March 5, 2010
“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.
Thanks to Joel Ackerman and Steve Shapiro, for help.
Label: Mi-Re Rekord
Issue Number: 502
Matrix Number: 502 (504-3 crossed out in dead wax)