Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania
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Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania

Eckehard Pistrick

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Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania

Eckehard Pistrick

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Migration studies is an area of increasing significance in musicology as in other disciplines. How do migrants express and imagine themselves through musical practice? How does music help them to construct social imaginaries and to cope with longings and belongings? In this study of migration music in postsocialist Albania, Eckehard Pistrick identifies links between sound, space, emotionality and mobility in performance, provides new insights into the controversial relationship between sound and migration, and sheds light on the cultural effects of migration processes. Central to Pistrick's approach is the essential role of emotionality for musical creativity which is highlighted throughout the volume: pain and longing are discussed not as a traumatising end point, but as a driving force for human action and as a source for cultural creativity. In addition, the study provides a fascinating overview about the current state of a rarely documented vocal tradition in Europe that is a part of the mosaic of Mediterranean singing traditions. It refers to the challenges imposed onto this practice by heritage politics, the dynamics of retraditionalisation and musical globalisation. In this sense the book constitutes an important study to the dynamics of postsocialism as seen from a musicological perspective.

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Chapter 1
Introduction: Sound, Space and Mobility

Migrants1 listen differently in their homeland and in the diaspora. The sounds of home are familiar sounds of social comfort; the sounds of the diaspora are those of anonymity and social estrangement. Put simply, these two distinct soundscapes represent two different models of existence, two different ways of 'feeling placed'. But how does the act of displacement of transplantation, of travel between these two worlds sound? Are there sounds characteristic of human mobility?
I asked myself these questions while watching and listening to the 2014 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest finals in Copenhagen, Denmark. More specifically, it was 'Coming Home' by Firelight – a tiny little folkpop act from Malta, one of the imagined strongholds of Europe, lying just 290 kilometres off the African coast – which caught my attention. Richard Edwards Micallef's family ensemble performed this song about one of the most pressing issues of the globalised world, displacement and migration, and among the instruments being played was an Appalachian dulcimer. The instrument itself has a migratory background: it travelled with Scottish–Irish immigrants to the Appalachian mountains, where it began to be industrially produced in the second half of the nineteenth century. Micallef, himself a London migrant who had returned only in 2009 to his home island Malta, expressed with his performance a message that could be read in two ways. In his official videoclip he dedicated the song explicitly to the World War I soldiers who never came home – commemorating the centenary of the beginning of the Great War in 2014. In an interview, however, the group allowed for another reading of the song in the light of recent migrant flows:
The performance on stage supported this reading. Black-and-white images of returning migrants were presented on large video-screens. The song in a very subtle and pronounced apolitical way gave account of one of the most prominent effects of globalisation. It was the first time ever that a migration song had made it to this foremost stage of the European music business.
Migration has indeed become a key determinant for the cultural flows of our globalised world, for the ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes and ideoscapes as evoked by Appadurai (1996: 33) but also for the soimdscapes – suspiciously absent in Appadurai's enumeration. Sounds – like goods, political ideologies and economic systems – are moving across boundaries on a global scale, facilitated by the movement of people (ethnoscapes) and the world-wide media network (mediascapes). Music is stimulating both visions of 'promised lands' and fictional modernities as it is mirroring retrospective nostalgias; music is sonic imagination, embedded in social practice.
Migration experience touches the entire human body and all its senses: vision, hearing, touch and smell. Sayad's work has for the first time put an emphasis on the migrant's body as a meticulous register of all changes in the physical and social environment. While the body in the home community is perceived as part of an all-embracing collective experience, the body in diaspora is exposed to individualisation and separation; it is reduced to a working body (Sayad 2004: 203). But despite the established insight that displacement has a multisensory effect on the migrant's body as well as a profound psychological impact, sound has long been ignored in migration studies. This volume attempts to rectify this situation by highlighting this particular aspect of the migration experience in relation to a multiplicity of possible social meanings. It will be argued that songs of displacement and travel are of vital importance in how migrants imagine themselves and their sociocultural situation and for how they construct social imaginaries, longings and belongings. Migration songs comment on movement through time and space. Migration songs are an essential part of the social imaginary of migrants. They formulate visions of the present and future in the light of a meaningful past. In them, the migrant and the community position themselves in relation to the suffering they have experienced. Singing has the power to reevoke events of the past and through the act of singing to bring the past into the present. This is why music inspired by migration makes it possible to decipher the cultural and sentimental dimensions of migration (see Guedj 2009: 35).
Psychologically, songs function as persuasion, encouragement and – as in lament repertoires (e.g. Hoist-Warhaft 1992) – self-reflection. It could be argued that migration songs have a therapeutic function – and that music-making is in this sense a therapeutic act, sharing and consequently attenuating emotional states.
