FESTIVALI I KËNGËS: A VISION FOR THE MUSICAL TRAJECTORY OF ALBANIA

by Jessie Hong

I started watching Eurovision in 2012. In that year, four separate Balkan ballads stood out for me: “Nije ljubav stvar” from Serbia, “Nebo” from Croatia, “Korake ti znam” from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and “Suus” from Albania. I was enthralled by both the non-English languages and highly melodic idiom that were largely absent from the American airwaves. After experiencing this music for the first time, I searched and then spent about a month reading through twenty-five lectures on modern Balkan history written by Steven W. Sowards. The centuries of complex geopolitics that had shaped the region through the rule of different empires, the rise and fall of communism, and countless conflicts left me speechless. I appreciated this knowledge, but knew next-to-nothing about the political establishment and its effects on the actual music of the region.

As I watched Eurovision year after year, however, I began to perceive the political undercurrents in the contest’s presentation. Greece and Cyprus have almost always voted for each other’s music due to a shared music industry. Armenia and Azerbaijan have almost never voted for each other for politico-historical reasons. Highly-connected ex-Soviet states, with little exception, have often traded high point values with each other. Russia has given (or tried to give) 12 points to itself. Many of the ex-Yugoslav entities have sent melodic ballads. But what of Albania? As a country with an isolationist Communist history and a language isolate as the national language, it was hard to figure out what was going on without looking beyond Eurovision. I had to look into the widely-spread festival circuit under flamuri kombëtar.

This past December was my first time watching Festivali i Këngës ever, and I covered it live as an author for a fan site called ESCtakeover. Before the live shows, I had high hopes for Aldo Bardhi’s “Melodi” and Fest 37 winner Albërie Hadërgjonaj’s “Ku ta gjej dikë ta dua”, though most songs would sound better within the live arena space anyways: live sound design is generally conducive to fewer moving parts and more dynamic performances. After one of these songs made it into the final, I wrote a short musical preview of all 12 finalist songs and wrote about the music more than the language (which I will try to work on). When the results were announced, I was slightly annoyed due to what I saw as production and arrangement – not singing – issues, but I was also aware that the song could be revamped beyond just lyrical changes, and hopefully more in line with “Mall” and “Ktheju tokës”, the latter which was my favorite song from Eurovision 2019.

Fest 58 results lit a spark

When the jury votes for Fest 58 were released, the public outrage exploded. I have written three articles addressing different facets of the issues behind the public anger:

From the research I did for the articles until now, my findings are summarized below.

  1. Arilena Ara’s song, “Shaj” received 3 more points than Elvana Gjata’s song, “Me tana”. “Shaj” received top 3 placements from all jurors; the jurors were split on “Me tana”. The international jurors gave “Me tana” full marks, but the Albanian jurors gave it far fewer points. Rita Petro, one of the Albanian jurors, has spoken about her thoughts on the songs publicly. Articles have been attributed to Mikaela Minga, the other Albanian juror. These have been shown to be false attributions through the second and especially third articles.
  2. RTSH and Albautor, a copyright management agency representing a sizable number of Albanian songwriters, are likely in the middle of a legal battle right now. Members of Albautor, including (but not limited to) Edmund Zhulali (composer of “The Image of You”, winner of Fest 42 and the first-ever Eurovision song in Albania), Eriona Rushiti and Enis Mullaj (songwriting and production team behind “Ktheju tokës”, Fest 57 winner) have decried the opening of Festivali i Këngës to non-Albanians and are demanding a copy of the contest rules from Fests 56-58 along with their formal approval in a statement postmarked on 24 December 2019. Rushiti has accused festival leadership of bending the rules in several ways so that “Shaj” and other songs penned by non-Albanians could win. This is likely significant to Albautor due to what they claim to be 57 years of explicitly disallowing non-Albanians in the competition. The rules of other years are not available for the public to view, so this point is unverifiable from the materials available to me. Even the 14 December timestamp of the current ruleset is not conclusive.
    In another statement, Albautor demanded that payments due to S.U.A.D.A. (partnered with Albautor to disburse payments to represented performers of the fine arts) be released and that RTSH not transmit, sell, or use any represented person’s work unless the two parties come to a mutual agreement. Should RTSH not comply, Albautor indicated intent to file charges against RTSH. On the other side, RTSH accused Albautor and S.U.A.D.A. of false copyright claims that led to the termination of the original RTSH YouTube account and promised legal action. The legal action on both sides could jeopardize future participation in Eurovision should no agreement be reached between the two parties; RTSH is Albania’s only public broadcaster, and only public broadcasters from their constituent countries can send entries for their country.
    Any future litigation between RTSH and Albautor, of which Rushiti serves on the governing council (Këshilli Drejtues), has not been fully disclosed and will not be discussed further.
  3. In the aftermath of Fest 58, many fingers were pointed. Rushiti accused Fest 58 leader Alketa Vejsiu and Fest director Vera Grabocka of misdoings in the Festival process. Vejsiu accused only Grabocka of such, and Vejsiu wrote that she was planning on releasing a documentary of the festival behind-the-scenes. Many other people criticized Dr. Minga’s voting by attacking her, even threatening her on social media.
  4. I spoke with 2 sources regarding claims given in public. One source affiliated with Dr. Minga replied that the tallava article was published on this site about 3.5 years ago. When I found more articles with claims against Dr. Minga, I approached her myself and was told that she had in fact not given public comment, instead choosing to remain silent due to the toxicity of the fan response and the misattributions. Some of her words regarding the public response about her are linked in my third article.

