This piece appeared in Friday’s Guardian. And unlike the last time I wrote about Kosovo, in this article I didn’t make the mistake of saying my Kosovar mates were ex-members of the KLA. Safe.
Power cuts, a shortage of kit and war damage haven’t stopped Kosovars from creating a club scene that’s gaining fans worldwide.
There is an electronic musician in Pristina called Toton. He has written a track called Coca Cola, which petitions the owner of the world’s most popular beverage to buy Kosovo, paint it red, plaster the Coke logo on to everything, do whatever the company wants to the place – just, please, sort out the electricity problem. Kosovo’s entire energy supply, such as it is, comes from only two thermal power stations. “We’re probably the only electronic musicians in the world producing music without electricity,” says Toton, “Our ministers need to tighten standards so that things start working.”
Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe – 60% of Kosovars are under 25 – and also one of the continent’s most unexpectedly progressive and dynamic electronic music scenes, thanks to a small, cosmopolitan group of music producers and promoters. Spray Club, the focal point of techno in Pristina, was included in DJ magazine’s top 100 clubs in the world, and records made by Kosovar producers get played by internationally known DJs such as Richie Hawtin. The scene is so close-knit that if you meet one DJ on a Friday night, by Sunday you’ll have clinked bottles with all of them. Promoters call each other at all hours of the night to borrow leads, cables, lights – whatever has just blown and needs immediate replacement. Small bars in the city play dubstep and techno, and bootleg white labels that haven’t reached the rest of Europe.
It all started with one song. In 1995, Josh Wink’s Higher State of Consciousness turned a generation of Kosovar punk kids on to techno. There was no money to buy equipment to replicate the song’s rush, so people improvised and assembled their own drums, amps and speakers, while putting money aside to buy proper mixing decks. They held parties in squats and abandoned buildings – parties at which drugs were rife, given the country’s position astride the supply routes between Africa, Asia and Europe. The stories go that one in four people in Pristina dropped acid during the 90s.
Pristina is a gloomy city except in summer. The seemingly constant rain carries ash and mineral particles, which coat all they touch, leaving everything feeling muddy. After dark, it feels as if you’re trespassing in an abandoned city. Those who were dropping acid and dancing had one way to escape the gloom, but when the fighting with Slobodan Miloševic´’s Yugoslav forces intensified in 1998, the party scene in Kosovo went on hiatus. “There was no real partying during the war,” says Toton. “It would have been a bit pointless seeing as our friends were targeted for execution or imprisoned.”
The majority of Kosovar people are ethnic Albanians; during the war, more than a million of them fled, mostly to Germany, Switzerland, the US and UK. Young people who left kept in touch by listening to Kosovo’s only independent radio station, radiourbanFM. The station began after the Nato bombings of Yugoslav targets in 1999 and acted as a soapbox for the new electronic music being created in Kosovo. Toton left his job to dedicate himself to the station, where, like many of the station’s producers and DJs, he worked for little or no money. In turn, the listeners were patient enough to not switch channels during the frequent blackouts.
In contrast to the mainstream news stations, with their reports of economic and political problems, radiourbanFM offered information about local gigs and events, and helped talk up the scene. It would eventually encourage a lot of those listening around the world to move back to Kosovo. Berna, whose friends call her Bass Face, was involved with the station from the beginning, hosting her own new music show. “It’s the only station in Kosovo where you are free to say whatever you want and can listen to underground tracks,” she says.
Berna owns a bar called Llocks, one of the few venues in Pristina with a proper sound system; in a city where the roads need surfacing, the hospitals need beds and a tap in your home is no guarantee of running water, sound systems come a long way down the list of priorities. But Kosovars are shrewd improvisers. If a DJ wants to play, they’ll make it happen, even if that means transforming a bare bar into a venue.
Equipment gets passed around depending on who needs it, and Toton learned to mix on a set of decks he shared with half the street. “It’s what’s made the scene happen,” he explains. “Not everyone can afford to get a decent mixer or turntables.” Though he has DJed across Europe and in the US, Toton still doesn’t have a record player of his own at home.
