Raving Pristina: an introduction to Kosovo's flourishing music scene

Raving Pristina: an introduction to Kosovo's flourishing music scene

Kosovo, the small, landlocked country in the Balkan region, might not seem like it has much to do with grand electronic music parties and dark club nights. Still, the country, while recovering from its not too pleasant recent history, has one of the fastest emerging electronic music scenes, mainly propelled by a small but committed group of music enthousiasts.

We made our way over the green hills and past the blue lakes to the capital of this music loving country. In Pristina we raved in long abandoned printing warehouses, queued in the middle of the night in front of the railway station, and chatted away with the founding fathers of the country’s electronic music scene.

Our journey started in the beginning of September somewhere in the dusty outskirts of the city in a club called Zone. The club, locally known for its excellent hip hop nights full of stiletto heeled girls and bottle ordering young lads in impeccable ironed shirts, caught our attention with a small yet intriguing poster containing the face of Mladen Solomun.

Indeed, the Bosnia born and Germany raised dj who goes by the moniker of Solomun, was going to play an extended set (for the second time this year as we found out later). A couple of days and a five euro taxi drive from the city centre later, we found ourselves in an industrial zone about twenty minutes south of the city’s main square (Zahir Pajaziti).

We were definitely not the only ones who had noticed the advertisement: numerous yellow taxis and an equal amount of taxi drivers were bustling amid the hundreds of party goers trying to make their way into a building that was nothing more - or less - than a warehouse with two tiny ticket desks in front of it. At these abundantly staffed ticket offices male visitors pay a ten euro entrance fee, while female visitors can get in for half the price, a common practice in the Balkan region to keep the gender balance even.

Although the cover charge seems rather low for such an internationally renowned man as the label boss of Diynamic Music, it definitely isn’t for the local population. With an average income around 370 euro a month, it’s not easy for the average Kosovar to make these parties a weekly habit. Especially if you take into account the taxi ride and the rather excessively priced drinks – up to three euro for the cheapest small beer – a night out is a big cut in the monthly budget.

With an average income around 370 euro a month, it’s not easy for the average Kosovar to make these parties a weekly habit.

Still, once past the superficially executed security-check, we find ourselves in an extravagantly laser-lighted room which is literally crammed full. Moving through the crowd was a rather unpleasant challenge as the venue was loaded with big, black tables, where self-proclaimed VIPs could sip their ice-bucket cooled gin.

However, the stiff and formal gazing table-crowd seemed to blend in with a set of people that, with pierced faces, John Lennon glasses and colourful outfits, could be positioned on completely the other side of the fashion-taste spectrum. Of course, these two groups are the two extremes, but it perfectly illustrates the Kosovar electronic music scene; a successful blend between underground and mainstream.

Solomun, being the perfect catalyst between all these people, succeeded later in the evening to excite the crowd just by appearing on the stage and waving his hand. It was the prelude to an over five hour set characterized by long Diynamic-flavoured breaks and overwhelming big room beats with the Bosnian’s earworm remix of Foals Late Night an absolute highlight.

A couple days later, it is that same remix resounding from a downtown Pristina supermarket, overheard while waiting for the traffic light in the black Fiat Bravo of Zgjim Beqa (23). The young man is better known locally as Jimmy Haze, his deejay moniker. We are making our way through the city to Morena Kafe, a cosy macchiato bar where Jimmy got in touch with electronic music for the first time.

‘The music playing here triggered me to start listening to sets by Uran B and Legoff on Soundcloud. Later I started downloading music and mixing it in Traktor with a second hand MIDI mixer, which I purchased for about 200 euro,’ the DJ tells us. ‘Two hundred euro is quite some money in Kosovo, but it was definitely worth the investment.’

The last couple of years Jimmy played together with Drenique in Pristina’s main clubs, such as Zone and Megahertz, the two were residents at 13th Rooftop club, played exclusive sets on Urban.fm and performed at Albania’s main electronic music festival Turtle Fest. Although Jimmy has quite some experience, he thinks DJs are underpaid in Kosovo.

Organisers rather spend their money on big international headliners and pay out local performers depending on their revenues of the evening.

‘Organisers rather spend their money on big international headliners and pay out local performers depending on their revenues of the evening. This also the reason I don’t purchase all my music, it is financially just impossible for me.’ Note that there is no legal framework or regulatory instance controlling downloading and playing music in Kosovo.

This may be considered a copyright problem, but it’s also one of the main reasons so many young people are interested in electronic music in Kosovo: music is easily accessible and completely free through the high-quality internet connections. We hear a similar story from Liburn Ilazi (25), a party promoter and dj hailing from Ferizaj, a small city thirty minutes south of Pristina.

Liburn, the name he uses as a performer, started a couple of years ago organising hip hop parties in the local Coco Club. He had to take a loan from a friend in order to buy his first real dj gear. ‘For me, it was the only way to get access to decent equipment from abroad’ the young dj states.

Later on, after many online music mining sessions, he started to focus on deep house and techno nights, which became an instant success. During the last years he invited internationally renowned artist like Traumer, Eddie Richards, Guy J and Collective Machine, quite an achievement in the little city Ferizaj is.

We met Liburn in the ruins of an old castle (Harilaqit) twenty minutes away from Pristina. On the slope of a green, forested hill Hapësira organised one of the first open air electronic festivals in Kosovo, appropriately named Visions of Beyond.  

