Eda Zari’s new album merges Byzantine poetics and musical devices with jazz to create something entirely novel and incandescent.
In a conversation we had two years ago, Eda Zari let me in on her idea for a new album that would be inspired by Byzantine music, or to be more specific, by the Byzantine chant. Essential to the spiritual tradition of the Christian East, this liturgical chant is still practiced nowadays in several local forms and in different languages. The repertoire has its roots in the time of the Christian Empire of the East, founded by Constantine the Great and centered in Constantinople. Today, it is practiced from Turkey to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Italy, Ethiopia, and from the Middle East to southern India.
Cantillation is the principle of giving voice to the Sacred Word, thus distinguishing such practice from forms of secular singing. Although sublimated to the sacramental setting, the music of this chant achieves a distinct emotional power. This might have inspired Albanian singer-songwriter Eda Zari to delve deeper into the chant’s vocal qualities. Almost two years later, her preliminary idea became an album: Entropy, released by Enja Records in December 2016.
The album aims to weave together the Byzantine chant and jazz music. It locates the forms in a musical universe in motion. Entropy is the measure of the transformations that happen within this universe. This is the artistic credo of the album, evoked literally by the verses of William B. Yeats in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Constantinopolitan tradition has been the one to inspire Zari’s project; yet, from the various local or individual styles that have flourished from it in the Balkan and east Mediterranean area, Eda Zari seems particularly attracted to those found in Albania, her birthplace.
The eight hymns that have been selected for the album–a number that seems symbolically associated with the oktōēchos (eightfold sound), the system of eight church modes of medieval Christian music–are performed in the Albanian language. The artistic work for this album was preceded by careful research on the contemporary traits of the Byzantine chant in Albania. For the translations of the religious texts, she relies on Fan Noli, the Prime Minister of Albania during the 1924 June Revolution and a prominent nineteenth century scholar.
Three of the hymns are performed together with the Byzantine choir of chanters “Joan Kukuzeli” from Tirana’s Orthodox cathedral, with Theodhor Peci as choirmaster. The most significant aspect of her research is the way she approaches the repertoire: being at the same time observant and sensitive towards it. Each of the tracks in the album conveys the archetypal celebrative dimensions of the sacramental musical tradition. Beyond that, she seeks also the intimate dimension that arises from the self-involvement in the adoration process.
Two of the most well-known hymns of the Eastern Christian tradition can be heard on Entropy: “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) and “Krishti u ngjall” (Christ is risen), a troparion from the Easter Sunday. Nevertheless, “O bukuri me nam,” “Eni shihni,” and most especially “Lavirja” and “Zoti është bashkë me ne” (tracks number three and four) achieve a thrilling climax, which seems to be the outcome of the evocative and transparent way in which the vocal lines intersect with the musical ensemble.
This energy blurs the dividing lines between the strict poetic formulas of the chant and the principles of musical composition and improvisation; between voice and instruments; between cantillation and secular singing. Echoes of the European Renaissance from the Ambrosian (Milanese) chant are meditated upon as well.
Eda Zari embodies the poetic and musical devices of the Byzantine cantillation while implanting her own secular singing experiences.
The melody remains however the main musical focus. Eda Zari embodies the poetic and musical devices of the Byzantine cantillation while implanting her own secular singing experiences. The latter draws upon traditional singing models from her native Albania, imbued with a very refined blues vocality, all produced by an excellently trained voice. If the Sacred Word of the Byzantine chant sublimates music, Eda Zari turns her attention towards it and conveys to music the same significance as the Word. Jazz, on the other hand, attributes to cantillation the aesthetic value of an artistic performance. This is not something artificial, but an outcome of a crash, of a collision that brings them together and opts for a mutual consent. This is what Entropy does. An act of deconstruction lies on the foreground of this process. Yet, instead of carrying the discussion on any semiotic or philosophical level, this act reminds us a passage from a Christmas troparion: “The earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach.”
Essential to this process are the musicians that take part in this project: Ibrahim Maalouf, featured on the album with his distinctive sound of the quarter tone trumpet, the long-time teammate of Eda Zari’s band, Rhani Krija with percussion and gumbrie, and then Ditmar Fuhr on contrabass, Hayden Chisholm on saxophone and sruti box, and Florian Weber on piano. Weber also contributed to the arrangements. With an expressionist and relatively minimalist approach, an outcome of his omnivorous musical appetite in contemporary music (jazz, avant-garde and even a few excursions in popular music), Weber renders a natural harmonic environment for the modal melodies, while enriching them with a sensible piano playing with incisive polyrhythmic patterns and instrumental grooves.
What provides that incandescent sound to the listeners is, however, the ability of all the musicians to bridge together different musical cultures in a natural way. From this point of view, Entropy might be considered a ‘concept album,’ conceived around a key concept, entropy, and a sense of musical cohesiveness. Herein lies the novelty and audacity of this album. Novelty because it tries to embody the essence of the Byzantine chant without being impertinent to the rigorous and ascetic ways it has been practiced and preserved, but rendering it in a very personal manner.
Furthermore, this album is audacious because, departing from a community based practice (that of the Christian-orthodox Albanians), it evolves to a more cosmopolitan level and conveys a universal message through music-making. In a world where everything you do becomes political, especially regarding religion, it is audacious to bring to the audiences, both Western and non-Western, something that provokes the ear and the mind of the listener with a powerful narrative and a strong emotional energy. This is how Entropy should be understood: as a listening experience that sails, via Byzantium, towards a music universe that has an immensurable value for our humanity.
Mikaela Minga is an ethno/musicologist at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Art Studies in Tirana.
*Featured image by Eduard Pagria.