venting of frustrations, attempt at hopeful shift, three hours in lots of words etc.
the day begins, as did the one before it, with a walk to the “pallat i kulturës” (exactly what it sounds like: the “palace of culture”) — a dingy but once-mighty building with the expected proud plaques, mounted to bear witness to an immemorial defense of the national arts, but alongside them is something akin in shape and texture but altogether different, obtuse really, in tone: a stern calling-out of the Serbian occupation, but disconcerting in its matter-of-factness, a simple, discrete listing of years during which these national arts were suppressed. (it’s difficult to tell whether this is meant as a show of defiance or something else entirely.) inside, the walls are bare concrete with the exception of two massive paintings, a modern figure on the ground floor and a musket-and-saber-bearing warrior in national costume on the second. the third floor bears nothing but departmental plaques on mirrored rows of doors, of different ages and compositions ranging from irregular brass to printer paper. a side way inscribed with “qëtësi!” for quiet leads, through a maze of arbitrary curves and steps down and up, to an unexpected expanse of red velvet theater rising to the rafters — for some time defunct, to my father’s great grief, and mine. suppression soundly beaten, a perhaps more insidious threat remains, and much heritage has slipped into its snare: in a cruel catch-22, Kosova has with liberation lost the impetus of art-as-resistance, and with it the inspiration to fund its own cultural lineage. (music, however, seems to be an exceptional case, one which still has me perplexed as to what exactly my role is here.) the halls are quiet, lonesome, asleep with only snatches of dreams. a kindly security guard sits smoking in a tiny bunker-like chamber, tiny TV blaring in blue bias; I’m inclined to wonder what he thinks he’s watching over. as if to confirm the superfluousness of his vigilant presence, he leaves his post without a second thought to guide us to our meeting place, a buried office we could hardly have tripped over on our own. (this is an extremely Albanian impulse to which I’ve long since become accustomed: no job or duty is higher than that of hospitality, and in the advent of guests anything at all can be abandoned.)
we stumble into a schizoid Quixote’s office, a spark of life cluttered to knee-height with papers, battered speakers, CDs, flags, the “all for one & one for all” crossed handles of four çiftelis protruding from a corner pile: a room that breathes dust but breathes nonetheless. a Turkish coffeepot upended over a neglected cup on its tray — he tells us he doesn’t drink it but (like all Albanians) can’t refuse. ‘he’ being Mohamet Morina, an ‘official’ in the sense that he has an office in which he works an hour per weekday, his actual role impossible to divine and probably best left that way; resplendently toothless in green windbreaker that later reveals armpit stains, chainsmoking plump cigarettes through an incongruously haughty black holder. his speaking strikes quickly like lightning and rolls on relentless from there, lacking the boom of our lutenist but sharing his propensity to slam down whatever’s at hand for emphasis, a different sort of frightening in his jagged, interruptive enthusiasm (which fortunately decays into a slightly friendlier but still suspect joviality as understanding takes hold). he is a wonder. I realize midway through our whirlwind conversation that this is in fact entirely worth the twenty indulgent minutes of atonal, arrhythmic guitar playing in a mildewed basement, neck knocking over crusted flower arrangements, that — however improbably — led us to this meeting.
my father has just begun to explain our purpose when a rabid z. Morina latches unprovoked onto the word ‘album’, spinning toward a laptop on the verge of sinking into the surrounding chaos in order to call up his facebook page, where he blurs us through two decades of photos & clipped-out videos in about two minutes, trampling any interjections or attempts at clarity. edgewise a few key words are wedged at last: we have come because of word that he’s a musician, a fact seemingly confirmed by the pile of instruments among the rubble, but in a tone I understand through incomprehensible words, he insists he’s “more of an organizer”. I know this isn’t true but am helpless to contradict him for all the reasons in the world.
