The old man opened the case and took out a big, red accordion. He put the straps over his shoulders. At first, he was unsure, tentative. It had been a while. Then, he squeezed it, his fingers dancing over the white keys as 50 years of music came flooding back to him.
Standing on the sidewalk, he threw his head back and began to sing. That’s when people started trickling out of the nearby apartments. They gathered around him in a circle, clapping along. Nobody understood the words. He sang in a language they did not understand.
It didn’t matter. They knew what the song was about: Joy, pure joy.
In 2016, Ylli Brekofca left his home in Albania, looking for a better life. In December that year, Brekofca landed in Portland. He was 64 and starting over.
Brekofca left behind anything he couldn’t fit into two small suitcases, including his accordion. The instrument had been his constant companion since childhood. It was just as well, he thought, nobody in Maine would care about Albanian music, or the folk songs he’d spent a lifetime collecting.
Two years on, Brekofca’s made a home here. He’s found friends, an accordion and Mainers want to hear his music. After bringing the house down at a local open mic, he was offered a solo show of his own. This week Brekofca, now 66, will sing and play music from his homeland at Mayo Street Arts in Portland.
A father’s gift
Brekofca’s father gave him an accordion when he was 15 years old.
“I played it so much, it became like part of my body,” said Brekofca, through his older sister, Arta, 68. She’s his interpreter while he learns English.
Their father wanted to give Ylli a piano but that was impossible in Communist-ruled Albania. It was 1953 and the ruling party kept their tiny Balkan nation isolated from the rest of the world. That meant no piano for Ylli, or anyone else.
Making matters worse, their father was unpopular with the communist government. He was arrested and interrogated more than once. He could speak English and went to an American-run Albanian high school before World War II. His father could also sing.
“He sounded like Frank Sinatra,” said Arta.
This made paranoid government leaders more than a little suspicious of him.
Ylli was not disappointed with his father’s gift. He loved the accordion and spent the next 50 years playing, singing and gathering folk songs from all corners of Albania. Through all five decades — as Ylli grew up, married, raised two children, got divorced and had many jobs — he never stopped playing the accordion his father gave him.
Albania is a small country, ringed with mountains and nestled against the Adriatic Sea. It’s poor by European standards but rich in cultural heritage and musical diversity.
Ylli grew up in Tirana, the capital city. It sits in the center of the country, a crossroads attracting migrants from across the land. It’s a mix of every Albanian ethnic tradition and a perfect place to collect folk music.
It was especially good for Ylli because he specialized in playing weddings.
When asked how many weddings he’s played over the years, Ylli laughs, grabbing both sides of his head, as if overwhelmed with contemplation.
“Thousands?” he ponders. “Too many.”
Weddings are giant to-dos in Albania. They go on all day and sometimes a whole week. There’s live music — plus singing and dancing — at every turn. It starts even before the groom leaves his house.
“Eat and dance and eat and dance, all night,” said Arta.
Ylli soaked up all the regional styles of music he heard at Tirana weddings. He began writing down the words and melodies by ear and from memory. Ylli collected more than 400 songs into three handwritten notebooks, organized by region: One for each the north, south and central regions.
Couples and families would seek him and his notebooks out in the city, knowing he could play songs from their community. Sometimes, if the bride and groom were from different regions, he’d play and sing a mix of styles.
Albanian music is a sonic concoction of Middle Eastern, Greek, Roman and Byzantine sounds. It’s often played in “crooked” time signatures with odd numbered beats in each measure. Northern songs tend to be rugged and rhythmic. Southern songs are smoother in tone.
Patriotism, love and revenge are common themes.
Albania has unusually well-preserved regional folk traditions. It’s an unintended byproduct of a half-century of Communist rule. Party leader Enver Hoxha controlled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985. Although a Marxist, he broke ties with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and China, leaving his tiny country friendless for much of the Cold War.
”Let everyone understand clearly, the walls of our fortress are of unshakeable granite rock,” he wrote of his country in one of more than 40 volumes of speeches published in his lifetime.
A 1985 New York Times article stated that Vietnam was Albania’s only friend.
Hoxha’s imposed isolationism meant Albania’s native folk music remained untainted by western sounds. Rock and roll was an illegal, jailable offense. Albanian music also remained diverse. Regional differences in culture were reinforced and celebrated by the government. It used ethnic and tribal structures as a way to govern with more local authority.
At the same time, Albania was declared an officially atheist state. Religion was outlawed. Muslims and Christians intermarried, easing most ethnic tensions.
