One-on-one | Music

Nicholas Tochka: ‘There was no blueprint for how to manage culture in a socialist society’

By - 09.05.2024

Ethnomusicologist talks Ardit Gjebrea, cultural production in Hoxha’s Albania and saxophones. 

Ethnomusicologist Nicholas Tochka came to Albania in the mid-2000s to study how culture and politics shaped Albanian music over the decades. Through archival digging and conversations with Hoxha-era composers, bureaucrats, intellectuals and musicians, Tochka has worked for years to understand the perils and paradoxes of cultural production in the authoritarian period. 

His first book, “Audible States: Socialist Politics and Popular Music in Albania” (Oxford University Press, 2016), focuses on the “light music” that emerged from the Albanian Song Festival, which was modeled off of competitions like Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival. What, Tochka’s book asks, did creativity look like (or sound like) amid the isolation and restrictions of Hoxha’s Albania?

Of course, all cultural production is shaped by ideological and economic factors, whether it’s the authoritarianism of Hoxha’s paranoid-style socialism or the semi-consolidated democracy and capitalism of contemporary Albania. As such, Tochka’s work also explores the factors that have transformed the soundscape of today’s Albania. 

For Tochka, the key figure to understand the musical transition of the 1990s and beyond is composer, TV host and all around showman Ardit Gjebrea, who rocketed to fame with wins at the Albanian Song Festival in 1991 and 1995. He further cemented his acclaim with the 1997 album “Projekt Jon,” considered the best-selling Albanian-language album of all time. In fact, Tochka sees Gjebrea as so significant that he wrote a whole book about him.

“Ardit Gjebrea’s Projekt Jon” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2024) traces Gjebrea’s career across the 1990s and argues that the composer’s hit album represented an attempt to craft a modern European musical identity for the Albanian nation. The book then explores why few other Albanian performers tried to follow Gjebrea’s path and why the composer largely turned to business and hosting TV shows after his successful album.

K2.0 spoke with Nicholas Tochka, professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Melbourne, about his recent book, cultural production in Hoxha’s Albania, the entrance of Kosovars into Tirana’s music market in the 1990s, and why Albania is going to win Eurovision this year.

K2.0: How did you get into Albanian studies?

Nicholas Tochka: I come from an Albanian-American family based in Boston, where there’s a large Albanian community. I grew up in a kind of typical Albanian-American household where, for us, Albania was about Orthodox Easter, smashing eggs together. It was about going to the church. It wasn’t really about the music or the culture that was going on in Albania. 

I learned Albanian when I was in my 20s. In college I was thinking about going to grad school to study ethnomusicology and I started looking for fellowships and language opportunities that would bring me abroad. 

I was really interested in the way that culture shapes music, especially in societies that were different from my own. And I was just fascinated with everything that I had read about the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and 80s and the ways that these societies organized music and the political uses to which music was put. Albanian brought together some of my personal background with some of my academic interests. 

I was really interested in the way that culture shapes music, especially in societies that were different from my own.

In your first book, you write that there were three types of state-approved music in the Hoxha era. There was “serious music,” symphonic or orchestral stuff, “folk music” and “light music.” What exactly is light music?

These three categories come from intellectual discourse as it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Folk music made basic sense in this discourse in that it was music of the folk in the village and could be recruited to nationalist projects quite easily. Serious music made sense because it demonstrated cultural progress, the ability of the state to organize culture on par with the Soviet Union and countries in the West.

Light music really sat in the middle. It initially used rhythms like foxtrot and rumba and waltzes and all of these other decidedly foreign or non-Albanian sources. And so that was potentially a problem. At the same time, it wasn’t necessarily something that was going to be edifying to the tastes of the masses. So it was kind of doubly politically problematic.

My first book looks at the ways that intellectuals and composers took this space, this kind of no man’s land between folk music and serious music, and made it politically viable and used it as a way to position themselves within the music field.

People still use the term light music, but its role in society today is really an open question. A pure light music in the sense that it existed under socialism doesn’t really have a place. It’s kind of lost its ideological and political function. Composers still debate it and talk about what it should sound like and why it’s important. But all of those discourses about the significance of light music are untethered from the political system that originally created it. 

Let’s talk about Albania’s Song Festival. Can you tell me about the changing roles that the festival has had in Albanian culture?

So the Song Festival was founded in 1962 and in its first incarnation, a small group of composers, poets, singers working at Radio Tirana used it to craft and debate what Albanian light music should sound like. In meetings to hand out prizes, they explicitly talked about what kinds of songs and what kinds of performances would provide a working model for other composers and other singers to follow.

The song festival from the beginning has been really political. It’s been something that everyone, including political elites, watched closely. After the 11th Song Festival in 1972, there were a series of purges and political crackdowns, not just in the fields of culture, but also in the fields of political science, economics, within the military. The festival was taken in some ways as a pretense for the crackdown. And so I think people have retrospectively looked back through the 1970s and 1980s and seen this as a period that was highly politicized in terms of cultural production. 

