Music is the universal language of mankind. – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The moment we stepped into the tiny Albanian bar bearing mint-green walls, I regretted having not been more studious in Italian class years earlier. The five gentlemen inside the Shkodër establishment spoke Albanian, of course, but between the two of us, Shawn and I only knew about five Albanian words. The seven of us rapidly defaulted to Italian, soon learning that we really only needed to use the universal language to communicate. Music that is.
The warm sound of an accordion is what lured us into the bar, after all. Then came the contagious laughter of the men inside and the promise of an authentic experience, in a country not yet on the tourist radar.
The owner, Nikola, pulled out two chilled cans of B52, an energy drink that would have us buzzing for hours to come. He set them on our table, and made it known that this was his treat. There was no way that he was going to let us pay.
Luigi’s music had everyone in the nautical-themed establishment doing toe tapping, with Luigi’s black, pointy shoe leading the way. The men sang. Shawn and I didn’t know the lyrics, but still we hummed and we swayed.
The expressive looks on Luigi’s face were priceless. During more passionate measures, he looked as if he were about to cry, but then there came a brilliant, merry crescendo, and his face sported a wide-eyed grin. I believe that music has the power to bring happiness into anyone’s life, but I suspect that during Albania’s brutal chapter under dictator Enver Hoxha, it was one of the only pleasures that citizens could savor. I imagined Luigi during those decades, belting out a tune on the same accordion.
Two older gentlemen, smartly dressed in sport coats and button up shirts, sat at Luigi’s table. One of them was a violinist. That fellow only stayed for a few songs, then bid his friends goodbye, pedaling off on his little bike. I wondered for how many decades he’d had the same Saturday ritual?
Long appreciative of the charm an accordionist’s music adds to Europe’s Old World ambience, I’d always wanted to tickle the ivories of an accordion. I asked Luigi if I could play a tune. He obliged, helping me strap on the accordion and offering his muscle power to pump the bellows.
I got a diplomatic response from my international audience for my rendition of Scott Joplin’s ragtime tune, The Entertainer. Americans probably recognize this song from the film, the Sting, or as one often belted out of ice cream trucks, but for the Southeastern Europeans, I think it was an unknown jingle. When I played the Italian classic, La Donna è Mobile, the reaction was instantly enthusiastic. The men were swaying and singing. I couldn’t keep from laughing.
Without Luigi, I wouldn’t have been able to play the accordion at all though, because I couldn’t muster up the coordination or the muscle to pump the instrument’s bellows. And so it was that an Albanian man chivalrously pumped the bellows on the left, and an American girl played its more keyboard-like side on the right. Forget about high profile meetings between world leaders, this was citizen diplomacy at work.
Feeling sufficiently energized by now, thanks to the lively music and the caffeine and sugar swimming in our veins, Shawn and I decided it was time to walk off some calories on Shkoder’s streets. Ever the generous host, Nikola didn’t let us go so easily. He walked us down the street to his son-in-law’s brand new seafood restaurant, insisting on treating us to yet another drink.
When we tried to pick up the tab, Nikola playfully said, “No, it’s my turn. When I come to California to see you, then it’s your turn.” :)
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.