Pivoting off the folk music of her native Albania to get to jazz was not difficult for Vjollca Robelli Mripa, especially when she found she had a dire message to convey: the unbelievable story of women in a small town who still follow traditions that seem tragically outdated and sexist to the rest of us.
Her heritage gave the music its foundation in chordal structure and rhythm, but jazz allowed riffing off ideas and lightened it up. Just a touch.
To match the story she is explaining, her voice is honey-sweet, punctuated by quick catches that suggest a cry of sorrow. Yet she can soar with the angels and continues to sing a story of hope, and life, as it is, full of low and high points.
Talk about your musical training.
I have always believed that talent is something that comes from within and only with training you become better at it every day. I finished a year course on vocal training in 2005 and I’m taking jazz piano classes to make it easier to compose!
How long has your ensemble been together and what is the name of the band?
Actually, we are not a typical band. I started developing the ideas about my music 10 years ago but only a year ago I have put them into action when I started my collaboration with two other musicians, Danny Ricco and Aram Zarikian. We are collaborating in this project, but you can find me as Vjollca Robelli Mripa.
You seem to have voice, piano, percussion and strings. Are there other instruments you sometimes add in?
My music takes inspiration from my Albanian heritage, elevating the craft of traditional folk music into innovative jazz-infused territory. The idea behind this project is to create sounds which have a base from Albanian folk music: it can be the voice, the instrument or sometimes both.
Those songs tell true tales of honor, hospitality, pain and disappointment, migration, pride and of course the Albanian Besa – an oath of trust passed on for centuries.
Albanians never take back their word once they promise, even if that means death. Hospitality is of a great value back home too.
The music has richness and beauty. It is very hypnotic and soulful. I’m very much influenced by the tradition and the culture. There will be other instruments related to the music in the album too: the flute and the davul (drums), that create powerful sounds and I think the voice is a very important instrument too in telling the story.
My intention is to sing in an Albanian language called Illyrian, dating back to ancient times. I was invited as a guest on a BBC program introducing artists and when I showed my music to one of the presenters, he listened to it but could not understand a word of it. After two minutes he replied: “This sounds so real.” This music is very real and that’s my intention with this album. I hope the audience can feel it too.
What does each musician contribute, as far as quality of sound, lyrics and mood of the music?
As a singer/songwriter I start different ways but most of the time the words come first and the melody matches the meaning of these words.
I aim to present the culture and tradition of Albania and Kosovo, so I write with that purpose in mind. First, I read a lot about the issues I’m singing about and watch documentaries, listen to people’s conversations and songs. Also, the memories from my childhood help me a lot in writing the songs.
Once I have the words, I set up the mood of the song depending on the lyrics, if it’s happy, proud, sad or melancholic. Danny is the pianist and percussionist, and Aram is a percussionist too. They both create the music for my composition and take care of the quality of sound. We try to arrange a time suitable for us all. Mostly we communicate via Skype. Once everyone is happy then we arrange a schedule for the studio work. Emma Watts played the violin for “Sworn Virgin” and there will be other musicians involved along the way.
What are some of the defining characteristics of Albanian music?
Albania is a fascinating country for the musicologist. As it has been isolated from the rest of the world because of the Communism era, this has helped preserve regional differences.
The music of each region has different characteristics. There are two basic divisions of Albania: the Ghegs in the north, Kosovo and Montenegro; and Tosks in the south. There are also Labs and Çams near the coast at Vlora and Gjirokaster.
The clarinet and violin is a great combination, creating a rather mysterious sound mixture. The kaba is the main non-dance form of instrumental music, featuring a free improvisation by the lead instrument, usually a clarinet.
The music of Albania is quite unique. As Joe Boyd, the world music producer, said, “It has influenced the music of Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.”
Was it sobering to create “Sworn Virgins”?
“Sworn Virgins” is this unique phenomenon in the border of Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, the beautiful highlands of Theth and Valbona and the cursed mountains of Rugova, a very isolated area where this tradition dates back in ancient times.
The main theme in this song addresses where women live in a patriarchal society; men make all the decision for the whole family. Women have no voice. They find out about decisions that involve even their marriages after they are taken.
My lyrics describe a marriage that was arranged when the girl was born. In order to avoid the marriage, this woman takes a vow of chastity and starts to live as a man. She crops her hair, wears men’s clothes, rolls her cigarette and socializes with men. She may also carry a gun. In short, her life is freer and less regimented than other members of her sex. Her cost though is to forswear for life a sexual relationship, marriage and childbearing. She’s been dubbed a “sworn virgin.”
For me to create this song was very emotional. I have deeply felt it. It is authentic and real singing, bringing out the pain, suffering and confusion this woman goes through while making the decision to live a life of a man, and her pride of having a voice after transition. What is interesting is that simply by dressing and behaving as a man, earns these women the same respect accorded to men!
“Sworn Virgin” is an homage song to all the women who had to go through a transition like this and suppress their nature, their femininity and their feelings in order to gain their freedom. It is an homage also to all the women who were forever imprisoned by the patriarchy rules. The violin is my weakness and it had to be part of the song. This instrument has great sounds that express the pain and suffering that the song needs!
Talk about “Zare”- the meaning of the song and what inspired the melody?
“Zare” is a very old Albanian song. I find it hypnotic. It talks about the beauty of a woman and how unreachable she is from a man’s point of view; and about the life in the village where women wear beautiful traditional vests.
The girls stay on one side and boys on the other, gazing at each other. The beauty of a simple life in a picturesque nature where everything is organic and life is stress-free. I got the inspiration from the villages of Kosovo and Albania, the happiness you embrace once you’re in these environments and that feeling of love when you’re not sure if you can be with someone and the dreams you create about that person.