And so I think people have retrospectively looked back through the 1970s and 1980s and seen this as a period that was highly politicized in terms of cultural production.

But when you talk to the musicians and composers who were making music during this period, that’s not necessarily their perception. I think that within the music field, there was a sense that this was a period in which light music came to sound Albanian. It shed all of its foreign or other kinds of international influences and came to be a distinctly national genre. 

So in the first decades, the festival served a role of presenting models of song, a point where intellectuals and composers could come together and debate about what song is, how it affects the youth. The festival continued in the 1990s, but all these political purposes slipped away.

The festival began to incorporate rock bands, you start to see guys with shaggy hair and electric guitars. You begin to see the incorporation of techno and dance music and hip hop. You also, in a really politically important way, begin to see the inclusion of Kosovar Albanians as well as Albanians from Italy and the United States. 

And so the festival’s role and purpose really shifts from being one that’s inward looking, something that provides a kind of glue for the music field itself, to being something that, at least its organizers felt, demonstrated this new stage of openness, both in terms of what might constitute the Albanian nation, but also what modern Albanian music might look like after 40-50 years of being cut off from Western music. 

Some of the things that really stuck out to me in your books are Hoxha-era intellectuals’ distrust or even fear of things like saxophones or singer-songwriters, which were seen as representations of decadent cosmopolitanism. You’ve written that you are skeptical of music’s ability to challenge power structures. I’m interested in this skepticism when compared to the deep belief of Enver Hoxha and his system that music — or saxophones — could represent a threat to their power.

In ethnomusicology and popular music studies, people have tended to really romanticize the idea of the individual speaking truth to power and the ability of commercially available cultural products in the West to challenge society. My skepticism comes from engaging with literature that often, in my view, doesn’t historicize or properly contextualize the ways we talk about power or the power of popular musicians. 

And so what I try to do when I speak about Albania is to historicize and contextualize these anxieties among the leadership, because you’re right, political officials did see symbolic representations as really, really important. The Albanian state made appeals to legitimacy by demonstrating that it could organize culture, that it could create its own beautiful culture and that it had a monopoly on, let’s say, the symbolic meaning of the nation state and belonging to that nation state. This is really important for regimes like Hoxha’s. And I argue that in part this is because in states like Albania, symbolic representation came to replace individual consumption, which was really strictly curtailed.

A lot of Western rock critics and popular music scholars have this belief that the individual singer-songwriter is someone who’s going to bring down the Berlin Wall or speak truth to power in these illiberal societies. The anxieties that cultural bureaucrats in places like Albania had weren’t really about individuals speaking truth to power, but rather were about the idea that this represented a threat to the monopoly of the state on symbolic production. In a state that really depended on monopolizing not just material production, but also symbolic and cultural production, this was just really a hard line that couldn’t be crossed. 

A lot of Western rock critics and popular music scholars have this belief that the individual singer-songwriter is someone who's going to bring down the Berlin Wall or speak truth to power in these illiberal societies.

Your work talks about a continuous cultural anxiety affecting Albanian intellectuals over the last century. Most notably, you write that your first encounter with Ardit Gjebrea’s work came after your Albanian colleague was horrified that you had been listening to “Alo Alo Ambulanca,” a folk pop song with “Eastern” sounds by Romani musician Sinan Hoxha. Your colleague pushed Gjebrea on you as an example of “authentic” Albanian music. Could you talk a bit about this cultural anxiety over what Albania should sound like?

I think if we’re going to name the anxiety, I think the anxiety has to do with Albania’s place in Europe. 

If we’re looking at the interwar period, we’re looking at intellectuals who spoke French, German, English, who traveled in the West, traveled to the United States, to Western Europe, and sought to import Western cultural forms that they thought Albania had somehow been cut off from during the Ottoman period. 

If we look at the socialist period, again, we see this same anxiety about cultural progress or cultural status that you find across the Balkans and in the Eastern Bloc more generally about modernity paradoxically being located in these Western bourgeois forms, like the symphony or the string quartet or the novel. And of course we have to remember, you know, there’s no blueprint for how to manage culture in a socialist society.

In regards to this cultural anxiety, I think it’s really easy in Albania for certain kinds of musical styles to exemplify either this “correct” way of being modern or this “incorrect” way of being modern. And when I say incorrect, I mean, incorrect from the point of view of Albanian intellectuals in cultural centers like Tirana. 

