The Polyphonic Song of Epirus, a genre of deeply-rooted origin, is a living tradition and element of the cultural identity of the peoples of the Epirus borderland and the Greek minority of Albania. At the same time, it is also one of the most important examples in the repertoire of global polyphony. It is an oral tradition bearing a strong locality of style and interpretation, currently expanding its social spread within an urban environment.
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus is “one of the most interesting music forms, not only in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, but also in the global repertoire of folk polyphony” (L. Liavas)
“It is a notable folk musicological expression, due to its authenticity and artistic power, and also due to its ancient and, at the same time, contemporary structure, conferred by its internal expression” (K.Lolis)
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus is a living expression of community, a cultural element of identification amongst the border populations, a cultural “passport” between borders and neighbouring peoples.
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus is characterized by variations in interpretation style and structure, from one region to another. A polyphonic group consists of at least four singers, that could exceed ten in number, with five or seven being the most common number.
The main singer, who starts the song is called pártis or partís or sikotis or prologistis. The pártis, bearing the leading role, coordinates the group, setting rhythm and melody, defining the relation to the other voices. After the partí’s original motif, the role of gyristis, tsakistis orkoftis develops in the form of a musical dialogue, which incessantly turns, breaks, cuts around the parti’s melodic line, by improvisation, but at specific tonal intervals. The main intervals are the tonal, subtonal or lower quarter tone – or, with a lead voice, their octave (in which case he is normally called klostis). Because of the high-pitched voice, songs sung by the klostis are also called tragoudia me lalia (songs with a voice). The klostis (spinner) and the gyristis (revolver) are never present simultaneously and the choice between them is made depending on gender (women ”spin” more frequently) but also on the song’s style (four-voiced polyphonic songs are interpreted by a gyristis).
The song’s tonic base is presented by the isokrates, who “fill out” the song by holding the ison (level) (which is why it is called gemisma=filling); the more isokrates there are, the more thunderous the song is, “sounding like a bell” (it is also called a bell – kampana). Kostas Lolis notes that the “Isokratima (level tone) is found in different forms in the various typological structures of polyphonic song”, pointing to its role in the stability and balance of polyphonic interpretation and highlighting the variety of style, tonic pitch and the presence of “traditional internal transformation”, accidental, deliberate or resulting from antiphonal singing.
A role that emerged in the 20th century and that we don’t come across in all regions, nor all songs, is that of richtis (thrower), who, with one exclamation, drops the partis’ tonality to a perfect fourth interval at the end of the introduction (prologisma), before the isokrates andgyristis enter the song. According to Kostas Lolis, this exclamation is frequently included at the turn (gyrisma) while the richtis is defined as a separate voice resonating with the isokrates, usually a minor third above the tonic.
Elements in structure and function or additional roles differ from one region to another, depending on the type of song and the composition of groups. Thus, in the Epirus Polyphonic Song repertoire, one may come across homophonic songs, bi-phonic and polyphonic, without levelling, triphonic and tetraphonic and with instrumental accompaniment.
As for the lyrical content, one comes across love songs, songs of foreign lands, history, marriage, carnival, children’s etc. The variations of paraloges (a category of folk songs) and the polyphonic songs of the Acritic cycle (a collection of folk songs describing the deeds of theAcrites frontiersmen) indicate the old origin of this genre which, according to some researchers, goes back to very old times. Without the necessary, definitive documentation, researchers classify the polyphony of Epirus amongst the broad belt of polyphony that links together the Balkans, Caucasus, Northern Persia, Afghanistan, Northern India (Joap Kunst). Some associate its origins to early Byzantine music. The Polyphonic Song of Epirus preserves the anhemitonic pentatonic scale that musicological research identifies as the Dorian mode of the ancient Greeks, the par excellence “Greek harmony”. Moreover, according to A. Lavdas, the Polyphonic Song of Epirus thrives exclusively on the pentatonic scale that survived in Epirus during the Byzantine era. Connotative evidence of its deeply rooted origin is its vocal, group, rhetorical character. “We also discern a spirit of antiquity in the prosody of the polyphonic song” (K. Lolis). In spite of its implicit ancient origins, the Polyphonic Song of Epirus evolved alongside Byzantine music, assimilating influences, particularly in the roles of thegyristes and the isokrates. The Polyphonic Song of Epirus retains selective affinities to other types of polyphony that are found in the region – in particular to the liampiki, Albanian polyphony. Samuel Baud-Bovy also notes the correlation in the naming of roles in the songs of the Liapis who live in Southern Albania.
