The Pyramid Jazz Festival
Leonidas Liambey - 09/06/2004
‘The artistic climate in Tirana is not clear. We are still in stuck another tradition: first the politics must change, then economics, and finally culture,’ says Fatos Cerini behind sunglasses and floppy hair, referring to the many problems performing artists face in contemporary Tirana. One of Albania’s finest clarinet-players and a composer, he teaches at the Academy of Arts where we met, in the café that serves as a meeting point for both established artists and students of the school’s three faculties of drama, music and the visual arts. The café and the more up-market the Art Café near Skandeberg Square are owned by the director of the school and together with the café outside National Gallery, they form the social hub of the intimate Tirana cultural scene. The morning we met, it seemed that one of the country’s best known film director together with Tirana’s more serious theatre producers, actors and established painters were all drinking coffee around small tables under the spring sun.
‘We need economic stability as politics still plays a very strong role in our society. I hope for a cultural boom but as yet we haven’t seen not been a parallel improvement of music scene.’ From a family of musicians, Cerini, is realistic about the problems musicians face under capitalism, ‘Many of the top musicians have left the country to play in orchestra’s in Greece and the rest of Europe. It’s hard to find work in Tirana and there is a lack of opportunities for serious musicians. The two symphony orchestras in Tirana do not play at the highest level. There are many dilettante organisations working with younger musicians and a small alternative scene, and I like it, but it is another discipline to serious music.’ Cerini is organising the Third International Jazz Festival this in Tirana that will run from 7th July to 12 July 2004. The event is held in the ‘Pyramid’ one of central Tirana’s strangest and most dramatic buildings. Now a cultural and trade centre, this imposing structure used to be the Enver Hoxha Memorial, and was designed by his architect daughter to as a tribute to the country’s leader. It was opened in 1988 on the 80th anniversary of Enver Hoxha’s birth and according to the Blue Guide ‘contained more or less everything that Hoxha ever touched or used, and in it’s centre was a sitting marble statue of Hoxha by Kristaq Rama. In some respects it resembled an embryo hidden within a strange concrete womb. An illuminated star mounted on the top of the exterior, from which rays of light were projected down the side of the building. It was, in its way, one of the weirdest museums in the world.’ Now the International Centre of Culture, it remains a unique venue for a jazz music festival.
The idea for the festival was born from a three-cycle series of concerts that featured jazz, classical and folk musicians from Albania and abroad. They brought Julian Stringel, the jazz clarinet player from the UK and his quartet to play a set and they have been back ever since. Cerini himself works with the Tirana Jazz Band that plays, as he puts it, classical jazz, whilst other groups, such as the InterBalkan Jazz Ensemble, with a Serbian drummer and pianist, and Greek bass player explore local musical traditions. Beyond the unique Balkan rhythm structures, Albania has a long tradition of folk polyphony. This is a southern Albanian tradition dating back to ancient Illyrian times that can also be heard in Northern Greece where the songs are known as Ipirotika. It involves blending several independent vocal or instrumental parts in part harmonies to produce a haunting sound. The songs usually have epic lyrical or historical themes, and may be slow and sombre with beautiful harmonies or include yodelling in the more lively tunes. Music students at the Academy, Cerini says, draw on such local lyrical traditions as well as jazz techniques to express themselves away from the rigours of their formal classical training of the school.
Since 1991, there has been a partial re-emergence of new groups of composers and musicians. For a time, before the collapse of the pyramid banking schemes in 1997, there was a reasonable amount of money for the arts. The National Opera, which has a long tradition of turning out first rate singers still functions, though the building in Skandeberg Square needs restoration and many of the finest singers now live and work in Europe or America. After the radical destabilisation of the Albanian cultural scene following years of economic uncertainty, Celini sees many of the problems that established musicians face as similar to those in other European cities. ‘It is not easy to make a living as a musician, but having worked with musicians from Italy and for a time myself in France, I realise that it’s the a bit like the rest of Europe. You need two or three jobs to make ends meet.’ Leonidas Liambey