Longtime Record Producer Joe Boyd On Albanian 'Saze' Music

Jan 13, 2018
Originally published on January 13, 2018 4:12 pm
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Connoisseurs of '60s music and beyond may know the name Joe Boyd as well as they do the name of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Joe Boyd is behind records by Pink Floyd, Nick Drake and 10,000 Maniacs, among many others. But he hasn't produced a new album in more than a decade - until now. It features traditional Albanian music recorded in Albania. Where else would they record it?

Vicki Barker reports.

JOE BOYD: It's the second half of Track 2...


VICKI BARKER, BYLINE: Joe Boyd and his wife and collaborator Andrea Goertler are in their high-ceiling flat in London's Little Venice neighborhood. Lining the walls are original 1960s posters and 6,000 LPs, dozens produced by Boyd himself.


BARKER: The music filling the room takes us to a mountaintop in southern Albania where a shepherd and his dog are set upon by bandits.


SAZ'ISO: (Singing in Albanian).

BARKER: They grant him his dying wish - to let him play his flute. In the valley below, his beloved hears that wild and desperate tune and understands everything.

BOYD: You know, he's about to be killed. The sheep have been stolen. The dog's been killed. And this song appears in different forms all over the Albanian-speaking lands.

BARKER: Welcome to the world of Saze music, a world of shepherds and bandits, of partisans battling foreign invaders, tales of heroism and tragedy and yearning.


SAZ'ISO: (Singing in Albanian).

BARKER: That eerie, wild mingling of voices - that's called iso-polyphony.

BOYD: Well, iso-polyphony - some people speculate - is as old as Homer. And maybe that's what the sirens were singing when they were luring Ulysses onto the rocks.

BARKER: It's also accompanied Albanian weddings, harvests, funerals and festivals for millennia. It's one of the world's oldest vocal traditions.


SAZ'ISO: (Singing in Albanian).

BARKER: When rural Albanians began to migrate into cities in the late 19th century, the resulting collision with modern instruments was seismic, says Andrea Goertler, transforming the country's music.

GOERTLER: For centuries, people did not mix instrumental music-making with singing. So you either sang and you even danced to this a cappella singing or you played an instrument. And then suddenly, this moment happens when people combine them.


SAZ'ISO: (Singing in Albanian).

BARKER: For decades, Saze was supported by the communist government. But Albania's political and geographic isolation and its lack of decent studios meant few recordings reached the outside world. So this new album should finally give Saze some long-overdue recognition, says Lucy Duran. The ethnomusicologist and world music producer is an old friend of Boyd's and first introduced him to Saze.

LUCY DURAN: This is music which is very, very regionally based. It's very localized. It's totally acoustic. It's absolutely sublime. It doesn't exist anywhere else. And it's amazing that it's finally being given such a great chance to be heard around the world.

BARKER: But bringing the singers and instrumentalists together wasn't easy. When communism collapsed in Albania, Saze's musical stars scattered. Male vocalist Robert Tralo became an Orthodox priest. The two female vocalists, Donicka Pecallari and Adrianna Thanou, fled to Greece.

BOYD: Donicka came back to Albania to sing in festivals, actually undergoing quite arduous journeys to get back because she was so dedicated to remaining part of that scene, whereas Andrianna got depressed and stopped singing for 25 years.

BARKER: So what was it that made Joe Boyd so determined to make this album?

BOYD: The form is still very unselfconscious. It just is. It still lives. Even though it's surrounded by modern noise, it lives in a very unselfconscious way.

BARKER: In Saze, Boyd says, he has once again encountered the kind of unselfconscious virtuosity and spontaneity that first drew him to the rock music of the 1960s.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINK FLOYD'S "ANY COLOUR YOU LIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.