Kejda Gjermani her miscellaneous musings

25Aug/1011

Mad Men Bores Me

If you’ve never watched the show, then never mind this review. To the rest of you I submit that Mad Men is one fraud of a series—pretentious and empty.

The first season fascinated me. Behind everything I saw and heard there seemed to be coming together the pieces of some very clever machinery of narration—tension pooling toward certain potentialities of the plot; the drama advancing and retracting unevenly, two steps forward, one step backward; some characters taking their first swipes at one another, others merely taking aim, all the while foreshadowing what makes them tick, Don Draper in particular, with his mysterious past. The preparations were exquisite. They’re carefully setting up every detail for something spectacular, I thought. And yet for three and a half seasons now the plot has done nothing but spin its wheels. In retrospect, I realize that I had mistaken superficial charm for substance all along. Mad Men is shot beautifully. Accented with quaint touches of imagery from the 60s, the set vividly recreates the feel of that decade—at least to dupes like me, born in 1986. But in terms of drama, I am afraid there is no there there.

Nearly everything interesting has long been flattened down to insignificance or hackneyed by overuse. If there is any point of composition in which Mad Men may now be said to resemble True Blood, that would be the mandatory inclusion into every episode of at least one scene of vigorous intercourse featuring the main character, as if it were Don Draper’s manifest destiny to overspread and to possess every woman crossing his path. Oh, please! I don’t care just how free love was back then. In all likelihood at least one woman would have refused this man’s advances. Even if not, the creators of Mad Men should have invented her.

Anyone remembers the first mistress of the series, the daughter of the Jewish client? How fresh she seemed, how nuanced her conversations with Draper, and how compelling their affair—her hesitation, the endearing attempts at self-restraint, the archness of her pride.... Had I known then what is so obvious now, that is, that Don Draper invariably gets to lift every piece of skirt he cares to, I wouldn't have followed with bated breath that brief romance or felt disappointed at its banal conclusion. But Mad Men should rather disappoint its viewers than lose their interest. Ever since this Rachel Menken left the series, Draper's flings have consisted of only flat characters with no inner life of their own and nothing of interest about their existence outside of Draper's hotel rooms or wherever they chance to copulate. Not only are they all flat, in E. M. Forster's sense of the word, but almost all alike—from coast to coast—as if cheaply mass-produced by the same factory. None of this would even bother me so much if I hadn't been getting the distinct impression, lately, that these dull manikins are trying very hard to evoke something—perhaps a sense of nostalgia, the spirit of their times, some cultural turning point.... Which is why every once in a while they will attempt a gesture or phrase so far outside the narrow range of mental life they're endowed with that we can't help cringing. A recent example is “Nobody knows what’s wrong with themselves, but everybody else can see it right away,” a perspicacious insight into theory of mind from one harebrained college girl, Stephanie, to whom Don Draper would most certainly have given a go-around like she'd never had before—as Duck Phillips puts it—had the revelation that her aunt Anna Draper was dying of cancer not got in the way.

This inferior quality of craftsmanship to the bimbos, once detected, somewhat impaired my ability to take Mad Men seriously. Nevertheless, I probably would have overlooked it if the main characters, at least, could keep me glued to the screen. But they can't. Betty Draper is the only believable creature among them: internally consistent, driven by circumstances and passions we can understand, her words and actions in perfect concordance with her personality; the only thing inexplicable about her being the creepy relationship with Glen Bishop, the young son of her neighbor. But the pace at which her emotions distill over and come to a head—comparable to the drip-drop of a barely leaking faucet—perfectly matches the show's overall pace of progression. It's worth noting, however, that we wouldn't know her so well had she not delivered convincing monologues from the psychiatrist's couch. Matthew Weiner must have learned that trick from the Sopranos: Though spilling his guts to Dr. Jennifer Melfi never seemed to do Tony much good, she earned her keep throughout the series by rendering him intelligible to us through his own words—and when she bailed out, I knew the end had to be near.

The other characters in Mad Men cannot afford this luxury of catharsis reserved for the likes of Betty and Tony. So in order to come off compelling they must be well stitched together in the first place and supplied with reasonable opportunities for behaving according to their nature. To that end, the creators should entertain clear intentions toward each character's role in the story and see to it that that role be fulfilled. When they don't, they end up with freaks such as Dr. Greg Harris, the husband of the lovely Joan Holloway, introduced as a frightening rapist but now mellowed into a pathetic sweetheart. Or Roger Sterling, distinguished for his pedestrian wit, who subjects himself to the indignity of dressing up as Santa for his office Christmas party in order to humor a client—a sadistic one—but goes out of his way to mortally offend and lose the business of another—a Japanese one—because...he fought them Japs in World War II. Or Peggy Olson, who never acts against her interests and seems to hold herself in high esteem—except that in the first season, Pete Campbell's humiliating insults to both her person and intelligence proved irresistible so she had to throw herself at him. About that whole affair, even Peggy's ignorance of being pregnant right up to the moment of delivery seemed more believable than the way these two people who secretly have a child together consequently treat each other.

In sum, too many characters too often behave out of character. Far from adding depth, these arbitrary slips undermine any perceived coherence to them. And even as the series progresses, we never get to know them any better than at the beginning. Take Don Draper. The glimpses into his brutal childhood, rendered as flashbacks, were intended as revelatory clues. But diminishing returns set in very quickly. In the end, Draper's past explains nothing of his present in concrete terms other than his unwillingness to physically chastise his son. More generally, it justifies his bleak outlook of life—but to that end, a far less dark and complicated past could have sufficed. This is a case of the end not justifying the means. And notwithstanding the elaborate anticlimax that went into his making, Don Draper still remains opaque. What drives him to promiscuity? Abused and unloved as a child, from where does he derive his enviable self-confidence as an adult? And what's with the wistful imagery in his creative campaigns—the Don Draper signature? What's the source of all this sentimentality? Can he, so unhappy in his early days and unsatisfied with married life, have such ready, first-hand access, as it were, to the tenderest recesses of America's collective unconscious? And there's much more to Draper that doesn't quite add up.

The same goes for the other main characters. Absent sounder development, perhaps an all-binding plot could have anchored them firmly in place. But Weiner doesn't seem all that intent on a plot, so the characters are left to float freely in their fictional universe, or rather blunder their way about it. The two-fold failure in composition—concerning both character development and plot structure—seems to bother no one, probably because it has no bearing on the ultimate purpose of Mad Men, which is to present a larger than life documentary about how the 60s were experienced by the specimens of an extinct class of New Yorkers. If this is what Weiner has set out to do, and he shows every indication of being interested in just that, then narrative, drama, characters—all fundamental elements of fiction—recede into the background. He does not hold their integrity sacred. On the contrary, if by their sacrifice the show could somehow increase its faithfulness to the time in which it is set, Weiner makes that sacrifice. Yet this very reconstruction of the past, whether done for its own sake or for extracting whatever lessons it is thought to contain, does not qualify as a legitimate artistic premise on which to base a work of fiction.