The list of publications on migration songs or related musical repertoires is long and a witness to the fact that displacement has left its traces in different musical cultures all over the world. The repertoire of gurbet havasl in Turkey (Cler 1995), the songs of Basotho workers in South Africa (Coplan 1987), the songs of displacement of the North American Ojibwa (Vennum 1978), the juoigos of the Norwegian Lapps (Delaporte 1978),2 the painful love songs of Somali (Kaptejins and Ali 1999) and Nepalese workers in Qatar (Bruslé 2009), the songs of the Jewish-Arab diaspora community in France (Guedj 2009)3 and of the early twentieth-century Jewish community in the USA (Slobin 1982), the departure songs of Macedonian Roma migrants (Fennesz-Juhasz 1996) and Russian army recruits (Mahler 1935), Ukrainian songs of hardship (Prociuk 1981), the songs for the dead among German migrants in Kansas (Holzapfel 1986), the migration songs of Scandinavians heading for America (Blegen and Ruud 1936, Amundsen and Kvideland 1975) and the lullabies of exile sung by Kurdish mothers (de la Bretéque 2004) are just some examples.
To approach the topic of this book means to question established terminologies from the very beginning. Should we distinguish between 'migration musics' (music that refers to the topic of migration), 'migrants' musics' (musical practices linked to migrant performers) and 'migrating musics' (Toynbee and Dueck 2011), musics that circulate independent of their creators and performers in global flows? Or should we experiment with new and emic terminologies such as 'memorial songs' (see Papailias 2003)? Such an alternative terminology is particularly compelling, considering that emotionally coloured acts of remembering stand at the core of each song related to migration. But although migrants remember their home, their social contexts and their cultural roots in song, such songs are not exclusively retrospective; they also project desires, imaginaries and expectations on the new 'promised' land. Another possibility to avoid working with established taxonomic categories that do not reflect clearly defined musical and textual characteristics is to see migrants' musical practice in the light of the 'performative turn' in anthropology and to apply the concept of a 'performative category' as coined by Michael Herzfeld (1981). Describing migration songs as a performative, situational and contextually bound way of making music would privilege an inclusive approach that would make it possible to reconsider related musical repertoires such as love songs, laments, the songs of military recruits, working songs and even lullabies oscillating around a pivotal centre of migration songs.
Migration songs are – unlike the material 'objets memoires' displayed in the Museo delle Migrazioni on Lampedusa or the Cité rationale de l'histoire de l'immigration in Paris – not artefacts but socially active in their immateriality, everywhere where they are performed and listened to. Unlike prayer books, family photographs or talismans, migration songs possess a powerful agency to influence public opinion and generate continuous discourses and counter-discourses, in their place of origin, in their host country and during travel. Migration songs play a role in what Stuart Hall calls the 're-telling of the past' (Hall 1990); they 'impos[e] an imaginary coherence on the experience of dispersal and fragmentation' (Hall 1990: 224); they refer to a coherent and lost 'origin' of all things. At the same time they mirror a tormented and unsettled existence, disruptures and the multiple ways of feeling 'foreign' in foreign lands. Musical practice has for migrants the potential to negotiate, alter, or change their condition as a migrant. Migration songs in their multidimensionality, their aesthetics, their social and symbolic dimensions are the firm ground on which both constructions and discourses about the 'migrant-hero' and the 'migrant-victim' are formulated. Bohlman has evoked the term 'aesthetic agency' to mark this socially productive intersection between music and mobility (Bohlman 2011).
This aesthetic aspect of migration songs has long been a matter of discussion in the scientific community. Is there an opposition between the aesthetic and political aspects of migration songs? Mieke Bal (2008) has denied any such opposition, formulating the category of 'migratory aesthetics' – that is, aesthetics that are politically relevant and which always relate to power politics. In this sense migration songs as an art form are aesthetic because they are political. Bohlman (2011: 151) has convincingly argued that migration is always politics and that the forms of aesthetic expression that arise from it are necessarily political.
Research on migration songs up to the present day has been at the same time interdisciplinary and inconsistent. It has involved scholars from a wide range of disciplines such as sociology, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, migration studies, linguistics, literary studies and ethnomusicology. Nevertheless, several recurring narrative lines can be distinguished:
  1. the idea of migration songs as oral poetry,
  2. the ideas of migration songs as a condensed abstraction of migrant experience,
  3. the idea of migration songs as a subversive, sociopolitical genre,
  4. the strategic use of migration songs as a link between personal destinies and a more abstract (national) idea of common suffering,
  5. the role of migration songs in negotiating between real and imaginary worlds, and, most recently,
  6. the importance of performance for the construction of meaning of migration songs and the importance of a certain emotional background for the creation and interpretation of migration songs.
The role of gender has also played a certain role in the interpretative horizon of migration songs. Some of the relevant literature will be discussed in this introductory chapter in order to provide a state of art of the topic – and in order to point out the particular methodological approach chosen for this study of migration songs in south Albania.
Migration songs negotiate between different emotional and geographical worlds, between different and often overlapping identities and competing belongings. Through sounds and texts, multiple layers of longing, belonging, and cultural and political identity are revealed that are in a continuous process of negotiation. Two main perspectives have been championed to describe this act of 'bridging': the diaspora perspective and the perspective of those left behind. In several cases (Coplan 1994, Sugarman 1997, Myers 1998, Reyes 1999, di Carlo 2008), scholars have done multi-sited fieldwork in order to grasp both the diaspora experience and the experience of home and the musical performances related to them.