The power of the Polyphonic Song of Epirus, the shiver felt upon listening to it, is related more to the directness of expression, its unaffected nature and the vigour of interpretation. A poet’s word, bearing a relation of locality to the genre, expresses its contemporary function, meaningfully and fully, in such a manner as to attract younger pathfinders to take on the role of its future relay racers:
“These songs do not depend on a singer with an excellent voice but on the polyphony of the group. Word and melody are served by a specific technique teaching discipline. Each voice has its own “space” in the song and contributes towards the expression of collective or personal passion expressed by the group. The singers stand close to each other, frequently forming a circle. There are no musical instruments. This is why the voices express solidarity. When you hear these songs, you either shiver or you cannot endure them. There is no middle way. This is because their aim is not to please, but rather to express something, following the shortest path to the people’s soul. Directness.” (Michalis Ganas)
- Location and equipment associated with the performance or exercise of the ICH element
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus, over time, became an integral part of the inhabitants’ daily life, in the space of its survival. It accompanied their activities, group work in the fields and tending livestock, the customs and seasonal cycle of the year and of their lives. In recent decades, with the social changes in its “birthplace”, the intense emigration, the subsequent rupture in the chain of generations and land depopulation, the polyphonic song is to be found mainly in community entertainment and celebrations, as well as remaining a song of the cycle of customs (festivals – panigyria – weddings, christenings, etc.). Over time, the polyphonic song constitutes a privileged, community expression for the local population, underlying collective memory and expression as an element of identification, sparking unmediated gatherings and festivities of daily life, matching the shiver from its hearing to the vigour of the voices, stretching the pulse of a living tradition.
In its structure and interpretative style, the sharing and solidarity of its different roles, the value of collective discipline and the importance of improvisation, the Polyphonic Song of Epirus expresses the aftermath of the social organization of local scale and long duration. It has reached our present days as a deeply rooted tradition, bearing an intense element of locality in its style of interpretation, with variations from one region to another, reflecting not only its particular social space – extended families, companions, villages – but, in its own way, its broader human environment. maintaining a constant conversation with its natural surroundings and time, as history and as a sense of passing time.
In recent years, a series of cultural institutions, local authorities and expatriates are developing initiatives and actions related to the polyphonic song. In contemporary social spaces of dissemination, in the urban environment and diaspora, the genre can be heard mainly at events, seminars, presentations, with the participation of older or newly founded polyphonic groups and bands. Beyond the event framework, the polyphonic song of Epirus is increasingly becoming an element of living collective expression within its new social spaces, with increasing frequency becoming an element in urban celebrations and gatherings. Thus, with growing intensity, the pathways of polyphony in cities traverse and interact with other elements of collective and community expression. Through this development, the conditions are gradually formed for the existence of an informal but distinctive and thriving Community of Polyphonic Song. The sense of a Community of Polyphony is increasingly becoming an element of collective self-determination, promising for the future of a genre that, a few years ago, appeared to be heading towards its unavoidable extinction, alongside the last authentic performers.
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus, as a vocal genre, is pure and simple in its means of performance, requiring only voices and souls. In those songs that are performed with the accompaniment of instruments, the instruments of the Epirus musical group (clarinet, violin, lute, tambourine) are indirectly included.
4. Transmission process of the ICH element from one generation to another.
Description of the process
The Polyphonic Song of Epirus has reached us, having been passed on from one generation to another, through transfusion of collective memory and expression, operating as oral tradition in local societies, defined by their particular social organization. The passing on of tradition is inherent in the socialization process of each generation, i.e. its integration with the particular cultural identity of the community. Participation in community festivities, social events, the customs cycle. as well as in collective agricultural or livestock labour, serve as privileged initiation spaces to the Polyphonic Song of Epirus for each younger generation . The structure of local communities, the status of the family and broader social units within them, the position of both sexes within the different phases of development, the code of values – the “prepos” of the song – are related to group structure, role distribution, collective discipline and the self-regulation in the interpretation of the whole.
Today, the “traditional” way of transmission is framed by younger people, who have adapted to the contemporary social framework for the element’s performance. Thus, participation in cultural events and festivals, in seminars and musical performances, in rehearsals and workshops, increasingly become triggers for the initiation to the Polyphonic Song of Epirus and, consequently, become elements of the transmission process.
The educational seminars for the genre in urban centres, contribute towards transmission and broader dissemination. In the seminars, there is the possibility for familiarization with the structure and roles of the song, the topics and the variety of local idioms. Primarily, however, the group seminars form the necessary framework of collective expression, predisposing towards the collective ethos and mentality which are inherent in the polyphonic song. Apprenticeship in the genre is a continuous, perpetual process, affected by the socialization processes of its interpretation (formation of polyphonic groups and bands).
In the Polyphony Workshop of the Polyphonic Caravan, apprenticeship is also accompanied by on-site learning, through collective recordings on-location, making full use of the Polyphonic Song Archive, holding as a constant point of reference the last authentic performers living in the land of origin, ”rooted” there, like their song. Thus, there is interaction not only between the manner of transmission (urban and indigenous), but also osmosis of performers. A similar capitalization of rich local research is incorporated in the scientific input of Kostas Lolis, fueling in particular the interpretation and course of “Inoros”, at the same times supporting other efforts in Epirus. A main pillar of support to the newer methods of dissemination is the activation of migrant, cultural and other associations and groups that are involved in the dissemination of the songs of Epirus, while outstanding initiatives have been developed by Local Administration Authorities (Municipalities of Delvinaki, Ano Kalamas, Pogoni, Filiates).