If the story the artist is interested in telling could have happened only in the past, then he has a valid reason for not setting it in the present. That's because plot takes precedence. The historical setting belongs in the background and must subserve the story—not the other way around. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of Mad Men: in this reversal of artistic priorities. It is why the show feels so anemic throughout. Even the most complex characters can be reduced to embodiments of the Zeitgeist—marionettes whose strings show, animated rather whimsically at every turn by whatever emotions the writers deem most representative of the 60s.

And what were those mythical 60s even supposed to feel like? A collage of second-hand impressions; most of them admittedly derived from the short stories of John Cheever—that literary master of everything insignificant in life. He is the quarry from which Weiner dug up most of the raw material that went into the making of Mad Men's background: the alcohol fumes and cigarette smoke that saturate the atmosphere, adultery as a common fact of life, dissatisfaction with a middle-class existence, detachment from one's spouse and family, and, on the whole, the pervasive suggestion that worms writhe under every rock happily baking in the sun. Style in this case being inseparable from substance, heavy borrowing from the short stories of Cheever also manifests itself in the episodic, self-contained, almost cameo-like nature of Mad Men—the plot's penchant for degenerating into dead ends presented as delectable vignettes.

Fiction that does not even aspire at Aristotelian unity can only redeem itself, if at all, by coming off wonderfully naturalistic. Rendering the facts of life faithfully entails some measure of vulgar realism, which might spoil the concentration of the narrative but which we might forgive nonetheless, as the price to be paid for crude sincerity. Mad Men, however, cannot claim this effect as an excuse for its disjointedness and want of focus. It is too studied, too sophisticated, too artful, and resorts to Cheeveresque flourishes too often to feel authentic. Even the 60s it affects to relive are a fictitious construct—bits of literature that wasn't even true at heart, misunderstood stereotypes from the world of our parents, echoes of a past too recent to be properly cast into fiction, fake nostalgia and fake cultural criticism.

I expect better from novels than even the most polished series of TV drama—and not because of any prejudice against the merits of film, as a medium, compared to literature, but because of the common practices in each industry. Publishers consider the entirety of a manuscript for appraisal whereas network executives approve a pilot without knowing how the rest of the show will come together. Sometimes not even the creators know—they just make it up on the fly. And when that is the case, we get treated to episodes or even entire seasons which, had the work been a novel instead of a television show, would have never made it past the stage of preparatory notes or rough draft.... In a word, we get Mad Men.

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19Jul/100

Mr. Updike, Meet Miss Austen

If you are a student of literature, I recommend reading back to back John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy and Jane Austen’s novels, as I have by chance, because the contrast between them yielded interesting insights.

Updike’s Rabbit series is the ripe product of the past century—spanning its entire second half. Much has been said of Updike’s style that renders it justice, albeit in too many words—which is why I am not quoting any of it here. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that Updike is the unsurpassed master of effaced narration, whose ample resources he exploits fully and to whose strict limits he keeps to the end. The effect on his prose is that of gritty but marvelously eloquent realism. His style is like a counterfeit note indistinguishable from the genuine in that it fabricates a structure as complex and as palpable as that of reality.

It is by a curious twist that in the 20th century, all the while visual art severed its links to physical reality and became more and more abstract, the Western novel reached a degree of naturalism and explicitness unparalleled in the past. Reality began to be captured with increasing, almost manic, precision. Shapes, colors, smells, sounds, textures, moods, minute physical characteristics, even bodily functions—every blade of grass, as it were—would now get cherished in their own right and exposed to the reader.

This recent course taken by Western literature, so much at variance with that on which the rest of Western art has embarked, perhaps owes something to the dawn of cinema: indeed, the camerawork that meticulously shines light on every detail of a staged scene and the characters that inhabit it bears a parallel to the modern literary style, which elucidates accidental details and treats inconsequential actions. But this cannot be the origin of the trend, for even, say, The Age of Innocence, written before the influence of film, already features too much detail and too little plot.

The interest modern intellectual writers take in the middle class, their partiality for ordinary people caught in ordinary moments, and the existentialist currents in which most of them are steeped, they all prejudice against plot and toward excessive detail. Yet none of these sensibilities had taken root in the intellectual and literary circles of Europe and America before World War II.

Perhaps, then, the new style dates as far back as Henry James, who might be called its first prophet, because the effaced narration he so ardently championed cannot lead but to extreme naturalism. And all those other factors—film, culture, philosophy—played auxiliary roles. What does narration, when so thoroughly effaced, do to prose in the long run?

Well, it relieves the narrator of his main responsibility, that of being judicious and selective. The author fears that jumping a few steps in the story for the sake of the plot or exercising his discretion in what to include, what to condense, or what to omit would draw attention to himself as narrator, which is taboo. He thus suppresses his activity within his narration and merely serves as a neutral camera filming the cluttered inner world of his characters and the immense reality outside them, exactly as they would perceive it in real time if they were real people.

Every activity, no matter how trifling, deserves attention now, because to cut out anything from the story would be to assert oneself as narrator. That’s one important reason, besides the extinction of prudishness from modern society, why love-making scenes are now sport in literature and not even the most explicit detail is blinked at. If it happens, then it can and probably should be told. This extreme neutrality is also the enemy of plot, for purposeful action and the clash of opposing wills—the traditional heart and soul of literature—end up diluted among those many tangential actions, hesitations, and observations, to which, because they are commonplace in life, effaced narration feels it must do justice.

In the end, the enterprise of fabricating the most realistic life, world, and set of characters possible is so seductive, so rewarding, and so much in agreement with effaced narration that it becomes an end in itself. Verisimilitude of human existence is the new goal of literature. And the more exhibitionistic a literary style, the better equipped it is to achieve it. When the author conjures up, with uncanny exactitude, specific images in the mind’s eye of the reader—the particular hues mixed in a sunset, the smell of evergreen around a cabin, the texture of a lover’s skin—he is flexing his muscles. Reality gets distilled through the five senses, in surgically precise prose.

Updike does this superbly. He makes you live under Harry Armstrong’s skin. This vicarious experience is the essence of Rabbit. It’s what makes it work. Not surprisingly, it only lasts while you are reading it. When you are done, the aftertaste is mild and fades fast. You remember how good it was, how true to life, how skillful at making you see, hear, and feel, what you should. But in the end, none of what you saw or heard or felt made any lasting impression. The vicarious experience, though uncannily rendered, does not enrich our inner life. In the end, this Harry Angstrom, whom we’ve got to know so intimately, is not worth our acquaintance. Neither is anyone around him. Perfectly as they might be cast, these characters and their interactions signify but very little. And our imagination feels manhandled, used, with nothing to show for the trouble.

