About a year ago, I posted a rare example of Albanian dance music (closely related to Epirotic music from Greece) recorded in the United States by Albanian-Americans. Now it’s time for some music from the same period, this time recorded in Albania ca. 1929. If you are unfamiliar with this particular type of Albanian music, it could turn out to be one of the most powerful musical experiences you may have – it certainly was for me.

Many have written about how the landscape of Albania must have contributed to the preservation of such a varied and musically unique (sometimes even jarring) group of folk musics. The word “isolated” is often used to describe the country, largely because of the rugged mountain ranges that surround it (such as the Bjeshkët e Namuna, or “The Accursed Alps”). To this day, the majority of the Albania’s mostly Muslim population live in rural areas – quite the opposite of other European nations.

The music of Albania, however, is so spectacularly different than the rest of Europe (with the possible exception of Epirus in Greece, where there is considerable overlap), that it seems to an outsider to be born of a different age altogether. Rodney Gallop, reviewing several 1930 Albanian discs for the Gramophone Company, called the music “uncouth” overall, yet was completely captivated enough, at that early date, to write positively about a series of discs with pressing numbers as low as 200 copies!  

A year before the Gramophone Company recorded in Tirana and Shkoder, the Columbia Graphophone Company made nearly 300 recordings across Albania, and had already recorded many Albanian discs in Istanbul in 1928. Some of these records – a total of 49 to be exact – were pressed in very small amounts in the United States, specifically for the Albanian immigrant population (in 1920, the Albanian-speaking population of the United States numbered a mere 6,000). This is one of those discs.

This is the music of the Tosks, in southern Albania, and this piece was performed by an ensemble that appears to have been from the city of Fier in the southwest of the country. The most obvious (or maybe captivating) element of the music of the Tosks is the drone-like polyphony of the male vocalists in the background, who augment the lead singer with extended, nasal accompaniment on syllables such as “ay” or “e.” Another standout element is the halting and seemingly erratic rhythm of the string intrument (possibly the çiftelia) and the everpresent Albanian-style qernëte (clarinet), which sometimes seems to push the very limits of the instrument. In terms of the group, I could find nothing about them, though I believe the “Z.” in the title indicates that it is some kind of ensemble (all other Columbias of this type I have seen have “Z.” in front of the group name) and that “Kjuj” may be a different transliteration of the name “Gjergj.” Further information is always welcome. At any rate, I hope this rates high.

Z. Kjuj Pora Fieri – Sgrehua Mahmudi

Technical Notes
Label: Columbia
Issue Number: 72027-F
Matrix Number: 294346

It goes without saying that Paul Vernon and Benno Haupl’s Albanian Village Music CD on Heritage is essential listening.

“Muzike Shqiptare e Drejtuar Prej Ajdin Asllan (Leskoviku)” reads the label to this slightly mysterious and certainly scarce 12″ 78rpm record on the American Mi-Re Rekord label. The sentence means, “Albanian Music Directed by Ajdin Asllan, of Leskoviku,” and from there we can begin to delve into the music, and the record’s origins.

The piece, a duet featuring clarinet and lute (quite probably the Albanian llaute) is “Valle Devollice Me Gérneté” which translates in English to “Dance from Devoll, with clarinet.” The Devoll River runs through southeastern Albania, very close to the Greek border, and through the Devoll District. The style of clarinet playing you’ll hear on this piece, played by Mr. Asllan, is very similar to the style of playing in Epirus, the mountainous, sparsely populated, northern region of Greece which borders Albania. The boundaries of classical Epirus originally contained parts of southern Albania, so therefore it’s no surprise to hear a direct similarity. In fact, the primary instrument in Epirotic folk music is the clarinet. In Greek Epirus, in turn, there’s a strong history of vocal polyphony, similar to the kind associated with Albania. This is further proof, if we needed any, that political boundaries are so often meaningless when it comes to folkloric, musical traditions. In the case of “Valle Devollice,” the interesting rhythms played on the llaute by an uncredited musician sound distinctly Albanian, not Greek-Epirotic. It’s a jam, plain and simple.

Ajdin Asllan (1895-1976) had a long history as a multi-instrumentalist (clarinet, oud, llaute/lauto), an instructor, and an independent label owner in the US. As the label indicates, he was originally from the town of Leskovik, in southeastern Albania, just to the west of the Greek border (“Leskoviku” may also have been his nickname). He was most well-known for being part of the Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Albanian nightclub scene on 8th Avenue in New York City in the mid-20th century, through the 1960s. However, this release, and other releases on the short-lived Mi-Re label appear to be among his earliest recordings. When this recording was made is difficult to say. The origins of the label are unknown. Asllan may have owned or co-owned it, but perhaps not. Only 4 or 5 releases on this label are known to exist. A prominent discography lists it being recorded ca. 1930. Robert Crumb has posited online that the label may have been pressed by the famous Marsh Laboratories of Chicago – the very first record company to make electric recordings with microphones. However, there is no outward indication that it was pressed by Marsh (a logo or number, for instance). Whatever the case, this record is yet another example of how immigrants in the New York area created and independently marketed music for their communities.

In the early 1940s, Asllan started the popular Balkan record label, which released music by oud virtuoso Marko Melkon, Sephardic singer Victoria Hazan, and a host of fine musicians and singers. His Balkan Phonograph Record Store was at 42 Rivington Street in the Lower East Side, and eventually moved to 27th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues. While simultaneously offering Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Sephardic music on the Balkan label, Asllan was behind at least one Albanian-American record label during the mid-20th century (Me-Re, with an ‘e’ – and possibly a label called Rekorde Shqiptare). His career lasted well into the LP era.

As a side note: this record is not in pristine shape, despite my valiant attempts at cleanup – it’s in average to poor condition with a pretty rough first 10 seconds. I’ve made a point to choose records in terrific condition for Excavated Shellac, so this is a good chance to hear what most 78s sound like! Put your ears on – the noise will fade into the background. When it comes to some records, one can’t be too picky.

Ajdin Asllan – Valle Devollice

Thanks to Joel Ackerman and Steve Shapiro, for help.

Technical Notes
Label: Mi-Re Rekord
Issue Number: 502
Matrix Number: 502 (504-3 crossed out in dead wax)

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