Browsing the CDs in the 'World Music' section of my local independent music store I came across the intriguing "Albanian Wedding: Brass Explosion" by a band called Fanfara Tirana. So delighted was I with the cover picture of a pompom-ed slipper and the back cover shot of the band in their finery that I bought the CD immediately.
Reading the cover notes I discovered that the band is something of a novelty because, while brass instruments are not unknown in traditional Albanian music, there has never been the tradition of brass bands such as this. Although the band members are all serious and (very talented) musicians, they decided to form a brass band as a joke to create a tradition that never existed - brass bands travelling from town to town playing traditional music at weddings which is very common in the Balkan countries of Southern Europe.
Even if all that never existed in Albanian tradition, what this band has created is certainly a mix of styles and sounds that reflects Albanian culture and history. It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that the doors of Albania were closed to the rest of the world. Before that Albania, like her Balkan neighbours was a meeting point of east and west. For centuries Turkey - or more correctly the Ottoman Empire - was the dominant force in this part of Europe and there are obvious reminders of this in the songs on this CD. There are also influences from Eastern Europe with wild, rhythmic gypsy sounds and then from closer to Albania with distinctive Greek sounds creeping in too.
The members of Fanfara Tirana are actually musicians from the Armed Forces band who used to occasionally moonlight at weddings. Fanfara Tirana was only ever meant to be a bit of fun but the group's international profile has grown quickly and in 2007 and 2008 the band was a sought-after signing for music festivals all over the world. Early on the band boldly asked veteran Albanian music star Hysni Zela to come out of retirement to sing on this album. He's a very highly regarded soloist who spent over thirty years with the Albanian National Folk and Dance Ensemble and his speciality is performing a musical style known as 'kaba'. On this CD the track called "Janines Cii Pane Syte" (What did the Eyes of Janina see?) is a great example of his skills. Usually a kaba is sung by two people in a call and response style but Zela actually sings both parts. The song is about the massacres of Albanians by invading Turks and the haunting vocals as well as the use of the two clarinets that mirror the two vocal parts makes for a really mournful sound. Surely this can't be a wedding song?
Most of the songs here are traditional Albanian songs that tell stories of heroes and lovers but a few are songs that traditional songs known throughout this part of Europe albeit under different names. Once the title is translated it is obvious that several of these tracks are either newly composed or have been adapted from traditional pieces and modernised to be more relevant to today's music scene. Using titles such as "Enjoy your high-heeled shoes" and "Don't wear your miniskirt" you know that this is all in good fun and that this is intended to be music to party to. However, while the mix of upbeat dancing music and mournful laments balances well overall I do think that the title does not really reflect the wildly different styles.
While the Eastern European/Jewish klezmer music traditional includes both sad and happy wedding songs, Fanfara Tirana seem to have let some "not wedding songs at all" stray onto the tracklist. The intensely sad bagpipe-like sounds of the truly evocative "Apocalyptic kaba" is one such track.
The highlight of this album is the wonderfully catchy "Cokollota" (Chocolate) in which the brass instruments create a very eastern sound while the rhythm produces something toe-tapping compelling. This is exactly what I would imagine of upbeat Albanian wedding music and it really is the sort of tune that would have everyone at the dance-floor at a wedding anywhere in the world.
"Kaprolla" (The Fawn") starts with a very Turkish sounding vocal and soon moves into a rousing and increasingly fast moving song which is another toe-tapper but perhaps not one for British dancers who would be confused by the stop start tempo and would be standing there not knowing what to do with themselves.
"Mos ma vish funin e shkurter" (Don't wear your miniskirt) turns out to be another dancing number (I would have been surprised if that one had been a mournful and weepy number), another east meets west piece that allows allow parts of the band to shine because various instruments get a chance to solo in different parts of the piece.
While this turned out to be a good buy I do have a few reservations about it. One is that it would have been good to have more tracks with vocals (there are only two) even if I am unable to understand Albanian. Hysni Zela has a really interesting voice and it would have been good to have heard him perform a different style.
Another is that it is perhaps over-produced and lacks the pure joy and exuberance that you find with similar bands such as Fanfare Ciocarlia who do something quite similar. I also thought that synthesisers were over-used, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the very successful Balkan sounds that come from Serbia and Macedonia and that form the mainstay of the music charts in those countries; this type of music might be a niche market in the UK but in south-eastern Europe it dominates the popular music scene. This is music that would sound better live without the false sheen that has been added in the studio.
The sixteen tracks here are a competent collection that demonstrate excellent musicianship and provide some very memorable numbers. I really liked the idea of these musicians creating a tradition that never really existed in Albania and I appreciate that with Roland Shaqia at the helm they have breathed new life into some Albanian classics but there does lack a little spark of vitality and the immediacy of these great songs is lost in a veil of production. I shall certainly look out for live performances but this album could have been so much better.
Playing time: 55 minutes
Fanfara Tirana are relative newbies on the music scene, at least when it comes to recorded work. Their first album "Albanian Wedding" was released in 2007. It brings a new sound to the world music genre, chaotic when it comes to the brass section and slightly more oriental occasionally, the vocals are deeper, shorter and more intense. Fanfare Tirana sought the help of Hysni Zela who came out of retirement to team up with them to add his amazing voice to an already excellent instrumental band.
The music is best described as fiery and for anyone who has been
to Albania, the hooting of the brass section is surely influenced by the constant tooting of horns that you can find in Albania like no where else in Europe. The best song for sure is the energetic Cokollata Remix, a track which is bound to get the hips moving, an ultimate party song. The vocals on this track include a soothing "aaah" kind of sound followed up with a kind of crazy outburst.
These guys are good, they have a great rythm to them and I'm happy to see Albanian music starting to challenge their prolific neighbours Macedonia and Serbia.
Te Lutem Mu Pergjij
Janines Cii Pane Syte
Keq Me Burre E Keq Pa Burre
Me Gezoft Kepucet Me Take
Me Ka Shku Menja Me U Fejue
Mos Ma Vish Funin E Shkurter
Zot, O Zot, Te Qofshin Fal
Sample This Song
Zanin Mos Ta Nij
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Mediterrane #1
2 Te Lutem M'u Pergjigj
3 Apocalyptic Kaba
4 Merre Lehte
9 Osmon Aga
10 Janines C'i Pane Syte
11 Keq Me Burre E Keq Pa Burre
12 Me Gezoft Kepucet Me Take
13 Me Ka Shku Menja Me U Fejue
14 Mos Ma Vish Funin E Shkurter
15 Zot O Zot Te Qofshin Fal
16 Zanin Mos Ta Nij