We turned to more aggressive music because that’s where we found our peace

Music in the culture of remembrance during times of war in Kosovo

Music can serve as significant emotional resource for people and create a sense of community. Moreover, it has the potential to distract from realities and inspire collective enthusiasm. In times of war, alongside its political and military functions, music can assume a central role in portraying normalcy of life and offer emotional solace in the face of life’s adversities. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to incorporate music as a vital part of the history memory culture, particularly in the context of Kosovo. As part of the project titled “Music Worlds in Kosovo’s Wartime”, a research team at the Free University of Berlin undertook an exploration of Prishtina’s music scene in the 1990s. The aim was to examine music within a crisis-ridden environment and shed light on the experiences of those who were part of that scene.

In the 1990s, Prishtina and its music scene were shaped by the oppression faced by the Kosovo Albanian majority population under the Serbian rule, culminating in the war. Despite those harsh times, the music scene succeeded in shaping a cultural life within the city. On the other hand, people grappled with issues of survival and flight. Within the framework of the research project, people who were part of that scene reminisced about places where Kosovo Albanian could still flourish. They spoke about the necessity of improvisation that was indispensable during that time, as well as of fear and sadness, alongside moments of fun and joy.

Survival became increasingly difficult in the daily life in Prishtina in the 1990s. Only a few Kosovo Albanians could go to work and earning money became a scarce commodity. Nevertheless, attempts were made to maintain a semblance of normalcy, including ensuring access to schools and socialize. People helped one another in coping with the demands of everyday life. However, following the outbreak of full-scale war in 1998 and 1999, daily life was marked by the end of cultural activities. Priorities shifted towards personal survival and concerns for the safety of loved ones. From that point, music and inspiration were out of the question. “When the war started, everyone cared about how we were going to survive. Cultural life came to a standstill. There was no longer a vibrant scene, even though there had been one in the nineties. But in 1998 and 1999, it completely dissolved,” said Bujar Berisha of the band Troja.

In the 1990s, the Kosovo Albanian music scene in Prishtina was dominated by various genres such as metal, punk, hip-hop and rock’n’roll. Later, electronic music and rave emerged. Poverty, lack of resources and the dire political situation led to an improvised and solidarity-based approach to acquiring the necessary resources. Musical instruments were rarely available or were only of subpar quality, were self-made, and shared by the bands, who were often well known to one another. Petrit Çarkaxhiu of the band Jericho has succinctly summed up the situation by remarking on the unique story of the equipment. Luan Qorraj further elaborated: “There was no place to play, but there were a whole lot of bands. People were playing rap, punk, metal, rock. The times were very violent. We were turning to more aggressive music, because that’s where we found our peace.” Nevertheless, there were central gathering points and performance venues that thrived for many years. One such hub was Kurrizi, a pedestrian passage located in the Dardania district. Kurrizi became a cultural focal point for the Albanian majority community, boasting bars and cafés that served as vital social landmarks. Additionally, the Dodona Puppet Theatre and the Hani i dy Roberteve restaurant served as crucial venues for exhibitions and concerts. Notably, clubs such as Queens, America and Casablanca provided Kosovo Albanians with the opportunity to host relatively larger concerts and parties.

Access to other venues proved difficult or impossible for Kosovo Albanians. Therefore, private houses and their basements became additional settings for band rehearsals and parties. Despite all the negative memories of the wartime era, those involved in the music scene of the time still associate it with positive emotions, enduring friendships, and fleeting moments of freedom, normalcy, and joy. During the most trying of times, music remained a resource of pleasure. Dritero Nikqi of the band Troja summarized the 1990s as a period defined by musical and cultural vibrancy, despite its difficulties. “It was about surviving. It was about friendship. And then, about getting creative.” Club founder Bersant Rizaj said in the interview, “There’s something in a human mind condition that if you’re not sure if you’re going to live or die by tomorrow, you might as well just have fun.” Social and spatial divisions of everyday life occasionally dissolved in the realm of nightlife. There were the cases when individual Serbians attended Albanian concerts and parties. Furthermore, musicians and bar owners report about joint events and close friendships. During the concerts and parties of the 1990s, spaces emerged in which ethnic distinctions faded into the background.

However, interethnic cooperation within the music scene remained consistently fragile. On one hand, Albanians were shunned by other Albanians if, despite the repression, they invited Serbians to their parties or even engaged in romantic relationships with them. On the other hand, the Serbian police were eager to prevent any interaction between the Serbian civilian population and the Albanian music scene. The Kosovo Albanian majority society had limited interaction with the musical subculture, with parts of it stigmatized as drug addicts and useless to the society, as noted by Arben Islami, a DJ at that time. Although the older generation had difficulty embracing the new music genres, they refrained from interfering with musicians, because, as Vjosa Shala observed, the situation “was bad enough anyway”.

A significant troubling aspect of the daily lives of the key figures in the Prishtina music scene were the police controls and harassment and the fear associated with them. The apartheid regime further complicated access to concert venues, while the police regularly raided Albanian bars. “I remember when we played the first gig and a heavily armed policeman asked for the set list and lyrics of each band. And we were playing covers at the time. It was crazy. And they were there during the whole gig just in case we shouted ‘Kosova Republikë!’ or anything subversive like that,” Dritero Nikqi described a scene of that time. Drawing on the daily suffering, the lyrics of many bands took on a decidedly political tone. Themes such as freedom, solidarity, social problems, the apartheid, and resistance were present in many songs, Petrit Çarkaxhiu said.

Ultimately, this comprehensive perspective demonstrates the pivotal emotional, social, cultural, and political role that music played at that time, particularly for the social group that was part of that music scene. It also highlights the intrinsic value of referring to a certain music-related culture of remembrance and sharing accounts of experiences from the musical world of past times of war, since music can bring joy and support people even in a negatively influenced everyday existence.

Therefore, these thoughts can be described with a comprehensive quote from Bujar Berisha, who describes music as a tool that accompanied Kosovo towards a better future in the end:

“We tried to change the system and we couldn’t. So, what we did in the nineties was that we were imbuing people with the power and with the courage to stand. I’m not saying Rock ´n´ Roll did this, people did it, but we did our part, because that was our tool. We couldn’t do anything else. We made music. The others did something else. And everybody did their job. And we did it, with the help of the Western countries. Of course, without them, Milošević wouldn’t have been kicked out. But we did our part then. The West did their part. And here we are now. We can have a Schnaps here. We can smoke cigarettes. No Serbian police will come here, to… You know, you are now almost like in Germany. Not in the way of infrastructure, but it’s cool here as well.”

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.