In the late 1980s, Kosovo’s northern town of Mitrovica was known as the “Rock City,” bringing people together from different backgrounds purely for their love of music. Even during the 1990s, as the city largely divided along ethnic lines, Mitrovica’s music scene persisted in bars, houses and garages, and Albanians also held rock concerts. Those that are were old enough during the ’90s can recall the bands Marigona and TNT or more underground bands such as Aranea and Lucifer, while other artists such as Faton Macula and Lami Istrefi Jr. continued their careers on the international music scene.
While since the war the town has become better known for many as a place of ethnic division than musical talent, one civil society organization is trying to reinvigorate Mitrovica’s musical roots. For the past eight years, Mitrovica Rock School has offered the city’s music loving youngsters an opportunity to learn and develop themselves as musicians in the genres of rock and pop.
The initiative was first started in 2008 by a group of musicians, with the help of the renown organisation Musicians Without Borders andCommunity Building in Mitrovica (CBM). Due to security reasons the school’s 70 or so students are split across two branches, with approximately 40 students attending the school in the Serb-majority north and about 30 in the Albanian-majority south.
According to the managing staff, their goal is to provide all those who wish, be they from the south or the north of the town, opportunities to find their own musical identities with the help of local and foreign teachers. For a symbolical fee, they provide the students aged 13 to 25 with spaces equipped with instruments, and teachers and band coaches who instruct, train and even help them create their own bands.
The bands, which form an important part of the school, are intended to help the students improve themselves as well as to create bonds and friendships through music. Currently there are eight “mixed bands” made up of students from different communities, including Albanians, Serbs and Bosniaks, while seven further bands comprise of students from single communities.
Dafina Kosova, director of the Mitrovica Rock School explains that putting these “mixed bands” together is a process that takes effort and time. Firstly, teachers from both branches get together and decide to form a band, based on the level of the students and their abilities.
From there they create a secret Facebook page for each band, and the students slowly start to communicate with each other. “Normally the communication is minimal because they have never met in their lives, and we should consider also the ethnic division,” says Kosova. “Firstly they discuss how they should name their band, someone who is more daring writes a message and posts it there, someone else a guitar recording.”
With ethnic tensions still persisting in Mitrovica and freedom of movement limited, “mixed bands” inevitably have fewer opportunities to meet and play together. However, the school attempts to offset these issues by providing opportunities to travel to other cities outside of Kosovo in order to meet together.
The first time new band members actually meet face to face is on the bus, going to activities such as summer or winter schools, or other workshops, which usually take place in Skopje and sometimes in the Netherlands. “They stay in the same hotel for a week, they eat and drink together, rehearse together, write songs, these bands that are created,” she says. “At the end of the week, the camp concludes with a big concert where we organize busses with the parents, kids from the Rock School and other friends to see their performances.”
Kosova says that there have been cases where the students from different communities have subsequently started to hang out together, without the help of the school.
Seeing the success of these meetings, and the fact that there haven’t been any major incidents in Mitrovica in the past few years, the managing staff in discussion with the students, decided to begin holding joint training activities within Mitrovica itself. Beginning in November last year, this month the Rock School has been holding its fifth “mixed band” training week in the town, with some sessions held in the north and some in the south.
The students of one of the “mixed bands” — whose identities have been concealed for their security at the request of the school — feel that the school is providing opportunities to develop them as musicians, create friendships and also to give a positive message.
“I first got into rock school because I really wanted to play guitar,” says the band’s guitarist, a young woman in her late teens. “I played keys and I have played keys for years, and guitar was really kind of interesting for me so it was the main reason that I got into rock school. But back then I did not know that there were things like this, you know when we went to Skopje, I didn’t even know about that but the whole atmosphere is amazing, the opportunity to have bands and to have free rooms for rehearsals is amazing. Because I don’t know any other cities that have such opportunities.”
She believes that this sort of school is refreshing for the whole region. “This bonding between people from north and south is amazing in my opinion, and it is a breath of fresh air for our society,” she says.
