Symbols of pride: Greenfield Harmony concert Sunday
Story by Richie Davis
Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni may not exactly be household names in this country. But in Albania — and in the Albanian-American community in the U.S. — the wife-and-husband musical duo are very big as performers.
And when they sing together with Greenfield Harmony chorus as part of its spring concert Sunday at 5 p.m., Halili and Haseni will be representing distinct traditions of their nation’s diverse cultures.
Sunday’s concert will take place at a Hadley’s Wesley Methodist Church, 98 N. Maple St. It will also include music from the Appalachian, Peruvuian, Chasidic and other traditions.
Halili and Hyseni have worked with the 60-member chorus on four songs from a proud culture that’s historically been repressed and isolated.
Greenfield Harmony, whose sister chorus in southern Vermont, River Singers, will perform with Halili and Hyseni on Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., at the White Church in Grafton, Vt., is known for presenting concerts that run the spectrum of musical traditions, from gospel to Balkan, African and many of the world’s other cultures.
This spring’s concert will also include music from Croatia, the Jubilee gospel tradition and memorial tributes to South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and legendary folk singer Pete Seeger.
“Nelson Mandela was such an icon and a hero to so many of us,” she said. “And Pete Seeger was also such a hero, the conscience of our culture, never wavering.”
Seeger’s little-known 1958 song, “To My Old Brown Earth,” a visionary environmental anthem that the chorus will present in an arrangement by Paul Halley, was the final song sung to its 94-year-old composer before he died Jan. 27 in a New York City hospital.
“To my old brown earth, and to my own blue sky,” it says, “I‘ll now give you these few molecules of ‘I.’”
Sunday’s concert will also include a niggun — a wordless melody — from the Lubavitcher Chassidic repertoire of the Jewish tradition, along with the shaped-note hymn “Montgomery” and two train songs from the Appalachian tradition: one a hymn, the other a playful song from the singing of folksinger Doc Watson.
Diverse Albanian tradition
Singer Halili and her accordion virtuoso husband, Hyseni, who immigrated in 1995, are “wonderful ambassadors of their culture and their music,” says chorus director Mary Cay Brass, who met them about four years ago at Balkan Camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“They’re real symbols of that pride because they’re such good musicians and such accessible, nice people,” she says. “I immediately had the idea of getting them to come up and work with the chorus someday.”
Halili, known in her home country as “Queen of the Albanian songs,” gave her first recital at 16 in Albania’s capital city, Tirane, and became a lead singer in the State Ensemble for Traditional Songs and Dances. In 2000, the president of Albania named Halili a “national ambassador,” the highest Albanian award for an artist.
Hyseni, who grew up in Mitrovicë in northern Kosovo and studied at the University of Prishtina’s Academy of Performing Arts, says, “Albania is the only country in the world surrounded by its own Albanians.”
In other words, the boundaries of present-day Albania have drastically shrunken. Albanians are a divided people, living in northern Greece, in Montenegro to the north of Albania, with Kosovo and Serbia to the northeast, and Macedonia to the east.
With that, and the social isolation exacerbated by poor roads that made travel difficult, he says, “The character of the music is different from every part. It’s a very rich culture in the music. There are different styles, different ornamentation, different texture, different groove of music,” including a polyphonic a cappella tradition in the south and more instrumental accompaniment in the north.
What had been the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania from 1944 until 1991 was isolated from most of the world.
“Under Communist rule, Albania was a locked-up country,” says Brass. “People couldn’t leave, people couldn’t get in and we really didn’t know much about it. It was extremely closed off from the world. It’s only been in the past 20 years that Albania has been opened up, with people allowed to emigrate.”
But the Albanians, whose Balkan country has been occupied and ruled as part of the Roman and Ottoman empires, have in more recent times also been persecuted by the Serbs during the war in Kosovo, despite being a majority estimated as high as 99 percent, and have faced discrimination as an ethnic minority in Macedonia.
In Hyseni’s native city of Mitrovice and the surrounding part of northern Kosovo, there is a large Albanian majority and there is a sizeable Albanian minority in Macedonia, where more than a quarter million ethnic Albanians took refuge during the 1999 Bosnian War.
“I remember, if I teach my students (in Yugoslavia-controlled Kosovo) a national song, maybe I will end up in jail,” says Hyseni, who is now a music teacher in New Jersey. In Albania before 1991, meanwhile, it was very dangerous to praise resistance fighters who had fought against Communism.
“In Macedonia, it was even worse,” he says. “You can’t raise the (Albanian) national flag, and you can’t speak the Albanian language in Congress.”
(A 2001 agreement ended an armed conflict by ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, where they represent a quarter of the population, where the government agreed to their cultural recognition. Yet earlier this month, for the fifth time, ethnic Albanian voters largely boycotted Macedonia’s presidential election.)
Halili and Hyseni have performed on Albanian National Radio and TV and appeared at the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Barbican Center in London, as well as in Australia, Japan and around the United States and Europe.
Each year, said Hyseni, they return home to visit family and to perform in Tirana and Kosovo.
On May 3, they will be among 10 Albanian-Americans featured for special recognition at a first-of-its-kind “success stories” celebration in New York City.
“This is what humanity is, sharing its best values,” said Hyseni.
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Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.