Graded on a Curve:
Saz’iso, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief
at Me: the Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song

Over the last half century, certain geographical regions have become consistent sources for global musical enlightenment. Albania however, has remained largely absent from the record racks. At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song is a major step in remedying this absence. Produced by Joe Boyd (Shirley Collins, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention), engineered by Jerry Boys (Buena Vista Social Club, Ali Farka Touré, Orchestra Baobab), and performed by the group of powerhouse vocalists and deft instrumentalists known as Saz’iso, it’s a vibrant and enriching listen out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Glitterbeat.

Saz’iso excel at a style known as Saze. At its root it is an iso-polyphonic music, meaning it features no less than two melodic vocal lines combined with a third multi-voiced drone or iso. Once performed a cappella, the introduction of manufactured instruments to the region in the late 19th century resulted in a mingling of East and West as Saze ensembles were formed.

Joe Boyd’s involvement here is a sure sign of quality, but it’s important to note his co-producers Edit Pula and Andrea Goertler, and the advisory role of Vasil S. Tole, described as a leading expert on iso-polyphony in Glitterbeat’s promo text, where he’s quoted establishing Saze’s continued stature as the musical language of Southern Albania’s cities.

Tole’s claim is easily verified by At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me, it’s contents clearly a living, thriving music and not a relic, but with attentiveness to tradition that increases emotional power. The singing, with Donika Pecallari and Adriana Thanou the lead voices and Robert Tralo contributing occasionally, is exquisite, and is the playing of Aurel Qirjo (violin and voice), Telando Feto (clarinet), Agron Murat (lute), Agron Nasi (frame drum), and Pëllumb Meta (flute and voice).

If under-exposed, the music of Southern Albania isn’t unfamiliar, at least to ears having soaked up sounds from neighboring Balkan countries or even Turkey. But even for novices, the sounds are inviting as descriptions of the song’s subject matter have been provided to help assuage the language barrier. Opener “Tana” begins with a melancholy instrumental passage of clarinet and lute before the rhythm kicks in.

From there, vocals alternate with soaring clarinet to integrate mournful yet impassioned threads into the energetic fabric. Although human voices are a major component in Saz’iso’s weave, they are by no means essential to the contemporary Saze experience, as the record offers two instrumentals, or kabas, one for violin, beautifully aching in the piece’s first half, and the other for contemplative clarinet.

“Penxherenë e zotrisë sate” deals with a seemingly universal theme, specifically a young man’s desire for the girl next door (a translated lyric provides the disc with its title), the music fittingly intense as the vocals yearn. It contrasts with the first of three dance numbers, or valles, with “Valle Postenançe” hitting a sultry groove. Later, “Valle Minushi” tackles a faster pace as it emphasizes another instance of cultural exchange; the melody derives from the musical tradition of the Greek minority living in Southern Albania.

As it unwinds, “Valle e Osman Takës” delivers a series of fine instrumental turns and remains quite pretty along the way. In truth, one could dance to much of this set’s contents, including “Trëndafili fletë-fletë,” though it’s in fact a song for a wedding, which the notes state are multi-day affairs; the mood is appropriately joyous.

Like “Penxherenë e zotrisë sate” before it, “Goca e Berberit” exudes desire, this time for the barber’s daughter, while “Bëje dru në përcëllime” is a bit more wholesome, concerning a young woman thinking of her sweetheart in his absence. Both differ sharply from “Nënockë,” a song of grieving over a loved one missing and likely lost. “Fole moj mike një fjalë” is also a song of separation, though not as despairing as the vocals and violin display considerable strength.

In offering a tale of a wife’s lament over her amiable but debauched husband’s drinking habit, “O bandill mustaqezi” reinforces that many scenarios know no borders, though the tale is interestingly related by male voices. But Saze isn’t the music of teetotalers; for “Avaz,” the notes relate the proverb “Po nuk u njom gurmazi, nuk merret avazi,” which translates to “you have to wet your whistle before you can get a tune.” The music to this point is clearly the result of heightened attention to structural requirements, but “Avaz” is an improvisation thriving on spontaneity with no reduction in disciplined verve.

Thus far, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief at Me’s songs have largely addressed matters of the heart, but for the close, “Doli Laceja nga stani” relates the valor of two brothers as they fought Ottoman invaders at the end of the 19th century. Overall, the broadness of content is matched by Saz’iso’s range and sharpness of the execution, the playing and singing splendid throughout, and vividly captured by Boys with a typical avoidance of sheen. To have been in the room as it was played would’ve been transcendent; to hear it on record at home is a welcome substitute.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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