Petrit Çarkaxhiu: Rock, Rage, and the Albanian Identity

PRISTINA, KOSOVO – Last June I was introduced to Petrit Çarkaxhiu, frontman of Jericho, by a friend at a bar in Pristina. The first thing I noticed about him was his drink order - a Coke - while everyone else at our table ordered beers. Petrit, I’d later learn, is a practicing Muslim, a minority in a country where everyone claims Islamic ancestry though seldom practices the religion. He is also one of Kosovo’s biggest rock stars - who less than a week after our interview opened for Snoop Dogg in Snoop’s first concert in Kosovo. "Jericho is the best sound that we’ve got in Kosovo at the moment," veteran rocker Migjen Kelmendi told me. "They have this perfect way of articulating their songs and music that’s authentic."

Petrit - "Rrusta" to his friends - formed Jericho (then Jericho Walls) in 1997 at the age of 19. The band’s name derives from a song by the Brit group Simply Red, though their musical influences are heavily American: Rage Against the Machines, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and bands from the Seattle grunge scene like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. During that time, in the 1990s, the Balkans was in turmoil. War was breaking up Yugoslavia and MTV had just arrived in Kosovo.


Holiday: Tell me, how did MTV affect the music scene in Kosovo?

Petrit: The first time we saw MTV was in 1990 or 1991. We had a super channel and it was switched to MTV. We were the first generation that watched MTV. It was accessible to almost everyone. Here in Kosovo, there was no alternative music at that time. There were heavy metal groups and some hip-hop. Then the whole concept of music, and the music scene in Pristina changed. In 1996-1997 there were the first alternative bands.


Holiday: And the arrival of Jericho…

Petrit: Right. Our first song was “Don’t Fuck with Albanians” and it became like a war anthem.  At that time here, the mainstream politic was the non-violent resistance led by Ibrahim Rugova. But in 1997, the same year we started, the first student revolution began.  We also did our first video clip for the song “Destiny,” a song calling for war.

We liked punk, we liked underground hip-hop, and at the same time we wanted to be political because we were in a kind of apartheid in Kosovo under the Serbian regime. We were very radical in our lyrics. I cannot say we were the first band to write politically, but in this new way of writing lyrics, I think we were one of the first bands.


Holiday: Back then most of your songs were written in English.

Petrit: That’s right. We wanted to send a message to the outside world about what was happening here.


Holiday: Tell me about your experience during the war.

Petrit: In 1998, I worked as a fixer for different media companies - mostly for BBC, but also for NBC, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, Danish television, Swedish radio, and Irish television. Every day I would visit these places where the fighting was going on, where massacres were happening. We were switching sides all the time. Sometimes we would spend the day with the KLA and other times with Serbian police. One day we witnessed the killing of 24 or 25 Albanian civilians. There were four KLA soldiers killed, but after they killed them they killed another 20 or so people. All civilians. It was not my first time [seeing dead bodies], but it was the hardest.

I also had an uncle who went through hell. He was a civilian captured by the Serb police. He was beaten badly. He was sent to Dubrava prison, where he witnessed the massacre at the prison. A large number of [Albanian] prisoners were killed when NATO struck. My uncle was kept in jail until 2002. He didn’t do anything wrong, but cases like this are hundreds of thousands here.


Holiday: Did this make you hate the Serbs?

Petrit: Yeah.


Holiday: Do you still?

Petrit: I cannot say that I have love towards them. Mostly hate, yes.


Holiday: After the war, you begin writing most of your lyrics in Albanian.

Petrit: Until the day when the K-4 troops came in, we had one enemy. That enemy was Serbia. Then all of a sudden Serbia is not there anymore. This was the first time that we were facing ourselves. After the war, my lyrics became more concentrated towards ourselves and our problems. One of our most famous songs is called "Zgjohu," which means "Wake Up" in English. It is a social and political song written a year after the war.  We were witnessing so much corruption here. Albanians were killing each other for power.

There’s another song called "Tomlin e nonës" ("Mother’s Milk" in English). It is one of our most famous songs and it is a song that, in a way, identifies us as a band.  It was written, composed, and arranged in one night. The song is about Albanian identity. It was inspired by a very well-known Albanian poet named Ali Podrimja from Jakova, where I am originally from. The two lines that inspired me from his poem were, "Kosovo is a sheep in the market between two civilizations. They have put a rope on your neck and are pulling you from two sides."

