Interesting was the will and the love to create – the passion to create music!

Music, emotions, and joy in Kosovo’s wartime

The concepts of war and joy may seem almost incompatible. On one hand, there are moments of violence, displacement, and trauma, while on the other, there exist joy and positive emotions. However, an individual’s experiences during wartime can be multifaceted, and not every emotion felt during war needs to be negative. In recent years, the scientific study of wars has increasingly focused on the diverse emotional worlds of those affected and their personal experiences, all the while acknowledging the violent realities of wars. Positive memories of everyday life during wartime for those impacted by war can often be intertwined with musical and other cultural practices like making music together, attending concerts, or spending time with friends. Music can assume a diverse array of roles during times of war. These roles include patriotic and nationalistic sentiments and provide a platform for expressing political resistance, bolster the morale of soldiers or propagate pacifist ideals. It can also serve as an important emotional resource for civilians, foster a sense of community and solidarity, and preserve cultural identity and traditions, while providing an opportunity to individuals to uphold their dignity. Through music, a sense of normalcy can be restored. Given these roles, it becomes increasingly important to regard music as an integral part of the culture of remembrance of a war, incorporating the positive emotions it evokes. These emotions also played a role during the Kosovo war, as can be seen through the research project “Music Worlds in Kosovo’s Wartime”, which dealt with the Kosovo-Albanian music scene in Prishtina in the 1990s. The focus was to be shed light upon the experiences of those who lived through the war, thereby rendering the multifaceted experiences of the music scene during the years of war more comprehensible and relatable.

The musical scene in Prishtina during the 1990s, up until the years of the war 1998-1999, is associated with a spectrum of both negative and positive emotions. Within this landscape, the sense of community and collaborative music-making emerged as a positive aspects of life for a substantial part of the scene. An illustrative example of this is a statement by Vjosa Shala, the lead vocalist of the women’s metal band “Terror” at that time. She shared, “My band, we didn’t look, we just didn’t look for something serious because we were teenagers, we wanted to escape the reality and it was cool, five women, we had something in common and that was cool that time.”

Having common interests, escaping reality, and not taking themselves or their own music too seriously, were the main focus. For Shala, music also represented the possibility of experiencing a sense of weightlessness. For Bujar Berisha, a member of the band Troja, the love of music was a particularly positive memory: “Serbia, which occupied us somehow, was under sanctions. We were under Serbia, isolated, inside a cube. We started making rock music, of course we were improvising with instruments. But what was very interesting was the will and the love to create, the passion to create music.”

The music genre itself influenced on emotional states. Musician Luan Qorraj articulated how death metal in particular, served as a means of healing his inner peace during wartime. “I am serious. We were turning to more aggressive music because this was where we found our peace. The empty door of the aggression way.” He also shared how mutual values and interest in music played an important and networking role associated with positive memories. The majority of positive emotions stemmed from interactions within and with the music scene. Whether it was forming bands, attending concerts, the creative act of making music and the associated emotions, the perception of music as an inner escape, the sheer pleasure derived from listening, or spreading joy through creating music on their own contributed to a sense of well-being. The bars where segments of the music scene met served as havens for small moments of freedom, normalcy, love, and solidarity. Actively participating in the city’s musical life, despite adversities like limited instrument availability and safe venues, filled people with pride. Dritero Nikqi of the punk band Por_no described: “It is about the resilience, really. And, you know, that’s one thing that I’m proud of my friends and the other bands and then everyone in the scene that were actually playing at that time because there were many of those quitting, saying it doesn’t make sense.”

However, not all emotions associated with Prishtina’s musical scene during that time were positive. As Vjosa Shala said, “We were trying to kind of resist the situation that we lived in, and we were listening to metal because that was the only escape from reality.” This ambivalence, on the one hand feeling a kind of escape and resistance through music, on the other hand being driven to this escape, is reflected in many witness statements. Regarding a musician from a metal band, Shala aptly said: “His music was an escape from the things that we were experiencing and we kind of survived through his music”. Music was thus attributed the role of a savior, providing a way out, an escape from reality, a survival. Dritero Nikqi, who also associated music with friendship, expressed a similar view: “For me it was about surviving. It was about friendship. And then about getting creative.”

Over the years, people’s emotional responses to music underwent significant changes, largely influenced by two noteworthy upheavals. One of them was the onset of the NATO intervention in Kosovo. “When the NATO strikes began, it was like everything stopped. You were struggling to stay alive,” said Petrit Çarkaxhiu, who is part of the band Jericho. The approaching end of the war, on the other hand, is described as liberation from the Serbian oppression; a war celebrated all the more enthusiastically. “The enthusiasm was really high. The whole mood was liberation. That was an added value because everybody was ready for a party and going crazy and all that.” Until the end of the war, the members of Prishtina’s Kosovo Albanian music scene sustained themselves through their music and community. They shared positive emotions through friendship, love of music, escape from the negative reality of the war, and creative expression. They lived on the experiences of community, creativity, and freedom, supplementing with their experiences the culture of remembrance of a time of suffering that at first glance seemed to allow only negative experiences.

This article is one result of the research project “Music Worlds in Kosovo’s Wartime”. The article was written by Katharina Becker and Joschka Hofmann with the collaboration of Anastasia Tikhomirova, Felix Fischer and Philipp Zimmermann.