How did the public response get to this point of emotional discourse? Everyone has their own views, but I am of the opinion that most people have good intentions. Almost immediately after the results were released, Vejsiu, Rushiti, and even Elvana Gjata herself sent emotional responses regarding the situation on their social media based on their visions of the Festival. Vejsiu and Gjata painted the latter as the real winner of the night at the expense of upholding jury integrity. Rushiti (and numerous others associated with Albautor) painted the festival process this year as a loss for music by Albanians. Are these things actual facts, supported by evidence, or are they just public displays of feeling meant to sway readers into agreeing with them? I have found no evidence suggesting bad-faith activity in the voting stage and think this bickering to be an example of thashetheme, an Albanian term which compatriot Catherine Bohne discovered in 2018. Explained in her own blogpost on the site, the term may imply that the person(s) spreading thashetheme is/are negatively projecting their own actions and thoughts upon others. Considering the integrity of the voting process was upheld in an affirmation by Thoma Gëllçi on 26 December (noted in the Aftermath article), there is nothing to be done or complained about the actual votes apart from thashetheme. In fact, Raimond Cimbi, television producer, published an article in Gazeta Shqip titled “Mafia e Festivalit” (Festival Mafia, article reprinted in several other online Albanian websites), where he compared Vejsiu’s handling of Fest 58 as the leader of the festival to an attempt at match fixing in association football. According to Cimbi, Vejsiu’s behavior raised professional and ethical issues, since her Instagram post from 23 December, after the jury split votes were announced, indicated partiality towards Gjata on Vejsiu’s part. If Vejsiu were to lead another public event such as Fest 58, the audience would not be reassured that the results were not predetermined or face the same type of public relations nightmare as before. Perhaps the public sphere of discourse is not as free as one could hope, but we as a human race would do better to engage one another in civilized discussions instead of entertaining toxic frivolities without further critical thought.

Music academia, festivals, and “Albanian” music

A few comments that have materialized in discussions about the festival speak of ethnomusicology and its role in the popular realm, as in festivals such as Fest 58. Is ethnomusicology – or academic music in general – too far removed from popular idioms for its practitioners to give measured commentary on music relevant for today?

I believe myself to be qualified to answer this question on a few accounts. I used to not like music or at least practicing it to the point where I was 11 when I got my first popular music CD. When I moved to another state, the time zone differences, cost, and drop in academic rigor led me to have more free time, which I ended up spending with a 49-key unweighted piano keyboard that I received when I was 4. One day, I started to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, movement 1 (Op. 27, No. 2) on that unweighted keyboard. Despite the struggle with just one volume level, I began to notice the contours in the retransition (transition back) to the first musical idea (starting at measure 28 in this analysis to the end of the development section) and how the music seemed to build up, burst, and then dissipate like a beautiful water fountain glistening in the moonlight. The luminous imagery, played around 0:23 in this rendition of the excerpt, has stayed with me to this day and informs my playing, analysis, and songwriting/arrangement.

The imagery and intrinsic analysis associated with the imagery brought me to embrace the field of music theory, which in its most common Western form sets out to describe the rules that early practitioners dictated and the freely-occurring phenomena that have graced music since the dawn of modern music theory brought forth by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau in part with his 1722 Treatise on Harmony.

The subfield of music theory falls under the field of musicology, the study of music as a whole. The field includes, but is not limited to:

  • historical musicology (music history)
  • ethnomusicology (study of music in cultures)
  • music theory
  • music psychology

While the field is largely academic, the insights gained from their study cannot be understated when communicating with other people about specific phenomena in modern music. After all, previous practices often inform current practices. For example, neoclassical metal borrows – sometimes verbatim – from classical music. In the below video, the maker of the video showed the exact locations where American progressive metal band Symphony X quoted directly from classical, largely public-domain works.

