Variety is the Spice: Interview with Avant-Garde Contra-Alto Vocalist, Alba Hyseni, Albania


appiness is in diversity,” New Jersey psychotherapist, Andrew Nargolwala, said to me the other day. We were discussing how truly complex people are, despite advertisers’ efforts to squeeze us all into nice neat stereotypes for targeted marketing.

It’s tempting to accept the stories advertisers make up about us, Nargolwala says, but we do not have to buy into this. We can resist this impulse to simplify one another. “The enemy of marketing is to be complex. Balanced. Unique.”

Look at how movies are sold to audiences, the former college English professor pointed out. New movies are touted as being just like last season’s blockbuster, with just one or two minor tweakings. “You rarely hear anyone saying, ‘This movie is like nothing else you’ve ever seen.'”

But each of us is unique. Hugely so. And that’s a good thing. “To be happy, you need a rich and diverse life.” What’s needed is to throw out those ideas of what we think we’re supposed to be like.

And so consider the next three musicians profiled in Combustus. You’d be hard-pressed to find a common thread linking these three extremely diverse performers to any one concept of “female artist.”


Alba Hyseni Simone Dinnerstein Erin Yanacek

Avant garde Albanian contra-alto singer-songwriter

Alba Hyseni

The exquisitely gifted classical pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, a graduate of Julliard, who consistently tops the classical charts

And up-and-coming young trumpet player

Erin Yanacek.











First, Alba Hyseni


Alba (costume)


Originally from the former Yugoslavia, Alba Hyseni‘s family relocated to Belgrade when she was still a girl, then later to Budapest, where, at age fifteen, she began performing in “music pubs.” Today, the contra-alto singer, whose distinctive sound melds avant garde with trip hop, jazz, and alternative, has become one of the artists-to-follow in the Hungarian Underground Arena.


alba (blue)




Deanna Phoenix Selene: What led your family to relocate to Belgrade? Do these events at all ooze their way into your music?

Alba Hyseni: I was raised in a big family, and I know the Balkans as I know my own self. My parents, Albanians, who worked for the ex-Yugoslav government for 20 years, had to flee Yugoslavia in 1999 when NATO began bombing Serbia. They now live in Boston, Massachusetts as proud American citizens.

[quote]I have been asked many times why I like to mention that I come from the Balkans, why I keep coming back to it in my thoughts, why I am fascinated with the region I come from ~ a region that is in many ways far from perfect. My answer will always be that despite the fact that it is far from perfect, it is a magical and pure place with cheerful and funny people who were given a really hard time, yet still managed to come out positive and laughing. [/quote]


alba performing


Alba Hyseni: The hospitality in the Balkans is indescribable; they offer you everything they have or even what they don’t have. If you are a friend of a relative, you are nearly part of the family ~ something I have not found in these sixteen years I’ve lived here in Hungary.

[quote]The cheerfulness in the Balkans is endless, life stories are fascinating, whatever we went through, we are willing to tell you everything and sincerely. We talk and talk and talk, about our life, about everything that comes to our mind. A lot of cigarettes and coffees are consumed before you get tired of course, or you never will and you decide to stay and listen to some more. [/quote]


Alba Hyseni performing


[quote]Living in Yugoslavia during times of war for eight years of my life wasn’t an easy thing to experience for a girl. I don’t think I will ever understand why a neighbor would kill a neighbor, or rape his neighbor’s wife simply because one was a Serb and the other a Bosnian. And there is more, but that cannot be explained in only few sentences. That must be seen, lived through, felt, and I saw it, I lived through it and I felt it. I love Balkans for its mysteries, for its “forbidden fruit” nature, for all the stories that have been kept untold, for all the unexpected that awaits there. I also think of my experiences as a gift to me as a musician. Those experiences and the history of my people are the capital of my life, memories both good and bad. That atmosphere is present in my songs, especially in “Reflection,” “Breathing Rain,”  “Reality Blow,” “My Heart’s Song.”[/quote]

 Alba (lights)


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Was there a particular performance or musician who ignited you as a girl and inspired you to make your own music? Do you remember what it felt like the first time music set you on fire?

Alba Hyseni: Sure I do. Hearing The Sisters Of Mercy or The Cult at the age of twelve was something like experiencing a romance while balancing on the edge of the impossible.


alba performing


Alba Hyseni: Those two bands transformed the destructive force of fire into beauty for my sound. The symbiosis between man, erotica and all those musical elements. The represented to me a flame: they loved so passionately what they do, and that flame will never be the same in me for anyone else, regardless of how many other bands I get to hear in this life. I won’t forget them.

Same with hearing Nine Inch Nails for the first time, futuristic space-haunted electro rock beats and sounds that move my body and take my soul to another time and dimension; they will always free my mind. Trent Reznor is music magic for me. And of course one of my favorite bands Einstürzende Neubauten: that psychedelic instrumental soundscape and that voice to space out on…absolutely fantastic

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What do you hope to have others feel when they encounter your sound? Can music be a form of therapy for your audience?

Alba Hyseni: I do feel that this unusual voice of mine is a valuable resource for me. Music doesn’t work with the brain only. I was born with this voice; I did not learn to sing the way I do. It’s in my nature, my biology.




Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes, I see. When you are singing, you are conveying your very essence. Not putting on a show. You are connecting through sound and vibration.

