One-on-one | Arts

Giorgio Fusco: Being Arbëresh teaches me to love

By - 21.06.2023

The indie-folk band SHEGA is preserving and renewing Arbëresh music and culture.

The indie-folk band SHEGA is preserving and renewing Arbëresh music and culture.

A sign at the entrance to the town of Piana degli Albanesi welcomes people in two languages. “Benvenuti” the sign reads in Italian, and below “Mirë se na erdhët” in Arbëresh. The town, not far from Palermo, Sicily, is also known as Hora e Arbëreshvet and it is the home of around 6,000 Arbëresh residents, Albanians who fled in the face of the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans 600 years ago and made their homes in Italy.

For six centuries, the Arbëresh have preserved their language, which is still used in daily life in places like Piana degli Albanesi. And across these years, they preserved songs, poetry, costumes and other cultural traditions.

But the culture can’t be frozen in the past, and to preserve it means to renew it. Now, Piana degli Albanesi, home to the 16th century Arbëresh priest Lekë Matrënga who wrote down the earliest known Albanian language poem, is the source of new Arbëresh poetry and songs. Just as “E bukura More,” the centuries-old Arbëresh song about the sorrows of leaving home, has become a mainstay in Kosovo and Albania, the songs of the Arbëresh indie-folk band SHEGA are spreading out across the Albanian diaspora and beyond.

SHEGA, which means pomegranate in Arbëresh, came together seven years ago, composed of four young Arbëresh men who grew up together in Piana degli Albanesi. Founded by Giorgio Fusco, Saverio Guzzetta, Giorgio Ciulla and Alessandro Ferrantelli, SHEGA sings about the everyday life of today’s Arbëresh and about their love for their roots with a mix of jazz, folk, and indy-pop influences.

They wanted to do “something that interests the new generation. Something that represents the new generations,” says Giorgio Fusco, lead singer and songwriter of the band. “Songs,” he says, “brought us together,” and then have taken them to stages across Italy, Kosovo, Albania and Germany.

Prior to their debut concert in Pristina (June 24 at Soma Bookstation) as part of K2.0’s Carnival, we spoke to Giorgio Fusco about home, Arbëresh identity, the past and the present. 

“In my papers I am Giorgio, but my friends call me Gjergj,” he says. The name Gjergj, Albanian for George or Giorgio, is one that is passed down through generations in Piana degli Albanesi. SHEGA’s Gjergj took the name from his grandfather, “Noni Gjergj,” and the town celebrates Saint George.

Gjergj spoke to K2.0 about Piana degli Albanesi through his eyes, about SHEGA as a contemporary way to preserve traditions, about language, migration and everyday life in “his village.”

K2.0: Among the 6,000 people of Piana degli Albanesi, four musicians met and made a band. How did this happen?

We all knew each other since we were kids. In our village, we are not many and all our peers know one another. The boys had a band where they played rock music or made covers, just for fun. 

I was passionate about Arbëresh culture and language, I was very connected to my roots, and I wanted to be able to listen to music in my language while driving in the car. Then I said: If it doesn’t exist, I will make it.

This is how the idea was born. I told them, why don’t we create a text in our language, where we talk about everyday life — it does not have to be about, say, history or such. 

Our first song was “Kalivar,” which means carnival. Here, we call it “kalivar” — it is dedicated to the atmosphere of the carnival here in Piana. Slowly, we wrote other songs. We made an album and now, in concerts, along with our original songs we also play our versions of Arbëresh traditional songs because it is something that gives us joy when we do it. As we travel across Albania and Kosovo, we have added other songs as well, like “E dehur jam” (“I am drunk”) by Nexhmije Pagarusha, which is one of my favorite songs.

Maybe the Arbëresh do not have raki in our tradition, but when Nexhmije Pagarusha says: “Every night I drink raki and wine, they may poison everyone, but they are consoling me,” it is something that represents us too. 

But the focus of the band is to write songs in Arbëresh language, in a contemporary Arbëresh.

SHEGA’s music video for their song “Lumturi.”

What does it mean to write in contemporary Arbëresh?