 

Some practices have become less ubiquitous. The usage of V-i in minor used to be everywhere in Western classical music. The transition from the pre-chorus (second part of “mos më kthen tek ty”) to the chorus (“Ku ta gjej…”) in Albërie Hadërgjonaj’s song in Fest 58 is an example of the V-i movement within the harmony (the combination of sounds through musical time), as do the transitions to the choruses of Eurovision 2018 winner “Toy” (for example, from 1:07 to 1:11 in the original music video). That usage has given way to ♭VII-i like in the climax of Eurovision 2019 winner “Arcade” (at 0:06 here) and the ending of Fest 57 winner “Ktheju tokës”, among many other songs. In this way, our past experiences can inform our perception of and interaction with the present.

In all science-based fields, questioning hypotheses and reviewing perceptions of sensory input for accuracy can lead to further insights and deeper knowledge. This is also true in musicology, a science-based field for which there is a thorough encyclopedic article about musicological research methodologies thanks to JRank. The article notes at length that musicological research must rigorously consider the whole context surrounding a musical work in order to hold water (within the time period, within history, within the realm of notation, within the region(s) of practice, within a list of pieces with a specific characteristic, etc.).

While I was taking an ethnomusicology class on East Asian music, “Gangnam Style” by Korean entertainer PSY had just gone viral worldwide. The professor, based on his trend observations, noted that Korean music popularity had been brewing for a while and hypothesized that K-pop likely going to become more prominent in the global music scene. Just a few years later, BTS followed suit, becoming the first K-pop group to be nominated for a Grammy and treating New York City to a televised concert before the new decade began. Musicologists tend to follow these trends in the niches they pursue most zealously, providing the background information behind a song or body of music in their lectures and other life work.

Outside of the greater Eurovision world, quite a few other musicians discuss contextualized music in podcasts and music videos. Here is a non-exhaustive list of YouTube channels and podcasts whose serious content I have checked and found to be fairly well-established and who focus on popular music:

YouTube

  • Adam Neely, NYC-based jazz bassist, composer, and music theorist
  • 12tone, a music theory channel that analyzes well-known pieces
  • 8-bit Music Theory, a channel focused on video game music
  • Nahre Sol, classically trained pianist who has dived head-first into music in more popular genres and discussed salient observations during the immersion process

Podcasts

Therefore, it is safe to say that musicologists have a place in the conversation about popular music. Nonetheless, there is a gap in extended public ethnomusicological discourse. There is one YouTube channel that discusses different South African musics, but it has not been updated recently. However, as exhaustive researchers of their target genres, ethnomusicologists can give insights to culturally salient music performance and songwriting practices that laymen may otherwise miss, giving word to aspects of music that other people might otherwise disregard. Dr. Minga offers unique experiences even beyond her father, Josif, being a well-known composer of songs throughout Festival history, including his debut at the infamous 11th Festival. The synthesized findings of ethnomusicological work, including the aforementioned essay on tallava, as well as dissertational musings on urban music in Korçë and other ethnomusicological pursuits, can offer specific musical insights into Eriona Rushiti’s question of Albanian musical identity as it relates to the Festival and beyond. Is the concept of a markedly Albanian song lost in the era of globalization? Can a concept of “true” Albanian music be generated fully without regard for outside forces? I reflected on this by considering the musical trajectory of the Festival and note that music in the festival and the country was set back by an isolationist and totalitarian political regime; however, considering the ongoing migratory patterns of the ethnic Albanian population, the answer may lie in an ever-developing creole, merging traditional musical folklore with an accent echoing the allure of other cultures. If the community allows for all parties, like Dr. Mikaela Minga, to speak without passing judgment like the dislike-bombing of her interviews and lectures on YouTube, then perhaps everyone will gain a better understanding of the richness of the music around them, the people and attitudes behind the music, their fellow neighbors, and themselves.

© 2020 J. Hong. All rights reserved.


*An American musician and Eurovision fan site author reflects on heated Fest 58 dialogue, possible future legal battles and academia’s relation in the public realm, offering one perspective on the meaning of “muzika shqip”.

*Muzikante amerikane dhe autore te një fan site për Eurovizionin, Jessie Hong reflekton për debatin e ndezur nga Fest 58, betejat e mundshme ligjore në të ardhmen dhe vendin e akademisë në sferën publike, duke ofruar edhe një perspektivë për kuptimin e “muzikës shqip.”

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