Alba Hyseni: The album the you hear, the voice on it, that took me ten hours to put the vocals on. This can not be learned. That’s a natural talent.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was this process like that took you ten hours? What was involved? What do you demand from yourself and your recordings?

Alba Hyseni: I sang twelve  songs without prior rehearsal, without any idea of what the whole concept of the music was or where it was going. I sang the whole album during two visits to the studio.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Because you wanted that ring of authenticity? That sound of hungering and searching for expression and connection?

Alba Hyseni: Yes. And to give what I fully am.

I share my personal struggles with my audience. When I listen to others’ music, if I do not hear someone who is challenging me within their music, there is something important missing in my relationship with their music. There is no opportunity for healing.


Alba Hyseni Mirror


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you consider yourself a singer first or a songwriter? 

Alba Hyseni: I think that it is most important to write the lyrics first before writing the music. I will not go into the theory aspect of music in songwriting except to say, please, all you songwriters out there, please learn the theory first.

Unfortunately, the other thing about songwriting is that not everyone can do it. It’s the simple truth. Songwriting is an art. Some professional musicians who have been in bands for 20-30 years never write songs; they simply don’t have that particular talent.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does a song for you typically start?

Alba Hyseni: I usually begin by thinking about a particular experience, then play around with it until I stumble on to something that reflects the way I’m feeling. Then I use that as a starting point and work around that. Depending on the style of music, it’s often possible to go in a direction that has nothing to do with what I’ve started with. I write progressive lyrics; their context is metaphoric, rather than direct. Once I have my starting point, I keep reading my lyrics and hear what it’s telling me. The words eventually come. I never try to force them out.


It’s almost as if the songs were already written, and I am merely remembering them.


(c) 2012 by Pawel Karnowski — with Alba Hyseni

(c) 2012 by Pawel Karnowsk

Deanna Phoenix Selene
: Favorite poet?

Alba Hyseni: Pablo Neruda, of course. I’ve been always trying to analyze the work of a poet as prolific and brilliant as Neruda. And although I know that he was definitively not a surrealist, he often employed surrealist devices in his poetry such as free association and the placement of adjectives, for example, and adverbs next to nouns, and verbs that they could never modify. He did it with such skill and ease that the reader’s intuition cops to it. Neruda’s poems are beautifully written, filled with metaphors, symbols and an incredible word choice that leaves many people breathless. I love the way he uses vivid diction and complex syntax with a romantic tone to convey that the loss one feels can never be overcome or forgotten.

“Human word, syllable, flank

of long light and hard silver,

hereditary goblet that receives

the communications of the blood:

it is here that silence was formed by

the whole of the human word

and not to speak is to die among beings:

language extends out to the hair,

the mouth speaks without moving the lips:

suddenly the eyes are words.”


alba at mic


Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is it about the underground and jazz scene that speaks to you so strongly?

Alba Hyseni: I think that there is a strong need for story, and if someone’s from a different place, that’s a story. The origins of underground and jazz are reflected in my music, but I do not only share the ethic of individualism on my album (Inner-Mission), I also celebrate a national identity built on my Balkan roots. The vast majority of my songs are in a way tracing their ancestry to Eastern and Central European music. Being unique and exceptional in art is a painful process, and unique artists have things in their background that help them endure that process. And these strengths not only work for themselves, they work for humanity, they create a universal message, criticizing constructively without bruising others’ egos.




Deanna Phoenix Selene: As you go about your day, do you hear rhythms, music in the sounds around you? Do you ever find yourself incorporating this cacophony into your pieces?

Alba Hyseni: As I walk, I always hear voices, melodious, harmonious, voices in chorus and I also hear the word, “God.” I do not only hear or feel the singing, I join in with the singing. I have a woman’s body, but a deep and low mannish voice. I realize I am singing the way I had always wanted to.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What sets the music from your country apart from alternative music from other corners of the world? Is there a distinctive Hungarian sound that comes through your work?

Alba Hyseni: “Inner Mission” is an avant garde record. Ideally, this album represents the end of a long journey through the labyrinth of one’s life, a meeting of abstract art with eastern European music, and, in a way, the alter ego upgrade and a life after death.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: A music teacher I knew once challenged us to go through the entire day expressing everything we wanted to say in song. Have you ever held fantasies of how the world would be different if we talked less and made music more? What would be the perfect day, musically, that you could imagine?

Alba Hyseni:


We live in ambitious times. You need only to visit New York, Berlin or Paris to witness the hysteria attached to personal achievements. I love being many things at once, achieving that balance rather than excelling in only one thing to the detriment of the rest of who you are; I would say that, for me, making music is, in the end a wonderful way to really grow up.

Musicians often talk about whether you achieve brilliance by practicing for hours every day or by reading about music. Learning comes when we feel we are falling in love, but maturity, in music as in life, has to be earned by living it. A musical development in this world hinges on international collaboration, and without that international common support, the technical part of it is useless.



For me, a duet with Dave Gahan or Iggy Pop would be an absolute perfect day musically.


microphone alba




Further Notes:

Alba Hyseni on Soundcloud:

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]

Connect with Alba Hyseni on her official fanpage.

Find Hyseni on Myspace.

Andrew Nargolwala has been a psychotherapist for over ten years, and is the co-founder of Advanced Psychotherapy & Healing Associates in Cresskill, NJ. Prior to that, he taught writing and literature at Queens College and other colleges for almost 14 years.

To connect with Mr. Nargolwala, visit his website.


Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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