In our first album, I had a philological approach. I would add a word that is not used or a word that is going extinct. I did this given that I also studied Albanian and Arbëresh languages and literature at the University of Palermo. As time passed by, I said “okay, this is beautiful, but I prefer to be clear to the people that live here.”

Now my goal is to write songs where there wouldn’t be any words that, say, my grandmother, a woman who lived 101 years, would not understand.

I do not kill my music with these [philological approaches] anymore. This does not mean that the songs had tons of forgotten words, there could be one or two. For example, in our song “Arianna” we say “tek ai dejt plot me anije” (“near that sea full of boats”). The word “anije” (“boat” in standard Albanian) is a word we do not use in our everyday dialect. So people maybe learned this word here, so the songs have a didactic goal.

But on an artistic level, I prefer to do things differently now.

So you used to include words from standard Albanian in your songs, but this has changed now?

Yes, from standard Albanian or old Arbëresh, because of course, in 500 years some words get lost and it is normal if you do not have a specific word in the everyday Arbëresh language, you have to take it somewhere, from Albanian or another language, that’s how I see it.

Here, everyone who writes, the writers and those who do theater or comedy, they have this higher level of language, without borrowing. I had that a little in the past, but now I changed it because I like writing in a language that I personally use every day. There is not a big difference, it is more something that is in my head. In today’s Arbëresh language, there are many words borrowed from the Sicilian language and Italian, and maybe there are historical borrowings from medieval Greek. I like using these words because they are present. I do not want to do something like linguistic purism.

Your audiences do not necessarily understand Arbëresh, for example, Albanians in the Balkans. How do you deal with that?

We are lucky that we live in a digital world, so when people listen to our songs, they can read the Albanian translation. I think the difference is not that big. On YouTube, in the video description, I translate our songs into Italian, English and Albanian. From the original text, Albanians may understand maybe 60-70% of the text, then, if I say for example “dhrosis” — a word with a Greek origin meaning “enjoying” or “having fun” — maybe you won’t understand it the moment you hear it, but you will understand it from the context.

This shift in your approach when it comes to using language in your text, is it an effort to familiarize the listener in Albania and Kosovo with Arbëresh or to teach them?

No, not to teach them. I don’t teach Arbëresh, I simply want to preserve my version, my dialect, because if I write in standard Albanian, there are many songwriters who write in Albanian — in Gheg or Tosk. I think it does not make much sense on a linguistic level or in an artistic one. On an artistic level, I seek to speak about my life, about what I experience, about lost loves or facts that touch my soul. We speak about these in Arbëresh, in my dialect.

In every village, there is a dialect of Arbëresh. I cannot do a “koine”—

Sorry, what’s “koine” mean?

It’s a Greek word, I mean, I cannot unify all dialects and make a standard language. I am not a linguist, I am just someone who writes. I seek to write in my own language.

'We maintain an equilibrium between the old, the ethnic and the contemporary.'

Let’s go back to the beginning of the band. You had a quite clear and very specific idea: to sing in Arbëresh, to sing about your everyday life. The rest of the members already had their approach, which was different. They had a rock band. How did you merge into what you are today?

It required a lot of time. Songs brought us together. Maybe, when we were invited for the first time to an event to play live, to be a band that makes an entire concert, that’s when the real band was formed. It was 2016, Arbëresh Easter, in a town called Contessa Entellina in Sicily.

There, we had maybe four or five original songs and did not know what else we would sing. We decided to make covers of traditional songs because we thought that it was best to connect our original songs with old songs because there is a history there with deep roots, but now it is developing and changing form. Of course, old songs are not the kind of songs I can write now, they are different because I did not grow up only with Arbëresh folklore. I also grew up with Italian music, the blues, The Doors, Bob Marley — all these influences are present in our music. We maintain an equilibrium between the old, the ethnic and the contemporary. 

Why name your band SHEGA?

We wanted to have a name in our Arbëresh language. The project was about Arbëresh songs, and now we have a cultural role as well. Many people tell us: “You take the name of our village to the world, we are proud of you.”

