Tribal, visceral and trance-like, the new release “Besa” by composer and musician AJO (formerly Vjollca Robelli) has its roots in her family’s lineage as well as the politics of being female. The folkloric feel of this album is no accident. AJO says she added twists and built layers onto age-old lullabies and other tunes passed down through the years. Her embellishments have given these songs the room to breathe and to be considered in a modern context.
The new project further develops the story she recounted in her “Sworn Virgins” CD featured in an earlier interview.
What is your EP “BESA” about?
Besa means trust, keeping the promise, and this song is about the trust we lost as nation and also as humans everywhere around the world. It is as deep as human existence itself, the trust that, once lost, we won’t find peace. I believe that’s where we are nowadays.
This song is a wake-up call for us to take our time and reflect who we were and what we have become. In the older times in Kosova and Albania if you were traveling or seeking refuge, you could knock on the door of the first house you found and ask, “Head of the house, do you want guests?” and the owner would have to take you in. When the refugee crisis is at its peak, we need to open our doors and be hospitable!
What inspired your new CD?
While living away from my country for the last 15 years I began to appreciate more where I come from and started researching my roots.
My father comes from the highlands of Kosova and from early childhood I’ve been exposed to its music and traditions. The big drums we play in weddings and the dances of the different regions of Kosova and Albania have always fascinated me. I began to create rhythms and went back in time imagining our ancestors.
I want “Besa” to sound tribal, to take you on a journey where you can meditate and reflect on time and behavior. Besa is the concept that has allowed women “burrneshat” – to obtain a status similar to men.
I wondered how we can keep these stories alive. What better way than through music. The way the villagers communicate from one hill to the other inspired me to create new sounds in “Besa.” The vowels I use in this song are so ancient.
Another song I wrote, “Nena,” was inspired by lullabies. We have so many beautiful melodies and lyrics that I used. Then I added my own, which helped create something very different.
“Baresha” is an old and very popular song back home. I was inspired by the hand pan instrument in rearranging this song.
What is your favorite track on the album?
“Nena” is very personal to me. I was pregnant with my fourth child when I wrote this song. The pregnancy period is a miracle itself. A woman goes through so many physical, psychic and emotional changes, and the moment of giving birth transcends you to another dimension – you travel far to collect the soul of your baby and come back together in this world. When writing the song, I wanted to put the woman in the center of it and give her the attention. The music explodes at the moments of pain when the baby is coming and the girl realizes the struggles her own mother went through to bring her into this world. The dynamic of the song represents motherhood’s power.
What is the jazz scene like in Eastern Europe?
It’s still brilliant. I’ve been in Prishtina for the jazz festival week, and the city is full of events. You have a chance to hear bands coming to perform from different part of the world. Prizren is another great city. The architecture is beautiful it takes you back in time. It’s designed for festivals and music events, Lumbardh is a brilliant venue where artists from around the world get to perform throughout the year, and the music scene is blooming still.
I’m also aware that Albania has developed a great scene too. The Balkan jazz festival they organize every year is great. This event happens by the Tirana Lake theatre. Another annual festival is Za Fest organized in Theth in the beautiful mountains of Albania’s breath-taking highlands. Macedonia has a few beautiful jazz music festivals too.
Talk about your name change from Vjollca Robelli to AJO and what it signifies for you.
It was my husband’s idea. Back in 2002 I had a song called “AJO” (which means “she”) and everyone knew me with this song. “AJO” was dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDs pandemic, and won many accolades. It topped the charts on TV and radio stations, came second in the regional BBC Top of the Pops and won Best Rock Video at Videofest. I was nominated as a Youth Music Ambassador that same year. Seventeen years on, the song retains its popularity, which led me to adopt the stage name AJO.
How does this new album differ from “Sworn Virgins”?
“Sworn Virgins” is a song about the brave women of the highlands of Albania. It’s a compelling story of a woman’s traumas and strengths. This new EP is a continuity of that story.
One of the rearranged songs is about embroidery work, where woman prepare a great deal of handcrafted work before they marry, passing on skills to the next generation so this art form won’t disappear. My new songs tell true tales of honour and betrayal, joy and pain, absence and homecoming, and the uniquely Albanian concept of “Besa,” an oath of trust passed down through the centuries.
I can say that through music I’m bringing my heritage to life.
Talk about your personnel and how they helped pull this all together.
For my new EP, I have collaborated with professional musicians including Aram Zarikian, Danny Rico, William Collier, Alessio Marsio, and Xhemil Gjini.
Andrew Phillips, the Emmy- and Oscar-nominated composer, mixed the tracks, and the EP was mastered by Max Gilkes from 1 Sonic Productions, the Grammy- and Mercury-nominated studio. This collaboration has been an amazing experience and we have created something very different bringing the sounds of the folk music and the Albanian music to another level. One side of this project includes the culture, traditions and the folk music of my country which helped me write and compose the songs. The other side is that the musicians involved are from different countries of Europe who brought their influences. Infusing all these ideas together created the style of music you hear in this EP. I hope you will enjoy listening to it!
When will you debut the CD and will you tour?
The first two shows are taking place in Kosova. On September 13 we are launching the EP in Prizren Lumbardh Cinema, a beautiful venue. The second show will be September 14 in Prishtina, the capital of Kosova, at the Armata Cinema, another beautiful venue.
I’ll be doing interviews with TV and radio stations and online blogs. We’re bringing a group of eight musicians from Europe to Kosova, so it’s taking a lot of logistics to plan it all. We’re also organizing several concerts for a tour of Europe and other parts of the world.
For more information, visit www.vjollca.co.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of AJO.
© Debbie Burke 2019