at this point I pull my weight from the PA in the doorway and the two men vacate the only chairs to migrate to the hallway and a real table, and once again I wish it weren’t so hard to ask to take a picture of the strange environments in which I so often find myself these days, but pragmatism insists that a struggling project can’t afford to lose any potential help to arbitrary discomfort. the sound is the essential, and after days of sluggish motion all hope rests on this wiry avalanche of a man bearing us there, on his back if necessary. we seize the transitional silence to recapitulate our aims, and finally our synapses seem to sychronize; he pauses for the first time, offers a name, then two, more as in typical fashion he slowly realizes the breadth of our interest. (it still baffles me that everyone we speak to has their own preconception of “muzik folklorike” to which they imagine us restricted — even the conflation of soloists and ensembles cannot be taken for granted.) in the still-startling burst of motion that seems to always follow a long period of hopeless stillness, I blink and his phone is out with a rhapsodist on the line. it becomes impossible to deny that we are dealing here with a force of nature: like a snake he strikes again and again, unrelenting, bellowing with a wink, bludgeoning to the very edge of delicacy yet somehow not a millimeter further, and as if in a daydream from one of this week’s interminably bleak siestas this elderly man has assented to the possibility of driving to Gjakova from Prizren to be recorded — tonight — the night before a weeklong trip to Albania. I’m uncomfortable at even a proxy demanding so much, and have learned by now that most likely we’ll be waiting til after his return, but I can’t help but shiver just a bit before his silver tongue. just as with Baca Rrustemi and his lute, a pattern seems to be solidifying: initial confusion, even anger, shattering into a harrowingly intense, immediate enthusiasm. emotionally, it’s proving to be an unsettling cycle, but it’s hard not to be grateful to have such tempests on our side.
yet only when I insist do we pin him down on his own playing: he doesn’t sing, he tells us, but only plays the çifteli in his ensemble. and the flute, he tosses out, an afterthought to which we cling immediately. he demonstrates a ‘pastoral melody’ and my heart flutters in time. I’m not sure what combination of confusion, narrowmindedness and modesty drives this recurrent hesitance to offer one’s own playing, but I’m growing bolder about barging in with the proper questions before my dad can close the conversation, a powerful ritualistic gesture that sternly bars the door to further inquiry. working mith my father has proven a challenge every bit as complicated as I expected and more; I’ve found that I must at once cultivate and counteract the Albanian politeness in which I was raised, to remain ‘well-mannered’ as I’m often praised here but to fight at all costs my conditioning to be meek. my father is all the more couched in this culture on account of his distance from it, and as such he’s often too quick to back off, to give up, reluctant to insist when insisting is what’s needed. we’re working towards a functional complement, but there’s much work to be done, much understanding to be nurtured before that can happen in earnest.
we’re in the process of slipping out, for the commemoration of the sudden passing of national poet Ali Podrimja, when we’re told at the door that we’re already there; we end up among the first guests at the long, thin table of the conference room. there’s been a lot of death in the air this past week, and it’s been an especially difficult and doubtful one for me: we’ve all been preoccupied by the anniversary of the death of my uncle, who (like so many others in the past years) I never got to see during his last days; then Podrimja, a celebrated figure and friend of my father’s, who helped him get his own poetry collection ‘Valsi’ published so many years ago, disappeared during a literary festival, later to be found dead in the woods of the south of France. It’s also nearing the many-year mark of my cousin Veton’s passing during my early childhood, a day that never goes without notice in his mother’s household where we always end up staying; I never knew him, but I can’t help but feel as my aunt reaches over my head to his picture on the mantel of our room for the one week when it’s displayed outside. There’s also Kitty Wells, a recent communion but somehow also a great love of my life, the undisputable Queen of Country Music and a should-be punk legend, a dreamy warble of a woman and the hardest stranger’s passing I’ve had to bear in a very long time. It’s self-indulgent to frame this last one as a tragedy, really — I mean good God, she was 92, almost 93, and her lifelong husband and musical partner cashed in his “one-way ticket to the sky” last year — but I have far more fingers than I need to count the musicians who have plucked my heartstrings so tightly, so melodiously as she, and it just somehow feels wrong to be so far away in every sense on the day she chose to go. nothing but ‘orkestra familjare faik shala’ & country heartbreakers in the ears these days — nightingales all.
there’s something here that I can only think to describe as a “culture of death”, a hovering sense of it no matter where you go: peeking from every telephone pole, lining the highways, standing ghost-like among the cigarette plumes of staring parking lot vendors. it shouldn’t be surprising in a nation where the wounds of genocide may never close, but something in me, whether blood or instinct, tells me it’s been here forever. enterprising folks shill gravestones in storefronts, and my father can’t leave the house without spotting a green-bordered funeral notice bearing a familiar name. I need to stop reading the birth dates, doing the math; “threescore and ten” doesn’t always mean a whole hell of a lot here. death has always been hard for me — what a banal thing to say, a universal thing, a thing that shouldn’t need to be said. but I’ve always felt clumsy, frozen before it, and here, far away from so many of the things I cling to on a day-to-day basis, even the little distanced reminders that it exists are enough to pick at my defenses. thinking a lot about my grandfather, my two uncles in four months, and always, always being in the wrong place. trying to remember that I’m in the right place right now, or at least trying to make it so.
