Albanian Iso-polyphony

Iso-polyphony is a form of traditional Albanian polyphonic music. It can be divided into two major stylistic groups as performed by the Ghegs of northern Albania and Tosks and Labs living in the southern part of the country. The term iso is related to the drone, which accompanies the iso-polyphonic singing. The drone is performed in two ways: among the Tosks, it is always continuous and sung on the syllable ‘e’, using staggered breathing; while among the Labs, the drone is sometimes sung as a rhythmic tone, performed to the text of the song. It can be differentiated between two-, three- and four-voice polyphony. The phenomenon of Albanian folk iso-polyphony is proclaimed by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible heritage of Humanity”.

Southern Albanian music is soft and gentle, and polyphonic in nature. Vlorë in the southwest has perhaps the most unusual vocal traditions in the area, with four distinct parts (taker, thrower, turner and drone) that combine to create a complex and emotionally cathartic melody. Author Kim Burton has described the melodies as “decorated with falsetto and vibrato, sometimes interrupted by wild and mournful cries”. This polyphonic vocal music is full of power that “stems from the tension between the immense emotional weight it carries, rooted in centuries of pride, poverty and oppression, and the strictly formal, almost ritualistic nature of its structure”.

South Albania is also known for funeral laments with a chorus and one to two soloists with overlapping, mournful voices. There is a prominent folk love song tradition in the south, in which performers use free rhythm and consonant harmonies, elaborated with ornamentation and melisma.

Wikipedia mode off\

I love Albanian polyphony! The article I’ve been quoting is spot on in describing its molodies as complex and cathartic, emphasis on ‘complex‘ first and foremost. This music is challanging, which can be a barrier to appreciation: it is composed on a completely different tonal scale from Western music and features obscure rhythms such as 3/8, 5/8, and 10/8.

My musical taste was forged on Italian pop and US ear-candy dance songs from the early-to-mid ’90s. When first introduced to this music I vehemently rejected it: its archaic chorus arrangements were jarring to my senses and sounded about as pleasant as a herd of feral cats in heat.

I really don’t know when or how I have matured to thoroughly enjoy this stuff! Some of the best songs move me to tears. I have never heard such powerful singing but I didn’t know Iso-polyphony was actually unique to Albania. Here is an educational UNESCO video with excellent background songs.

I came accross this Lab song on YouTube which, randomly enough, uses an image I had created and posted on this blog many eons ago as its background! The song is not my favorite, but since whoever posted it used my image, I gotta link to it. Enjoy!

But perhaps I am being biased toward Southern Music. The North has some pearls too:

Hypnotic stuff, eh? These websites have listed more songs (you need Flash player to listen) should you be in the mood for more iso-polyphony.

Author: Kejda

Born: Tirana, Albania Residing: New York, NY University of Waterloo, Economics '08

5 thoughts on “Albanian Iso-polyphony”

  1. Kejda, Muzika popullore shqiptare do nje fare pjekurie edhe ne moshe, qe te mund te shijohet plotesisht.Me kujtohet qe kur isha femije nuk e kisha qef, por tani me prek jashtezakonisht. Perpiqu ta degjosh edhe njehere tani ate kengen e kenduar nga Mimoza Ahmeti tek CD e maratones se kenges qytetare (kjo fjale eshte budallek, duhej te ishte thjesht popullore, se shumica jane kenge me origjine fshati ose baritore dhe madje jane me te bukurat). Titulli eshte “Ballade per Halil Gashin”, dhe eshte mbi motivet e nje balade te vjeter kosovare. Gjithe dramaticitet dhe tension ne rritje, drejt fundit tragjik, por shume e ndjere, dhe sipas meje, edhe e kenduar shume bukur.

    Nuk e dija qe kishte melodi polifonike edhe veriu. Per mua, kenget dhe vallet e veriut jane edhe me te hijshme. Ka edhe shume valle mjaft te bukura, por per fat te keq te regjistruara me cilesi te dobet.

  2. Me pelqejne kenget popullore, si ato te veriut, dhe ato te jugut, te dyja kane karakteristikat e tyre te vecanta. Por kisha dicka tjeter qe mua nuk me pelqen qe muzika shqipetare ne teresi po basardohet po perzihet me muzike kulufesh ose me sakte po humb bukurine e saj.

  3. When I was 12 and had inherited my father’s record collection, he had an unlabeled, irreparably scratched 78 of a recording that could have been from as far back as the late 1920s. It featured a warbly 7/8 accompaniment over which this man was singing “Mos kjani more shok.”

    I trembled; I wept; and I still regret the day I inevitably wore through the grooves and rendered it unlistenable.

    My family having come from Malesia, that southern, multi-layered, brutally sullen music was utterly foreign to me at the time–and, when done well enough, can move me in a way that so few types of music can.

    Great post.

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