Migjen Kelmendi: How Rock Music Anticipated the Breakup of Yugoslavia

PRISTINA, KOSOVO –  Never had I heard of the music genre called "turbo folk" until I stepped foot in Kosovo. A bastard mix of dance-cum-electro-pop paired with traditional folk music, turbo folk originates from Serbia - it is awful - and it is everywhere in the Balkans.

Fortunately, turbo folk isn’t the only characteristic sound coming out of Kosovo. During my second week in town, I attended Pristina's second-annual Freedom Festival and met local musicians willing to school me on alternative rock in the region. My first lesson: You cannot talk about the history of rock in Kosovo without addressing one of the biggest events in these people’s lives - war.

Migjen Kelmendi, frontman of Gjurmët, has been hailed the godfather of rock in Kosovo. Gjurmët ("The Traces" in English) was one of the biggest names coming out of Kosovo in the 1980s. Today, Migjen has retired his guitar and wears the cloth of a journalist and media executive. He owns a magazine, Java, and TV station, Rrokum TV. In 2001, he published his book, To Change the World: A History of the Traces, a biographical account of his band that simultaneously details how the rock scene in the Balkans anticipated the Yugoslav Wars.

Here is Migjen in his own words.


On his band:

"The Traces' music was a new form of Kosovar rock. The dominant understanding of rock at that time was dance music. The stereotypical Kosovar rocker had long, messy hair, unusual and brightly colored clothes, and unnatural and strange movements on stage. They did not understand, or else they did not like the possibility that was created by punk, especially with new wave, that you could be a rocker and still be normal. This is how the Traces were, completely normal. [We] had an intellectual attitude and manner. Trying to look and be smart.  Trying to say something. [We] were received as an alternative band, one of the most important that have been in Kosovo."


On the mindset of the time:

"All the rockers in Yugoslavia together opposed the socialist iconography and the communist establishment. We fought and made fun of that worldview and that explanation of world history that was going bankrupt everywhere. But almost all of us who were united against this communist and socialist ideology – from Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Pristina, and Skopje – kneeled and humbled ourselves before the new ideology on the horizon – the national ideology."


On nationalism:

"The national ideology separated us and made each person turn within his own nation and barricade himself in, in preparation for war. At that time, we did not know there would be war. However, war didn’t delay. The Belgrade band Idoli ["The Idols" in English] built a concept that was based on the spirit of a national Serbian renaissance. It was the Serbian elite that released the evil of nationalism from the bottle, which engulfed all of Yugoslavia like a flame. The album that Idoli produced in 1982 was called Odbrana I Poslednji Dani ["The Defense and the Last Days" in English]. This national Serbian spiritual renaissance built its identity on the Byzantine and Orthodox heritage and on the wars fought for independence. On their album cover, Idoli had a well-known Serbian icon on one of their national saints. In one of the songs on that album, many fragments of a Serbian folk song are heard: “Igrale se delije, usred zemlje Srbije.” ["In the heart of Serbia, there are heroes dancing."] This became one of the songs with which the Serbian army would begin the war in Yugoslavia."


On his band's shift from an international orientation to a local one:

"We no longer fought the establishment as rockers. What was now forbidden was the demonstration of being Albanian. Albanianism as an attitude. And this was the provocation, the challenge. We wanted to show our Albanianism. Therefore, we chose an image from a famous Albanian folk-dance - "The Dance of the Eagles" - for our album cover. The album was called Let’s Dance. Our experiments with folk music began to become a sort of model for other rock bands, but also for all the pop singers who distorted and defaced this concept until you wanted to throw up."