AJO unwinds the nuances of traditional womanhood with new EP Besa
by - Argjela Mani

When a snake sheds its skin, it maintains its structure whilst almost being reborn into a new skin. This is what London-based musician AJOs new EP, Besa, feels like. She breathes new life into traditional folk music on tracks ‘Zare’ and ‘Baresha’, that are fused with more modern jazz influences but still retain the generational history and depth of traditional folk. Lead single ‘Besa’ is an amalgamation of irregular drums and obscure sonics tied together by AJOs towering vocals about nostalgic Albanian history and lessons to be learned for the future.

Each track has a story of its own that unlike most albums don’t require you to listen in chronological order. There is however a common thread that runs like a pulse throughout as you dip in and out of Besa – the nuances of an Albanians woman’s identity.

‘Besa’ is dominating and proud – setting the tone of the album whilst ‘Nena’ is a delicate and emotional ode to motherhood that is brought to life with samples of a child and family setting, highlighting the role of the mother. ‘Burrnesha’ is a slow and steady number that builds into Ajos pillowy vocals – bringing to the fore the dexterity of her vocals. On ‘Baresha’ and ‘Zare’, classic folk song are bought into the present day with sparse electronics and fast melodies. ‘Zogo’ binds the album together in a celebratory Albanian wedding style.

We went further into the albums tracks and undercover messages with AJO in this interview.

Photo Credit: Laurent Azemi

What is the main message you’re hoping to convey with your latest release Besa?

Besa is an EP release which conveys to bring awareness among us for the beautiful traditions we possess as a nation – I thought how we can keep these stories still alive? So I formed a band, named it AJO meaning SHE, and we worked for about two years to produce this work.  Through music, I aspire to bring my heritage to life. 

Besa aims to show the importance of the role of a woman in the society, the mistreatment did to her, life she gives to this world and by all means empowering and celebrating womanhood.

The song ‘Zogo’ emphasises the importance of the embroidery work which shouldn’t be disappearing, women preparing a great amount of handcrafted work before they marry, passing on the skills from generation to generation.

Burrnesha is the poignant yet inspiring tale of a female character who rejects the rural convention of an arranged marriage to embrace personal freedom – while sacrificing her chance to have a family of her own – by committing to life as a Sworn Virgin. It is about women who have been forced to deny their sexuality in order to enjoy certain rights. Through this song their sacrifice is recognized, leading a life of no ordinary but many challenges. To live as different sex is not just a new style of life but a revolt for more human rights. Women who have committed and lived as men have given the undeniable message and argument that gender is a social construct and they are capable of fulfilling all social duties the same as men and therefore must enjoy rights.

On the other side, the song ‘Nena’ promotes women’s experiences and needs during motherhood. These experiences need to be told and heard more in the context of greater equality and understanding, not just a portrayal in the form of deification. During motherhood, women face various challenges and sacrifices. These must be recognized by society. In an artistic form, the song “Mother” requires this. 

I believe that music is a door opener to more generous humanity. Through it, we can feel and understand better the issues we face every day. With this project, I’m trying to raise awareness on the importance of valuing and understanding women in the society and treating them with respect, also with this project I’m bringing up the heritage through music so the younger generation can learn from it.

You’ve mentioned before that Besa means an oath of trust passed down the centuries, what can the younger generations of the Albanian community learn from this?

Going back to the old traditions we possess as one of the oldest nations in Europe this is still fascinating and inspiring for humanity even today. Although hospitality is deeply ingrained in Albanian society, it is in the present time much harder to find it. Mistrust has replaced trust, caring for others is disturbed by fear. All developments that are almost unavoidable when a society grows, when more people live in cities and neighbours become strangers. But this hospitality is something so special and beautiful that we should hold on to and celebrate it. In times like this, we are becoming lonely and isolated therefore we must open our doors and socialise with friends and family and keep the food in the table for guests too. respecting each other and keeping promises will lead in building trust and harmony between us and that’s what Besa stands for. It is a great example from which younger generations should look up too.

Is there something to be learnt in the wider context of the world as a global community?

Besa means to belief to trust, to have faith… but it also means to be hospitable, ready to help others when in need, “There’s an old proverb written in the Kanun ‘Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest” In the older times, if you were a traveller 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. I remember when I was little in my father’s village they always had a spare bed or a bedroom for the guests ready at any time of the day or the night, in case the guest arrives unexpectedly. Albanians have sheltered thousands of Jewish refugees during the holocaust era and recently they have also sheltered Syrian refugees, even though Albania and Kosova are small and poor countries its people have generosity in their hearts.. . Yet, at a time when refugees are being turned away at borders all over the world, it seems that there is a lot to learn from Albania about its hospitality.

You’ve covered popular folk songs – why ‘Baresha’ and ‘Zare’ specifically – What do they mean to you?

‘Baresha’ and ‘Zare’ are two of my favourite Albanian songs and also they have complicated structures musically especially ‘Baresha’  and I wanted to challenge myself.

It all started with ‘Baresha’, a few years ago I’ve heard a band playing handpans ,an amazing performance. That was the first time I’ve learned about this instrument with flowless, light and  beautiful sounds.. that was the moment I had the idea to rearrange ‘Baresha’ with the handpan, I have searched the community of the handpan players in London and found the right musicians to work with on recreating this song and I believe it has come up beautifully.

‘Zare’ brings back memories of childhood, the time when we could only  listen to the Albanian songs but never allowed to visit the place, it also reminds me about the villages of Albania and Kosova  where women wear traditional vests, men stay in one side and women in the other, the beauty of a simple life in the picturesque nature where everything is organic and life is stress free.  The happiness those places bring in people and the feeling of love when not sure if being with someone is possible or not and the dreams you create about it… 

You’ve performed at various events including FemArt – is there anything more that we should be doing to support Albanian female creatives?

FemArt have created an amazing platform to support female creatives. I believe there is much more we can do, the weight falls on our society too, more support from men and especially women should empower each other too… subsistence by the cultural departments, providing more funds  to help great projects, creating hubs and centres where they can gather, express and develop their creativity. This will change the lives of many young female creatives who are talented but never had the support or maybe even never had the courage to reach out in changing their lives and following their dreams.

Cover picture credit: Jetmir Idrizi and Alban Nuhiu