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Lyrical side to Kosovo's war

Folk tunes change to fit the conflict. Some heal while others instilldefiance.

By Justin Brown / March 16, 1999



PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA

From his cluttered house in the hills above the Kosovo capital, Hashim Shala writes history.

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Not with pen and ink, but with a qiftelia, a two-stringed instrument resembling a guitar, and a high-pitched, quivering voice that speaks of war, death, and heroes who fight for independence.

In this traditional society of ethnic Albanians, where songs spread through the rural villages faster than books, musicians like Mr. Shala often have the final word in how the past is remembered. And what they say is not always comforting.

"The women and children are crying," he sings.

"They are escaping the police and hiding in the trees.

"A worse thing could not happen to anyone.

"Because of the Serbs we left our homes."

Shala and other musicians in Pristina say that there has been a dramatic change in the Kosovar Albanian music scene since war broke out a year ago. The trend extends from the traditional folk music that Shala plays with a qiftelia, to hard rock played with electric guitars and synthesizers. What they have in common is an overpowering war motif.

While some songs speak of healing and reconciliation, others are lined with feelings of revenge and defiance - an unsettling tendency as world powers try to bring peace to this poor southern Serbian province, where a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority wants independence.

"I always keep a tear in my eye to see a free Kosovo," sings Adelena Ismajli in her hard-rock song called "UCK," the Albanian language initials for the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

"But from today, we have a bullet for their [the Serbs'] heads."

Ms. Ismajli, who, as a model, sometimes poses in KLA fatigues, explains, "In the beginning I was afraid of war. Now I'm not. I want to give people hope that we're not poor children who are afraid. We can fight back."

Many of the singers come from the central region of Drenica, which has always been the heart of ethnic Albanian resistance. Drenica is where the KLA first sprang up, and it is also where last summer the Serbs carried out their strongest offensive to date.

The "patriotic" music is rarely played or performed in public, for fear that Serbian police will hear it - although it is constantly aired by television stations in the neighboring country of Albania, and picked up here by satellite dish.

"Everyone's buying it, young and old," says Blerim Curri, a salesman at the bustling open market in Pristina. "Ninety percent of my sales are patriotic music; 10 percent of what I sell is about love and ordinary life."

One of Mr. Curri's customers is Fikrie Gashi, who paid about $2 for a tape by Leonora Jakupi, a popular singer who is rumored to have joined the KLA.

"I buy this because of my children," says Ms. Gashi. "They are four and two years old and know all the words."

In Ms. Jakupi's biggest hit, "It Is Guiltless to Be Killed," she sings:

"They killed our fathers, they killed our sisters.

"They made us leave, they burned our homes.

"Don't you Serbs touch Drenica."

Valton Beqiri, the dean of the ethnic Albanian University of Pristina music school, says that, while most of the new music is welcome, some may be too confrontational. "Man has a need to release his emotions," he says. "If he does not want to take up a gun, he can use songs to fight the pain. If the music works for this, I accept it. But if the music makes you more aggressive, I disapprove."

Mr. Beqiri himself composed the first local song about the war, focusing on Adem Jashari, an early KLA member who, along with more than 20 family members, was killed last year in Drenica, presumably by Serbian police. Mr. Jashari has since become a martyr, and some 20 songs have been written about him, Beqiri says.

Also among the dead in the Drenica attack was Jashari's brother Hamz, a famous qiftelia player. According to popular wisdom, the Jashari brothers were side by side, clutching machine guns and singing traditional Albanian songs while the Serbian police overpowered them with heavy artillery.