The new release “Don’t Trust Your Neighbors: Early Albanian Traditional Songs and Improvisations 1920s-1930s” (Hinter Records).
The hypnotic, vaguely spooky trances made by these long-deceased Albanian street musicians are thoroughly discombobulating even for someone well-versed in the outside realms of creative expression.
Chris King, the five-time Grammy Award nominee who won the honor for best Historical Album for his remastering work on the acclaimed “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton” compilation in 2003, put together the collection from his treasure trove of rare 78 recordings.
“What can I say? I’m an obsessive record collector,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t help myself.”
When they returned from their journey abroad, he put on “Ja Thoshte Bybyli (Said the Nightingale)” and was floored. “It was shockingly unlike anything I had ever heard: fierce-sounding, dissonant, with an almost uncontrolled abandon,” he said. “A punk aesthetic in another tongue and another time.”
The experience of listening to the 78 led to a two-year quest to find as much of the Albanian music as he could from the era.
After numerous trips back to Turkey, Greece and Albania and consultations with fellow music collectors from around the globe, the former mortician has compiled the quintessential collection of the strange, mostly unheard indigenous Albanian music ever assembled. It is an impressive package complete with extensive liner notes and historical information not only about the music and musicians who played it, but the political and social climate of the region that fueled the distinctly Albanian song forms. Longtime friend and collaborator (as well as fellow 78 collector) Robert Crumb, the illustrator, contributed the album’s cover art.
What draws Western ears to these recordings is the use of the pentatonic scales. They are still the basis for most of the world’s music.
Where it brings the weird is the musician’s use of playing instruments (particularly the clarinet) outside of their usual registers, the shifting, odd-timed rhythms and the inharmonious, iso-polyphony vocals employed within. The juxtaposition of familiar and unknown compositional techniques and theories gives the music its distinctive, ethereal flair.
Listening to the improvisations, traditional songs and wedding music, it is hard to determine the inner logic that holds them together, but each piece conveys its sense of mystery with a boldness of spirit undiminished by the passage of time or cultural ignorance.
It truly is one-of-a-kind music.