Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

Albanian traditional musical instruments

(The article below, written by R Sokoli, first appeared in issue No 5, 1971 of the magazine New Albania. It is reproduced here (slightly edited) to aid a greater understanding of some of the works of art that were produced during the Socialist period (1944-1990) of Albania’s past. Although folklore hasn’t been totally abandoned in the present-day capitalist Albania traditional dress and culture don’t hold the same important role in Albanian society as in the past.)

Musical instruments of our People

From the past our people have inherited various musical instruments which are of interest for their craftsmanship, their originality, the way they are used and the tones they express. The knowledge and study of these instruments are of special significance to our national art and culture for, through them, we delve deeper into the quality of our folk music and the peculiarities of the musical talent of our people. Now and then we hear the tones emitted by these instruments in every village or town quarter. Without them no social entertainment takes place.

Taking them in the order of the four main scientifically established genres, we have in the first place those of the idiophonic genre like (1) the two pebbles hit together in order to lure the swarm of bees which have abandoned their original hive, (2) ‘rrakataket’ which children make out of corn blades cut lengthwise, (3) ‘rrekezat’ made of twigs plaited together in a spherical shape with round pieces of wood or pebbles inside used to entertain small children when the device is shaken, (4) ‘gergerat’ made of a tapered wooden axis ending with an elastic square which bounces making a noise when turned around (5) the metallic tray which is used in northern and north-eastern parts of Albania to accompany songs and dances, (6) three dish spoons which are used to keep time, (7) ‘çaparet’ in the form of metallic discs tied to the fingers of dancers used in Central Albania to keep time by jingling them when dancing, (8) bells or gongs of various shapes, sizes and names used for ritual, practical or aesthetic purposes, (9) ‘trokeza’ or ‘çanga’ made of a board or metallic plate hanging down on a rope and used as a means of signalling, (10) ‘cungrana’ of the Albanian settlers in Italy pierced by a metallic rod in the form of a horseshoe which vibrates and emits sound when touched by the fingers.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - drum

Albanian traditional musical instruments – drum

From the membraphonic genre we have: (a) the tambourine, a shallow drum with loose metallic discs at the sides, (b) the drum or tympanic membrane, consisting of a hollow cylinder with a skin head stretched over each end, (c) the ‘kadum’ or ‘tullumbas’ in the shape of a half-cylindrical cup with a skin stretched over its ends, (d) ‘tarabuku’ in the shape of a jar with a skin stretched over its head. All four of the above instruments serve to stress the rhythm.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – tambourine

Of the aerophonic genre we have, first of all, some made from plants like the ‘picanga’, which children make out of grass blades, corn stalks, of apricot seeds (‘frysa’) or of the bark of young twigs (‘gezhoja’ or ‘bilbil’). These plant based instruments such as ‘lugefyllka’,’shtambushka’, ‘tuza’ and ‘kallami me leter’ are temporary entertainments producing some tune or other. But real tunes of good musical taste our popular masters can extract from the leaf of certain trees – blowing at its edge. A ‘pre-musical’ instrument of the aerophonic genre, so to speak, is the ‘bobla’ which is made of the horn of cattle or of the shell of a sea-snail. It is used in the southwestern part of Albania by farmers, shepherds, guardians of vineyards, millers, fishermen and others as a signalling device. Whereas the Albanian settlers in Calabria (Italy) use the ‘vronja’, made of a dried pumpkin, as a means of sounding an alarm. This category includes also the ‘kapza’ or ‘buria’ which children make in spring from the bark of trees in long strips which they wind into the shape of a funnel.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute

The most popular and the dearest aerophonic instrument of our peasants is the ‘fyelli’ (the flute) which is made in shapes, sizes and names different for each district. The key of this instrument depends on the number of holes and is blown either inclined at the lips or fixed on the tooth.

In various shapes, sizes and names appear also the ‘pipza’ which are usually made at harvest time from various stalks.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - pipza

Albanian traditional musical instruments – pipza

‘Surleja’ or ‘zunaia’ is another aerophonic instrument with a wooden cylindro-conical neck, some holes on the surface and a double tip at the end.