After Rabbit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion will feel like a breath of fresh air. All her novels are written in third-person omniscient. Indeed, no narrator as effaced as the modern novelist could muster that most famous opening sentence in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” What first struck me in reading Austen after Updike was the sparseness of her descriptions, both of characters and of scenes. It’s the economy of conviction. Masterful at dialogue, Austen nonetheless collapses it into indirect speech when it doesn’t advance the plot or when it is not dramatic. She never indulges in descriptive detail for its own sake. Of Eliza Bennet, we only know that she is of middling height and has dark eyes. Of Mr. Darcy, that he is a tall gentleman, handsome, with a noble air. About the scenes where the plot unfolds we are given very little detail. Permberly is a magnificent estate—a large, stone-built house, furnished tastefully—situated opposite a valley, in the middle of the woods, by a running stream. That’s almost all we are told. But it sticks.

Austen narrates. She is interested in telling a story. Not in providing a voyeuristic peep into the inner life of her characters. Most interesting, I “see” her scenes and characters no less vividly than Updike’s. She sketches the outline and my imagination fills in the rest. In the upshot, the prose is light and nimble. And the reader finds in it room to breathe. His emotional resources are not wasted in attending to minute specifications as to the hair color of Charlotte Lucas or the crookedness of Mr. Collins’s teeth. Austen reminds us that the purpose of a novel is not being John Malkovich, or Rabbit Angstrom. It’s to tell a good story. When authors forget that, they get lost in the weeds. To quote from Elizabeth Bowen’s brilliant essay, “Notes on Writing a Novel”:

Plot is story. It is also “a story” in the nursery sense = lie. The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.
The modern novel has little to redeem its lies but the skill with which it tells them. These lies are not told for the sake of establishing a higher poetic truth. Rather, they want to pass themselves for truth. I cannot but think of Mariah Carey’s over-singing—her voice, with its challenging and melodious twists and turns, as it calls attention to its own beauty while executing a mundane, unmoving song. And that’s why the modern novel is bankrupt, and why no book like The Three Musketeers will ever be written again. Or any epic, for that matter. Tolkien was the last of the storytellers. The language of narration has been lost. Sympathy for heroes and fascination by villains no longer stir the imagination of modern writers. Evoking existential angst is all they aspire at. I don’t know whether the narrative heritage can ever live again. But any efforts to revive it must be grounded in the reading of pre-20th-century Western literature not in childhood or adolescence, or at least not only then, but well into adulthood, so as to combat our acquired taste for beautiful garbage.

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2Mar/097

Albanian Grade School Photos (1993-1996)

Class photos from Sabaudin Gabrani, my grade school. Consider the cost per pupil here, versus the $24,600/year spent on each Washington D.C. public-school student. I'm sure my school got through an entire school-year on less than a tenth of the yearly budget for one D.C. student.

Second grade (first row, left desk, red jacket).

Second grade (first row, left desk, red jacket).

Third grade (front row, middle desk, checkered jacket)

Third grade (front row, middle desk, checkered jacket)

Fifth grade (second row, middle desk, looking away from camera).

Fifth grade (second row, middle desk, looking away from camera).

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4Nov/087

Musical Revisionism: A Communist Crime

A casual observer of Albanian Communist cultural paraphernalia (such as Enver’s speeches, Socialist Realist paintings, Party-approved monuments or poems, state-produced films, etc.) might deduce that Enver Hoxha fancied himself a glorious leader of an epic rural nation because of the pervasive themes of mythological collective greatness and romanticized legends coloring Albania’s grim history. Enver is also portrayed as nothing short of an Iliadic hero. But that’s because of all the quixotic sugar-coating, underneath which Enver’s relationship with his people was merely that between a shepherd and a big flock of sheep. Yet judging by what little of his writings I have managed to stomach reading, he sounded like a romantic type of sorts, hence the many coats of purely ornamental lipstick on the pig that his 50-year reign was.

Aside from the vast legacy of quintessentially communist, hideous, decrepit, pigeonhole-type multipurpose buildings whose cheap paint has been peeling off for decades like a leper’s scabs, and, let’s not forget, the nearly 800,000 bunkers awkwardly dotting every corner of the country, Albanians have another haunting ubiquitous scar by which to remember Uncle Enver (as his young minions were expected to affectionately address him, just shy of full-fledged Big-Brotherhood): the aftermath of his pathological pursuit of Albanian folk music as a medium for communist indoctrination and personal self-aggrandizement. Certainly not the humblest of fellows, Uncle Enver relentlessly insinuated himself into Albanian art, and had epic songs re-written to glorify himself as the one and only eternal mythological leader of the Communist Party and, by extension, of the entire nation.

The repulsive paintings and sculptures in the vein of Socialist Realism are one thing. That genre was a totalitarian and expressionally barren artistic staple of Communist rule across the world. As much of a sore to the eyes as that “art” was, it is now no more, with no irrevocable harm done. By contrast, the perversion of Albanian music is a far graver and uniquely damaging offense because song has historically been the paramount medium of artistic expression for the Albanian people —an icon of cultural identity far more relevant than visual art. Epic songs form the centerpiece of Albania’s oral tradition. Replacing the historic themes of Albanian music with idolization of a modern totalitarian dogma is more subtly Orwellian than any act of blatant revisionism could have been.

In order for the Western reader to appreciate just how abominable this perversion of art truly is, some basic familiarity with the epic musical tradition of Albania is needed. Below are a few sample songs with lyrics translated by yours truly, for you to explore and digest before we dive head-on into Uncle Enver’s hard-core dementia. Traditional songs will be analyzed for a compare-and-contrast exercise with Communist pseudo-folk creations. I hope you may find this batch of songs interesting and, —dare I hope?— instructive, even from a purely anthropological perspective into the cultural heritage of this obscure Balkan nation.

Hasmi zu vatane/ The enemy has taken over the homeland
Lulet u thane/ Flowers have dried up
Flaka mbuloi fshane/ Flames have engulfed the village
Foshnjat u qane/ The babies have cried themselves out
O ju djemte tane/ Oh you boys of ours
Nxirrni Jatagane/ Pull out your swords
Zini histikme/ Take your positions
Ne na kini prane/ Stay close to us
Trima me palle/ Brave boys with swords
O ju djemte tane/ Oh you boys of ours

This emotionally electrifying, somber song from the South portrays the setting of a clash with foreign invaders, almost certainly Ottomans: the destruction of the village as its men are preparing to fight back is laconically described. The reference is probably to one of the countless spontaneous Albanian rebellions to which the Ottoman Empire typically responded by sending over punitive squads to burn down the rebels’ settlements, kill their leaders, and terrorize the villagers who had supported them. The tone of the song and the subtle dreadfulness of the lyrics —the nuances of which do not lend themselves easily to translation,— foreshadow a tragic end for the villagers: they are getting ready to put up a valiant fight before they die. Note that throughout the minimalistic lyrics, the only recurring epithet of praise is “brave”. Bravery (a notion loosely interchangeable with heroism) represents the pinnacle of valor for Albanian men to aspire to.

