The term gjamë (in the standard language gjëmë) in its vernacular uses epitomizes the greatest loss and the deepest grief that someone can experience. This term is also used in the curse “Të bëj gjëmën, të bëj!” which could be translated as“I’ll give you hell!” but literally means “I will do the gjamë to you!” A second connotation of this term is the roar of thunder, which comes from the verb gjëmoj (to thunder).

A third use of the term is to name a lament performed only by men in the regions of Malësi and Dukagjin in northern Albania as well as by Malësi Albanians in Montenegro. With it, they mourn only men, in particular those who have been important to the community. Lamenting is primarily a women’s activity among Albanians and particularly in the regions mentioned. From this viewpoint gjamë represents a great exception.

The origin of gjamë is connected with the death of Skanderbeg (Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu) in 1468. For more than 25 years, he led the Albanians against the Ottomans by uniting Albanian principalities. Today, this period is still one of the most famous in the collective memory of the Albanians. Particularly during the time of Rilindja (Rebirth) in the 19th century, Skanderbeg served as the national symbol for all Albanians, no matter what their religion (Catholicism, Orthodox, Moslem). His name and the deeds attributed to him are still present in folk traditions within Albania and the diaspora (particularly in southern Italy and Sicily).

The assumption of the connection between Skanderbeg’s death and male laments is based on Marinus Barletius’ (known in the Albanian historiography as Marin Barleti) biography “Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi, Epirotarum principis” published in Rome between 1508 and 1510 (Prifti in Barletius 1982³: 8-9).

Barletius remarks that Lekë Dukagjini (one of Skanderbeg’s closest collaborators) had pulled out his hair and his beard in deepest sorrow after the death of his leader (Barletius 1982³:656).

Gjamë, as we know them from the performances in the second half of the 20th century and from singers’ accounts, are accompanied by gestures, but they are different from those Barleti has mentioned. The fact that people are still aware of these gestures and are related to gjamë shows the close connection between extreme sorrow and gjamë.

The different relationship of Albanian Catholics and Moslems in Montenegro to gjamë is quite significant. “Moslem men rarely perform gjamë, but Catholics do so regularly… [Burrat myslimanë rrallëherë bëjnë gjëma për të vdekurin, ndërsa ata katolikë rregullisht,…]” (Ahmeti 1986:15). During talks with singers and other residents in April-May 2006 this difference was much more evident. In the village of Dinoša/Dinoshë where a Medrese (Islamic school) will be built, people said that their religion prohibited Moslem men from lamenting.

As far as the performance situation today is concerned, the Albanian Catholics in Montenegro are no longer used to performing gjamë and in the case of a death, hire gjamatarë (gjamë performers) from Malësi in Albania.

The old form of gjamë is that performed bya men’s group without lyrics. The performers create a “sound carpet” (one of themost characteristic features of gjamë music) by shouting words and meaningless syllables without synchronizing them (see example 1). In the solo performances of gjamë, recorded for the first time in 1972 (AIKP 1972), this effect is missing. Instead, the performer improvises a text about the lives and deeds of the dead by adapting “model verses” of laments (see example 2). The inhabitants characterize the difference between the two forms of gjamë as follows: “People – men - used to perform gjamë in a different way; they only used to exclaim and now they call out to the dead differently [Përpara kanë gjimue njerëzit – burrat ndryshe, sepse ata veç kanë bërtië e tash i thrrasin ndryshe të dekunit].” (Ahmeti 1986:77)

Example 1
Musical transcription by Ahmedaja of a gjamë
performed by a men’s group in Lekbibaj / Bajram Curr / North Albania 1972 (see Miso 2001).

Example 2
Musical transcription by Ahmedaja of a gjamë performed by a man in
Shosh / Shkodër / North Albania 1974