In Laberia we have the ‘bicule’ or ‘cylediare’ made of two tapered nozzles carved on a wooden block, one of the nozzles has only three holes while the other has four on the top and one hole on the opposite side.

In southeastern Albania we have the ‘gajda’ which is made of a sheepskin with two vents (‘pipka’ and ‘buçalla’) one (the shorter) for the melody and the other (the longer) for the refrain.

The genre of string instruments begins also with some children’s musical entertainments as, for instance, ‘lodergramthi’, ‘tingerringe’ ‘ugari’ and others.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - strings

Albanian traditional musical instruments – strings

The most widespread string instruments are the ‘çiftelia’, a stringed ‘bakllamaja’ (3 strings), ‘sharkija’ (4, 6, 8, strings) ‘sazeja’ (10 strings) ‘çyri’ and ‘jongari’ which have been almost abandoned now. This category of instruments possess some common characteristics in shapes, use, etc. but at the same time they are distinct from one another.

In addition to the above from this genre we have the ‘udi’ with four pairs of strings and in the shape of a pear cut lengthwise. Related to this instrument are the ‘bozuku’ (with from 6 to 8 strings) and ‘kalushun’ (with from 2 to 3 strings) which the Albanian settlers in Italy use.

Finally, from this genre we have the ‘lahute’ (with one string) used in Northern Albania and ‘laurina’ (with 3 strings) used in the Mati District.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - flute and tambourine

Albanian traditional musical instruments – flute and tambourine

In addition to these musical instruments made by our peasants, our folklore has been enriched by certain instruments manufactured abroad like the violin, clarinet, accordion which are being broadly used by our instrumentalists.

In short, these are the musical instruments used by our people.

Some of them are used only in certain districts while others are in use all over the country. Some of them are native and of old origin while others have been introduced under various historical circumstances but as years roll on have been adapted to the taste and musical peculiarity of our people.

Albanian traditional musical instruments - group

Albanian traditional musical instruments – group

Of the above instruments some are used solo while others are used in groups. The way they are grouped depends more or less on the occasion, districts and availability for their use. As a rule, our people prefer groups of few instruments. Many melodies have been created, preserved and developed by these instruments.

Traditional Musicians and Dancers

Gjirokastra - Musicians and Dancers Bas Relief

Gjirokastra – Musicians and Dancers Bas Relief

Although there are many monuments and statues that are overtly political, in that they commemorate events or people involved in national liberation struggles (whether that be against the Ottoman Empire or the Italian and German Fascists of World War Two) other aspects of Albanian life are also represented in various locations throughout the country. As Gjirokastra, in the Socialist period, had become the centre for periodic folklore festivals it’s not surprising to find a frieze depicting traditional musicians and dancers located there.

This is easy to miss. It’s on Rruga Gjin Zenebisi, just a couple of hundred metres further up the hill from the Partisan Memorial, on the left just before the road enters the main square (Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli) of the old town.

The artist is Ksenofon Krostaqi, who was also involved in the magnificent obelisk to education which is higher up in the Old Town. It was completed in 1983, the same year as the Monument to the Partisan. That year was the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the town from the yoke of fascism and this prompted a certain amount of celebratory sculpture.

The frieze is composed of white blocks of lime stone and the carvings of the characters look in good condition. The stone is blackened around the edges (this is north facing and will be cold and damp for much of the year) and apart from a few missing blocks the memorial is intact.

It depicts eight different individuals, all in ‘traditional’ dress’. (Here I use the term ‘traditional’ in the sense of the sort of dress that was common before the influence of western fashion took hold in the early years of the 20th century. However, even during the National Liberation War against the fascists, from 1939-44, many people in the countryside would have been regularly wearing items of this style as can be seen, for example, on the Peze War Memorial.) I’m not an expert on Albanian dress, and all areas have their own variations, but I would assume that this is the style of dress typical, at some time in the past, of the Gjirokastra region.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 02

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 02

On the right hand side are four musicians. The one on the extreme right is playing what looks like a violin. I can’t find any reference to the violin being an Albanian favoured instrument – perhaps, again, the increasing influence from the west. All foreign imports into a culture are not necessarily negative if they fill a gap missing from the indigenous culture. (Consider the use of the guitar in Central American and Caribbean music.)