Migration Songs as Sources of Oral History

The traditional approach to migration songs in ethnomusicology – established in the milestone work of Blegen and Ruud (1936) is to treat migration songs as textual sources. Exemplary for this text-oriented approach, reducing migration songs to a form of oral poetry and resulting in a one-dimensional analysis excluding both the musical and the performative aspects, are the publications of Wright and Wright (1983), Holzapfel (1986) and Herrera-Sobek (1993). Many of these, as well as those of folklorists across southeast Europe (Saunier 2004), tend to categorise migration songs in a simplified manner on the basis of their textual 'content'. They are grouped into several prevailing textual headings: departure, passage, return, love and migration, and migration and death. The chapter structure of one of the first collections of migration songs, Blegen and Ruuds' Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads (1936) is characteristic in this sense. The publication considers migration songs only and exclusively in relation to national feelings and belonging. The creation of such verses is seen as rooted in a 'national musical character' and the Norwegian's native love of music and form':
Similar studies – often written by historians, folklorists, linguists or literary scholars – acknowledge migration songs as autobiographical sources on the life of migrants and thus a legitimate source for historical studies. The phonosphere is widely ignored or simply considered as supporting or illustrating the text.

Migration Songs and Border Studies

This view of migrant music as a static textual category has in recent years been shaken by a variety of studies, particularly in the field of diaspora studies, border studies and ethnomusicology. Scholars of border studies in particular have provided new impulses, reconsidering migration (songs) as a highly dynamic cultural form within a complex network of transnational actors. The testing ground for the application of these new emerging theories has been the US–Mexican border. In the highly imaginative account of Madrid (2011), migrant music is described as a substantial cultural ingredient in transnational connections and as a substantial element in a shared border culture. Music contributes, according to Madrid, both to the construction of the meaning of the border space and to challenging these meanings. Indeed, this repositioning of migration songs in a transnational and globalised world has challenge...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania
APA 6 Citation
Pistrick, E. (2017). Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Pistrick, Eckehard. (2017) 2017. Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Pistrick, E. (2017) Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Pistrick, Eckehard. Performing Nostalgia: Migration Culture and Creativity in South Albania. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.