Mirash Ndou, Albanian singer of tales

A registration


Mirash Ndou (1906-76) was an Albanian “singer of tales”, well known mainly as an interpreter of legendary heroic songs, accompanied by the lahuta (a single-stringed bowed instrument). He had also other genres in his repertoire, so-called historical songs celebrating heroic deeds from the 19th and 20th centuries, and lyrical songs; besides, he was a great storyteller. He was illiterate, having been just a couple of years too old when in 1948 the socialist authorities decided that all citizens below 40 years of age should be taught to read and write. In his professional life he was a mason. When I met him in 1974 he was an old-age pensioner.

Under a cultural agreement between Albania and Denmark I had received a state scholarship for the months of January and February to study Albanian epic. My background was that of a Homerist following in the footsteps of Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord.1 The Albanian epic tradition is closely related to the Serbo-Croatian songs they studied; many of their informants were actually ethnic Albanians, and their collection contains a wealth of songs in that language. Accordingly it seemed very attractive to get a personal experience of this tradition.

During the last week of my stay it was arranged that I could attend and record live epic performance in Shkodra.2 The dialectologist Gjovalin Shkurtaj accompanied me as helper and interpreter (to Italian), and the folklorist Qemal Haxhihasani in Tirana had provided us with a list of singers’ names. A room was reserved for the project at the Albturist Hotel, and Gjovalin succeeded in making agreements with three singers to come there: Kol Leka, Tom Marashi, and Mirash Ndou. Gjovalin and I soon decided to concentrate our attention on Mirash, and in the period 10.2.-16.2. he performed for us, many hours per day with only one afternoon off. He gave us 17 këngë kreshnikësh, fifteen of them sung, two told in prose. During the sessions we sometimes had guests: the director of a local museum, Kahreman Ulcini, our driver Freddie, waiters who brought refreshments to the singer and stayed on to listen, and towards the end of the event two linguists, Albanian Bahri Beci and Danish Bjarne Basse. Before my departure Mirash’s songs were copied for the archives of the folklore institute in Tirana. Since then the internet has been invented, offering new possibilities of giving public access to Mirash’s achievement.3

As indicated, the registered performance was induced, not natural. Actually, Mirash had for many years only performed his songs when folklorists wanted to collect them. To begin with he could not see the point of this new registration of his epics since he “had already written them all in Tirana”, as he said. Nevertheless he was willing to cooperate, and during the week that followed he gradually warmed to the task. Again and again in the recordings he asks, “What now?” and expresses eagerness to continue, and on a couple of occasions when Gjovalin and I were planning to stop for the day, he wanted to sing still another song so as not to disappoint “the lady” (11th, afternoon, item 7; 13th, afternoon, item 2). Since the melody of the songs is monotonous, Albanian folklorists usually recorded only the beginning and end of performances and concentrated on writing the texts from dictation. Perhaps Mirash liked the fact that this time he was being asked to sing the full texts.

When Gjovalin translated, he called me zoja (the lady, Mrs.), “zoja asks this or that”. The fourth day Mirash asked what I was called, and I felt ashamed not to have presented myself.

Like Parry and Lord I wanted to collect not only the songs, but also the singers’ opinions of their art and the tradition they represented. Therefore I had the microphone open during all sessions. Initially I switched it off during dictation, but soon changed my mind. Accordingly, beginning from song II the sound track includes the dictations. Even so, looking back now, I wish I had also registered the breaks and the small talk, since much of what Mirash said in such connections revealed his views upon the world in general and his songs in particular.

Similarly, even though the legendary songs were what I came for, I was also interested in what other genres singers had in their repertoires, and in general in everything to do with the social setting of the tradition.

