In-depth | Culture

Forgotten songs of the Zadar Arbanasi

By - 28.11.2023

A musical project aims to preserve Dalmatian Albanians’ musical heritage by creating it anew.

Dina Bušić grew up in a musical household in Arbanas, a sea-facing stretch of land just southeast of Zadar’s Venetian-walled old city. “In our house, there was a lot of singing. They sang constantly, everyone’s a singer,” Bušić said.

The neighborhood is home to the Arbanasi, descendants of Albanians who migrated to the Dalmatian city from the Lake Shkodër area over 300 years ago.

Though many older people in Bušić’s extended family spoke Arbanasi — the Albanian dialect unique to Zadar that is heavily influenced by Croatian and Italian — there was one setting she never heard it in as she was growing up. “They sang in Croatian, in Italian,” she recalled, “but never in Arbanasi.”

It wasn’t until she was 20 and in a musicology class at the University of Zagreb that she would start to uncover her community’s musical riches. Bušić, who is Arbanasi on her mother’s side, returned home with an assignment.

“They said at my faculty, ‘Record something from your surroundings,’” she said. “And I asked my grandmother, ‘Are there any Arbanasi songs?’ And she said, ‘Oh yes!’”

After recording Arbanasi songs her grandmother remembered from decades past, Bušić visited other relatives and neighbors to collect as much of this quickly-disappearing material as she could.

The experience was what she now refers to as “music on demand.” 

“When you ask an Arbanasi,” Bušić said, “they will gift you [that music].” She had simply never thought to ask.

With the class assignment complete, the material sat for over a decade stored away on tapes as Bušić made a career as a classical singer and arts professional in Zadar.

Almost 15 years after discovering Arbanasi music, she was asked to perform some of the songs at a promotional event for a book on Arbanasi, written by Maksimiljana Barančić, a now retired professor of English at the University of Zadar and an expert on the Arbanasi dialect.

Bušić had been performing bossa nova with Melita Ivković, a classically trained guitarist from Zadar, and they had been thinking about connections between musical traditions in the Mediterranean region.

They decided to take some of those ideas and apply them to the rough material Bušić had collected all those years ago. They found a winning formula with Ivković’s arrangements, soft yet textured guitar compositions that transformed the material from tunes for the kitchens and courtyards of Arbanas into pieces for the concert hall.

Dina e Mel performed their Arbanasi songs at the National Library of Kosovo earlier this year. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

“We created three songs in two days,” Ivković said. “And then there was a key moment when we understood the audience’s reaction.”

“There were many Arbanasi in the audience,” Bušić chimed in. “And they were all probably, after 20 or 30 years, hearing those songs for the first time. 

“Their eyes were full of tears, it was really touching. And I said to Melita, ‘I have more.’ Then we started to get to work.”

The result was the 2020 album “Nightingale: Forgotten Songs of the Zadar Arbanasi” created under the name “Dina e Mel.” The project arrived not a moment too soon. By that time, almost all of the people Bušić recorded had passed away and the cultural and social contexts in which these songs emerged were disappearing. According to Barančić, there are only around 200 Arbanasi speakers remaining.

Instead of preserving or conserving the music, with “Nightingale” Dina e Mel dived into a project of resuscitating Arbanasi musical culture, renewing it for new times with Ivković’s arrangements introducing contemporary sounds inspired by the pair’s personal musical histories and the musical history of the region the Arbanasi inhabit. 

They are joined on the album by musicians Edin Karamazov, Miroslav Tadić and Yvette Holzworth, each of whom brought their own expertise to breathe new life into the “raw material” of these almost-forgotten songs.

New sounds, new audiences 

“It wasn’t simple to be Arbanasi,” Bušić said.

“They are a group of people who came 300 years ago and lived immediately outside the walls of the city, in something like a small ghetto,” she said. Throughout Zadar’s turbulent history, Bušić said, “the Arbanasi stayed in that ghetto.” 

Today they may be the oldest continuous residents of Zadar. Though they’ve largely assimilated into the broader local population, “they are very proud that they are Arbanasi,” Bušić said, and “they have in some way kept their speech and traditions and their music to themselves.” 

Yet in recent decades, much of it has been lost and there seems little hope for a full revival. According to Bušić, the youngest person that speaks Arbanasi is 41.

The fading aspects of the cultural memory were clear in the material Bušić recorded as a student. Much of the source material they built “Nightingale” from were snippets of half-remembered tunes — a few bars, a couple lines of text.

“We didn’t have anything to base the arrangements on, because they were just fragments that people sang a cappella,” said Ivković. This potentially limiting factor gave them the space to get creative. “We had free hands to make what we wanted.”

Dina e Mel weave their magic around one such fragment in the lullaby “So edua nanën” (“I Love My Mother”), which Bušić speculates may have been brought to Arbanas from Kosovo — it was the only tune their audiences in Kosovo recognized; in Albania, no one knew it. 

Dina Bušić and Melita Ivković applied their classical training to the Arbanasi folk music Bušić collected from her family and neighbors as a college student. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The lyrics are a straightforward ode to mothers and all the things they do for their children: “I love my mother / And my mother loves me,” the song begins. “She feeds me / And while I sleep peacefully / She washes and mends my clothes…” 

“I went to [Melita] and I said, ‘Look at this. This is three and a half notes. What are we going to do with this?’” Bušić recalled. “I mean, it’s so simple. It’s a melody that can be sung really everywhere… It’s a children’s song.