Now Sinan Hoxha, he is a really fascinating character in the Albanian musical landscape. When I was doing my primary field work in the 2000s, he really was the bete noire of urban intellectuals. He was triply problematic for them in that he was singing music that was coded as non-Albanian that drew on this pan-Balkan and even sort of pan-Near Eastern musical grammar. In addition to that, he was flamboyantly sexual and his videos were eroticized in a way that a lot of Albanians found confronting. And the third problem was that he was covering songs. “Alo Alo Ambulanca” is a song that’s directly covered from a Romanian pop singer. In Tirana this wasn’t talked about as a cover, but as being stolen. 

And within this socialist era conception of creativity and originality and authorship, to have this overly sexy Romani guy singing, using these melismatic “Eastern” sounding phrases… And not only that, he doesn’t even write his own music! He’s “stolen” it!

For intellectuals, this was really an example of just how badly Albanian culture had crumbled. And the fact that people loved it and went dancing to it, what does this say about young people? What does this say about the youth? It was really upsetting to a lot of intellectuals.

How did Albanians from outside Albania change the Tirana-based music space during the 1990s? What was their role in the Song Festival?

Before the 1990s, the song festival didn’t include any Albanians from outside of Albania. But the Song Festival had been really important for Kosovar Albanians as kind of an expression of what an Albanian national culture might look like. The ethnomusicologist Jane Sugarman has written quite a bit about the significance of Albanian representations issuing forth from Tirana for Kosovar Albanians. 

Within Albania itself, however, there was this tension in the 1990s about the inclusion of Kosovar Albanians. On the one hand, it became politically important to rethink what the Albanian nation might look like. And one of the ways that festival organizers thought about this was through their lineups about who to include.

The tension emerged in two ways. One is that there is a form of anti-northern bias among a lot of Albanian intellectuals in places like Tirana. A lot of them tended to think of northerners as coarse or less refined. These biases shaped how organizers engaged with Kosovars’ inclusion in the festival.

The other point of tension was that Kosovar Albanians, because they had lived in Yugoslavia, had quite a bit more exposure to certain kinds of Western rock and pop styles because many had traveled in Western Europe. They had much more well-developed networks in places like Germany. And they also created studios that had, in many cases, much higher production values than studios in Albania.

Kosovar Albanians, because they had lived in Yugoslavia, had quite a bit more exposure to certain kinds of Western rock and pop styles because many had traveled in Western Europe.

And so I think a lot of Albanian composers and singers recognized quite quickly that Kosovar Albanians…

Made better music.

…were competition. Yeah. Or at least had music that was more plugged into the “global now” in a way that they themselves were proposing Albania should be.

Why did you write an entire book about Ardit Gjebrea?

When I did fieldwork for “Audible States,” Ardit Gjebrea was this massive figure who was hovering over the contemporary music industry. He was someone that people saw as a gatekeeper because he organized and still organizes this popular festival called Magic Song, Kënga Magjike. He was also somebody that even though he wasn’t performing at the time of my field work, he had released these two albums that Albanians, especially intellectually minded Albanians, heard and still talked about as models for Albanian music, despite the fact that not many composers or musicians were actually following these models.

I think he’s a fascinating figure because he connects this socialist period to the post-socialist period in a way that really throws into sharp relief some of the contradictions that Albanian composers and singers had to navigate. So one main contradiction is what do you do with this genre of music, light music, that for 20 or 30 years has been developed and promoted as modern and Albanian? How do you transition into a period where the modernness and even the Albanianness of some of these cultural forms has been really thrown into question?

How do you transition into a period where the modernness and even the Albanianness of some of these cultural forms has been really thrown into question?

I think that what Ardit Gjebrea’s story does is demonstrate how intellectuals worked out these questions in real time and how they went down dead ends and dealt with logical inconsistencies. So for example, making music that sounds like 80s Italian pop, which Gjebrea and others were doing for some time. That turned out to be a dead end for “modern Albanian music.”

Another inconsistency is the beauty contests — which Gjebrea hosted and was involved with for years — and this transformation of socialist-era ideals about femininity and womanhood into this really exploitative and hypersexualized environment of the 1990s. One thing that I don’t really know what to say about is, why were conductors and major composers and sculptors serving on juries at the Miss Albania Pageant? From an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t really make sense. It seems like a coarsening. 

But from the local perspective, these were institutions, the beauty contests, that represented Western modernity. And it could provide points of connection to international beauty pageants. And so just like Eurovision later, it was a way that Albania could get a seat at the table of European or Western capitalist modernity. 

What is your favorite socialist era light music song?

I can give you a favorite singer. Favorite singer has to be Ema Qazimi or Parashqevi Simaku.

Favorite Albanian Eurovision performance?

I think that the best in terms of song, image, dance and costuming has to be Kejsi Tola, “Carry Me In Your Dreams.”

And this year’s Eurovision song, “Titan” by Besa. They’re going to sing it in English for the big show. Thoughts?

So I have to say I’m a conservative. I think we should be singing in Albanian. But also, you know, I think we’re due. I think it’s our year.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English. 


Feature image: K2.0.

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