Here is another rendition of this famous song—albeit more mournful in tenor.

Janines ci pane syte/ What have Ioannina’s eyes seen! [If only you could have seen through Ioannina's eyes/ what happened in Ioannina]
Ja-Janino’/ Io.. Oh Ioannina
Ish e premte ajo dite/ That day was a Friday
Te Pese puset ne gryke/ At the entry of the Five Wells [geographic designation]
Zenel Celua vet i dyte/ Zenel Celo in second person [was not alone]
Zeneli me te Velcione/ Zenel with the Velcionian [someone from the Velc village]
Dhe trimi Jace Mavrone/ And the brave Jace Mavro
Cau mespermes tabore/ Cut right through the soldiers
E shtriu pashane e gjore/ And knocked down [slew] the poor Pasha

This very famous song commemorates the turning point of a battle against the Ottomans in Ioannina (a city situated in modern Greece which has been historically Albanian until the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, at which point Greece annexed it with the backing of Great Britain and France, and eventually had it ethnically cleansed). Three men, two of which are mentioned by name whereas the third one is identified by only his village of origin, heroically cut right through the enemy lines and kill the Ottoman Pasha in the heat of the battle.

The lyrics and melody reek of pride and reverence, but the song-writer’s perspective is modest: S/he lets the simple story speak for itself, and again, uses only the underhanded “brave” epithet (and uses it just once) to give any overt praise. Such laudatory restraint is a staple of not only epic music, but of Albanian tradition in general, which was forged by coarse minimalism through the centuries.
There are many renditions of this great song, a traditional polyphonic one to be found here, and —a modern, somewhat bastardized but uplifting version— here.

Doli Shkurti hyri Marsi/ February is out, March is in
Ne Gjirokaster u vra bimbashi/ Bimbashi [local head of Ottoman forces] was killed in Gjirokastra
Te vrane bimbash te vrane/ They killed you Bimbash, they killed you
Hitoja me Bajramne/ Hito and Bajram did

Nga Janina vjen Mazapi/ The Mazap [Ottoman leader] is coming from Ioannina
Ne Mashkullore te rrapi/ To Mashkullore [geographical designation] at the plane tree
Te rrapi ne Mashkullore/ At the plane tree in Mashkullore
Foli Cercizi me goje/ Cercizi spoke through his mouth [Cercizi said so himself]
Mylazim largo taborre/ Mylazim [Ottoman official], send your soldiers away
leri djemt e mij te shkojne/ Let my boys go

se do t’ju kuq t’ju bej me boje/ Or I shall make you red, with paint [an indirect reference to blood]
do t’ju kuq t’ju bej me boje/ I shall make you red with paint
se ashtu e kam zakone/ Because that is how I do things

Cerciz Topulli me thone/ They call me Cerciz Topulli

Alternate Lyrics:

Hyri Prilli, doli Marsi/ April is in, March is out
Girokaster u vra bimbashi/ Bimbashi was killed in Gjirokastra
Bimbash, tu shofte emri/ Bimbash, may your name be extinguished [cursed]
me jete paguhet nderi/ With life is how honor is paid off
Nga Janina vjen mazapi/ The Mazap is coming from Ioannina
Ne Mashkullore te rrapi/ To Mashkullore at the plane tree
Te rrapi ne Mashkullore/ At the plane tree in Mashkullore
Foli Cercizi me goje/ Cercizi spoke through his mouth
-Mulazim hiq tabore/ Mylazim, send your soldiers away
Leri djemte e mij te shkojne/ Let my boys go
Se trimat ashtu leftojne/ Because that’s how brave men fight
Ashtu sic kane zakone/ The way they are used to [the way they know how]
Do t’ju kuq t’ju bej me boje/ I shall make you red with paint
- Cerciz vrane Hajredine/ Cerciz, they killed Hajredin
-Mire bene qe e vrane/ Good for them
Degjoni, qafa Kapllane/ Listen up, I swear on my life
Haken s’ja leme pa marre/ We won’t rest until we avenge him
Ne xhandare e ne nizame/ Through nizams and policemen
Kokat e tryre ne sater do vene/ Their heads shall roll
Ashtu sic beme per anene/ Just like we did for Mother

Cerciz Topulli was a revolutionary hero from Gjirokaster who fought for the liberation and independence of Albania. With his guerrilla unit, he killed the head of Ottoman armed forces in Gjirokaster in early March, 1908. Later that month he led the battle against Ottoman reinforcements in Mashkullore. That is the historic reference of the song: him facing down the Ottomans with a speech under the plane tree in Mashkullore. This is an early 20th-century song —much more recent than the others presented so far— hence the instrumental background (a modern occurrence) instead of the bare polyphony.

Excellent renditions of this song include this, and this one.

Though Cerciz Topulli is one of the most loved national figures of Albania (especially in the south), the song-writer engages in no direct glorification of his persona. Here again more is less: Cercizi’s valor is instead illustrated by means of his own words, in terms which are self-evident to the audience: brisk yet somewhat implicit references to a tradition or second nature of fighting with bravery to the death and of how honor/freedom is worth dying/killing for.

Morra Rrugen Per Janine

Mora rrugen per Janine/ I was headed for Ioannina
isha vetem/ I was alone
bashke me arabaxhine/ Along with the servant
apo nate/ At night
bashke me arabaxhine apo nate/ Along with the servant at night
atje me zune pusine/ That’s where they had laid the ambush
isha vetem/ I was alone
copa-copa ma bene melcine dhe zemren/ They chopped my liver and heart to pieces

Great renditions can be found here and here.

The reference to the ambush in this painful song is, I believe, actually Greek rather than Ottoman. Starting from the last half of the 19th century and until the first half of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians have been killed or otherwise forcefully expelled from what consequently became the northern part of modern Greece. As can be easily inferred from these songs, Ioannina was a very important city in Albanian culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two other touching songs centered on Ioannina.

Vjen Fermani ne Janine

Në Janinë ferman po vjenë/ The enemy is coming to Ioannina
Asqerëtë po vijnë/ The soldiers are approaching
Dil Ali Pasha përpara/ Come out Ali Pasha and face them [in battle]
Dil Pasha se po vjen nata/ Come out Pasha because the night is falling [it is getting late]
Këmbekryq mbi kanapenë/ He sits on his sofa with legs crossed [in lotus position]
Asqerëtë po vijnë/ The soldiers are approaching
Ali Pasha, dili pritë/ Ali Pasha, lay an ambush for them
Asqerëtë po vijnë/ The soldiers are approaching
Dil Ali Pasha përpara/ Come out Ali Pasha and face them
Dil Pasha se po vjen nata/ Come out Pasha because the night is falling
(inaudible) more koke-prere/ … head cut off [they are coming for your head]
Asqerëtë po vijnë/ The soldiers are approaching
Në Turqi (inaudible) ta prene/ In Turkey they cut your …. [quite possibly meaning "They ratted you out in Turkey" or "They sealed your fate in Turkey"]
Asqerëtë po vijnë/ The Soldiers are coming
O veziri në Janinë/ Oh you Vizier of Ioannina
Fitove mbi tradhëtine/ You won through treason

The song is from 1822, and depicts the last day of Ali Pasha, the infamous Albanian ruler who had rebelled against Ottoman authority. He’d been betrayed by his own nephews, was vastly outnumbered by the Ottoman forces closing in on him, and had retreated to his castle in Ioannina. His loyal troops are urging him to fight, but he quietly awaits his death, knowing that there is no hope for victory at this point.

