderful example of the riches in local and regional folk music that once existed around the world but are slowly fading with globalization. A big thanks to everyone involved, from Boyd and the production team to the sound engineers, the Glitterbeat label, and of course the musicians themselves. This is definitely one of the world music releases of the year.