Saz’iso ‘At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me: The Joys and Sorrows of Southern Albanian Song’ CD/LP/DIG (Glitterbeat) 4/5

One of the year’s most absorbing world roots discoveries and a revelation to these ears, this last outpost of European folk music which was until recently yet to reach a wider international audience (in spite of a couple of highly informative programmes for BBC radio) has been produced by no less than Joe Boyd, who knows a thing or two about the music industry (an understatement given his towering achievements which range from Nick Drake to Pink Floyd and world roots artists too numerous to mention), and engineered by Jerry Boys who did so much to promote the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. This is music that does no less than conjure up an entirely different era when things were calmer, the internet was but a distant idea, and human emotions were paramount to the making of music and that is undoubtedly a major charm of this genre. From a strictly technical musical viewpoint, Saz’iso has a highly distinctive sound insofar as the music of southern Albania is iso-polyphonic; it has at least two melodic vocal lines, and it is this multi-voiced accompaniment that gives the otherwise sparse instrumentation all the more impact. However, this is music that simply needs to be heard live and, fortunately, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Jools Holland show and Cerys Matthews on Radio 6, a British public has had a brief sample of Saz’iso music with live performances and interviews, and just being able to view the musicians and the sheer joy that they impart from playing an ancient traditional music form.

Plaintive melodies predominate on this recording made in the capital Tirana with joint female vocals (there are no less than three main vocalists on board) and one can hear multiple influences, from neighbouring countries such as Greece with the use of clarinet, but also from further afield in the Middle East, and even Asia top a lesser extent. An immediate favourite to these ears was the uptempo clarinet led, ‘Penxherenë e zotrisë sate’, even if the vocals take repeated listens before one gets used to them. Much of the music is directly related to instrumentation that is deeply embedded in the region’s history while the vocals collectively can at first be somewhat overpowering.To these ears, this is the centuries old rural sound of Albania brought into a twenty-first century recording quality environment. On some tracks, one hears the lute and various flutes and pipes, on others it is the sound of the violin or the frame drum and vocalists double up on instruments.

Saz’iso are currently on a UK tour with Bristol tonight, followed by University of Sheffield tomorrow, Lincoln’s Performing Arts Centre on Friday and concludes at the Sage in Gateshead on 11 November. The beautifully illustrated front cover has Communist era rule all over it and is a candidate for the year’s most visually striking album front.

Tim Stenhouse