We do know from historical sources that when the end was so imminent that he was asked to surrender for the beheading, he declared: “My head…will not be surrendered like the head of a slave” and kept fighting till the end. But the song suggests that he didn’t sacrifice his troops en masse through any hopeless confrontation with the Ottomans before it got to that point. The reference in the song to Ali’s head being severed is therefore quite literal, as his head was in fact cut off and brought to the Sultan in Istanbul. Though the song is sympathetic to Ali Pasha, it does not lionize him in the least, but rather emotionally recounts with a subtle touch of tragedy the last tense moments of his reign.

Janine, e Zeza Janine

Full lyrics with some alterations:

Ne Pese-Puse Kala/ At the castle of the Five Wells
dolli palo Jorgua/ [is where] the vile George has come out
Kostandini shkeli krijne/ Constantine swore on his life
te ben pashken ne Janine/ to wreak havoc in Ioannina [in protest of Greece's annexation attempts]
Riza beu-tha-do ndroj dine/ Bey Riza said he would change his faith [convert to Greek Orthodoxy]
do bij bajram ne Athine/ and celebrate Eid al-Adha in [deflect to] Athens
Janine, e zeza Janine/ Ioannina, oh black [mournful/poor/doomed] Ioannina
del e shih asqere qe vijne/ Come out and look at the soldiers coming
Mahmut beu me dhjet mile/ Bey Mahmut with ten thousand [of them]
Moj Janine, o moj Janine/ Ioannina, oh Ioannina
veqil keshe Sheh Aline/ You have Sheh [Ottoman title] Ali for your lord
kajmekami me katine/ The assistant [Sheh Ali's] and his wife
radhazi telit i bijne/ are each playing strings [musical instruments] [meaning: Nero plays the flute while Rome is burning]
Mecove, e zeza Mecove/ Mecove [region near Ioannina], poor/black Mecove
shume u mbajte, pra tu hodhen/ You put up a lot of resistance [carried yourself with dignity], which is why they are assailing you
shqipetaret perpara shkojne/ Albanians are moving forward
me jatagane ne dore/ With swords in their hands
Valle kush e beri fora?/ Who do you think did it big [bravely jumped into battle]?
Selam Hasani nga Vlora/ Salem Hasani from Vlora
pika gjak i kullon kordha/ Blood drops are dripping from his sword
Janine e zeza Janine/ Ioannina, black/poor/doomed Ioannina
Janin-o/ Oh Ioannina
mire ta bene tertipne/ They served your tradition well [sarcastic: they treated you real well]
Selim Qori me Uznine/ Selim Qori and Uznia
ne Korfuz vane e te shitne/ Went to Corfu and sold you out [to the Greeks]
anapolona tre mile/ for three thousand napoleons [gold coins]
Janine te mbite ngjoli/ Ioannina, the swamp is engulfing you [concrete reference: the local lake---metaphorical reference: Greece]
hapi site se te mori/ Open your eyes or it will take you over
Po e pe qe te te marre/ If you see it taking you over
veri xhepanese zjarre/ Blow your castle up
me mire t’e djegesh vete/ Better to burn it yourself
se ta marre Junani shkrrete/ than for Greece to take it abandoned

Janine, motra Janine/ Ioannina, sister Ioannina
dil e shih c’djelma qe vijne/ Look at what kind of boys are coming for you
Taborret e Vlores vijne/ The warriors of Vlora are coming
per Bezhan e per Janine/ for Bezha [a region] and for Ioannina
dolli mileti i prine/ The people are coming to greet them
nuk e mbanin dot gezimne/ They cannot contain their joy
dridhej vendi ne Janine/ The ground is shaking in Ioannina
ka muzikate qe bijne/ from the music they are playing

The above is a merger of three Black-Ioannina-themed songs. Not long after the death of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Empire started crumbling apart at the corners. Greece had GB’s and France’s backing to annex southern Albanian lands. Some Turkish warlords were bribed and joined the effort to invade Ioannina on behalf of Greece as mercenaries (Bey Mahmut with ten thousand soldiers). Other Ottoman officials are deflecting and converting to Eastern Orthodox Christianity so they can get asylum in Athens (Bey Riza). King George I has claimed Ioannina his, but Constantine (local Albanian leader) has sworn not to let it go. The Ottoman-appointed governor of Ioannina is doing nothing (his assistants are blissfully playing musical instruments). Greek soldiers are approaching. Meceva (region situated to the west of Ioannina) is under assault. Albanians are organizing a resistance. Fighters are coming in from Vlora (their heroism in battle against Greeks is described). The locals are cheering for them as Ioannina’s last hope and have taken heart from their arrival. The singer, in the vein of traditional Albanian honor, is advocating collective suicide for the keepers of Ioannina’s castle in case of defeat. The castle is to be blown to pieces rather than abandoned to the Greeks.

How that fight turned out is given away by today’s political maps of Albania and Greece respectively: Ioannina’s Albanians suffered a brutal fate. Even at this crucial moment when the need for heart-warming propaganda is at a record high, the song-writer does not succumb to the temptation of expediency: the Albanian fighters are modestly portrayed merely as brave boys with swords. The boundaries of praise and glory are unmistakably unpretentious.

One last great song before I get to Enver’s “gems”. This is in fact a lyrical song with epic overtones:

Mbeçë more shokë mbeçë

Mbeçe more shokë mbeçe/ I shall stay my friends, I shall stay [farewell]
Përtej Urës së Qabesë/ Across the Bridge of Qabea [somewhere in Asia]
Të fala i bëni nënëse/ Say hello to my mother
Kaun e zi le ta shesë/ Tell her to sell the black ox
Në pyestë nënëja për mua/ Should my mother ask about me
I thoni që u martua/ Tell her that I got married
Në pyeste se ç’nuse mori/ Should she ask what bride I got
Tre plumba te kraharori/ [Tell her] Three bullets in the chest
Në pyeste se ç’krushq i vanë/ Should she ask what guests came to his wedding
Sorrat e korbat e hanë/ [Tell her] Vultures and Crows who ate him

Another great rendition of this dreadful song can be found here. It is about the death of a young Albanian man as a “nizam” (forced recruit) serving in the Ottoman army away from home, in some remote corner of Asia. Ottomans used to draft local youths from the lands they occupied to serve for many years in the ranks of the Ottoman army and fight anywhere in the world for the Empire’s expansionary expeditions or defensive efforts.

