Albanian Traditional Music: An Introduction, with Sheet Music and Lyrics for 48 Songs — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

Albanian Traditional Music: An Introduction, with Sheet Music and Lyrics for 48 Songs.  

By Spiro J. Shetuni. McFarland & Company, 2011.  Sheet Music, Lyrics, Bibliography.

Folk music from Albania, particularly from the Central and Southern regions of the country, is rightly characterized as otherworldly, sublime, and in many instances, incongruent with practically all other European and Baltic musical expressions.   The distinction is so great between Albanian music and music from surrounding areas that adjectival descriptors are sometimes tortured in relation to their referents.  Indeed, when I heard my first pre-war 78 disc of Albanian music I was shocked by the dissonances, the multiple melodic lines, the foundational drones and the underlying power and beauty of the song.  I was without words to describe what I had heard.  The only melodious expression that is similar to the song and dance of Central and Southern Albania is the repertoire of Northern Greece, Epirus. 

Very generally speaking, the main distinction between these two musical approaches is linguistic but there are innumerable subtleties that further complicate any systematic approach to these two related folk forms.  What can be said is that music from this specific region is characterized by polyphonic singing with different vocalists contributing different melodic lines.  Typically a vocalized drone (iso) anchors the performance and the songs themselves are pentatonic in scale and move between free meter and fixed meter.   This, however, is a broad generalization.

There have been several LPs and a few CDs of contemporary traditional Albanian music issued since the late 1960s as well as a tiny handful of reissues devoted to the earlier 78 RPM era of capturing Albanian music.  Notable collections include A. L. Lloyd's Folk Music Of Albania, Robert Henry Leibman's Traditional Tosk Songs & Dances From The Lake Prespa Area, and Benno Häupl and Paul Vernon's Albanian Village Music.  What has been sorely lacking though is a detailed, logical, and systemic description of traditional Albanian music in the English language and how it is manifested among various geographic and ethnic lines within the borders of the country.  This conspicuous absence has been magnificently addressed by Spiro Shetuni's new book, Albanian Traditional Music.

Not to be understated, Shetuni has accomplished a Herculean task in a deft and nimble manner.  By arranging Albanian music along ethnographic regional lines and classifying the various styles and sub-genres according to their location in Albania, Shetuni has laid down a comprehensive yet easily understandable template.     His use of unambiguous terminology to parse the differences between various dialects and sub-dialects of music in a certain region is a case study in flawless ethnomusicological writing.

Geographic isolation is the main reason why the music of Central and Southern Albania (and Northern Greece) is so distinctly different from the rest of the Baltic and surrounding European countries.  The Pindus mountain range along with the Vikos Gorge acted as a natural “buffer” that kept foreign occupations at a low boil and also insured that the largely pastoral culture that existed in these regions since pre-history retained its relative purity and ethnic character.  Although the unique musical style and repertoire germinated and spread very early in Albania, it was not until the 1940s and 1950s that proper Albanian ethnomusicology developed to document the songs and instrumentation of that country.  This took place, by and large, under the supervision of the communist government of Enver Hoxha.  Besides being fiercely isolated from all other countries, Hoxha’s regime also promoted nationalism and an intense interest in preserving Albania’s cultural heritage, especially its folk music tradition.  From the late 1940s onwards, Albania’s government has fostered festivals and competitions among the various ethnic and regional groups of musicians.  It is this span of time, after World War II, that Shetuni’s book is focused.

Shetuni divides Albanian folk music into roughly four different dialects (broad styles) that have specific geographic locations and boundaries.  Gheg traditional music is found in Northern Albania (Ghegëri), Tosk music is located in Central and Southern Albania (Toskëri), Lab music is found in Southern Albania (Labëri), and Urban music is found in the more densely populated cities throughout Albania.  Crucially noted by Shetuni is the fact that Gheg music is almost exclusively monophonic and Tosk, Lab and Urban are primarily polyphonic and instruments normally accompany Gheg and Urban music whereas Tosk and Lab are almost always a cappella.   Besides discussing the various sub-dialects and styles found in various villages and regions within a dialect, Shetuni goes to great lengths to describe each stylistic variation based on what he calls core structural groupings.  These descriptive terms are:
    (I) rural traditional music and urban traditional music
    (ii) vocal and instrumental
    (iii) monophonic and polyphonic
    (iv) sung and danced
    (v) female and male
    (vi) youth and adult
    (vii) traditional music performed individually & traditional music performed collectively
    (viii) a cappella vocal traditional music and instrumentally accompanied vocal music
The application of these various terms in their logical combinations more than adequately conveys the musical nature of each and every dialect and style.

Although this analysis may be sufficient in and of itself, Shetuni goes even further by providing transcriptions and translations for 48 songs from each dialect,  musical notations for these songs, and notations for the typical modes encountered in each dialect.  He has also posted the 48 songs that go with the text at:  This tome along with these musical examples presents an almost complete picture of traditional Albanian music that exists to this very day.

Admittedly outside the stated scope of this work, the only addition that I would have appreciated is a more thorough discussion of the history of Albanian folk music prior to the late 1940s along with a narrative of recording sessions, important recordings artists such as the Leskoviku family and Bilbil Vlora, and the pre-war commercial endeavor or recording Albanian musicians.  From this reviewer’s experience, almost all the 78 RPM recordings made in Europe prior to the Second World War would fall within the category of Urban dialect (except for a rare 1930 session in Athens, Greece for Pathé) but it does beg the question why more rural village groups were not documented and recorded.  This desire aside, I can still give Mr. Shetuni’s book the highest praise and recommendation.  No other book or article in English comes close to capturing the nuances of traditional Albanian music while at the same time conveying an authoritative command of Western music theory.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2013; 261-263.  “These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2013; 261-263, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”