We threw around a couple different names. We liked the word SHEGA, initially as a sound, because it sounds like something Brazilian — I adore Bossa Nova. SHEGA was also international, it was a word that anyone could write, hear and read easily.

Then, we decided on the meaning. It is about the seeds of a pomegranate, which altogether are part of a bigger fruit. They represent the members of a community. SHEGA is an example of a community. We have a message in our songs too, a message of peace and fraternity among all peoples.

'The example of the Arbëresh people shows us that integration in a foreign land is possible, an integration without assimilation.'

We are not nationalists. We want to see the world united. That being said, SHEGA is a community, not only of Arbëresh but all communities. The example of the Arbëresh people shows us that integration in a foreign land is possible, an integration without assimilation. Of course, at school, in politics, we are Italian, but then we managed to preserve our differences, like language, and the church Byzantine rites. As a community, we have plural identities.

Being Arbëresh teaches me to love other people as well, to love other cultures, and to love cultural changes. Being Arbëresh teaches me… it is like a hymn for diversity.

How do you think about connecting the past and the present in your music?

When we create, we do not have walls. Several times, in concerts people could not tell which songs were our original songs, and which ones were the old ones, because I transform the old ones too. For example, we sing “Lule lule” in a jazz manouche version. We sing “E dehur jam” in blues. For us, this is fun.

For people too, I think it is beautiful to listen to songs they might recognize, but in another shape. Not in a better or worse one, just different. I too, when I listen to songs, the original ones, sung in a truly archaic way, I get emotional. Here in Piana, there was a chorus that sang songs like “E bukura More,” which is one of the most famous Arbëresh songs. When they sang it it was as if they killed me. I like that music, that song, that harmony, but I must follow my artistic sensibility. I do not play “E bukura More” in concerts because it is a very important song, it is not a happy song. Maybe it is the kind of song that is best sung by a chorus or folklore bands.

Tell me more about Hora e Arbëreshvet, or the village as you call it.

We call it Hora, a word with a Greek origin meaning village. The standard Albanian word “katund” (“village”) we do not use in our everyday life. Of course, it is a small village. Now we have a demographic crisis, people are leaving, they are going to the north of Italy, or leaving Italy. This does not help us with preserving the culture and traditions. The fewer we are, the more difficult it becomes.

On one side, our village, it is full of artists, people that write theater, musicians and many others that are connected to their roots and I think out of all Arbëresh communities, Hora is one of the most active ones, not only because we speak Arbëresh, but because we are experiencing a cultural resurrection in a contemporary way.

We also have the tourist side. Many people come here to see the churches and our culture. In the last few years, there have been many people from Albania, Kosovo, the global Albanian diaspora. When I meet them, but also when I go to Kosovo or Albania, I feel a strong sense of fraternity because we speak the same language. But there are also tourists from all over the world, because here there is a rich cultural diversity for those that do not speak Albanian too. People also come here to eat cannoli. It is said that the best cannoli is here.

SHEGA has recently toured in Germany and Switzerland. Their debut concert in Prishtina is part of K2.0’s Carnival. Photo credit: Courtesy of SHEGA.

You say a demographic crisis and a cultural revival are happening simultaneously. How are these two things, which seem to be in opposition to each other, happening at the same time?

Not only in Hora, but all of Italy’s south is experiencing a demographic crisis because there is a lack of jobs and the south of Italy is not as developed as the north. If someone has ambitions or goals, unfortunately, they have to leave their birthplace. 

To us, it is important to insist on staying here, because if everyone leaves, everything ends. A history that lasted for 600 years ends. A history that has given literature, that has given strength to an Albanian Renaissance in the previous century, that has contributed to the unification of Italy. Then, of course, if you are dying of hunger here, you have to go somewhere else. Migrating is a part of the human experience, nobody knows this better than the Albanian diaspora — they are everywhere in the world. I say this because we Arbëresh feel like we are a part of this Albanian diaspora.

As for the culture, I think that when people see a crisis, they respond, they think they should resist. When people think that they are losing their identity, they engage to preserve that history, that identity and that language.

