‘Washed by the Moon,’ a British director’s documentary on Albanian iso-polyphony

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 12, 2017 13:59

‘Washed by the Moon,’ a British director’s documentary on Albanian iso-polyphony

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  • “Iso-polyphony, and specifically Këngë Labe, which is still practised in the southern part of Albania, has rightly been declared unique by UNESCO. Musically, it is astonishing, but it also carries huge social significance and a strong spirit of community,” British director Dan Shutt tells Tirana Times in an interview

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Jonianët polyphonic band performing in Vlorë ©2017 Bruce Collier/Danchfilm

Jonianët polyphonic band performing in Vlorë ©2017 Bruce Collier/Danchfilm

TIRANA, July 12 – Young British filmmaker Dan Shutt has picked the Albanian iso-polyphony to shoot his first documentary.

A sophisticated form of group singing, performed mostly by men in southern Albania, the Albanian iso-polyphony, is recognized by UNESCO as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Dan Shutt’s ‘Washed by the Moon’ is a documentary exploring the ancient tradition of Këngë Labe, an ancient singing style unique to southern Albania, through the lives and stories of its legendary musicians.

With filming already in its final stage, the documentary is set for release at international film festivals from March 2018.

In an interview with Tirana Times, the young director says is he is optimistic ‘Washed by the Moon’ will hopefully play a part in bringing iso-polyphony to the international audience.

“Iso-polyphony, and specifically Këngë Labe, which is still practised in the southern part of Albania, has rightly been declared unique by UNESCO. Musically, it is astonishing, but it also carries huge social significance and a strong spirit of community,” says Dan Shutt, a young British filmmaker and journalist based between London and Berlin who has recently set up his own production company.

The Albanian polyphony is a type of traditional vocal music specific to southern Albania and is by far the most popular form of folk music in this part of the country. In the Laberia region it is normally sung unaccompanied by instruments and is often improvised by two or three lead singers who set forth the melody and text. The other singers accompany the lead singers as a chorus with a so-called iso, a drone at a constant pitch.

 

Director Dan Shutt at concrete bunker in Elbasan ©2017 Bruce Collier/Danchfilm

Director Dan Shutt at concrete bunker in Elbasan ©2017 Bruce Collier/Danchfilm

Tirana Times interview with Dan Shutt

 

How did you first come in contact with Albania iso-polyphony, recognized by UNESCO as Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity?

– I became aware of polyphonic singing from countries such as Georgia and Bulgaria through film soundtracks and collaborations with ‘Western’ artists while I was a teenager, but I only discovered Albanian iso-polyphony after reading a description of the tradition in a book by Ismail Kadare. The first song I listened to is translated into English as ‘What Have Ianina’s Eyes Seen’, by a men’s group from Vlorë. It put me into a trance from which I have not yet woken up.

What strikes you about Albanian iso-polyphony and why have you decided to call your first documentary project ‘Washed by the Moon’?

– Iso-polyphony, and specifically Këngë Labe, which is still practised in the southern part of Albania, has rightly been declared unique by UNESCO. Musically, it is astonishing, but it also carries huge social significance and a strong spirit of community. This is particularly striking during mealtimes, when Këngetarët (Singers) toast and sing constantly – all the way from melancholic laments to joyous songs.

‘Washed by the Moon’ is a rough translation of a song by Golik Jaupi, called ‘Labëri Larë Në Hënë’ – a beautiful performance which features in the film. It was an honour to work Golik Jaupi, a true legend of the tradition.

We can see you have already launched a trailer, how is the project going and when do you expect it to make its premiere?

– Filming began in December 2016 and is expected to be completed in autumn this year, with the film set for release at international film festivals from March 2018. We are also planning a run of screenings in Albania during 2018.

What can you tell us about your impressions and experience with the polyphonic singers during your stay in the Laberia region of Vlora, the home of Albania polyphonic music?

– Albanian hospitality is world famous, and my experiences have always reflected this. The warmth with which my crew and I have been treated by the film’s participants, in particular members of Grupi Polifonik Jonianët, has been unforgettable. These singers are extraordinarily talented and see the value of the music they make, yet humble and generous with their time and talent. The change in the state’s stance towards folk music since the end of the socialist era has affected the tradition, and it is through the hard work of these singers that it is kept alive.

How do you think Albania can make better use of this tradition to promote the country?

– Festivals outside of Albania such as Balkan Trafik and those within such as Fustanella and the Folklore Festival in Gjirokastra are great ways of promoting this tradition, and the participating musicians work hard for each performance. The tradition still lives on throughout the south of the country and teaching programs already exist – I believe it is more a question of recognition of the value of iso-polyphony from the international community. Albania has been isolated in political and geographical terms for much of its history, and as the world continues to discover the country, its astonishing traditions will be highlights of that process of discovery. Hopefully, Washed by the Moon will play a part in bringing iso-polyphony to that international audience.

What do you expect from the first impressions of this project in the British audience and media which is often biased against Albanians?

– It seems that Albanians often feel as though the Western world, Britain and the USA in particular, is heavily biased against them, but I do not believe that this is true. Certainly, the usual rumours do exist, but every country has its own issues – Britain included. Albania has many good ambassadors, particularly in current UK and US music (Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Action Bronson etc.) and a growing tourism industry which will continue to benefit its reputation.

My expected first impressions of this documentary in the British and global audience are pure fascination – of the beautiful landscapes, which range from imposing mountains to beautiful Mediterranean beaches, of the ancient history of its people, of the turmoil of the years since the Second World War. Above all, the audience will be touched by the magic of iso-polyphonic songs.

Do you have any other projects on Albania?

– In Spring I recorded a radio documentary about iso-polyphonic singing through NTS Radio, a highly respected London station specialising in progressive music and culture. This is available online and features recordings of some performances from Washed by the Moon.

From your visits to Albania, how did you find the country and since we are at the peak of tourism season, what would you suggest British and international tourists to visit or do in Albania?

– Albania has something for every type of tourist: for the seaside, Vlorë and Orikum have great beaches and nightlife; for cafe culture, Tirana is unbeatable and has Europe’s best coffee; for those who like driving, one of the most intense moments of my life was a 3 a.m. journey over the hills at Dhermi in a winter rainstorm. And the castle at Kruja has one of the country’s best guesthouses. I haven’t had a chance to explore much of the northern highlands yet, but I hear Shkodra has a rich cultural history, and perhaps there is still something to be seen of the traditional ways of life described by Edith Durham in High Albania.

http://www.danshutt.co.uk/ Documentary trailer

http://www.nts.live/shows/guests/episodes/albanian-iso-polyphony-27th-april-2017 Radio documentary

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times July 12, 2017 13:59