The simplicity is striking and painful. This is Albanian folk music at its best.
… … …
This small repertoire is, I believe, more than sufficient to get the message across: Albanians have been an austere, impoverished, and proud people, who were caught for centuries between the brutal Ottomans and the aggressive advances of their neighbors —Greece and Serbia— in a triangulated struggle for survival. The self-imposed price for relative freedom under Ottoman rule was a nearly complete lack of infrastructure and urbanization. Warrior-villagers had to be able to disperse quickly in the forest or retreat into the mountains. Both transportation and long-term accommodation had to be made painstakingly difficult for the Ottoman armies. Hence Albanian settlements as well as personal codes of conduct preserved an archaic medieval austerity well into the 20th century.

Albanians had no resources or inclination to build magnificent edifices of exquisite artistic value, the kinds of which ornament Western European cities. They never reached the kind of prosperity through which talented individuals could afford to specialize as professional artists. For example, Albanians have had virtually zero accomplished painters from their midst (with the exception of Onufer, the famed Byzantine artist). The impoverished warriors had no business pursuing fine arts. Song was their only means of expressive recourse, through which anyone could afford to be an artist. Albanians made the most out of singing since it was the only testament they could assemble for their history: Ioannina is gone after a lot of bloodshed, but there are no photographs, videos, or documentaries depicting what happened. The archeological remnants of the one-time Albanian stronghold are now inaccessible deep within the borders of Greece. The only things Albanians have to commemorate their attachment to Ioannina are their ancient passionate songs. They provide the only livening supplement to the textbook-dry account of events.

Songs are all that Albanians have had of lasting artistic value and cultural impact. Through them traditional values such as honor and bravery are extolled, and measured —as opposed to sycophantic— praise is given to individuals who best exhibited these virtues during the course of memorable events. It is easy to notice the sincere, organic, and bottom-up nature of the songs’ lyrics: The fresh narratives were likely written by either the very participants in the depicted events or by their immediate friends or relatives. The tradition of epic Albanian songs is an intangible monument to freedom, and Enver Hoxha raped this respectable tradition.

The megalomaniac insinuation of his persona everywhere in the musical repertoire and the top-down engineering of labored, sycophantic lyrics, could only be matched in an alternate universe in which Il Duce Mussolini brought back Michelangelo from the dead and coerced him to repaint the Sistine Chapel —the pinnacle of Italian art— according to a fascist artistic tone: with sharp contours and blunt shades to represent fascist vigor, and with Mussolini’s face replacing God’s.

The performers were robbed of the archaic stoicism of their original songs. They were turned into tacky-colored clowns instead, in the big circus that the entire country had become. Just what am I talking about here? How’s this for a birthday present for the Fuhrer?

Dëgjo, Argjiro shqiponja/ Listen, Argjiro, [the castle of Gjirokastra, Enver's hometown] you eagle
këngën, që të sjell gjitonia/ to the song the fair woman has brought you
ç’të ka lezet lëm’ i këngës/ How graceful is her song
Për birin e shtrenjt’ të zemrës/ for her son dearest to her heart
Moj nëna gjirokastrite/ Oh mother from Gjirokastra
gjiri yt me qumësht drite/ Your breast-milk is made out of light
dhe mbi gjithë djepet që rrite/ And of all the cribs [infants] you brought up
ç’t'i jepje shqipes e dite/ You knew just what to give to Albania [i.e: Enver]
lum si ne!/ Blessed/Lucky are we!
Mbas çdo bore në furtunë/ After every snow fall from a storm
ball’ i malit zbardh më shumë/ The mountain’s [Enver's] forehead is even whiter [shinier]
në çdo thinj’ të mençurisë/ In every gray hair of wisdom
beharët e Shqipërisë/ lay the summers [golden days] of Albania
Mes çdo dallge e rrebeshi/ Through every wave and flood
sa udhëheqës, aq ushtarë/ as much a leader as a soldier
historia siç të deshi/ That’s how history wanted you
Komandant dhe Komisar/ Both Commander and Commissar
Shqipërisë, fjale jote/ To Albania, your word
kushtrim dhe flamur epoke/ is a call/chant and flag signifying an era
iu bë dritë siç ëndërronte/ and it was turned into light [fruition] as it [Albania] was dreaming
rrofsh sa moshë e kësaj toke!/ May you live as long as the age of this earth!
Shkon urimi gojë me gojë/ The blessing spreads from mouth to mouth
Shëndet trimit, Enver Hoxhës/ [Good] Health to the brave Enver Hoxha
se të vërtetës së kohës/ Because you were the truth of our times
i dhe krahët e shqiponjës/ You gave wings to the eagle
Shqipëria, nënë e gjirit/ Albania, your nursing mother,
të uron, bir: Jetë të gjatë!/ is wishing you, son: A long life!
dhe kur thotë: “Dita një mijë!”/ And when it says “May your days multiply by 1000!”
nënës prapë i duket pak!/ Even that to the mother seems like too little
O majë e malit me borë/ Oh you snow-capped mountain top
që s’qas re në sinorë/ allowing no cloud to cover you
emri yt gëzim lirie/ Your name is joy of freedom
lule në çdo buzë fëmije/ A flower in every child’s lips
Rrofsh Enver!/ Long live Enver!
Nga Saranda në Tropojë/ From Saranda to Tropoja [southernmost and northernmost cities]
shkon urimi gojë me gojë/ The blessing spreads from mouth to mouth
kush ndrit udhën siç do nëna/ You are the shining light on our path that mother [Albania] always wanted
sa vetë kombit i rreh zemra/ so much so that the entire nation’s heart beats [for you]

Over the top, much?

Uncle Enver seems moved and is weeping. At this point in his life he must be truly scared of dying, hence all the gag-worthy clues to longevity, the age of the Earth itself, and his days multiplied by 1,000. I can imagine how the prospect of death must have been much more painful to him than to us common mortals, since he had much more to lose in life: absolute power over the lives of over 2 million people, for one thing, and supreme control over perception of reality itself by an entire nation. He does not shy from milking his omnipotence for all its worth: he wants his entire nation to tell him he will live forever, in order to indulge himself in believing it. If perception is reality and he essentially controls both, with everyone telling him he will never die, who is he to say any differently?