We have to do something that interests new generations, something that makes the new generation feel represented. For example, I am proud when at parties where people gather, several times they take the guitar and sing our songs even when we are not present. To me, this is fantastic, because that song maybe does more than 1,000 books, because that person who is maybe 18 feels represented by that song, from that love story.

And he doesn’t need to be a patriot in order to live in his culture. We live our culture in our everyday life, in the way we speak, the way we speak Albanian, Arbëresh. At the same time I do not like ethnocentrism, because for example, when my grandmother was alive, if someone would ask her if she felt proud to be Arbëresh, she wouldn’t know, she did not care about this — she spoke Arbëresh, she was Abëresh, she lived in an Arbëresh way 100%, but did not have an awareness about that. I think that it is not important to grab a flag and go out and say look, how good it is that we are Arbëresh. I like a realistic culture, songs, and poetry that speak about life, not about ethnocentrism. 

You mentioned that you are remaking a song from Nexhmije Pagarusha, the iconic Kosovar Albanian singer. What is your impression of the Arbëresh community’s engagement with media, culture or music from Kosovo or Albania. Are people familiar with standard Albanian?

No, it is not spoken. Standard Albanian is studied by a few people at the university. We have the Albanology department at the University of Palermo, where I studied, but not everyone knows standard Albanian. 

There are some people that are connected to the arts, to the Albanian and Kosovar music scene but ordinary people do not know who Nexhmije Pagarusha is, for example. To us it is a joy to know these songs, these stories, and to share them with people here in concerts, to tell them, we went to Albania, we learned these songs, we went to Kosovo, we learned these songs and now we are singing them to you. Because language is not something that is spoken only within the house, it is a bridge between two countries, between the south of Italy, the Arbëresh community with Albania, Kosovo and diaspora all across the world. Language is not something that isolates us within a place, it is what opens doors. For example, I follow the music scene. I adore Kosovar singers like Shpat Deda, Dren Abazi, Plator Gashi.

We have met many people, singers, musicians from Albania too, but people in Piana do not have this, many people from Hora do not even know many Arbëresh bands because we are not that united. This is normal. It is our job to bring our community closer to the original culture, language and poetry. We too should be the ones that tell them to remain part of this culture. It is also our job as musicians that the Arbëresh are made to feel like they belong in this culture.

'What is home can change — we are migrants at heart. Six-hundred years ago we left Albania, our motherland, to come here and now we are leaving here too, to go to America, Germany, Switzerland.'

Now you have a tour of Germany and Switzerland. Do you have an audience outside of the Arbëresh community?

Yes, we go there because the Albanian community invites us, but there then will also be non-Albanian people who may listen to us.

We have some friends who sing our Arbëresh songs but who aren’t Arbëresh, which is fantastic.

But I think Italy does not have this curiosity, not only when it comes to the Arbëresh community, but all linguistic or ethnic minorities. There are some festivals, for example, we have participated in a music festival of minority languages in Cagliari where there were bands singing in Sardo, Furlan, but I think if we only speak among ourselves about language, ethnic minorities, and if we do not show it to the general public, then we have not done anything.

In Italy, the only non-standard language that has managed to be popular in a pop mainstream level is the Neapolitan language. This shows that it is a bit of a homogenous culture.

When it comes to our connection with the diaspora, to us it is very beautiful, because oftentimes, they give us the appreciation that we ourselves do not have for our community. Albanians that listen to our songs have this sensibility, I’ve seen them become nostalgic, I’ve seen them in tears when they listen to our songs.

K2.0’s Carnival, where you will perform, is titled HOME. What does home mean to you?

I feel at home in a place where there is love, where there is fraternity, where people love one another and they do not see what the color of one’s skin is. What is home can change — we are migrants at heart. Six-hundred years ago we left Albania, our motherland, to come here and now we are leaving here too, to go to America, Germany, Switzerland, wherever there are better opportunities. This is normal, it cannot be changed. One of my professors would always say that humans, when they started standing, they saw the horizon and said “maybe my home is over there and not here” and this is normal. It is something that humans have always sought, to be in a better place.

Feature image: Courtesy of SHEGA.

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