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Friday, 7 February 2014


Vaçe Zela, the great Albanian chanteuse died on 6th February 2014
in Basel (Switzerland)

Sadly, I never met her nor attended any of her concerts. However, recordings of her songs were my first  encounter with music from Albania. This excerpt from my book Albania on my Mind tells how I 'discovered' the music of V. Zela in the mid to late 1960s:

"I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. It was a valve radio, rather than the more modern transistor-based instruments, which were already available in the 1960s. Once it had warmed up - a slow business taking up to a minute - and had stopped emitting crackling sounds, it was able to receive broadcasts on three wavebands including short-wave. I used to enjoy twiddling its tuning knob, and listening to broadcasts transmitted from all over the world. It was a window to the world beyond the confines of the highly manicured, desirable but rather dull, Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived.

One day, I tuned in on an exceptionally clear transmission, and listened with some curiosity and a great amount of surprise to a woman who was speaking perfect English with only the hint of a foreign accent. After a few minutes, she informed her audience far and wide that they were listening to the voice of Radio Tirana. I could not believe my ears. I made a mark on the tuning gauge to ensure that I would be able to find this station again. I tuned into Radio Tirana regularly, listening with astonishment and also amusement at the various commentators’ beautifully articulated words - mostly rants and raves directed against the actions of the imperialists and capitalists. These were punctuated by stirring Albanian songs sung in a style that was new to me, as I had never experienced the music of the Balkans before. Incidentally, the clarity of the transmissions from Tirana was due to it being broadcast from a reputedly very powerful transmitter.

After a short while, I decided to write a letter to Radio Tirana. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I wrote to the unknown addressee (in English) that the songs, which were being broadcasted from Albania, inspired me greatly and helped to reinforce my faith in Socialism. After addressing the letter’s envelope to ‘Radio Tirana, Tirana, Albania’, I waited with little expectation of receiving any kind of reply. I thought that it was more likely that I would receive a communication from MI5 or MI6 than anything from Albania. However, I was wrong to have been so pessimistic. A flat parcel, wrapped in brown paper and string, arrived by post a few weeks later. It was from Albania. I unwrapped it carefully, my fingers thrilling at the thought of handling something that had arrived from the mysterious country that had begun to interest me so greatly.

The package contained a 10-inch diameter long-playing gramophone record in a garishly coloured cardboard sleeve. It was decorated with an electricity pylon; musicians in folk costumes; dancers dressed likewise; a man wearing baggy Turkish-style pantaloons; and an oil derrick. The plain, unadorned record label bore the name of the recording company: Pllake Shqipetare (‘Shqipëria’ being the Albanian word for Albania). I played this endlessly, much to the dismay of my parents who did not appreciate its special musical properties. Even today, I can still hear the tune of “O djell i ri” (a song about the sun) ringing in my head."

Click on the image below to hear this song:

And, the singer of that song and a few others on the disc was the late and much  lamented V Zela. There was also a song sung by her called  Fëmija i parë. For many long years I believed that that title meant 'Women are equal' but 3 days ago, I learnt that it actually means ' First born baby'. My informant was none other but the Albanian scholar, Bejtullah Destani. To hear this song sunng by V. Zela: click on this image:

Those of you who are interested in reading more of my experiences of Albania and the visit that I made there in 1984 may purchase a copy of my book, Albania on my Mind, (paperback and e-book) on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Bookdepository.