“This school has offered me a lot,” says a teenage girl, the band’s vocalist. “Because in Mitrovica we don’t for example have the opportunity to go where we want in music, be that playing an instrument or vocally. In this school, we had summer schools where we cooperated with people not only from this school, and formed new bands. They are still working together, because every month we do music.”
As well as developing musically, the band’s vocalist is grateful that she is able to combine her passion for music with meeting other like-minded people. “In here not only have I had the chance to improve what I love, which is vocals … but I’ve also had the opportunity to meet new people who are similar to me and share the same viewpoint. I’m still young … but I know that music will always be a part of me, if not as a profession, then as a second thing in my life.”
The band’s bassist, a young man in his early 20s who has been attending the Rock School for four years, believes that it has brought something very positive to his life. “It’s better, I found myself, I have found new friends,” he says. “It has helped me grow musically with the rehearsals that we have.”
The band’s coach is Ruud Borgers from the Netherlands. With 23 years of experience, he says that he ended up at the Mitrovica Rock School by complete coincidence at the beginning of the project, but has never left. “The school was founded by Musicians Without Borders, together with the Rock Academy in the Netherlands, and my brother was director of the Rock Academy,” he says. “In the first meeting between these two bodies, I was present by coincidence because it was after a show and I played guitar with my brother. And I kept telling my brother that this was a good idea, ‘do it, do it,’ and he was like, ‘why don’t you do it?’”
Borgers emphasizes the importance of participating in a band early on in the students’ musical development, and says that as far as he has seen, the schools in Kosovo do not provide such opportunities. “You don’t have to be a good footballer to play in a team, you can become a better football player if you play in a team,” he says. “So with music there is too much happening, that you have only have guitar classes for instance, and not playing in a band. So that’s only working but no fun.”
He believes that once young people are part of a band, they have the opportunity to develop their own style. “That’s important with the music or with art that you think about how you want it to be, and not to follow others,” he says. “That’s also the difference because in the first years, I also visited normal old schools here, to see how they work, and in old days it’s like this, you try to become like your teacher. But here it’s not; don’t become like me, become you. Think of how you want to be.”
To begin with, the students only played cover music. But in 2011, a mixed band, The Architects, was created who played original music. Kosova explains that they were quite successful, playing in different festivals and even had their own album, inspiring other students to do the same.
“The Architects participated in some festivals, in Italy, the Netherlands, Berlin and all the others wanted to have a band like them, so from that year we started to form ‘mixed bands’ who create original material and write their own songs,” she says. “When you write your own song, you communicate more with each other, and that connection grows larger.”
Kosova adds that due to limited opportunities for people to make a living out of music, Mitrovica Rock School offers opportunities to the best students to become assistant teachers after they finish at the school, and some of have even managed to go and study abroad in renown music schools. “Visar Kasa, Vedat Hasani, Fatjon Miftaraj, Blerta Kosova, Vjosa Selmani have participated in different festivals, and are part even of European academies,” she says. “[For example] Visar, or Lenart Gara, who studies in a conservatorium in Austria. Fatjon has had the opportunity to be accepted in New York universities.”
Kosova hopes that if the current situation, which she feels is calm, continues in the future, they will implement their original plan; for the school to have just one base in Mitrovica, where all can work together. “They are musicians, they need their spaces for rehearsals. And being musicians they are wannabes, they want to show off what they have done,” she jokes. “But the problem is free movement … to organize events all the time in Kosovo.”
She also hopes that their private concerts, where friends, family members and other organizations are only able to attend through invite, can be replaced with open events.
It all depends on the political situation, but Kosova feels that music has brought these people together, something she says that the institutions are failing to do. They want for everyone who is willing to have the chance to cooperate, meet and create together, using music as a bridge and a common language. And ultimately, to put the “rock” back into Kosovo’s “Rock City.”K
Photos: Atdhe Mulla