and that’s the trouble, really: when things are moving, when the words come together just right, there’s nowhere I’d rather be in the world. but when it’s a hundred degrees and society shuts down & shuts the windows for the better part of the day, I feel like every wasted minute is a drop of blood plucked straight out of me. there is so much I could be doing with that time, of course, like this, but many days the stagnation, the sitting, the being surrounded by sleeping people, is too much to bear and senseless fatigue, homesickness, heartsickness, apathy set in. I’m reminded all the time of what a boon it’s been back home to ride hard around town every day, and the loss of those precious endorphins hits like a bomb to the temple. the best I can do is walk, but it’s isolating to do alone with such limited capacity to talk to anyone, and my dad is firmly committed to the (only partial) myth that no one in their right mind leaves the house after noon or before eight. it comes naturally to him even after two decades away, but to me the motionlessness is stifling, oppressive, contrary to my every instinct, a mockery of the nascent principles of action I’ve fought so hard to develop in myself. each recording brings a burst of euphoria but there’s only so long I can coast on its current before I run aground in the waiting once again.
the steady peeling of day is all the harder in the current plateau of project activity: in a month, half my precious time here, I’ve been able to make two recordings. just two. not for a moment would I want to imply that they’ve been anything less than a joy to conduct and to behold, again and again, but superimposed with my vision, the grand one splayed out in the original grant proposal and countless gushing conversations, they amount to just a few threads. of course it’s unfair to imply, as I frequently do when talking to myself an others, that this is on account of any laziness or failure on my part; after all, the first week was spent in adjustment and the second in dragging initial contacts out of the woodwork. even when it doesn’t seem so, we’re entering the second month in some sort of motion, but that’s easy to forget when names just lead to more names, when even enthusiastic groups are scattered on vacation, when I’m discouraged from approaching certain musicians during the holy month of Ramazan (which extends til just before our departure, an unfortunate circumstance of its yearly celestial shuffle). there’s no blame to be placed, really; it’s all just logistics, changing times, the shadow-casting emergence of slick ‘folk’ superstars & the inborn humbleness of the older generations, not to mention a healthy dose of bad luck and, well, more than a bit of naivete on my part. (there’s also a resonance with the previous subject the past decade’s rash of passings in the rhapsodic community.) all that said, the frequently-solitary word “ngadalë” — “slow” — is by now burned into my memory from countless askings from family about “how the work is going”. at times I even find myself wishing I’d never gotten the money for this project, so there’s less shame if I come home with little material. I shouldn’t care, the money’s from AT&T after all, but even beyond the crippling fear of “ripping someone off”, of taking the place of a more enterprising person, a more deserving project, I want more than anything to create something more substantial than a loose collection of recordings to listen to myself, something that will be of benefit to the preservation of Kosovar traditional music or even some attempt at a definition of what “Kosovar traditional music” even means in such a fresh-faced yet traumatized, geopolitically muddled nation whose heart frequently can be seen to lie outside its borders. this last bit has been especially problematic for many, who insist that “Kosovar folk music” or indeed Kosovar culture outside the greater Albanian context doesn’t exist — see for example the folk festival I attended for one night last week in Deçan, its gaudy banner proclaiming “the hundredth anniversary of Albanian independence”. (I would later leave disheartened by a second half consisting of narcissistic stars — despite being surrounded by talented instrumentalists — singing of sharkis over [frequently synthesized, sin above sins!] backing tracks.) I still believe there’s something different, something distinct in the experience of these people that cannot help but have seeped down to their (our) music, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find my father on my side, though neither of us know what it is or where to seek it out… (still, I wince and pinch my leg to stay quiet every time I hear him ask for news of “Albanian folkloric musicians”.)
