Albanian folk music meets pop in this largely successful and interesting fusion album
One of the great joys of this whole experience for me has been the ability to learn about the culture and people of the countries where we are searching for music, and there have been many gaps in my knowledge. Albania, I’m sad to say, was one such gap. Pretty much all I knew about Albania before this was it was European, they once had a king called Zog, John Belushi’s dad was from there, and so was Mother Teresa. That isn’t a lot, but just from the title it became evident that ‘Iliria’ (or ‘Illyria’ in the English spelling) was a name that referred to Albania, and it turned out that it was the name of the Balkan area, including Albania, during the Roman times, named after the Illyrian people. The Illyrians were in reality a collection of tribes, one of which were called the Albani, hence the name Albania. It turns out that this is an apt title for the album. The name Echoes from Iliria itself is evocative and mysterious in some respects, and that is reflected in the music, which is a mix of Western pop and Albanian traditional music, which provide the titular echoes from Illyria. This is not an album of Albanian or Balkan traditional music as much as I would have liked it to have been – my newfound undying love for Balkan music has been one of the surprise developments of this project – and nor is it an album of pop music; rather, Albanian singer Simaku is trying to defy one’s expectations for what folk pop fusion can be, and she is successful, to an extent.
“The almost Arabic sounding strings and beat mesh perfectly with the jangly guitar, and it comes together to create a song that is both new and old, a song that has those echoes from an ancient culture living within it.”
But first, the good stuff. Pak Me Shume, the opening track, is a very successful example of this difficult balance the band is trying to straddle. You’ve got the poppy instrumentation and beat, but also there’s an accordion, clarinet, and trumpet, playing those irresistible Eastern European melancholy melodies in minor keys that one finds so often in the music of the Balkans as well as in Jewish klezmer too. Haxhirea has a similarly Eastern feel, and is all the more successful for it. The almost Arabic sounding strings and beats mesh perfectly with the jangly guitar, and it comes together to create a song that is both new and old, a song that has those echoes from an ancient culture living within it. Ura Shijakut is another stand-out, where the clarinet riffs just about work alongside the electronic drums, even though those are two sounds that don’t usually gel.
Where it fails is where the balance is skewed too heavily in favour of modern pop music, not necessarily because it is bad or poor quality, but more because it is unmemorable and it becomes a part of the sludge of unmemorable euro-pop that just passes merrily through one’s ears without troubling your memory too much. Se-Sa and Kur Jam Me Ty are examples of this. They’re not bad songs, but they sound like a pop song, and that is not where the strengths of this album lie. On their own, they could be alright, but when put in the context of the album, they seem weak because of what else surrounds it. That said, the less successful songs aren’t too numerous, and on the whole the album trundles along nicely, making what could have been an experimental mess into an experimental success. It certainly is not one of my favourite albums I’ve ever heard, nor is any one song an earworm or otherwise particularly memorable, but it’s interesting, quite fun, and in terms of what this Albanian singer has attempted to achieve and relating that to how much I felt it worked, it’s certainly worth a listen.