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)
Musical transcription by Ahmedaja of a gjamë
performed by a men’s group in Lekbibaj / Bajram Curr / North Albania 1972 (see Miso 2001).
Musical transcription by Ahmedaja of a gjamë performed by a man in
Shosh / Shkodër / North Albania 1974
Iso – drone. This term comes from Greek Byzantine musical terminology “ισον“ [ison]. (Doris and Erich Stockmann 1964: 94).
It was widespread during the second half of the 20th century among singers. Albanians in Macedonia still call these songs “këngë me të mbajtur” - songs with hold. The word “mbaj” is still present in the vocabulary of singers and musicians of multipart songs in southern Albania (see ‘Phrases’; mbajtës - the singer of the second solo part).
In the areas south of Fier (part of Toskëri, see map) the term iso has been used in the transformed forms “yso” and “ysa” (Kruta 1991: 45).
The drone is presented in three ways in the multipart songs in southern Albania:
- As a rhythmic one, especially in Labëri. In this case, the drone group sings lyrics on the key note following the rhythmic structure of the other first part, who leads the song. But often the lyrics sung by the drone singers can hardly be understood because the drone singers do not articulate the syllables clearly. Instead, they change the color of the lyrics’ vowels by making them variants of a single one, mainly of o,ë, orein a very nasal sound.
- A continuous one, a vowel sung throughout the verse in all southern regions. In this case drone singers help each other by giving themselves the opportunity to breathe one after another without interrupting the drone or weakening its sound until the end of the verse. Otherwise the drone could not be a helpful foundation for the soloists.
- In a few other cases, both options are combined within the same verse.
bëjnë e (Kruta 1991: 44) - they do e, they sing the drone; bëjnë zë - they make voice; këngë me të mbajtur - songs with hold (in southern Albania and among the Albanian living near the Lakes Ohrid and Prespa in Macedonia); mbajnë kaba - they hold kaba (see kaba); Mbajani mirë! - Hold it [the drone] well!; ia mban – he holds it; ia mbush (Stockmann, Doris 1965: 174) - it fills it; zjejnë - they boil.
In Albanian traditional music the term “kaba” is mainly connected with instrumental music. The term came to Albania from Turkish and is used in everyday life to characterise something inelegant or heavy. Kaba are at the same time instrumental improvisations played by solo instruments (mostly the clarinet) accompanied by an ensemble of one violin, one llautë - a plucked lute - and a small drum named def or dajre. The same ensemble accompanies multipart songs in southern Albania.
The term kaba is in addition sometimes used to characterise the second soloists in multipart songs in southern Albania, as in the following comparison from the Labëri region: “Kaba … is the meadow, the sheep graze there … [Kabaja … është merája, aty kullosin berrat …]” (Kruta 1991: 40)
This term is used also for characterising the drone in the phrase mbajnë kaba - they hold kaba (see iso).
- Ahmeti, Ali M. 1986. Vajtimet dhe gjëmat shqiptare të Plavës dhe Gucisë. Titograd.
- AIKP - Arkivi i Instituti të Kulturës Popullore. The Archive of the Institute for Folk Culture. Tiranë.
- Barletius, Marinus. No Year (but 1508/1510). Historia de vita et gestis Scanderbegi Epirotarum principis. Modern edition translated by Stefan I. Prifti in Albanian “Historia e Skënderbeut”. Tiranë 1983³.
- Kruta, Beniamin. 1991. “Tipare të përbashkëta dhe dallime krahinore të polifonisë shqiptare.” Kultura Popullore 2/1991: 37-48.
- Miso, Pirro. 2001. Notizimi i parë i gjamës shqiptare. Notizuar nga Ardian Ahmedaja. Kultura Popullore, 1-2/2001: 308-310.
- Stockmann, Doris. 1965. „Zur musikalischen Struktur einiger mehrstimmiger Gesänge der südalbanischen Laben.“ Deutsches Jahrbuch für Volkskunde, vol. 11: 173-182.
- Stockmann, Doris and Erich Stockmann. 1964. „Die vokale Bordun-Mehrstimmigkeit in Südalbanien.” Les Colloques de Wégimont, IV 1958 – 1960. Ethnomusicologie III: 85-135.