“You are so dumb” *

The musical offers on the streets of homeland make you ask yourself: “Am I hearing this right?”

Saturday mornings, the only place where she would drag herself out of bed is the bus that returns her home. It was hot, July, and as soon as she entered, Erisa Bida saw on the first seat a woman that took off her shoes. And when the van hit the road to Korça, the loudspeaker – one of those sound boxes for which the engineers say that from a calculated power of 20,000 hertz, it coughs only three, even those three are accidental — played nonstop folk music “E ra Faja prej fiku, e ra si top llastiku”.

“Driver, please, what is this music!”

“What can you do?”, says Bida, a 32-year old that works as a bartender in Tirana, while we discuss over messenger the phenomenon of annoying music. “The driver is, in most cases, from another era. This is the kind of songs that you will listen.”

“My head started aching!” she remembers. “I told (the driver) to change it. He put on Karroca e Dylit.”

It wasn’t only Bida. Florent Rizvanolli is a 58-year old electro-technical engineer from Kosovo, currently living in Charlotte in the United States, when he returned home last year to Pristina and took the bus to Prizren, he didn’t know what would be more repulsive to him, “to be made to listen to «that» kind of music, or its loud volume”, that doesn’t let him read. It is difficult to imagine Rizvanolli resist a space filled with lyrical explosions of this kind: “Apet kam ba gabimin/Kthehu du me t’pas prap timin/Për ty un e vras veten/Veç me t’pas për gjithë jetën.” It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is exactly, he says.

Or like the other one who crossed all the south of Albania with the leitmotif of the liberalization of visas, Le ta marrë vesh gjithë Evropa, jemi kombi më i vjetër, from the same community of artists that sang with much pathos to the LANÇ – Antifascist national liberation war, Party, Corridor VIII, and recently, to the report for the opening of negotiations with the EU.

Or me, while, under the sun in the square that serves as a bus station I listen to tallava motifs from the sound box of Veke’s cart, the compact disc salesman that everyone in Korça knows, Ti qeke shum e trashë (You are so dumb). All of this in ten minutes before I take one of these buses to return to Tirana.

The buses and vans that connect different regions of the country often resonate as guides of spiritual productions of the areas where they pass. Or the state of a society – what in French is referred to as état des lieux.

They are also expressions of low budget travelling and social stratification that they bring. When you are in Pogradec or Korça, there is a greater chance to listen to Eli Fara or the Prifti brothers. When you approach Elbasan, a mysterious algorithm adds Sinan Hoxha to the repertoire. Often, the buses that travel to Greece change the habit when they pass the border – Albanian here and Greek there, Çameria here and immigrant integration there. Passing through rough valleys south of Albania creates space for the polyphonic “ooo” and in the north the “chuk-chuk-chuk” of the cifteli. Often, on top of them there’s the logo of Top Albania Radio.

There can be multiple reasons for disliking a certain type of music. It can be a taste that differs by age, the country of origin, or musical culture, says Mikaela Minga, a musicologist in the Institute of Anthropological Studies in Tirana. It can be the constant repetition that makes it boring. And who listens to Noizy will fall asleep listening to a contemporary jazz musician of the kind of Pat Metheny, and who likes Metheny will not dance to Matilda Shaqiri.

However, the number of those who at least once in their life felt their brain like an electrical substation electrified by a short circuit, exactly because of the bus music, it’s too great to be overlooked. I talked personally with over a dozen people over this issue and everyone had experienced such moments. And, seriously now, what does she owe to the driver, that after paying the ticket he keeps her locked for three hours straight inside a cage with unbearable music. Hajde me mua ore qeflio / hiqi ti rrobat amore mio of Merita Lika, for example (mos ma bëj me dore / është gjyshja në oborr). In these surrounding areas, — and this seems to be an Albanian thing – it is the price you must pay if you use public transportation to go to Gjirokaster, Shkodra, Mitrovica or Tetovo.

“I wouldn’t call it annoying music,” says Minga. “I would call it a favorite form for consumers. You might not like it but other people like it, for the driver it can be a way to keep him from falling asleep.”