Enver took great pride and satisfaction in urbanizing and “industrializing” Albania. Shedding the traditional rural garb in favor of mediocre Western clothing was seen as a sign of progress: the transcendence of the proletariat from provincialism and backwardness into the modernity and economic development brought by Communism. We are left to wonder then, why Enver would revel in the performances of such deliberate throw-backs to a more primitive era. The traditional costumes of these performers are symbols of inferiority and backwardness by Communism’s own standards, according to which industrial supremacy trumps all else. The discrepancy could have a purely sentimental explanation, of course: A young Enver may have enjoyed folk songs dedicated to local or national heroes (such as the one about Cerciz Topulli) and he probably once fantasized about being the one for whom such songs are written and performed, so in that sense he may be fulfilling a remote fantasy. Another explanation I suspect, is that the purpose of these songs, —his personal glorification— would be better served if the performers lowered themselves in the eyes of the audience. The tyranny of Communism operates under the cloak of universal equality, which is not the ideal environment for anyone’s personal aggrandizement. A certain perceived distance in status is required between Enver, —the would-be larger-than-life hero— and the sheep singing his praises, hence the deliberate status of inferiority in their appearance: they had to be lowered, so he could stand even higher by contrast.

Notice the lead male singer’s nervous smile and the woman’s exaggerated gestures. In genuine polyphonic epics, the performers almost universally acquire an intense, somber, and contemplative demeanor, as can be seen from the first two videos. The sycophantic servility and mindless collectivism permeating from these lyrics are alien to, in fact, antithetical to, the rugged, passionate, proud, and primitively individualistic culture that produced that choral singing arrangement in the first place.

Never before had Albanians been ruled by an absolute tyrant to whom they had to sell their souls in musical currency. Where is the underhanded praise? Where is the implicit pride? Where is the passionate minimalism? Gone without a trace: what we just saw has been a grotesquely faked orgasm of a traditional folk song.

Whereas here we have what seems to be a young Kyle MacLachlan (or perhaps his identical twin) singing to Enver’s glory, this time in the Northern tradition.

Enver Hoxha e mprehi shpaten, / Enver Hoxha sharpened his sword,
Edhe nje here o per situaten. / Once again for the situation.
Kjo asht shpata qe u rrin tek koka / This is the sword that hangs above the heads,
Gjithe amriqve o qe ka bota. / Of all enemies around the world.
Enver Hoxha, Tungjatjeta! / Long live Enver Hoxha!
Sa keto male e sa keto shkrepa! / [May he live as long] as these mountains and these rocks,
Zanin shqipes lart ia ngrite. / You raised the eagle’s voice up high.
Gjithe kete popull ne drite e qite. / You brought this entire nation out into the light.
Ylli i kuq shnderrin mbi maja. / The red star [communist symbol] shines above the mountain tops.
Bien daullja edhe zyrrhaja. / Drums and bagpipes are playing.
Porsi nuse asht ba Shqipria. / Albania is looking just like a bride [pretty/festive].
Flamurtare i prin Partia. / The [Communist] Party is leading her forward with a flag.
Enver Hoxha, Tungjatjeta! / Long live Enver Hoxha!
Sa keto male e sa keto shkrepa! / [May he live as long] as these mountains and these rocks,
Zanin shqipes lart ia ngrite. / You raised the eagle’s voice up high.
Gjithe kete popull ne drite e qite. / You brought this entire nation out into the light.

First things first: Anyone dressed like a medieval shepherd should not have the first clue on what a political party is. Having these archaic tribal characters sing about the glories of Marxism-Leninism is a deliberate anachronism. It’s completely out of place. And what’s with the depiction of Enver Hoxha as a fierce warrior? Sharpening his sword? Could there be a more absurd mental picture than the tame bourgeois old man in the gray suit barbarically threatening the world with a sword?

As if the performance were not derogatory in itself, these singers are subjected to another indignity: In the end, everyone in the choir is seen wearing wildly different costumes, which in fact represent the main regions of Albania with their respective micro-cultures. The spontaneous regimentation of these singers from such diverse musical and thematic traditions into a single choir is just about as natural as a Russian, Chinese, Sub-Saharan African, Italian, and Arab child, respectively, coming together and holding hands to sing Kumbaya My Lord. Parading the representatives of these largely disjointed traditions as interchangeable collective pegs (under the guise of national unity) on Enver Hoxha’s altar demeans the unique character of each micro-culture, whose songs are distinctively regional.

The same longevity themes are pounded on anew, with greater force with each passing year in order to counter Enver’s growing fear of death. These farcical songs are all so emotionally flat that they sound virtually interchangeable. The lyrics may have well been all written by the same author or by the same committee. Gone is the finesse, the originality, the pride. This prolonged desecration has delivered a devastating blow to folk music in Albania because people simply don’t respect the medium anymore, after decades of continuous subjection to such Orwellian performances as the ones you have just seen.

Folk song used to be a means of resistance to oppressors and commemoration of freedom-seeking revolutions. From 1945 to 1985 however, it became the jewel on the crown of Albania’s most ruthless dictator. The kind of radically collectivist intellectual atmosphere these songs were engineered to facilitate is best illustrated by the next and last song of this article: an unfathomable dynamic of crowd hysterics exalting a larger-than-life leader to whom the crowd’s minions fully surrender their egos. Hoxha instituted a civilian national security force in Albania, called “Sigurimi“, —literally meaning Safety/Security— which enforced the strict observance of the state religion, —Communism— across every corner of the country’s social life, no matter how remote.

Spies and agitators lurked everywhere, and it was not unheard of for family members to turn in one-another over miscellaneous charges of ‘blasphemy’ against statism. Under such repressive conditions so prohibitive to free thinking, citizens were left talking almost entirely to themselves whenever uncomfortable questions or suspicions would arise in their heads, while the rest of the world almost certainly appeared to each of them as a monolithic collective blissful in its unanimous acceptance of Party orthodoxy. I wonder how many a poor soul was ever reduced to wonder whether s/he was the only one in the entire nation entertaining ‘impure’ thoughts. Such ecstatic crowds bursting into unhinged Communist chants should come as no surprise under the circumstances then, since this predictable crowd behavior represented a rare chance for each person to be absolved of his/her private ‘thought crimes’ by publicly renewing the allegiance to the Party and to the Fuhrer and coming out of the experience with a clean slate on their hitherto troubled conscience.

An entire generation of Albanians was born, raised, and matured under such conditions —my parents among it. What’s done is done. Albanians have the cultural scars to remember this horror. I sincerely hope that Americans at least, will taste the danger of ecstatic crowds and spit out any ideological propositions stealthily conducive to such unhinged rampant collectivism before their political system gets poisoned.

