G Funeral - Vaji and Gjama

Vaji and Gjama are the dirge or lamentation of the dead in the Albanian custom by a woman or a group of women or man, deriving from ancient times, usually singing poetic verses and a choir behind the refrain. In Southern Albania only women participate in the Vaj, whereas in Northern Albania men also can take part. Gjâma e burrave, or Men's Lament is a death rite performed only by men and for men only, in Albania, exclusively in the highlands of Dukagjin. To perform this rite, a quorum of ten or more men is needed. During the ritual, the men strike their chests and scratch their faces, depending on the deceased.

Gjâma served the unique purpose of expressing one's grief, but at the same time, to spread the bad news in adjacent regions for others to come and visit the family of the deceased.

The song will ask the deceased to resurrect from the dead because all he owned and all that was dear to him is calling for him/her to be back in life. In the past professional mourners were hired by the wealthy families to perform a good dirge.

In every culture there is a particular ritual that helps people honor the dead and release the pain from their heart. In the Albanian culture there is the ritual of lamentation, an Illyrian Albanian mourning custom that was applied acrossthe country. The ritual is embodied in the culture while the mourning and lamentation criteria and procedure, as well as the grave arrangements, are all described in and applied in compliance with the customary laws of the respective regions.

What is common in both Northern and Southern practices is the honor that is paid to the deceased. The body is placed in the central part of the house with rows of mourners surrounding him. The first row of which is made up of close family and friends followed by the rest of the mourners. The collective crying starts with the female lamentation, which can be performed by the women of the family or by professional criers called “vojtica”. 

The tradition of lamentation is regulated by the Mountain Kanuns(Ottoman law) and incorporates the institution of ksodhi-kësolli. This starts with the announcement of the death of a person and goes on to the declaration of the mourning, the lamentation ritual, elegiac sobbing, gesticulation and moves during the lamentation ritual, the end of the lamentation ritual, duration of the mourning period, end of mourning period and the resolution from the mourning process.

In the northern regions men and women perform different lamentation rituals. The ritual that is carried out by men is performed at dusk and it involves out loud cries, violent beatings of the chest, tearing of the face till it bleeds, and according to the Kanun of LekëDukagjini it is performed in four stages and takes 20 minutes till one hour:

In the first stage, the lamentation is performed at a distance of 300-500 meters from the body of the deceased, which is placed in an open area. The first row of mourners is always occupied by the men of the family of the deceased. The men take off their heavy coats, put their hands in their loins, stretch their elbows aside and then start beating the ground violently with their feet, while bursting out in a group cry “ooou ….o” and call out the name of the deceased. 

In the second stage, all men lean towards the deceased on heavy steps at a distance of 50-100 meters, and then they stand still in a frozen state and wait for the signal of the first man who cries outloud “ooou”, which ends with the phrase “I mjeriunëpërty!” (poor me, for your soul!). This is accompanied by violent chest beatings.

In the third stage, men walk for other 50-100 meters and stop suddenly, they take the hands from their loins and start tearing their face with their nails and throw their blood drops towards the deceased. 

In the fourth stage, men stay silent for a couple of minutes and then they start running towards the deceased, they kneel, they put their foreheads on the ground and then they start to caress the ground as a sign of a polite request to the ground to accept the deceased in his final home. 

In comparison, the lamentation ritual performed by women is more of aplaintive type, with dramatic cries and sobbing, they stay aside in a group and their cry starts when the lamentation ritual of the men ends. The women cry and tear off their hair, but they do not tear their face. 

Women are all dressed head to toe in black, and their cry starts with one woman singing a very sad and sobbing song, which is immediately echoed by the choir of mourning women. The female cry and lamentation is part of the massive cry in which every line of the elegy ends in an acute shuddering, high pitched sound “oiiiiii”.

In the southern regions of Albania recital weeping, an extremely dramatic and heartbreaking female and collective type of lamentation is most common. It is a mournful type of crying mostly performed in a group or by the lamentation choir. This is characterized by the multi layered and voiced sobbing that laid the foundation of the iso-polyphonic music commonly sang in the south. This type of weeping, sobbing and choral multi-voiced singingrepresents the essence of ancientexpression and beliefs.

When the Dictator EnverHoxha died on 11th April 1985, the whole population mourned and practiced group lamentation. However, the official mourning lamentation ritual was also applied in full compliance with the Kanun of Toskëria, and professional criers were called to perform the lamentation, as it is usually done in the region of Gjirokastra.

If you are curious to know more about this heartbreaking yet exceptional ritual and would like to see the intensity of the cries, there are videos and documentaries on You Tube which demonstrate this extraordinary tradition.

B Traditions