Coming to Maine
After Communism fell, Ylli and Arta, like all Albanians, enjoyed their new freedom. They were free to travel and speak their minds for the first time in their lives. However, the country’s new, open society also brought chaos and corruption to the country’s economy. Last year, ongoing economic hardships forced Ylli out of Albania.
“Albania is beautiful,” Ylli said, without a translation from his sister, “but no jobs, no money.”
Arta left first, in 1997, after winning a green card lottery. Being close kin, Ylli was eventually allowed to follow her.
When he left, he had to leave his accordion — the one his father had given him — behind. It was too heavy for the plane.
Ylli couldn’t bear to part with his notebooks, though. He tucked them into his bags and brought them to America. They were his life’s work, a written record of his musical purpose, reflecting his country’s history and culture. Precious as they were, Brekofca didn’t think anyone would ever value his notebooks here.
Ylli first stayed in New York when he came to the United States. He didn’t stay there long. He moved to Portland to share a two-room apartment with Arta.
“Ylli is sleeping there,” she said, pointing to a cot in the corner off their tidy living room. “We are poor, but it is tradition to help each other.”
Ylli said he came to help take care of his sister. With arthritic knees, walking is hard for Arta. Working is impossible.
He could go to New York or Chicago, said Arta, where there are large Albanian immigrant populations. There, he could play weddings and sing in restaurants.
“Some of them would know who Ylli is,” said Arta. “Ninety-five percent of Tirana’s population would know who he is.”
But both he and Arta would rather stay in Portland, they said. She’s already a citizen and he hopes to become one as well.
A new accordion
Carpenter, artist and musician Orson Horchler sometimes goes by the name Pigeon. He met Ylli in early 2017. They both showed up to a musical jam session put on by the Maine Access Immigrant Network. Without an accordion, Ylli didn’t have an instrument to play.
“He just came and listened,” said Horchler, who grew up on the outskirts of Paris, France.
When they met at another jam session, some time later, Horchler secretly resolved to find an accordion for Ylli.
To help with that, Horchler contacted Jenny Van West, founder and sole proprietor of the Maine Immigrant Musical Instrument Project. Van West’s project helps match Portland’s newest Mainers up with musical instruments. She’d found many guitars and keyboards over the years but never an accordion.
“I got on social media and put the word out,” said Van West. “It only took a couple of days.”
Maine Fiddle Camp Director Doug Protsik spoke up, saying he had an extra accordion he’d bought with the idea someone might need it someday.
By that time, Ylli and Horchler had become friends. One day, when they were both in Horchler’s workshop, Van West stopped by, unannounced, and handed the accordion to Ylli.
“At first, he didn’t understand I was giving it to him,” said Van West.
When she got her point across to him, he still hesitated.
“I don’t know how to play American music,” he told her. “I don’t know your songs.”
Horchler and Van West told him to play his own — Albanian — music. So he did.
Ylli stood on the sidewalk that day, last summer, singing and playing for 30 minutes straight. A crowd of neighbors gathered round him, clapping along. None spoke Albanian but they applauded at the end, just the same.
“It was immediately clear this guy had been doing this his whole life,” said Van West. “He was a virtuoso.”
Recalling the scene today, Ylli clasps both hands to his heart and beams.
Ylli and Horchler are now in a band together, along with a Congolese percussionist. It’s called Bondeko. They can’t speak much of each other’s languages but, somehow, it works, said Horchler.
“Orson is my brother — not by the blood — but he is my brother,” said Ylli. “And Jenny is my sister.”
A solo gig
Maine will get a chance to hear a whole night of Ylli’s Albanian folk music this week when he takes the stage at Mayo Street Arts in Portland.
He was offered the gig after playing a few songs at an international open mic night there.
“The first time we heard Ylli, he blew us away,” said Erika Jensen of Mayo Street Arts.
Ylli remembers that appearance.
“It was a little bit scary,” he said. “I know how to sing but I didn’t know if they would understand.”
Van West said the language barrier hardly matters when Ylli plays. She’s sure it won’t be a problem.
“It’s hard to sit in a room, listen to him and not be moved,” said Van West. “He’s so charming.”
Ylli is looking forward to the show but still can’t quite believe how things have turned out here. He never expected to make such friends or have the opportunity to share the music in his notebooks.
“It felt bad coming here without an accordion. I was getting older. I felt like that [musical] part of my life was over,” said Ylli. “Now, with the new accordion, it feels like another part of my life is just starting.”
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