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Exploring Albanian polyphony on film and in the flesh

Washed By The Moon documents Albanian musicians who continue to fly the traditional folk flag, six of whom will be touring the UK for the first time

Called Washed By The Moon, director Dan Shutt’s new film about Albanian polyphonic singing delves into the lives of three generations of musicians who still perform the folk style today. Its main protagonists include former Artist of the People Golik Jaupi, police commissioner Vullnet Silaj and the younger singer Endri Hodaj, who is also a barber.

“I was working in London in 2016, running a record label and recording music in my free time, when I heard a song called “Janinës ç'i Panë Sytë”,” says director Shutt, recalling his first encounter with the music. “This is a very famous song in southern Albania, with heartbreaking harmonies. It immediately made me quit my job and fly straight to Albania. With a chain of ridiculously good luck, me and my childhood friend Isaac, who is a great cinematographer, ended up in the building in which Albania declared independence in 1912 with a group of legendary polyphonic singers from the region. They vowed to give us their all simply in order to share their music with us, who were now their guests.”

With no funding to speak of, it took Shutt more than two years to complete his 55 minute film. “Albanian arts generally received state support during the communist times, as they helped contribute to the handy nationalist narrative that dictator Enver Hoxha used to support his regime, but since the country transitioned to democracy in the 1990s its population have been less isolated and the younger generations look away from their culture a little,” explains Shutt. “However, this music is still very much alive; we filmed with a group of 20 year olds who sing purely because the structure of the music is inherently community building. The drone can be sung by anyone, and the more people involved in a song, the stronger its emotional force. When these groups sing, windows rattle in their frames – the earth literally shakes.”

Premiered last year at Dokufest in Prizren, Kosovo, Washed By The Moon will be released via the Lush player streaming platform in October 2019. There will also be international screenings throughout September in London, Bristol, Copenhagen and Tbilisi.

Finally, the sextet Grupi Lab will tour the UK this autumn. Led by Jaupi, Grupi Lab are Vullnet Silaj, Virjon Lacaj, Engjell Tairaj, Robert Memaj and Sadush Kamaj. Their dates include an NTS Radio live broadcast and a performance at London Cafe Oto (10 October), Bristol The Cube (11), Gateshead Tusk (13), London House of Commons (14), Shetland Islands Shetland Arts (16), London SOAS (18).