The present study, "A journey along a life: Albania by Edith Durham, pioneer of land ethnography in the early 20th century", is part of the research project "The Image of the Albanie à partir des récits de voyage des XIXe et XXe siècles, notamment à travers les œuvres of Edith Durham (High Albania, 1909), Alexandre Degrand (Souvenirs de la Haute Albanie, 1901), Ugo Ojetti (Albania, 1902) »in progress at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis (France).
The text, published exclusively for AlbaniaNews, translates and integrates the report "A voyage qui dure toute un vie: the Albanie d'Edith Durham, pionnière de l'ethnologie de terrain au début du XXe siècle" presented the 3 December 2011 in Brussels at the conference "Voyages d'antan en terres albanaises".The quotations from the works of Edith Durham reported in the text are translated for the first time in Italian. The first three parts were published on 4, 11 and 18 February. The last will be published on Saturday 3 March.
Part IV: Sound Archive: the first recordings of folk songs from Upper Albania in the British Library (1905)
His first book, Through the Lands of the Serb ("Across the lands of the Serbs"), was published in the 1904. Much less known than High Albania, has not yet been made the subject of specific studies. In truth, it is the entire work of Edith Durham, as well as the specificity of her work tools, documentaries and materials, that have so far been little known and not adequately valued as she deserves, neither abroad nor, it must be said, in the same Albania.
Among the objectives of the present research, there is precisely the identification of the characteristic features of the methodology applied by Durham in his albanological studies which, in our opinion, make it a pioneer in the field of soil ethnology, the discipline that was beginning to spread in the early twentieth century, and which was bearing the most interesting fruits precisely among the Anglo-Saxon area scholars.
To give an idea of how much his work has been underestimated so far, if not completely overlooked, let's start from what seems to be one of the most surprising results of our research, and which concerns the sound recordings of folk songs from Upper Albania , registered by Edith Durham in the 1905.
A very precious testimony, above all for a country whose extraordinary musical traditions have been recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. And yet, those who know that the oldest recordings of Albanian folk songs (1905 year) were made by Edith Durham and are stored in the archive of British Library, where can they still be heard today, after more than a century?
It is a surprisingly ignored fact starting from the same Albanological studies, in which so far we have found no trace of it (in this regard, it would be pleasant, indeed desirable, to be contradicted, and we thank in advance those who on this occasion will want to make up for our eventual lack of information). At the moment, the only citation in this regard appears in a number of British Journal of Ethnomusicology 1) which gives an overview of the entire collection of ethnographic musical records preserved in the English National Library.
Thanks to the work done by Edith Durham, who traveled the mountains between Albania and Montenegro bringing with her a heavy phonograph on which, on special waxed cylinders (the ancestors of vinyl records) she recorded traditional songs, vocal solo and accompaniments of lahuta, those recordings now they are part of the worldwide collection of ancient songs and folk music, along with not many other testimonies collected in those same years between Australia, Africa and Asia by ethnographers and anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Alfred Cort Haddon and Arnold Bake.
The Durham collection consists of 25 engravings, made between Northern Albania and Montenegro, to which in all probability the other 9 must be added, engraved in Bosnia, and cataloged in the archive under the heading "probably recorded by Edith Durham between the 1906 and the 1909" . In the introduction to the catalog of British Library reads (we report directly the translation): “Many of the waxed cylinder records are of considerable historical importance.
For example, they include what are probably the first recordings made in Sub-Saharan Africa (from Sir Harry Johnston in Uganda to 1901, C107) and the first Australian Aboriginal music (from Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen in the same year, C6). [...] The collection abounds with fascinating material [...] and includes numerous interesting minor collections, such as the one brought to the 1905 from Albania by the traveler, turned anthropologist, Edith Durham. "2)
Let us dwell for a moment on the phrase just quoted: "traveler, become an anthropologist". Very often, the research carried out by Edith Durham in the context of Albanian culture (started in the 1900 and continued uninterruptedly for over 40 years, that is to say for the rest of her life) has been hurriedly liquidated - precisely because they have not been properly studied and known - like extemporaneous experiences of a traveler in search of new emotions, which in the Balkans would have found a meaning to her own existence.
Now, it must be said that if it is undeniable - and it is Durham itself who declares it on several occasions - that the motivations that brought it to the eastern shores of the Adriatic were linked to specific existential contingencies, it is equally true - and the material and documentary testimonies are there to prove it - that starting from that first trip, which could have remained an isolated experience, Edith Durham began to put into practice typically ethnographic and anthropological research methods.
This is not the place to indicate the specificities of his method of observation, in which one can identify the imprints of cultural relativism and comparative ethnography, the new frontiers of early twentieth century ethnology, which were headed by anthropologists and ethnologists such as Franz Boas and Elie Reclus, whose research had a wide echo in England in those years.
Here we limit ourselves to drawing attention, as well as on the sound documentation kept in British Library, on the numerous testimonies of "material culture" that she collected and donated to various English museums, of which we will see shortly. But let's dwell on the exact moment when Durham became aware of the nature of his research. It happened following the comment made by an unknown interlocutor, met by chance.
The episode dates back to his second trip to the Balkans, when he had not yet entered Albania. As often happened, she had attracted the attention of the locals, amazed to see an English lady traveling all alone in very little territories explored by foreigners. They asked her questions of all kinds, about her origins, her family, and the purpose of her journey.
And she always responded willingly, saying that she simply wanted to take note of the places, customs and traditions of the inhabitants, of their way of life, and so on. "'In short - a gentleman observed - she is doing geo-ethnographic studies.' It struck me as an extraordinarily luminous idea. I would never have arrived alone. I said yes, and everyone was very happy. " 3)The February 18 was published the third part from the title From Cettigne to Scutari . The fifth and final will be published on Saturday 3 March
- Martin Clayton, “Ethnographic wax cylinders at the British Library National Sound Archive. A brief history and description of the collection ", in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 5, n. 1, 1996, pp. 67 - 92
- The British Library Sound Archive. World and traditional music: wax cylinder collections
- Mary Edith DURHAM, Through the Lands of the Serb, London, Edward Arnold, 1904, p. 186 (personal translation)