“We make the best of whatever there is or try to provide what’s needed,” says Likatek, another Kosovar DJ who has managed to make the transition from local to international star and now runs a regular interantional night called Episodes. “There’s some charm to it, though, and carrying equipment everywhere helps to keep the DJs’ weight down.”
Despite the practical difficulties, Kosovo clubbers demand good music. Until a couple of years ago, many of them were going out in London, New York and Berlin, and now that they’re back home, they won’t accept a compromise on quality. Besa, who was working at the New Yorker a year ago, now runs her own publication in Pristina. She sees the boom in DIY creativity in Kosovo as a reaction to the 90s, when the Miloševic´ government in Belgrade stamped out freedom of expression. “We had to find alternative ways to express ourselves,” she says.
These days, survival for a Kosovar electronic musician doesn’t mean fleeing repression, but getting out of the country frequently to play bigger venues and earn decent money – and that’s not easy. The visa regime requires that anyone leaving Kosovo must prove they intend to return, Officials find it hard to believe that young DJs with no savings, family obligations or regular employment will want to come back, so most Kosovar artists fall victim to a visa rejection at some stage. One day, Kosovo will probably join the EU – France, Germany and the UK all back its inclusion – and travel will become easier. But the waiting, especially when artists are forced to turn down festivals and gigs that they have worked hard to secure, is maddening.
“The combination of disappointment and frustration is severe,” says Likatek. “Most of the time, the promoters abroad have no idea of the requirements in place, and frankly I don’t blame them as their freedom of movement was never limited in this way.”
Funnily enough, one place DJs can travel to is Serbia; to Serbs, it’s all still the same country. Toton was one of the first Kosovar DJs to play in Serbia after the war. He was booked to play the dungeon of a castle. All night long, he had a beautiful, toned blonde woman by his side. To make matters clear, she told him immediately, “I’m not here to fuck you; I’m here to protect you.” She was a black belt in half a dozen martial arts.
It would be wrong to suggest that the newly installed Kosovar government isn’t weighing in with financial support for music in the country, but a lot of the time the trade ministry chooses dubious recipients for its funds. For example, it spent half a million euros on a concert for young Kosovars that featured Elvis and Abba impersonators, and a headlining slot for Samantha Fox.
Of course, there aren’t many electronic music scenes anywhere that get government support. The musicians in Kosovo know this, and they’re not looking for a handout; they’ve kept the scene alive by themselves so far. But they say they would appreciate it if the people in charge could do something about the irregular power supply.
Toton says there’s something in the soil that radiates a positive energy and keeps the young people feeling good. If Europe is looking for proof that religious tolerance, cooperation and optimism can thrive in the face of material shortage, it could do a lot worse than to check out the electronic music scene in Kosovo.
Fresh in Pristina: Kosovo’s techno DJs
Traditional Kosovar music is made with a 7/8 time signature – not the easiest to dance to – but, like every other electronic scene in Europe, Pristina is influenced first and foremost by the music coming out of London and Berlin. Minimal techno, dubstep and house are the sounds you hear in the bars and clubs. Kosovar house and techno producers add darker, grungier, more industrial beats to standard electronic music templates to give a distinctive flavour.
Pristina’s most famous club, Spray, is home to the city’s best-known DJs – Likatek, Toton, Legoff, Goya and Naka, who is considered by many to be the best techno DJ in the country, play there regularly. And when international DJs come to Kosovo, Spray is where you’ll find them. Seven years ago, Likatek started a regular techno and house night at Spray called Episodes. It brought together DJs, producers and designers to create a complete Kosovar clubbing experience. Episodes now has residencies in the Netherlands and Albania.
Apart from techno and house, there’s a vibrant trance scene in Pristina where parties are put on in the woods around the capital. Word about these raves is usually circulated in the bars around Pristina, but the Bass Face show on radiourbanFM is the primary supporter of local musicians in the capital. Right now they’re playing a lot of a new Kosovar electronic music collective, founded by Toton, called Pischmen.