I had hoped to study how fluid or stable songs were by attending various singers performing for various listeners. As it turned out, that was impossible for very many reasons, of which the most important was that singers no longer entertained natural audiences. What had been the most important setting for these songs, the winter nights in the kulla (the home of the extended family) high up in the mountains isolated by snow for months on end, no longer existed: society had been dramatically changed, there were roads leading up to the villages, which were kept free of snow when necessary, villagers had become workers like everybody else and no longer had the leisure required; besides, the songs had lost out in the competition with all the other forms of entertainment modern life brings. Folk traditions were supported in socialist Albania, and among other things regular folklore festivals were arranged in Gjirokastra. However, even here the epic songs lost the competition with shorter and more immediately entertaining genres such as lyrical songs or dance. Indeed Mirash told me, he had been invited to Gjirokastra, but as part of the audience, not as a performer.

What I could study was how stable the songs were in one singer’s repertoire. Here my imperfect knowledge of the Albanian language was a benefit: it was easy for Mirash to accept that I would need a dictated text in order to understand what he sang. Gjovalin took on the scribe’s job. In this way Mirash gave me his songs in two versions, one sung and one dictated, and in that order: first he sang to the lahuta and next he dictated, not always immediately afterwards. Besides, on two occasions I said that a sung version had not come through very well in the registration, and he kindly performed it once more. Accordingly, the material contains two songs in three versions, twelve in two versions, one only sung, not dictated, and two told in prose. Besides, it also holds quite a few examples of other genres.

The overall result confirms Parry and Lord’s experience. Mirash did not perform his songs by rote, but recomposed them during the performance/dictation. The variations in content are small, however, but major variation was not to be expected, considering that the versions were performed soon after each other, and the audience was the same.

In handbooks Albanian epic songs are said to consist of eight-syllable verses. However, Mirash handled the sung and dictated verses slightly differently, so that his sung verses may contain both ten and eleven syllables, whereas the dictated verses are more regular. Especially, listening to his dictating voice you realise that the rhythm is based not on the number of syllables, but on beat; actually, his metrics is quite rigid, each verse having four beats with a fixed caesura in the middle.

Sometimes Mirash used the opportunity offered by dictation to correct an error made in the first version. Thus in the song of Rozafat (no. III) it is essential to the story that the three brothers promise not to mention to their wives that she who the following day brings their lunch will be sacrificed, but only the youngest brother keeps his promise. In his sung performance Mirash forgot this important detail, but it is there in his dictated version. Also in another way Mirash is similar to the singers Parry and Lord encountered in Yugoslavia: when singing he sometimes broke off because of problems with his voice, but never in order to change anything. When dictating he might correct himself, or he might ask Gjovalin to repeat what he had just written, and sometimes the two of them might even have a small dialogue, rarely though.

In one respect Mirash differed from Parry and Lord’s informants: his songs tended to be longer when dictated than when sung. The reason for this is probably that for some decades he had become more trained in dictating than in singing.

At a certain point Mirash mentioned that he had himself composed two songs in praise of Enver Hoxha (nos. 3 and 4), and in this case he had clearly memorised the texts, which he recited quickly without hesitation and afterwards first sang and then dictated, the three versions being almost word-for-word alike.

The selection of songs to be performed was partly Mirash’s, partly mine. Often it was clear when we opened a session that he had decided beforehand what song or songs he would begin with. When I asked for a specific song, he was sometimes immediately ready to sing it. In other cases he did not answer, but sang something else. Once he said, "This song I can perform only with words (me fjalë)", meaning he could tell us the story in prose but not sing it to the lahuta (XIV: Muji’s strength). Accordingly, this “song” exists in our material as an animatedly narrated prose story. I found this reaction particularly interesting because some Homerists have believed that once a singer has learned the craft and is familiar with the formulaic language and the traditional patterns, he is able to compose new songs or transform stories into songs. This seemed not to be the case for Mirash. He had actually composed songs himself, but upon contemporary topics. My suspicion is that he would not have found it acceptable to make his own version of a known story, but would rather have considered such a song a forgery.

Once I asked for the song of Muji and Halil visiting the sultan (IX), and Mirash began telling the story. As he narrated, some of it gradually took the form of verse lines. He promised to sing it for me the following day, but never did.