In front of him (all the musicians are male) the player holds a defi (a large type of tambourine) high above his head. Next is a young man playing a surlja (an early type of clarinet) with the bell pointed up to the sky. The very end of the instrument is missing, indicating that – for whatever the reason – some of the top stones are missing. The final musician plays a lahuta (which derives its name from the lute), also know as a saze in the south of the country. This is sometimes played with a bow but here he is strumming the strings. Such a small ensemble of players was quite common in Albania and we can see that being represented (with a slightly different combination of instruments) on the Durres War Memorial. All the men are wearing what looks like the traditional (almost all-Albania wide) xhakete (waistcoat) and tirq (long woollen trousers). On their heads they wear a qylafë, a high woollen hat which is typical of the south of the country.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 01

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 01

The other four characters depicted are the dancers, two male and two female. They are in the combination of female, male, female, and finally male and are all facing in the same direction, that is towards the left hand edge of the sculpture. The first three are holding hands which are positioned at shoulder height. The final male is waving a handkerchief above his head in his right hand. There is obviously a missing block of stone here which means we can see the hand holding the handkerchief but not the whole article itself.

In Albania many of the dances take their name from the region where they originated or are popular but the way these four are dancing is very reminiscent of the Greek Tsamiko (or Zorba’s dance, before he fell over drunk). That would make sense in Gjirokastra as the city is not that far from the border with Greece and influences have passed back and forth over the centuries. From my research both the men are wearing a fustanella (a skirt like garment) over a tirq with an ornate xhakete. The women are wearing what I think is the xhubleta, a long dress together with a long, free-flowing coat. All the dancers and the musicians are wearing opingas, the soft, fabric based shoes with the narrow point at the toe bent up into the air.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 03

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 03

So why this monument here, on the road side in Gjirokastra?

After the liberation of the country from the Fascists in 1944 one of the many aims of the new people’s government was to improve the intellectual and cultural life of the population. Illiteracy was almost universal so education was a priority. Along with that came a recognition of the preservation and promotion of the Albanian culture through which the people could express their identity.

National Costume 02

National Costume 02

Being a predominantly agricultural society traditional – that is pre-20th century – music, dance and dress were still very much part of people’s lives. However, before 1945 there weren’t any professional theatres whatsoever in the country. The Party sought to remedy that and by 1951 the number of public performances were four times greater than they had been in 1945.

National Costume 01

National Costume 01

This was helped by the holding of the National Festival of Song, Music and Dance held in Tirana in 1949. It was repeated ten years later in 1959. In 1968 it was decided to hold the National Folklore Festival in Gjirokastra and, further, that this should be an event to take place every five years. This was the case until things started to fall apart in 1990. In 1995 the festival was held in Berat but returned to Gjirokastra in the year 2000. The last event was held in 2009 and the next is due, back in its traditional home of Gjirokastra Castle, from the 10-15th May 2015. (The ‘every five year’ schedule being missed.)

National Folklore Festival site, Gjirokastra Castle

National Folklore Festival site, Gjirokastra Castle

I don’t know how well this festival will be attended both in terms of participants or spectators. During the period of Socialism folklore dancers and musicians would appear on the streets of all the towns of the country during the nation’s celebrations (such as Independence and Liberation Days in November as well as May Day) as well as during various congresses held by the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) or other workers organisations, such a the Trade Unions or the Women’s Union. Under capitalism these events, if they take place at all, are not celebrated en masse as they used to be and have not come across such events in my travels in the last few years

The depopulation of the country in general and some of the smaller villages in particular would also have had an impact on the continuity of the tradition which is vital to maintain a thriving and vibrant culture. It will be interesting to see what happens in three weeks’ time.

