sun 14/07/2024

Saz'iso, Colston Hall, Bristol review - bewitching music from Southern Albania | reviews, news & interviews

Saz'iso, Colston Hall, Bristol review - bewitching music from Southern Albania

Saz'iso, Colston Hall, Bristol review - bewitching music from Southern Albania

The power of saze: much joy, but never far from almost gut-wrenching sadness

Adrianna Thanou and Donika PecallariAndrea Goertler

A strange and wonderful moment: the standing area at the rear of The Lantern, the smaller venue at Bristol’s Colston Hall, is suddenly transformed into a corner of Southern Albania.

A band plays haunting music, rooted in the firm yet delicate beat of a frame drum, a clarinet swirling above the drone provided by violin and lutes. A stately circle moves around the musicians, with all the grace that would be displayed at a mountain wedding in Northern Epirus. There are smiles and laughter, cries of “Hopa!", and rhythmic clapping, a far cry from the grim autumn night that lies beyond the hall.

This is music way beyond the set-list, a spontaneous reaction from a band which has just delivered an immensely moving performance on stage, received with great emotion by an audience of exiles from the Balkans and Bristol world music cognoscenti. Not content to rest in their cramped dressing-room, the musicians have returned, processing through the crowd which is still hanging around, stirred to bits by the concert they’ve just heard. This is a rare bonus, as so often traditional music performed in the UK or elsewhere can suffer from being out of context.

The bewitching power of saze lies in the extraordinary vocals

The Saze Project was conceived by Andrea Goertler, Edit Pula and Joe Boyd, the legendary producer with impeccable taste and a nose for left-of-centre musical gold (The Incredible String Band, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, REM, and many others). They have brought together some of the very best singers and instrumentalists from Southern Albania, who play saze, an urban music rooted in rural acapella polyphony, which is reckoned to be one of the most ancient vocal traditions in Europe. The music is indistinguishable from the polyphonic tradition of Greek Epirus, just over the wild mountain border between the two countries.

The eight musicians step on the stage with an endearing shyness – these are the first gigs they have played outside Albania, and they’re used to doing weddings after all. Their lack of stage experience is a massive plus, as they don’t feign good cheer as so many more practiced world music bands tend to do. Instead they clearly enjoy the thrill of playing together, meshing their voices as the tradition demands, in an eerie and melancholic way, trading licks in a way that maximises the power of being slightly out of sync and yet very much playing together.The Saze ProjectThe bewitching power of saze lies in the extraordinary vocals: this isn’t just straight polyphony – though there are similarities with the male choir singing of Sardinia and Corsica, and even at times, the singing of the Baka people of Central Africa – but “iso-polyphony”, a style in which the lead singer is echoed by one or two other voices that repeat phrases with a small element of delay, the vocal overtones meshing in an eerie and almost disconcerting way. And yet, this seductive unease is a source of great pleasure, not least when it is accompanied by melisma, notes that slide downwards like gently falling rain, producing an irresistible yet paradoxically appealing feeling of loss.

The two women vocalists Donika Pecallari and Adrianna Thanou are outstanding, the latter with a deeper almost masculine voice. The sombre lower register is favoured as well by virtuoso clarinet player Telando Feto (pictured above), who sometimes provides a gentle addition to the drone of the rhythmically strummed lutes, while at other moments producing a subtle obligato to the vocals, or solos rich in decoration, reminiscent of John Coltrane’s mind-blowing "sheets of sound". Nobody here sings or plays to the gallery, except on one occasion when violonist and vocalist Aurel Qirjo can’t help himself from showing off his skills with high-pitch and harmonic-tinged fiddling, a display that elicits wild applause from the captivated audience.

Roma musicians are the stars of Balkan music, as well as being highly prized in Greece and Turkey: Pëllumb Meta, one of the three Rom members of the band, plays a variety of wind instruments with subtly controlled passion, but it’s his voice – restrained yet powerful "head-singing", in a pitch close to high tenor – that drips with unadulterated soul.

Soul might well be the best word to describe much of the show: passion restrained by a touching modesty. There is much joy here, but never far from an almost gut-wrenching sadness that comes from gently opening the heart. A constant background, as in Irish music, of melancholy tinged with joy: a feeling of the evanescence of each moment of bliss.


Soul might well be the best word to describe much of the show: passion restrained by a touching modesty


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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