Charting an unknown musical land | Music | DW | 25.03.2012
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Music

Charting an unknown musical land

Balkan rhythms, a lot of jazz and unusual Albanian sounds meet on the album "Toka Incognita," revealing the personal and unique world of singer Eda Zari. Click below to hear samples from the disc.

The Albanian singer grew up learning a vocal style that has a thousand-year tradition. In 2005, UNESCO declared that style known as iso-polyphony a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" as part of its program that aims to protect intangible elements of cultural heritage.

At Albanian family get-togethers, village festivals, funerals and weddings, men and women join together in singing the "bordun," a choral drone above which two to three soloists raise their voices.

The musician dynasty Lela de Permet developed a masterful version of iso-polyphony. They sing, play various instruments and live solely for music.

Eda Zari absorbed the traditional rhythms of her homeland with the Lela de Permet clan, proving herself a gifted soloist early on. She sang traditional works while simultaneously studying classical opera. With the exception of a few masters like Beethoven and Mozart, western music was forbidden in the isolated Albanian society of Eda's childhood.

Jazz instead of opera

The cover of Toka Incognita

The cover of "Toka Incognita"

"Of course we would listen to Italian radio secretly at home, and sometimes someone would smuggle a record in," the singer said, so rock, pop, funk and jazz were not completely unknown to her when she moved to Germany in 1989 at age 19. She was fleeing the regime that had murdered her brother and continued to threaten further members of her family out of association with him.

Forging a career at home seemed impossible. Eda Zari had been banned from the music academy where she began her studies, but was allowed to leave the country and continue her education as an opera singer in Cologne, Germany.

The singer completed a degree as a coloratura soprano but said she was never disciplined enough for work in opera. "The corset was too tight, and I couldn't embellish the singing the way I wanted to," she said.

Musically, she wanted to break away and fell under the spell of jazz, where she could be spontaneous and improvisational.

Tradition dressed for today

Eda Zari

Zari turned to jazz as an outlet for improvisation

But the singer doesn't want to deny her musical roots, which form a deep part of the melodies she composes. She has called Albanian music magic and described her task as dusting it off and giving it a place in contemporary music. As an Albanian musician, she said, there's nothing more natural than letting music from her country flow into what she writes.

"It's not about the homeland and a search for identity. Instead, it's about letting Albanian musical structures flow into my music as elements that enrich it," Zari said. "But they're not alone. Indian and other eastern rhythms are also very present in my music - my band is very cosmopolitan."

Polyphony a la Zari

Jazz unifies the disparate musical elements Zari's group brings to the table.

"It's a carpet that goes under everything else, and I weave pearls and decorations from my own musical universe into it," Zari said.

The listener can discover a lot by way of the album "Toka Incognita" - for instance, that the polyphonic singing style can also be reproduced with instruments. It's known as kaba music, also perfected by the family Lela de Permet. When the style is recreated using instruments, the soloist's voices are rendered with the clarinet and violin, while the lute and tambourine imitate the choral droning that is integral to iso-polyphony.

In Eda Zari's compositions, bass, saxophone, piano, clarinet and harp generate the multi-voiced structure, and Zari was also able to win over guitarist Dominic Miller and percussionist Rhani Krija for the project, both long-time collaborators of rock singer Sting.Eda Zari's voice floats above the carpet of sound, sometimes joyful and magical, sometimes melancholy or seductive. The lyrics evoke coquettish squabbles, the full moon, the call of a nightingale and the love of a mother whose child's smile is worth more to her than all the gold in the world.

Eda Zari wrote nearly every work herself, although in the song "Kroi," she immortalizes her favorite poet Lasgush Poradeci, who captures the microcosm of a village in pre-industrial times. But love is the topic there, too, in the form of a girl's shy glances toward a boy who is all too happy to help her carry water back from the village well.

Eda Zari travels in an unknown land; in her suitcase, she brings along magical melodies and the universal topic of love in its many facets.

She dedicated the disc "Toka Incognita" to her murdered brother because, after all, love is immortal.

Author: Suzanne Cords / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker