Hymn for Albanian Iso-polyphony
By Timo Mërkuri
When on 25 November 2005, Albanian Iso-Polyphony passed under the protection of UNESCO, as one of the rare assets of world cultural heritage, very few considered that this tribute to our culture had become popular, but a few then became aware of the hard work that had been done to achieve this day. Since Iso-Polyphony was and remains a masterpiece of spiritual culture, possibly best known by us Albanians who have cultivate it, but that is so important enough to be appreciated all over the civilised world, through the international organisations, who consider it to be amongst the masterpieces and protect it from damage, which in this case is forgetfulness.
It is normal that when someone creates an ethnic, historical and moral portrait of Albania, amongst the weaknesses – just like for all other nations – the main points to highlight would be the values of the civilizations of ancient Butrint, Gjirokastra, Berat and in addition to all of their architecture, ethnographic values, and the unrepeatable folklore, attesting to the great spiritual wealth of our people, but the surprise element would be a very early musical form, a very colourful and very special iso-polyphony. This means that in an area less than 10 thousand square kilometres, Albania gives humanity no less than four masterpieces, which announced the global wealth. I cannot find an identical example in world geography. And this real cultural density of the world in quite a small Albanian territory, gives us the right to a legitimate pride. Thinking that all these masterpieces, which make only lead artists, they are not born out of nothing, but are the fruit of the creativity of an ancient and talented people, in front of the civilized world complementing the best iconic portrait of my people, beautiful and full of culture. Then someone will revise their opinions on this portrait.
But the effects of the industrial revolution and demographic developments in Europe and beyond, in previous centuries, cannot bring a new approach to popular culture, its abandonment. With such negative effects, change also came in the socio-political structure after 90-s. The abandonment of the village, (a place which cultivated more cultural tradition, the place where popular songs were sung enthusiastically and broadcast), breaking the national tradition – import of foreign music, etc., resulted in the departure from tradition, and led to the forgetting of folk songs and dance, carriers of the resonant structure of iso.
Have you not noticed that many of us, though originally Lab (originating from the South of Albania), cannot sing Labçe, cannot hold the tone of the iso? This means that we are not able artistically to bear and redirect our cultural tradition, our identity, while, we apply and develop all kinds of schools of modern musical techniques. The young people in our schools feel “ashamed” to sing Labçe, to sing a musical tradition that is rooted from childhood of humanity, lest classmates call them “backwards”, “villagers”, the “obsolete” etc., etc., epithets, which remove the desire to sing Labçe, to keep the iso.
The decision of the international organization of 25 November 2005 specifically intends to protect against this abandonment, this forgetting, for the protection of cultural values of humanity, with the noted unrivalled value of the iso, for its antiquity, originality and musical structure, confirming that the iso-polyphony remained equally modern, and equally beautiful in the transmission of emotions and aesthetic values to the audience, as other musical forms if not more.
It is the same as taking under protection from decay to preserve the characteristic of the Portland homes of Gjirokastra, or the ruins of Butrint. It is easy for them to break down and in their place to develop high buildings, but the world has in every corner high buildings, while Butrint, Berat and Gjirokastra and Iso-polyphony, in their completely original structural form, only exist in Albania.
Our ancestors who have built these masterpieces have left behind heirs who have no difficulty in raising high buildings in other countries and have no difficulty in raising all kinds of schools of musical techniques, and herein lies the problem, to preserve and redirect to future generations, just as previous generations delivered through oral transmission, to us these cultural traditions to create the centuries by all human generations, the tradition, that does not exist in other cultures. Other and new cultures, even super modern cultures are created anytime anywhere and by anyone.
On the floor we had to chorus and it represents the measure, collectivities, in a figurative sense. We have to say that in the popular song, Iso is the grandest, very powerful. Iso knows no authority that can deal with it. When Iso began, no matter how large and authoritative the person, he is forced to wait until the iso is finished, no matter who holds it, iso singers can be very simple people. In this context they are singers, artists. Names and positions, professions and their assets have no significance here. Only after ending the chorus (not entire song, but iso-verse sung here), so just to relieve the pressure from the holder of the tune, (I will say that after ending agreement or decree that makes it what the recipient states), only then will all the appropriate honours be made to the newcomer friend. And here there is no resentfulness or misunderstanding. All undergo to this ritual, only iso has the right to sign the decisions which represents proposer- receiver and this is a solemn moment. When the iso does not approve what the song means no separate receiver, solemnity falls, so it can not proceed even in that environment where established, nor in any other environment. Iso can be held by one man, even when someone “ramble” by himself, he gives the intonations of a group.
A proverb, inserted in the Articles of Albanian customary codes says: “friend in Albanian home is the messenger of God”. However, it seems that the guest is obliged to wait until the iso is finished (interestingly the only obligation for a guest at a host's home), therefore it seems that the iso is more than a messenger of God.
Songs can be volatile, fast, slow, songs of courage with gunfire as lightning or love songs with the sweetness of flowers squab, dirge draining pain or carol. Every kind can be sung, but the iso is only one, stately and majestic, as heaven itself holds and the eagle and the sparrow, it is an assembly of men who adopt important decisions.
But we have to accept that not everyone, not everyone can hold the tune of the iso, as not everyone takes part in the assembly of men and asked for important decisions. It is not simply a question of the group together singing ‘eeeee...’, the groups backing vocals need to create a cosy environment for the song, to create a bed where the song sails freely and clearly expresses thoughts and feelings. For and keeping iso is an art in itself no less important than the receiver or thrower, as have other researchers pointed out, it is as pleated cloak that song is wrapped to keep warm. Only within this “pleated cloak”, the song takes all its values and spirit flows freely in art.
Iso does not recognize hierarchy, people's race, religion, marital status or wealth, social origin or origin from town or village. Holders of the iso tune all sit together, bring their heads together, unite their voices in one and whoever sees from afar could never understand how many people are singing, who is holding the tune well and who loses it, and even where someone loses the tune, the other voices unite and the lone voice escapes the song.
To keep the iso, the rich and the poor, the illiterate and academician, blond and brunet, the youngest and the oldest sit side by side, thus losing their identity by which somewhere, sometime they can be proud or ashamed. They are totally at the service of the iso becoming so in an atlas that holds the dome of the sky on his shoulders.
Even enemies can sit side by side, to keep the iso and then somewhere far from iso facilities, necessarily far from the song, to continue the enmity, the verbal arguments or kill one another. But never between the iso, possibly at the song, no one would dare even to think (despite having one will) put his hand on the gun to kill to get revenge. These were not written laws that regulate the life of the community, the environment of the song. The gun is fired in the presence of iso only toward the sky to express and enhance the joy of the moment. For everything else members are considered disarmed, although the gun is in their belt.
Only the iso, only the song has disarmed the Albanian.
Iso’s flag is more majestic than the tiny banners of political parties, the great imposters. This flag has flown for thousands of years. This flag has seen people, social orders, parties and associations at the zenith of the precipice. Welcomed and entourage, often with total indifference to their noise, all sorts of foolish human minds.
Humanity before it starts to sing, even before it began to speak, began to cry, to weep, and wail. A physical pain provoked tears of mourning; a spiritual pain has made them more frequent, more rhythmic. Man after crying, continues to howl for the pain experienced. We think that, this is just the beginning of iso, while mourning is the beginning of the song.
The spiritual pain of the dead beloved, associated with the burial rite, historically gathered the community, and later relatives at the dead’s body. The pain expressed by wailing of the crowd, sometime together and at others separately, however, always consisting of one person’s lament accompanied with another’s wailing, is the beginning of polyphonic group.
Once, someone, a member of the tribe or passer who saw this ritual lamentations and groans thought it was nice to repeat, either provoke pain, whether to the memory of deceased loved ones, which If experience in those moments of self-aesthetic emotions that create discourse. And probably started to repeat the words of lamentation or imitate groaning, being made without his awareness of the singer and the first holder of the iso. Even the original name was spelled with a "y'' (YSO), and hence in Albanian denoting the fact that it involved many held by many, and meaning "howling of many persons”, a collective wailing. At a later point in time, the letter "y '' was replaced with an ‘i’ and the word iso created.
Someone would say that other civilisations have also cried and moaned, so why do they also not have the iso?
Yes, other nations have cried, because mourning is not only throughout the Mediterranean tradition, but a tradition worldwide. The merit of our people is precisely that this wailing and groaning was reproduced not only in art, but also kept for a long time as a symbol of pain, separation and especially as our respect for the man who separated from the collective. Ancient Illyrian and Greek choruses have been nothing but groans and wailings after and between mourning, but this time set in the art, based upon this ancient tradition. Coherence of iso with ancient Greek and Illyrian choirs is a separate topic to be studied more professionally, but that certainly is a link that brings, not away, that unites early self-cultural ties of the two peoples.
There are three thousand years that this whimper, this collective murmur was processed reaching peaks of art today, being continuously updated and put on the pedestal. We have felt goosebumps and our spirits have risen with our hearts contended by the iso. We ran through the celebration of festivals, we sing the debate with each other for the beauty of the songs and the iso; we have danced the serious dance accompanied by men singing the iso whilst making the earth tremble beneath their feet. We lived with the iso making it an essential part of our lives, so much so, that it is often said of someone that he holds the tune of the iso well – which is similar to complimenting someone for being a mason, good builder, etc. And today, modern life, urbanization and progress are threatening its oblivion.
Does this not seems as if an approaching of evil, as if something valuable is slipping out of your hand into the sea and you would have no way of finding it once it has fallen?
Just as a forewarning, in the language of myth one would call it an oracle of Dodona, the UNESCO decision of 25 November 2005, decided to take this treasure under protection, so that it does not 'slip through the hands' of our people, whilst we are in the midst of the turbulent seas of transition.
And it is not only the UNESCO decision that is protecting the iso, but also the inspiration for the decision, the person who scientifically presented this folkloric treasure to the world, Vaso Tole, someone who is almost anonymous, like a chorus accidentally disconnected from a song.