How music found its way through the isolation of Albania
Even the determination of the Albanian regime to isolate itself from the rest of the world could not stop the rumors from the country’s capital.
Music feeds on cross pollination. How, then, do musicians survive – let alone create – in an isolationist country where only a meager regime of state-approved cultivation is offered? Albania, and in particular the music of its capital, Tirana, provides some answers. During the four decades of communist rule under Enver Hoxha, this tiny Balkan country might as well have been on the moon for all the officially permitted cultural variety.
Hoxha’s Stalinism called for absolute cultural uniformity. And just as he was tearing apart the economic and social fabric, nationalizing businesses and reorganizing this underdeveloped agrarian society through collective farms and industrialization projects, a whole infrastructure of state cultural control arose to crush unwanted artistic expressions. and encourage ‘appropriate’ cultural values. After his denunciation of Khrushchev in 1961, Hoxha only counted China as an ally. When Mao died in 1976, Albania was truly alone and was as culturally adrift as it was politically isolated. Hoxha’s concrete bunker construction program across her country (bunkerizimi) rightly symbolized a country trying to sequester itself from the world.
But removing the green shoots of musical creativity has proven difficult. When the Tirana student protests began in the late 1990s, leading to the first democratic elections since the 1920s, held 30 years ago last month, students at the University of the Arts also marked the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon. They sang Revolution, Heroes of the working class and Imagine and set out to replace the images of Hoxha and her successor, Alia, in their amphitheatres with those of Lennon.
The only Western figure sanctioned by the Hoxha regime was Norman Wisdom, as the triumph of the oppressed character of the Wisdom working class, Pitkin, over their social superiors was deemed ideologically valid. A former army musician, Wisdom songs like Don’t laugh at me (cause I’m a fool) (1954) revealed that he was a more than adequate singer, and he was made an honorary citizen of Tirana in 1995. But in the student protests, it was clear that by the 1990s Western influence had bypassed the regime’s barriers. Lennon’s music had circulated widely on illicit tapes but, even worse for the authorities, its many symbolic meanings had crossed the border as well.
You can also watch:
The previous decades were darker times, and it is hard to overestimate how stifling the atmosphere was in Tirana for any kind of music that could be called “modern”. The only outlet for popular music was the annual Festivali i Këngës (Song Festival), modeled on the San Remo Festival and characterized by the genre of light music sung by Tirana singer Vaçe Zela, who won the inaugural competition in 1962 and went on to become a national institution and multiple winner. The Festivali i Këngës, however, was part of the planned musical economy and was dominated by staff from state ensembles, including Zela herself.
While the Festivali i Këngës was intended to produce songs “to be sung by the masses”, there was an internal debate about what exactly that meant and in 1972 the songs performed drew the wrath of the authorities for their ” immorality”. The winning song, Kur Vjen Pranvera (‘When spring comes‘), in which Tonin Tërshana sang “Spring has come / But I didn’t believe it”, seemed to open up to a revolutionary interpretation. The Festival director was imprisoned and one of the presenters, actor Bujar Kapexhiu, was sent to work in the brickyard in Tirana. Albanian music has entered a new period of draconian censorship.
But it was rock music that bore the brunt of Hoxha’s bans, and the flourishing of Albanian rock took place in Kosovo rather than in the country’s own capital. In a situation where beards and long hair were banned, even the occasions for sartorial signs of counter-cultural thinking were extremely rare, but Tirana’s youth would not be disheartened and would defy official bans for decades before finally being raised in the 1990s.
the liqeni The bands (“lake”) formed the core from which the Albanian rock later developed, so named for their illegal gatherings at the man-made lake south of Tirana. Here they would play the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix songs they had heard on pirated tapes and house radios tuned to Italian stations. In the absence of electrified rock instruments, folk guitars and anything that could be used as drums were used, and among this little-trained DIY collective were Gjergj Jorgaqi, Aleksander Gjoka, Dashnor Diko and Elton Deda who went all experience musical success. in post-communist Albania.
At the moment when the liqeni were becoming a well-defined phenomenon, times were changing. Hoxha passed away in 1985 and his successor Ramiz Alia faced an invincible wave of popular discontent with the state of the country. In 1988, Aleksander Gjoka was authorized to organize the first official rock concert in Albania, held inside the Tirana Palace of Culture itself. The following year, at an assembly of the National Union of Albanian Youth, party officials were outraged to hear the results of a recent anonymous poll: rock music was widely listened to and extremely popular.
Popular Italian pop duo Al Bano and Romina Power were licensed to perform in the country in 1989, and in the summer of 1991 the authorities themselves were playing Western rock music in Skanderbeg Square. Last February, the 40-foot Hoxha statue in the square was brought down and an election followed in March. Albania was on the way to a new future.
Since the arrival of democracy, Albania has weathered many other storms, most notably the collapse in 1997 of generalized pyramid systems which almost led to a complete collapse of society; violence erupted, the government was overthrown, and gangs and rebel groups seized local power. But the Albanians kept moving forward and looking outward. Dance music – a culture without borders – has taken root in Tirana, with the Blloku district as its center. Once the exclusive domain of communist officials – Hoxha’s villa still sits at its center – its concrete architecture which was once symbolic of the regime is today an asset in the constant race to be baptized “the new Berlin”.
A little further north of Blloku, just off Skanderbeg Square, which is still dominated by the National Historical Museum’s socialist realist mural, is Minus 1, a location in a former parking lot that has attracted international dance numbers to Tirana. Discobox, meanwhile, is another focus of Tirana’s emerging dance scene, and is located beneath the University of the Arts where Lennon’s commemoration sparked a revolution.
DJ and producer Teelco studied at this same institution and is now one of the leaders in techno and house in Tirana. Another regular scene in Tirana is Anascole (Anastas Kolagji) from the Himarë coast, and the ION and Kala festivals, which take place on the white Caribbean sands of Dhërmi Beach, a 30-minute drive from the Himarë coast. , are the main musical events in Albania.
Albanian music now covers a full range, from romantic ballads from Tirana, Anjeza Shahini, who won the Festivali i Këngës, now a Eurovision Song Contest, to represent Albania in its debut in the competition in 2004, at the gypsy punk of Fanfara Tirana. , a former Albanian army fanfare whose jubilant fusion of disparate Albanian styles with dub reggae and jazz has made it favorites at European festivals. With the start of EU membership negotiations a year ago, marking a new phase in its history, Albania continues its long journey from isolation to openness.
Albanian folk music is incredibly diverse. The northern Ghegs and the southern Tosks have different traditions, but the Ottoman-influenced urban lyrical songs of the northern town of Shkodër, associated with singers Bik Ndoja, Xhevdet Hafizi and Luçije Miloti, flourished in post-Tirana. war alongside folk music from the south of the musical dynasty La Famille Lela de Përmet. Lately, Myslym Lela’s Romani-influenced music has become one of the sounds most associated with Tirana. Under Hoxha, the Southern National Folk Festival of Gjirokastër celebrated the polyphonic singing of the region and Hoxha’s own Tuscan culture.
What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing [email protected]