One morning I asked for the tragic story of a young woman who dies in a distant place but is miraculously fetched home by her youngest brother. Again Mirash said that he knew the song, and that he would sing it in the afternoon. This time I reminded him of his promise when we met after lunch, and he right away performed no. XIII, Garentina. I was curious about how he had prepared himself, wondering whether he had rehearsed the song to himself or perhaps had somebody read it aloud to him from a book. Accordingly I asked how he could sing the song now that he had been unable to sing in the morning, and he answered that there had been three passages he had forgotten (14th, afternoon, item 2). I did not succeed in making him describe the process.

What seems certain is that Mirash’s repertoire consisted of specific songs and was not a continuum of traditional stories of which he could actualise a suitable part as he pleased.

When asking for a song I was careful not to mention a title, but instead to sketch its content, since I wished to find out whether songs had titles for him or not (also a topic in the Parry-Lord approach). At a certain point I asked him directly, but did not get a clear answer; the last afternoon I repeated the question, and between them Mirash and Gjovalin explained to me how when Mirash had been called out to entertain, somebody in the audience would call for a song of Jutbina, or of Muji and Halil (16th, afternoon, item 4). For what it is worth, I think this affirms Lord’s experience that titles were added by folklorists, not used by the singing community itself. In the present publication I have given titles to the legendary songs so as to facilitate comparison with the songs as they are found in printed editions, while I know of no titles for the historical songs.

I have no knowledge of whether Mirash was inspired by books, but when I asked him how he had learned a given song, he always mentioned persons, and the long gone epic universe of which he had been a part was unlikely to have included books.

Often the heroic songs end with a disclaimer: “This is what I have been told, but I was not there myself.” However, one day Mirash had a brief conversation with Gjovalin about Jutbina, the place where Muji, Halil and the other heroes live, and said that he had met people who had visited their homes and could tell that they had been much taller than men are nowadays (12th, morning, item 12). It was clear that he was convinced that Muji and Halil were real persons who had once been alive. However, even though Jutbina was a real place that could be visited it, also, had mythic status.

The lahuta is not the only instrument used for accompanying Albanian epic, but according to Mirash it was the noblest. He knew that there were singers who used the sharki or the cifteli and that there were various traditions in various regions, but he was critical, especially of the cifteli, which he considered a modern invention. Already his story of the attraction the lahuta had exerted on him when he was a small child reveals how he considered the instrument to be essential for his art, and in the further conversations we had about this he asserted that the lahuta was very old, perhaps the oldest instrument in the world (11th, morning, item 7; 12th, morning, item 2; 12th, afternoon, item 6). The last day he gave a small formal lecture on the composition and character of the instrument (16th, morning, item 10).

After a couple of days Mirash asked why I was interested in these songs, and why I recorded the conversations. I tried to explain that my object of study was actually a poet from antiquity. His next question was, of course, whether this old poet had also sung of Muji and Halil (12th, afternoon, item 4). I could not easily explain that my main interest was to analyse his own way of remembering his songs, and to find out how fixed or stable they were; I doubt whether that would have made sense to him. Anyway, it was important for me that he should not focus on this during his performances. He returned to the problem the last day, saying that he had not understood what I wanted, but that he had given me the best he had. Actually, I think both he and Gjovalin were bewildered by my project. This is revealed especially in the discussion of the titles of songs in which I suggest that there might be a difference between how the singing community and the folklorists treat them (16th, afternoon, item 4); here I was not understood. The Parry-Lord theory and its overall aim of investigating how oral composition works was after all rather different from the folklore approach with which they were both familiar.

When one day Mirash asked to hear one of his performances, he was deeply disappointed to hear the sound of his voice. “You should have come while I was younger,” he said. To have a clear voice and one that endures long sessions of performance is important to epic singers world-wide, and a great source of pride.

Besides, he was proud of the number of songs he knew and of their length. After finishing the dictation of a song he often asked Gjovalin to count how many verses there were and was satisfied if he had reached a high number. (To me a charming detail is that like Homer he had the same term for ‘word’ and ‘verse’, fjalë and ἔπος respectively.) Whether he gave me his full repertoire as it was at the time I cannot know. He asserted more than once that he could go on singing legendary songs for hours on end, but nevertheless sometimes seemed at a loss regarding what to perform, and on four occasions he preferred a historical song. Perhaps he actually liked them better? Or since they are normally shorter than the legendary songs, perhaps the task of singing them was felt to be less overwhelming?