I should focus on the prospects, and after some rejuvenating if brief conversations with folks back home I’m in a better place than the ball I was curled into the day before yesterday… there’s a band here in Gjakova, of Roma musicians who as legend has it mock the Gjakovarians for doing an inferior job of preserving their own music; like many, it’s taking them a nerve-wrackingly long time to assemble, but when we met with their bandleader (via my uncle the moonshiner — jury still out on whether theirs, like most of his friendships, formed over raki, though the Roma neighborhood is also one of the more devout Muslim ones) his enthusiasm seemed genuine. there’s also another man from the mountains, radiant with kindness, who promised to let us know when his brothers, the rest of the family band, visit from Switzerland. there’s another group from Prizren who despite promises scattered to various holidays before we could pin them down, but we just heard that they may gather in limited form for us in the meantime, some clarinet kabas and a capella singing, which may actually be a blessing, as we already have a similar ensemble booked but nothing in the way of such solo playing. there are a few rapsodes from the ‘villages’, now grown to towns or more, in the outskirts of Gjakova, whose names we’ve had from the first days but haven’t been able to contact, but with luck the typical grapevine will come to our aid; the plan is to just show up and ask around, classic-style. our thunderous-turned-warm lutenist spoke to us yesterday with a few names, though again no numbers, but best of all, he’s agreed tentatively to be recorded again, this time on sharki and çifteli AND with voice alone, reciting as he spontaneously did in the car ride back to Gjakova a gut-wrenching Albanian epic poem. while I’m still struggling to find breadth, I’d rather cultivate depth in the downtime than spend another day sitting, and the man is truly a master. a cousin-in-law’s friends, from a mountain region, tipped us off to what they describe as a remarkable weekend culture of wedding music, insisting that if we just show up we’ll be welcomed without question. I can’t help being a bit skeptical and my father’s pointed out Ramazan and fasting as a potential obstacle but if it’s true it’ll be one of the most exciting and relevant documentations of my time here, where truly unrecorded figures are almost impossible to find — something else that, on the bad days, makes me wonder what exactly it is I’m doing here. and with any luck we’ll soon be hearing from my late uncle’s best friend Qeta Vokshi, a man talked of here in Gjakova as if a magic sprite, whose family has done just about everything noble, exciting and of substance in Kosova’s recent history; Qeta himself played a key role in a post-war reconciliation council aimed at the cessation of inter-Albanian blood feuds — heavy stuff, and a lot of people who owe him very much for this and other favors over the years. our conversation, like many, was frustrating, the chain-smokiest to date, laced with distracting anecdotes and progressing far too quickly for my father to translate even the relevant bits, but despite my initial misunderstanding that he wouldn’t be able to help us, as it turns out he may have some contacts in the Gjakova hinterlands. a lot to hope for to be sure, but after a month of frustrating delays it’s hard to believe we’ll be able to arrange dates for people we haven’t even met yet in the time we have remaining. but the tendency towards fatalism need also be avoided if this thing is gonna happen! in fact, laying it all out like this has been of help.
what’s more, the sprinkling of rain yesterday, the first of any substance since we arrived, felt more than anything else to date like a cosmic exhortation to comfort.
I still haven’t written about either of our recording sessions, and I really should, if only to drink in one more time to sheer wonder of it all, to coax a little more emotional mileage out of the lingering fumes before the memory drifts away. but I wanted to get up to the present, and I wanted to purge a lot of the frustrations that have been plaguing me for a while now (and believe me, there are more, many of which are too culturally nuanced or rooted in my relationship with my father to properly express here yet). in the meantime, I hope to post a first sample from last week’s blissful family band recording tonight, with more detail to come as font of inspiration allows — I really want to be in the right place to do the experience justice, though I’m wondering whether starting to write might be the only way to get there. thanks for listening, as always, in any form or medium.
a coda: you leave the (brief, less uncomfortable than you expected) ceremony with a family friend (a translator: last time you met you sat in silence while they talked, for twenty minutes, in Albanian, about Joyce) on your way to an overdue breakfast; before the first block ends he meets a friend, unknown, just as father meets another, an actor with the most perfect baritone you have ever heard; baritone waits for translator; while waiting for baritone to wait for translator you stupidly announce your plans for solitary breakfast; unknown leaves, baritone seizes translator and boisterously hijacks you all to a different breakfast, an invitation which, in previously mentioned Albanian style your father is psychologically incapable to refuse; you sit down at a cafe called Scorpion and immediately stand up for two old school friends, you pull up chairs for them; ten minutes later you are drinking coffee trying to follow the conversation when everyone stands up once again for actor 2, a short man; this chain perpetuates to infinity, no one has anything to do & you never escape etc. etc. …
(at this point, in typical, aggravating fashion, I order breakfast — a simple phrase without errors — only to be parroted immediately by my overzealous translator as if my statement were incomprehensible. when the food arrives, it is to my great and perverse delight that both of us are served the same thing.
I wait for a break in conversation — hard to come by — and, surprising especially myself, explain in mostly-correct Albanian the humorousness of my father’s comeuppance, and for one moment of laughter, all of it, the utter powerlessness, the endless sitting on couches and at cafes, the innumerable dumbfounded silences, it’s all just one big joke, and I told it, in a language I may actually have the tiniest grasp on after all. neat.)