“But look, that’s all that existed from the Arbanasi except for two or three more songs about Skanderbeg. And we had to put it on the CD,” she said. 

“I said to Melita, ‘Make something!’” 

Leaving the basic melody untouched, Dina e Mel created a complex, dissonant arrangement that brings out the tension in the song. In this way, today’s Arbanasi mothers and children can still cherish and repeat the singsong lyrics (“Dear mother, I love her deeply”) as they eat or get ready for bed. At the same time audiences with a sophisticated ear for classical music can appreciate its artistry. 

This was Ivković’s homage to classical composers’ treatment of folklore. “To very simple compositions, they gave the most layers,” she said. 

Composers throughout time have taken inspiration from what’s generally thought of as “folklore;” melodies recorded from everyday musicians have been treated with intricate and creative musical renderings. This historical practice in Soviet-era Poland was vividly portrayed in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 2018 Oscar-nominated fiction film “Cold War.” In it we see ethnomusicologists record village residents and adapt their tunes into multi-part choral harmonies which are sung by world-class musicians and meant to represent what is authentically Polish.

A bit closer to Zadar, Bosnian sevdalinka artist Damir Imamović’s research has posited that Yugoslav folklorists collecting songs for the genre in the post-war period adapted their collected songs to meet the standards of the new socialist republic’s sound — radio-friendly compositions that met western musical standards and erased the genre’s eastern and oriental influences. 

In the hands of different artists, Zadar’s Arbanasi songs could have been used to tell a narrow or nationalist narrative. Instead, Dina e Mel worked to emphasize and celebrate the cross-border linkages across the Balkans and the Adriatic that they discovered in Bušić’s tapes and shaped their new arrangements using musical sources and inspiration from across the region.

The album’s title track “Bërbili” (“Nightingale”) is an example of the surprising cross-border influences they discovered in Bušić’s corpus. Originally sung to her by her grandfather’s kum, Bušić later realized that it’s a tune with a storied past. Entering the Balkans through the Turkish song “Üsküdar’a Gider İken,” the song has been adapted into practically every Balkan language. 

Bulgarian director Adela Peeva’s film “Whose is this song?” traces the song’s history and cultural transmission and uncovers Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Greek, Serbian, and Bosnian versions of the song. The Arbanasi version appears to have been previously unknown outside Zadar.

“What’s unbelievable is that it’s such a beautiful melody, it catches everyone. Every country, every language, every creative person,” Bušić said.

As Bušić’s old recording only had a short fragment of the Arbanasi version, Bušić and Ivković decided to put it together with two other language versions to make a full piece. 

Their sources of inspiration for “Bërbili” the song as well as “Bërbili” the album were wide-ranging, sonically connected to the historical origins of the sounds and rhythms they found in Bušić’s tapes, while still being grounded in their personal experiences.

“We return to ourselves, to what I would call our identity, what we as people are, what we’ve listened to in our lives,” Bušić said. “How we were educated, in relation to training in classical music, but of course also in the context of Zadar. 

“We’re proud that some songs on our album erase national borders in this area.”

But just as important to them was doing something artistically ambitious with the material. From the overwhelmingly positive responses they’ve gotten from audiences, it seems they’ve succeeded.

They have played throughout the region, including several times in Albania and Kosovo, and they are also part of a pan-Balkan music project called MOST, which connects musicians from different traditions across the region. “We are most naturally classical musicians, both of us, but here, in this world music scene, we feel really welcome,” Bušić said.

Dina e Mel’s performances have been warmly received in Albania and Kosovo. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This has inspired their future projects, one of which will connect the Arbëresh community in Italy with the Arbanasi in Croatia to develop a songbook from communities across the Adriatic Sea. A second project, still in the research phase, is a new album that will deal with “erasing borders” by highlighting shared songs, an idea that arose from their audiences’ warm response to “Bërbili.”

“Songs that everyone shares — there are many of them, not just in the Balkans, but across the Mediterranean,” Bušić said. With this next project, they hope to draw a new cultural map through music.

But at the end of the day, the cultivation of Arbanasi culture, music and community was the primary goal of their recent album. Part of this includes holding music workshops in the community with children learning Arbanasi and with a local choir.

“It was maybe the most important thing to me to be accepted, let’s say, in my own backyard,” Bušić said, and for the “local community to still identify themselves with the songs.”

Their hope is that in five or 10 years, Arbanasi will be singing these songs at parties and informal gatherings.

Though Bušić and Ivković put their personal touch on the songs, the community was involved at every step. “All those who had something left to share, some material, recordings, knowledge of the Arbanasi language, translations, of anything, they were all included,” Bušić said. “And even now some are contacting us with new information.”

And though certain aspects of old Arbanasi culture may be slowly fading away, the community has at least one new member.

“In the 1980s,” Ivković recalled, “you could only swim [in this part of town] if you were from Arbanas. When we started recording the CD, Dina took me to Punta Bajlo to swim. I had to jump into the sea from some rocks. Rocks three meters high. It was like my initiation as an Arbanasi […] If you want to play this music, you have to jump.”

Bušić interrupted with a smile, “She became Arbanasi.”

With reporting from Daniel Petrick.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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  • 29 Nov 2023 - 21:46 | Ljiljana Tomas-Perović:

    We are wrrry proud of Dina and Mel work. Dina is performing our songs in a way like has been performing in the past❤