Gjirokaster heroine/ Gjirokaster, heroine,
Bujarisht prite Shqiprine. / You have been a generous host to Albania [the festival for Enver's birthday is held in Gjirokastra, his home town]
Sollem kangen, burim drite, / We brought the song, a fountain of light.
Lum per djalin qe ti rrite, hej! / Blessed be the son you raised [i.e Enver], oh hey!
Ke rrit trim, ke rrit dai, / You have raised a brave, great man
Për kët trull, për kët Shqipni. / For this land, for this Albania.
Zemrat tona gzojn njiherit, / All our hearts are joyous at the same time,
Në ditlindjen e Enverit, / for Enver’s birthday.
Urojn tbardhat nanat tona: / Our white [venerable] mothers wish:
T’njefshim tmirën, o Enver Hoxha! / May we only see good [things] happen to you, oh Enver Hoxha!
Si ortek që zbret prej malit, / Like an avalanche descending from the mountain,
Derdhëm n’sofër t’festivalit / We poured down to join the festival’s table.
Fjale prej zemre, bardh si bora: / Words from hearts white [pure] as snow [sincere words]:
Bir i popullit të lumt dora! / Well done [great job], oh son of the people!
N’lule tballit gjujmë tradhtinë, / We shoot treason [traitors] right in the forehead.
Qelibar e rujmë Partinë. / We safeguard the [Communist] Party like a gem.
Gjumi kurrë nuk të zuni, / You never fell asleep [working so hard],
Vepra jote armiqt tundi; / Your deeds shook the enemies.
çove lart grushtin e zanin, / You raised the fist of your voice high up.
Jetën lidhe me vatanin. / You tied your life to the homeland.
T’lindi kombi burr të rrallë, / The people/nation gave birth to you, a rare man.
Lum Partia që t’ka n’ballë! / Blessed/Lucky the Party for having you at its front!

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6Oct/082

Expressive Fruit & Veggies

I just received a chain-email so cool that I thought merely forwarding it to my entire address book would not do its coolness much justice. So I decided to share it with the world via blogging. My husband is certain the images below are simply fancy Photoshop creations. I beg to differ! They all look essentially doable. Any expert opinions?

...captures the look on my face when I first saw it

...captures the look on my face when I first saw it

...this little one is sure carrying his weight

...this little one is sure carrying his weight

Sheep go to Heaven... Goats go to Hell...

Sheep go to Heaven... Goats go to Hell...

...with this one we might be veering into Photoshop territory. What do y'all think?

...this one might be veering into Photoshop territory. What do y'all think?

So cute!

So cute!

...of a prehistoric foot

Bread fossil...of a prehistoric foot

This must have not been easy to pull off...

This can't have been easy to pull off...

Why so gloomy?

Why so gloomy?

They're just kids!

They're just kids!

This one must be on steroids...

This one must be on steroids...

Nice cut!

Can you spare some change? Wait, what kind of coin is that?

Can you spare some change? Wait, what kind of coin is that?

Now THAT's what I would call blowing one's brains out in style...

Now THAT's what I would call blowing one's brains out in style...

A disturbing embodiment of Thirst.

A disturbing depiction of Thirst.

I wouldn't mess with that crazy bun right there!

I wouldn't mess with that crazy bun!

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Filed under: Art 2 Comments
6Oct/080

A Short Love Story In Stop Motion

A superbly made animation by Carlos Lascano, about a little girl with the cheesiest imagination. Various layers and techniques are blended into a unique style. Oh, and the background music is by Sigur Ros, a band I happen to love. Enjoy!


A SHORT LOVE STORY IN STOP MOTION from Carlos Lascano on Vimeo.

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31Aug/085

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.

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Filed under: Albania, Art, Self 5 Comments
16May/080

Amazing Animation in 2.5 Dimensions.

mini-epiphany: when I don't have anything decent to post in terms of 2000+ word articles/essays, instead of abandoning my blog to intermittent decrepitude, I shall post interesting artsy fartsy stuff.

Check this out! I've never seen anything quite like this before. Italian street artist BLU canvases a neighborhood in graffiti (which I am not a fan of), but turns the graffiti into an animation which spans many city blocks --- one word: amazing.


MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

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15May/086

This Girl Swings Both Ways!

Spinning girl illusion

Which way is the babe spinning? Supposedly, if she is turning right then your right brain hemisphere is dominant; if she is turning left, your left hemisphere is working. Very few people can see her turn both ways!

...pretty mesmerizing once you actually witness the change of spin right in front of your eyes because initially it sounds impossible to even conceive of her spinning in the opposite direction. What an amazing subtle optical illusion!

If you just don't get it, keep staring at the page, perhaps look away for a second and focus on it again. Do not leave this page until you notice it: this is one of the best mind tricks I have ever seen!

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8Apr/082

South Park Mini-Me

South Park Avatar

It's only so fun to hold that sign in a South Park alternate universe. Make your own avatar here. You'll have a good time with it...

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29Sep/0710

failed ideas for Alba shirts

Alright, so I'm not the most outspoken Albanian patriot. But I've seen some radically fugly Albanian t-shirts out there, none of which I would ever wear no matter how gung-ho I was about the land of the eagles. So I put up these designs on Cafepress, but no one bought! I guess my compatriots shall unapologetically continue to declare their love of country with incredibly tacky shirts.

I love Albania

Pretty damn cool, huh? Inverting the color scheme and making the eagle into a heart, though I must admit she now looks like some sort of mutant chicken.

Yeah, I thought I had a winner. Oh well...Albanian Domination

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21Sep/075

The Very Best of Albanian Music

Album Cover Such a rarity for music as esoteric as Albanian Pop to be universally enjoyable even by foreigners who have no idea what the lyrics mean. It's now hard to fully recover just how isolated communist Albania was in those days. Big Brother was busy sanitizing almost every aspect of the culture, relentlessly screening out any hints of decadent bourgeois Western influence. Yet these songs clearly evoke sounds from the American music scene of the early 20th century. I have no idea how this amazing music managed to make it out to the public. "Naten Vone" is probably my favorite song. In fact, I recommend listening to the album backwards. Enjoy!

Vaçe Zela has a flawless voice! ...And isn't it eerie how she could be Halle Berry's white twin in that album cover?

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21Sep/071

Kejda according to Kejda

selfportraitHere's an old art class project for you. Enjoy! Reminds me I haven't picked up the pencil for months, what a shame...

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20Jul/072

Suzanne’s Wedding

kejda-and-mikey.jpgWe're just ready to get out the door...

Here is a very tired, very sleepy, very unkempt Kejda dancing with her lover at his sister's wedding reception. Good times!

Whereas here I am putting my rusty artistic skills at work, drawing a portrait for a Québécois cousin of Lucille who has an extremely interesting face.

It quickly started looking like this. Her face is something else, isn't it?

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11Jul/074

Viola—Purple Glory

Viola

I love this drawing. These were the times when I had gotten great at the technique but I just didn't have the time to draw as often. Around the beginning of high school, I think. I remember I drew this around Christmas. The picture doesn't do it justice because the drawing is huge and the paper has folded a bit under its own gravity. So the golden sickle looks a bit crooked and the posture seems off. So much detail is lost! The texture is not fully captured either: There is a sparkle layer over the eyes and over the most precious parts of her garment. Damn, I can really draw anime!

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