‘One of the most important dimensions of Hapësira is the notion that the organization isn’t defined by the individuals that have established it, rather, the ideas and conceptualizations of the contemporary Kosovar art scene are lying at the core of it. While most events that have taken up stage in Kosovo in recent years seek to maximize material profit, events held by Hapësira aim to maximize human capital.‘ public relations responsible Abnor Dragaj (30) explains.

Although the organisers only expected a little over 700 visitors, they managed to book two big names: Pisetzky, known for his excellent work on Sasha’s Last Night On Earth label, and Innervisions icon Aera. The bookings are a result of the fine craftsmanship and commitment of booker Uran Badivuku (29).

Uran B, his DJ moniker, is described by many as one of the leading figures in the Kosovar electronic music scene. He is said to be (partially) responsible for the quick popularity rise of beats and bleeps in the young nation. ‘And he is confident he will pull Pristina further into the international spotlight during the next years’ Abnor confides us.

Back on the festival grounds, the crowd arrives, dropped off in a second hand French city bus. The seemingly alternative minded visitors clearly enjoy the music served by the entertainers of the night. It is around five in the morning that we and a bus full of music enthusiasts who didn’t leave, behold one of the most beautiful sunrises Kosovo has to offer while listening to the finest tracks Uran B has in his bag.

‘To understand the popularity of electronic music today, it’s important to know that electronic music has been around in Pristina since the late nineties’ Driton Pllana (39) explains to us while drinking a plastic cup of Frutomania in his studio in the historical centre of Pristina.

Driton is considered to be one of the founding fathers of house and techno in Pristina and is more than happy to give us a lecture on the history of electronics in Kosovo.‘It all started in 1999 when Likatek, Goya, Dardan, Naka, Sir Fix a Lot, Uki, Baton Domi and Toton (my DJ moniker) were throwing regular parties and DJ-sets in some of the many deserted buildings in Pristina.’

‘Although we weren’t playing Detroit techno, we compared ourselves sometimes mockingly to The Belleville Three’ he continues. ‘Our style could be best described as classic tech-house. Since there were no vinyl shops in Kosovo and the internet was quasi non-existent, we had to count on foreign artist such as Eddie Richards to come play here and donate records to us.’

‘Even though only a couple of hundred people were involved, the scene was absolutely flourishing in these days. Today, people are still talking about legendary venues like Spray Club and Underground Club.’

‘A decade later, in 2012, the scene started to decay dramatically, mainly caused by the stepping out of some main characters and a lack of new leaders standing up. After the inevitable closure of Spray Club - an absolute nadir - a new club made its appearance in the Pristina nightlife in 2014.’

Shallter, as the venue was named back then, consists of a small room in Pristinas only railway station. During daytime it’s a normally functioning train station, but three times a week when the sunrays are bartered for obscure shadows and howling stray dogs, the place turns into a sweaty nightclub.

Run by local dj and promoter Buda, the club obtained a reputation as a hub for underground electronic music. Attracted by the success and growing new market, Zone club took over the place and renamed it fittingly Bahnhof (German for railway station). Conceptually nothing changed, but some people associated the take-over inextricably with the commercialization of what used to be an activist subculture.

‘Although not everyone agrees on this, I think we should be grateful to Zone club and Bahnhof for their contribution to the scene. It would be so much easier for them to organise another hip hop night without any financial risk, instead of electronic evenings,’ Driton says, concluding his disquisition.

We finish our enriching journey at a party organised by Hapësira in an abandoned printing warehouse (Rilindja). Booker Uran managed to persuade Somne and upcoming men SHDW & Obscure Shape to make their way down to Kosovo. After the gruff but quick entering ritual, we find ourselves in a perfectly transformed warehouse.

Without eliminating the authentic industrial atmosphere created by the disused presses and control panels, the decorators managed to create a spacious feeling using full wall projections among many other illuminating elements. Roughly a thousand ravers, who only paid between five and ten euro for this splendiferous lineup, don’t have any trouble grasping the atmosphere created, and are ready to dance the night away.

While listening to the carefully selected beats by the two, clearly impressed young Germans in this imposing industrial location, we can only conclude that Pristina is without doubt bridging the clubbing gap with the rest of the world. Moreover, perhaps the new pioneers of the Kosovar scene, backed by their older colleagues and their government, can set new standards for international clubbing.

 

Cover picture by Elmedina Arapi

 

Alphabetical list of relevant artists and venues:

13th Rooftop
Abnor Dragaj
Aera
Artil
Bahnhof
Baloski
Baton Domi
Blerta Kosova
Buda
Coco Club
Collective Machine
Dardan
Dj M.i.M.
Driton Pllana
Diynamic Music
Eddie Richards
Flekitza
Goya
Guy J
Hapësira
Jetmir Idrizi
Jimmy Haze
Legoff
Liburn
Liburn Ilazi
Likatek
Megahertz
M Klub
Morena Kafe
Naka
Pisetzky
Pumio
Sabb
Sir Fix a Lot
Solomun
Toton - Soundcloud
Traumer
Turtle Fest
Uki
Uran B
Uran Badivuku
Urban.fm
Vegim
Visions Of Beyond
Zgjim Beqa
Zone Club