See, Kosovo is in this geographical position between East and West. Throughout history, we have been influenced by both sides. We were under the occupation and administration of both East and West from the time of the Roman Empire to the Byzantium Empire to the Ottoman Empire to then Serbian rule. Podrimja was speaking about our confusion over our identity, between traditional and modern, between old and new. That is what the song is about.


Holiday: As someone new to Kosovo, the song that stands out the most to me is “Don’t Fuck with Albanians.”

Petrit: It’s a song that speaks about this young Albanian whose parents were killed when he was a kid during the 1950s when Serbia was in power and this guy called Ranković was sort of like a Milošević. This kid grew up on the streets facing everyday violence. One day he can’t take it anymore and takes a gun and shoots a policeman in the head. This is where the first part of the song ends. In the second part of the song, this guy is a narcotic dealer somewhere in Europe. He has a conversation with a European and the European asks him, ‘Why do you do these things?’ He replies, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee and to be treated how we are treated back home. Because you have decided to leave my country under Serbian rule for a hundred years, you were unjust towards us and this - bringing you drugs - is God’s punishment.”


Holiday: Did you put yourself in your character’s shoe?

Petrit: Well I felt the same way back then.  I was very disappointed with what happened to our country for a hundred years. What our parents, our grandparents, and all these generations went through, as well as what we were witnessing from the European community. They were not doing anything at all in Bosnia. They left us in front of everybody to be killed -- almost 300,000 people. For example, 8,000 Bosniaks were killed in Srebrenica in three or four days and no one did anything about this. So in Kosovo, we focused on the United States of America, and said, “This is a partner we can rely on - not Europe.”


Holiday: You were a proponent of violence then.

Petrit: Yes. Jericho broke up in 2000 because members of the band didn’t want to play “Don’t Fuck with Albanians” anymore. There is a line at the end that goes, "This is Jericho Walls giving a message to Europe, 'Fuck off Europe.'" So they were saying, "This is a different situation now.  We cannot sing this anymore." I disagreed and we broke up.


Holiday: Have you since changed your opinion?

Petrit: If your rights are violated, if a human being is going to go through persecution such as what we went through during the '90s and through this hundred years, then violence as self-defense is justified. Not just justified, it is in fact a moral duty.


Holiday: You guys were reunited in 2005 and have had invitations to play in Serbia, but have refused all offers.

Petrit: We consider it very immoral to play in Belgrade, when just some miles away there are mass graves with Albanians in them.


Holiday: Do you think relationships between Serbs and Albanians will eventually change for the better?

Petrit: They will.


Holiday: Do you think one day you will play there?

Petrit: I don’t think so. That day is far away. We will be too old to play in Serbia. But things are going to change for the better. It’s inescapable because we are neighbors. We don’t have to hate each, but we don’t have to love each other either. To tell you the truth, I will teach my kids never to trust a Serb unfortunately.

Holiday: There aren't too many practicing Muslims in Kosovo, especially in the capital where we are.  I’d venture to say there are even less in the rock scene here. How has religion played a role in your life?

Petrit: I started practicing Islam in 1998 when the war started because I was facing, for the first time, what the war really meant. I had questions like, "What is this all about? What are we doing here in this life?" Though we are traditional Muslims, no one was practicing or praying. For me, religion was self-meditating. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Serb-Albanian conflict. Albanians have a long tradition of inter-faith dialogue. No one can be more proud than the Albanians of their religious tolerance towards each other. In Kosovo, there have been three religions living here for at least 500 years. In that sense, we are much more cosmopolitan than any European state.


Holiday: What I’m struck by is that in Kosovo, rock stars are ordinary people you meet at bars. There is no celebrity culture.

Petrit: I was discussing this same thing with my friends the other day, and we saw this as a very positive thing. It’s very healthy. The mentality in Kosovo won’t allow for groupies. The concept of VIPs doesn’t work here. I mean Nicole Kidman was here in a club in Pristina and she had everyone’s attention for like five minutes and then she was an ordinary person having fun at a club. During one of our concerts, our drummer said on the mic, "How can there be a rock star in Kosovo when we are all relatives?" [laughs] Because it is a small country, everyone knows each other. I think this may be the main reason why.