Holta Shupo, professor of the theory of communication in the University of Tirana, says that the problem doesn’t come from the type of music, but from the imposition of it. When you are in a bus or a microbus, you practically share the space with others, she explains. But you impose yourself with your music. Then, she adds, “listening in a group is also an imposition of status. There is a tendency of status identification according to the music one listens.”

Rizvanolli gets into arguments with drivers for this reason. “They, conductors and drivers, don’t take any consideration when they choose the music. Like they have some sort of benefit from it.” They say that they don’t take into account the individual taste of every traveler. Thanas Shano, a 68-year old retired musician who uses the bus often, says that the passengers prefer music to be heard in the background. “Once, the driver forgot to put on the music, and when he does the passengers told him, “finally you put the music on”.

It’s not only the music, but also the video that is produced for this kind of songs, says Rizvanolli. Footage that makes you think that “this program is produced by an army of people”.

“Not only the song authors, but also the video producers, the dancers, they play the instruments, and who knows how many others. A boomig industry.”

The industry starts with a studio, an electronic keyboard and a computer, a person in front of a microphone who shoots verses like uncontrollable firearms. It continues to the sound box of the CD salesman in the city streets, but now, more than ever, with an USB THUMB DRIVE.  “We get it from them, from the internet guys.”, he says to me, penultimate in the food chain, a driver at his fifties in the southeast bus station, in Qyteti Studenti.

These are weak materials, only computer and electronic keyboards, without a professional sense, Minga the musicologist says. People complain about tallava, she adds, but in buses you happen to listen to songs that don’t mean anything, or that have controversial messages. “Sabian’s song, for example.” The song goes on like this: Ti tullacin ke për krah/Un kam flok edhe para/Kam para, kam para/Kam dhe uniksat në krah (You have the baldy on your side/ I have hair and money/ I have money, I have money/ I also have uniksat-tough guys by my side). “It has the element consisting of weapons, of a female that dances around a pole. It has a variety of elements that make it problematic. They expose the luxury, the quick enrichment. The issue is who understands it and approaches it.” Uniksat are a group of strong guys, who, in the few cases when the don’t have an intense spiritual activity, like in this case, they work out at the gym.

“And the music is used for torture,” says Minga.

Eh, using music as torture is a relatively old practice, since the invention of tape recorder, radio and loudspeaker – used (if we will trust Wikipedia) by the CIA, KGB, the American Army in Iraq, the Israeli investigative bodies, and by Greek military investigators during the dictatorship in that country. It has been written on the terrible loudspeaker of the festivals in the yards of the political prisons of the dictatorship in Albania. Listening to it for a long time harms your health and brain. “It’s not the same situation anymore.” says Minga. “But sound pollution affects the hearing and behavior. It makes young adults more aggressive.”

Driver!!

Last year, during the time he was visiting Kosovo, Rizvanolli took a van from Podgorica to Sarajevo. “The trip lasted eight hours, with approximately twenty other passengers. There was music, but the voice was so low and not bothersome, that once an old Serbian song that I like a lot happened to be on air, I was ready to ask the driver to increase the volume of the radio, because you could hardly hear the music. But I didn’t tell him anything, because I was reading and I didn’t know if I would like the song that came next.

“What a contrast!”

Loud music distinguishes us. Is it an issue of music or issue of volume? Thanas Shano doesn’t want the music in the vans to be bad or loud.

He tells that one time, when he was in the bus with his wife, the speakers almost burst. “I am also old and can’t hear very well now,” he says. “I tell my wife, ‘Turn the loudspeaker in my direction, because I can’t understand a word you say.”’

We like high volume, understandably from the tendency we have to shout,” says Minga: “But you can’t listen (to music) with such a high volume (everywhere).”

The van that takes me from Korça to Tirana, with that green tin roof immersed in water and with the batch of garlic waving on top of the driver’s head, is airing from the radio for the fifth time, with a high volume, Kam ndezur një cigare që ka shije Lazarati/Për një vajzë nga Lazarati jam ndezur si vullkani (I lit a cigarette that tastes like Lazarat/ For a girl from Lazarat I was ignited like a volcano). The context takes me to a Hamletian dilemma: Do I yell at him?

I put my earphones on.

* Title of a very well-liked song played at the intercity bus station in Korçë

** The names of some of the songs have been left in Albanian, to add context to the character of the music