Various Artists - Songbirds: Albanian Music From 78s: 1924-1948 [JSP Records - 2020]There have been a wealth of archival reissues over the last few years, curating obscure and dusty 78s and saving them from the dustbin of history. Songbirds is another worthy addition to that growing list, though with a notable difference: where so many similar compilations of recent years have competed for lavish presentation, this set of old Albanian 78s is a rather more spartan affair. It would be reasonable to say that it feels like an old-fashioned ‘budget’ compilation. This means that whilst a deeper, more comprehensive text would have been very welcome, the listener is instead left with the music itself, without endless liner notes and commentary guiding and colouring their ears - not a bad thing.
So, we have four discs, containing 84 tracks, with each accompanied by a small insert giving background information on Albania, its history, and musical traditions. There are no discernible patterns or themes - chronologic, geographic, stylistic, etc - throughout the discs, really just leaving the listener alone with the sounds themselves. These sounds, and here you’ll have to excuse my lack of musicological knowledge, present a rather focused palette of melodies, instrumentation, and forms across the compilation, but within that present a multitude of difference; it’s tempting to explain them geographically, with a recognisably Balkan sound that reflects Albania’s position at the extreme south-east boundary of Europe, blending Eastern Europe with Greek and Turkish traditions.
Given the huge size of Songbirds, I won’t attempt any kind of meaningful, comprehensive review; instead I will simply pick a few tracks from each disc that excited me. The first of these, ‘Valle Krushkave’ by Selim Asllani and Group, from disc A, is one of the best pieces of the entire compilation: an amazing dance of snakelike clarinet and strings with incredibly modern sounding harmonies; like many of the tracks here, it has irresistible rhythmic propulsion. By contrast, ‘Ballét Me Sedef’ by Zonja Qerimé And Friends is a more restrained, droning affair, with two voices duetting beautifully, whilst Riza Bylbyli’s ‘Bahje Dru Me Pershullim’ features a rougher, more strident vocal - though still complete with articulate swoops and vibrato. ’Ç'u Ngrys Herët në Mjes’ by Zoj Hatixhja ramps the vocal ferocity up even further, with an acrobatic, keening performance backed by intricate string playing. Disc A ends with a beautiful choral piece by the Girls Choir Of The Franciscan Convent Of Shkodër, ‘Valle Shqipnijet,’ which displays that haunting quality that all old recordings of choirs seem to evoke.
The first track on disc B, ‘Hunde Bukur Qelibar’ by Khemal Asllani and Sabri Fehimi, has an incredible hovering structure where each element supports each other, without any apparent skeleton or backbone; whilst the second, Selim Asllani and Hafize Asllani’s ‘Viktori T'u Bëftë Nëna,’ conjures up a rugged strength without any tropes of aggression or posturing. This is a common thread throughout much of the compilation, a stringent sense of passion, of intent - though I’m aware this is my reading of it from an entirely different cultural context. ‘Ne Rrapi në Mashkullor (Gjinokastrite)‘ by Zoti Khemal Asllani is a wonderful piece of trance-like drone, alternating ensemble vocal harmony sections with wild, swirling instrumental passages - if this had been recorded in 2021 by some bright young things in a New York basement, you wouldn’t hear the last of it. Similar praise is deserved by Jonus Lamçe and Sabri Fehimi’s ‘E Qarë Me Gërnetë,’ a plaintive, expansive instrumental with exquisite clarinet and violin.
Chiorchi Gazeli’s ‘Delvino Zaza Delvina,’ from the third disc, C, is a jaunty, though also stately, little dance with intricate instrumental work and piercing whistles. Pando Opingari’s pipe is heard spiralling and twirling across two tracks, accompanied by the guitars of Spiridon T. Ilo on ‘Valle Kasapçe’ and Louis Rassias on ‘Vaslle Devolliçe’; both are compelling pieces, equal parts fragility and soaring confidence. Z. Sylejmani’s ‘Alija Fetah Rikut’ somehow manages to contain not only a roaring male vocal, complete with rhythmic exhortations, but also several explosive clarinet solos, and a lovely female vocal buried in the maelstrom. The end section of ‘Kush Të Ka Moj Ruskë’ by Selim Asllani and Hafize Asllani has wonderful, stumbling interplay between the clarinet and guitar, whilst Rukia Me Gocat E Eumes Tiranë’s ‘E Bukur Je Fatime’ is a raucous blare of ensemble chanting and percussive groove - quite something. ‘Ballet Me Sadefe Korçarçe’ by Z. Cercis Nesim revolves around a staggering female vocal, that navigates the melody with startling, abrupt glissando - another track worth the price of admission alone. In my notes for Ajdin Asllani’s ‘E Qarë Kaba Me Gërnetë’ I have just written ‘grand skronk’ - and that’s what it is. A thunderous piece which, at the risk of hyperbole, does evoke the work of later musicians like Coltrane: sinewy, tense, and soaring.
The last disc, D, has less ear grabbing moments for me, but those tracks which do grab are very special indeed. Vellakt Tija snd Sabri Fehimi’s ‘E Qarë E Bajram Fehimit’ is a beautiful instrumental, an eerie droning work that never settles until the end when it finally coalesces into a unified riff; another instrumental, ’Vome Kabá’ by Jonuzi And Friends, has a similar feel to Asllani’s ‘E Qarë Kaba Me Gërnetë’ but here the lead clarinet is rougher, more hectoring - a proto-Ayler or Brotzmann. Selim Asllani, whose name has cropped up twice here already, contributes swirling, flowing clarinet to the sublime ‘Valle Janë Dy Kunata,’ which is propelled along by an irresistible trance-like groove - another track which stands out on Songbirds. The final track of the compilation returns to the Girls Choir Of The Franciscan Convent Of Shkodër, with their ‘Ora E Shqypnis’; like their earlier recording, its a beautiful choral work, even if monophonic, and brings Songbirds to a close perfectly.
This is a niche compilation, and perhaps that’s its appeal; certainly if I encountered the cover in a record shop I would grab it excitedly. I was thoroughly ignorant of Albanian music on receiving this album, but there are some startling tracks here; if you search those out and like what you hear, I would recommend you investigate Songbirds. As stated above, deeper contextual information would made for a more thorough release, but ultimately its the music that’s important, and this is a treasure trove in that respect. Whilst it would be fair to say that, as an uninitiated outsider, there is not a whole lot of variety across the tracks, this builds up a cumulative power to my ears - and also makes those quirkier tracks more affecting. So, whilst you probably already know whether you are interested in this or not, take a chance.Martin P