First and foremost it was impressive how authoritative and self-confident he was, both when singing and when dictating. Among other things, performing is a physical strain, and not only was he not young, he was in the throes of a cold and did not feel well. Add to this that the time when he had been regularly called for to entertain an audience was long gone. Nevertheless he managed to perform for us, sometimes in very long sessions, and many of his songs came off very well; especially successful are nos. VI, X, XI, XV, XVI, and the second version of no. II. There is every reason to admire his achievement.

When one morning I asked whether I could take his photo, he wanted me to wait. After lunch he turned up dressed in his national costume.

I could not have foreseen how this project would develop, but now so long afterwards I find that the most important result of our efforts was that the registration documents a mature singer’s individual handling of the tradition, performed during one intense week. In the Parry-Lord optic each singer of tales has his own approach to his art, and there is always reason to analyse both the tradition and the individual manifestations of it. The present collection opens up for a synchronic study of Mirash Ndou’s legendary songs as part of his broader repertoire, and of his personal understanding of his own role as an expert on and transmitter of Albanian epic songs. The registration also draws a picture of a kind and intelligent person.

Besides, those of us who study oral epic from earlier ages often have the problem that very little is known of how these poems were written. We need knowledge of modern registration, particularly of dictation, as a help in reconstructing lost contexts. The present documentation of fieldwork, however modest, reveals the way the involved parties cooperated, the various interests we had, and the atmosphere in which it took place, and is thus a contribution to the not very big fund of documented dictation processes.

I am deeply grateful to both Mirash Ndou and Gjovalin Shkurtaj for the patience and generosity with which they conducted this work.

Technical note

The sound quality of the registration does not meet modern standards. What I had brought with me was a tape recorder and a pile of Philips 90-minute tapes. The mere fact that they have survived four decades is impressive! However, being an amateur when it comes to registration techniques, I made mistakes: sometimes a tape ran out before I noticed, or I forgot to change the batteries. Besides, we were working in a hotel room, not a recording studio, and often noise from outside is heard, such as children’s voices or the sound of traffic. However, Mirash’s voice comes through clearly enough, and after all the point of the project was to register the texts of his songs rather than the music.

In the process of uploading the old tapes I have made only minor interventions. I have cut away empty passages, and where possible without harming the performance I have cancelled coughing and traffic noise; in one case I have deleted a telephone call that broke into our session. Besides, I have concatenated the tapes so that each session – morning or afternoon – has become a coherent whole; brief breaks indicate where a tape ends and a new one begins. In this way the electronic edition comes close to the rhythm of the original work.

I have used Roman numerals for Mirash’s epic songs and Arabic numerals for texts of other genres.

The way the registration is published enables the user to attend the process from beginning to end, to select specific sessions, or to choose a given song sung to the lahuta or dictated. In order to read the written text while listening it is enough to scroll down the page and click “Written texts”. At the top of each session [i] states who were present at the recording in case.4

Feedback and problems

Comments and feedback, as well as reports on problems or errors, are all very welcome. Please get in touch with us with the form below:

  1. The basic texts of this theory are Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry [1928-35], edited by Adam Parry, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1971, and Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales [1960], 2nd edition, edited by Stephen Mitchell & Gregory Nagy, with audio and video CD, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2000.

  2. For a description of the broader context see my “Meeting Mirash Ndou. A story from Albania February 1974” (Zymer Neziri (ed.): Acta from a conference in Prishtina September 2014, forthcoming.).

  3. In the following I mention the protagonists by their first names only, according to Albanian praxis.

  4. I am grateful to Michael Stenskjær Christensen who has been in charge of developing and administrating the website, and to both him and Marianne Pade for reading this introduction and giving helpful comments. Besides, I thank Emmerik Warburg for having repaired some passages of the sound track, and John Kendal for having revised my English.