Spring in Gjirokaster - Gavril Priftuli - 1976

Spring in Gjirokaster – Gavril Priftuli – 1976

Practical Information:

If you want more information on the up and coming event in May then click here. It’s not ideal as it’s in Albanian but you might be able to squeeze out the information you require.


N 40.07580

E 20.14172


40° 4′ 32.8800” N

20° 8′ 30.1920” E

Alt: 286m

Rum shacks in the Caribbean

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

Rum shack at La Pompe, Bequia

‘Rum shack’ is the generic name for the basic bars that serve the rum in various measures in all of the Caribbean islands, or at least the handful I’ve visited. They are not built for luxury but are functional and serve their purpose, that is to get people as drunk as quickly as possible.

Although what they are there for is the same on whatever island they might also double up as something else when not serving the rum. One place I went to was the village local grocery store (although no one came in to buy groceries whilst I was there) and yet another was attached to a ‘fast food’ stall in the bus station in Kingstown, St Vincent, which I mentioned when I wrote about the creeping privatisation of the streets.

But before talking about the places that do the selling I should write about what is sold.

Although not exclusively these rum shacks are there to sell the double proof white rum, each island having its own particular favourite brand. It might come as no surprise to read that each islander thinks that the best rum is produced on his island. This, to me, is a bit academic as it is such strong alcohol that there is no real taste to talk of.

Double strength means 80% or more. The strongest one, commercially, I came across was the Sunset brand from St Vincent. That is 84% proof. That has a warning message on the back label about naked flames and inflammable liquids! But I’m sure that the home-made versions that are on sale in the streets and markets could well be higher in percentage.

There is also a bit of a ritual with this rum. In the first rum shack I went into, in Castries, the capital of St Lucia, the rum was served in shots in plastic cups. The woman behind the bar was also behind a home-made reinforced steel rod cage and the booze was served through tiny hatches. I never saw any trouble in any of the bars I went into but presumably the bars were there for a reason. The gateway to the bar area was never locked but then I was there in the afternoon or (relatively) early evening.

In ALL the places I went there was either a full bottle of iced water – normally in a bottle that once would have held the local rum – available on the counter for all to use or given to each individual customer.

How this was used was up to personal preference and depended on how quickly you wanted the rum to enter the system. Some would knock back a shot and then drink 2 or 3 cups of the iced water to prevent the burning sensation from becoming too great. Others would water down the shot and then drink it at a slower pace. The former method was definitely the option for those who would come into the rum shack for a quick drink and then move on – to another rum shack.

In most places the manner of it being served was not by the individual shot as in the Castries (the shot costing 2 Eastern Caribbean Dollars (about £0.50p)) but by the measure. There would also be quarter spirit bottles and you could ask for a full one of these, or just a proportion. This would be filled from a full bottle of the local brew. It was then for the customer to decide the quantity to be served in the plastic cup and the manner, although most locals seem to prefer the quick shot and then the cups of water. To give an idea about cost the normal price for a quarter bottle filled in this way was about 12EC$ and to put that into perspective a 1 litre bottle in a supermarket would cost about 30EC$.

I don’t know where it all came from but there were a number of these rum shacks, on the various islands that were called ‘People’s Bar’ or variations on that. The one I like was the Poor People’s bar in Grenville, on Grenada, which lived up to its name as there was virtually nothing on show. There was enough to serve for the day and no money seemed to be tied up in providing an inviting display but not earning anything. This was confirmed when I was speaking with the owner of the bar opposite the mooring of the ship in St George, Grenada. He would make sure that he had enough stock for those days when there was a greater demand, such as the weekend, but had learnt to reduce surplus stock as much as possible.

What was common to all these places was the number of people who had obviously had too much. Sometimes during a life time but more often for that day. Sometimes this would be mixed with a little bit of marijuana and they were the ones who were really spaced out. But it was definitely a regular affair as I even got to know some of the drinkers in the bar in Castries as I first met them before the Caribbean Island Hopping and then met them again, in the same bar, drinking the same way 2 weeks later.

Haven’t found the equivalent in Bermuda so it seems that this drinking culture is restricted to the islands of the Caribbean, at least from my experience to the group known as the Windward Islands.