What inspired your latest CD and what were some of the challenges of song writing and production?
As a songwriter you have to come up with the character of the song, a story you want to create with that song and a message you want to transmit with your music.
I aspire to bring peace to people’s ears when listening to my music. Inspiration comes from everyday living. The main themes are old traditions and the antique culture of my hometown, immigration, the oath and hospitality. Music can take you to different places and transcend them; I believe with music we can influence a lot of things and bring peace in people’s lives.
There are always challenges to making an album. We started working on it in January this year. We already have recorded two songs and we are working on another two songs, hoping to record them by the middle of December and continue working on another four songs, to finish the album around spring time ! I’m trying to get the traditional instruments and incorporate them in this album, and there are always challenges but we will get there in the end.
How do you compose with a central theme of feminism in mind for the music?
I’m a mother of three expecting the fourth. Women’s role in society is a big one and mostly neglected by the opposite sex. I’m lucky to have a husband who supports me in many ways, but when I look around the world, women face violence, abuse and mistreatment every day even in this era.
I think feminism has been misunderstood in most cases “Empowering a woman doesn’t mean buying her another pair of shoes, it means supporting her education and sharing responsibilities equally between the spouses for their children, in order for her to have the same opportunities for her career.”
Politics also have to change. We can’t create a peaceful and equal world with only men running states. Women should be more involved in every sphere of policy-making and governing. I believe that we should start with the young generation. We have to teach our daughters to be independent women and the only way through is education.
Continuing with this theme, do you believe that women in jazz face obstacles that men do not—in the UK? Through Europe?
I am from Kosovo and I studied in London. I believe there are more female musicians playing in New York than here in Europe. You have a couple of them. There should be much more. While men in jazz are encouraged to experiment and find their own style, women have to work harder to prove that they can actually play to begin with. But on the other side, I’ve seen a few multi-instrumentalist women musicians who take up the stage and are brave enough to put on a show all by themselves, so a big thumbs up to those women.
Are there chordal structures, modes, etc. that you infuse into your jazz from the folk music of Albania? Do you “hear” your culture’s music and then interpret it into jazz?
Oh yes definitely. I’m writing most of the songs for my album but there are a few which I’m rearranging for this project, so I do get influences by the chordal structures of folk music. I also get very influenced by culture and traditions. Most of the songs of the album are based on those characteristics.
What has been the reaction in the Albanian culture to your music?
When I announced my comeback, there was a great reaction from the press and the fans. The press has headlined that my comeback “is opening new doors in music” and I felt really honored. FemArt festival director Zana Hoxha Krasniqi, when asked by TV stations about my concert at her festival this past May, has reviewed the performance as unique, authentic and very spiritual. My fans would praise me about the color of my voice and I’m really happy that there is a great interest already in the album.
I can’t wait to share it with them, though there is still a lot of work to be done before the release of the album.
What is the jazz scene like there?
The jazz scene in Prishtina [the capital of Kosovo] is brilliant. There are many jazz clubs. At least three nights a week you can listen to live jazz. I also think there’s a deeper, more spiritual connection with jazz among all repressed nations. The Hamam Jazz Bar is located in the center of Prishtina and is becoming a hub for a thriving live music scene where jazz is placed in particularly high regard.
The Prishtina Jazz Festival is also a big event and has seen international stars such as Uri Caine, Tom Kennedy and Reggie Washington come to play. I can say that I’m very proud of the music scene back home.
What do audiences ask you the most about your music?
My audience is very loyal. I am so thankful to them for this. They have not forgotten me even though I have been missing from the music scene for more than a decade. Their only request is to stay true to myself and continue to make unique music.
Which jazz greats have inspired you? What about artists of other genres?
Nina Simon, Miles Davies, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Sade, Bjork, Melanie Dibiasio, Hidden Orchestra, Lido Pimienta, Leyla McCalla, Nneka, Chemical Brothers and many more.
Favorite venues in London to play?
Huh, there are so many, I can name a few: Roundhouse, Royal Albert Hall, Koko, Royal Festival Hall, Ronnie Scott’s, Union Chapel, Barbican and many more….
Place you would most love to perform throughout the world?
To me the most valuable places to perform are festivals, especially world music festivals such as WOMAD, WOMEX, Love Supreme Jazz Festival and Montreux Jazz Festival to name but a few. They promote diversity and bring people together, and that’s what we need the most lately!
Do you perform in English for your UK audiences?
The album is being recorded in Albanian and I’m writing in Albanian just because the stories I tell with my music and the melodies I come up with are inspired from back home and sound more correct in Albanian. But I will explain the stories in English for the UK and European audiences.
Instrument you always wanted to learn?
The violin. It is a beautiful, breath-taking form of music, that just sounds soothing to one’s ear. Personally, I love it more than any other instrument.
My current project is the album. In the middle of December we’re going back to the studio. I’m writing a song about the Albanian hospitality code of honor, “Besa.” I’m calling for people to open their doors and give those in need food and support, if we are to follow the code of honor the world would be a better place for us all!
What are your plans to grow your music in 2018?
Once the album is ready for release, I’m planning to shoot a video which will announce my official comeback in the media in Kosovo and Albania, and then I’m planning to have a concert in Prishtina, Tirana and London. I don’t think that will happen in the spring as I’m expecting my fourth baby around that time but I believe in autumn of next year  will be the right time for the shows. Let’s see how things are developing.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story with your audience.
For more information, visit www.vjollca.co.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Vjollca Robelli Mripa; both are (c) Jetmir Idrizi
(c) Debbie Burke 2017