For Jericho’s 20th anniversary year, Prishtina Insight met with Petrit Carkaxhiu, songwriter and lead vocalist, to discuss the band’s evolution through their songs.
Before we start, a sound check:
I met Petrit Carkaxhiu several times in the last six months. The first time was totally accidental, when he was visiting Prizren during Dokufest, the documentary and short film festival. I was astonished to learn that the Petrit I was shaking hands with was the very frontman of the Jericho whose songs I had spent countless hours listening to while riding the number 7 subway above the elevated tracks in Queens. Mouthing the words to “Tomlin e Nones” (Mother’s Milk), and churning existential thoughts upon hearing “East or West? Like a sheep at the marketplace, between civilizations,” I’d blankly stare at the New York City skyline as if it were some abyss of insignificance.
The first time I heard Jericho live was also in Prizren during a benefit concert. Just before the performance, I watched how Carkaxhiu and the band spent two hours performing a sound check, much to the displeasure and irritation of Lumbardhi Theatre’s audio technician. In spite of the venue’s poor acoustics, Carkaxhiu’s attention to detail paid off and the narrow theatre hall was filled with people singing along to “Tomlin e Nones,” “Shkaba” (The Eagle), and “Zgjohu” (Wake Up).
This year marks Jericho’s 20-year anniversary. Beside Carkaxhiu, who is the group’s vocalist, songwriter, and guitar player, the band’s current lineup includes Visar Rexha on the drums, Suad Jamini on the bass guitar, and Leonard Canhasi on solo guitar. For their live concerts, the band also often employs Albanian instrumentalists playing zurne, daulle, cifteli, and other folk instruments whose tunes they incorporate into many of their songs.
Since its inception in 1997, Jericho regularly articulated Kosovo’s social issues in their songs — often through heavily nationalistic lyrics. Themes in their music evolved from resistance against the Milosevic regime in Kosovo to voicing an anti-imperial critique against the UN administration, and all the way to rebellion against the state Kosovo had become after declaring independence.
Their songs have followed Kosovo’s own recent history. But one thing always remained the same: Jericho’s spirit of revolt.
A ghetto full of Public Enemies
To understand the music Jericho has been playing, one has to understand the conditions into which the band was born.
For us, the youth of the time, the day’s greatest joy was to smoke, hang around the KEK building, and sit down under a poplar tree.
The autonomy of the province of Kosovo was forcefully revoked in 1989, and the Milosevic regime disbanded the Assembly in 1990. These sparked general strikes and mass protests, which led to the establishment of a de facto police state. Albanians were fired en masse from the public sector, and with no other recourse they organized parallel institutions in private homes and facilities to provide education and health services.
In 1997, Carkaxhiu was a second-year architecture student at University of Prishtina, attending lectures in a private house in Prishtina’s Dragodan neighborhood.
“For us, the youth of the time,” said Carkaxhiu, “the day’s greatest joy was to smoke, hang around the KEK [Kosovo Energy Corporation] building, and sit down under a poplar tree. We would just sit there and watch the passing cars… And that ritual was the highlight of our day.”
It was under these conditions that the song “This is my home” came to be. It was among Jericho’s first songs, with barely any lyrics except for the repetitious “This is where I’m staying. This is where I’m living. This is where I’m dying. This is my home,” mirroring the reality its band members experienced first hand.
The song reflected the sense of social stagnation, lack of any prospects for the youth, and the daily monotony caused by the conditions created by an apartheid-like treatment of Kosovo Albanians.
“This was also the time when Albanian youth would emigrate en masse,” said Carkaxhiu. “And this song, in a way, was like a response against emigration.”
In the same vein, the theme of social discontent, marginalization of Albanian youth, and emigration is best expressed in the angry lyrics of “Don’t Fuck with Albanians.”
The song starts with a story of a person orphaned during ‘Rankovic’s time’ — as Albanians refer to the period of persecutions in Kosovo during the ‘50s and ‘60s, led by Aleksandar Rankovic, the former Yugoslav Minister of Internal Affairs and later it’s first Vice President.
“I grew up in the streets, full of sadness and pain,” the song’s protagonist declares. The story then moves to the ‘90s, in a Kosovo yet again run as a police state, and the protagonist witnessing a Serb policeman beating a youth. That is when he snaps. “I pulled out the gun and shot the motherfucker down dead.”
“It is a made up story,” said Carkaxhiu. “But this was the kind of a scene that had become the norm. It was everyday reality. We were firsthand witnesses of this kind of violence against the youth and the adults.”
In the second part of the song the protagonist finds himself exiled in a European country, transformed into a “Snow Man,” dealing drugs to wealthy Europeans. “Why do I do this kind of job, you’re asking me. Why don’t you come and taste my reality. You are born to be free, you’re not a refugee.” The song then goes on with its most blasphemous verse as our protagonist curses “Fuck you Europe,” and wonders why should it decide on his and his oppressed country’s destiny.
The lyrics — all originally sung in English during this period — also reflect how people at the time were fed up with the status quo of the peaceful resistance and how their discontent had begun to transform into an armed resistance. At the time Astrit Salihu wrote in Zeri Javor, a Kosovo weekly magazine, one of first reviews about Jericho Walls — as the group was called for a brief period of time — and called them the musical wing of the KLA.
For Carkaxhiu, the ghettoization of Albanians felt similar to the oppression of African Americans as it was represented in the songs by Public Enemy, one of the main musical influences for Jericho at the time.
In a subconscious way, we were engaged in a type of a cultural resistance towards that social pressure during the transitional period.
“[We listened to] the type of bands that dealt with a lot of political and social themes. For example, Public Enemy was known for dealing with African-American issues, like in the song ‘Shut em Down.’ We were especially drawn to that combination between hip-hop and rock, or hard-core,” he said.
“Albanian youth were entirely excluded from all kinds of institutions and were left with no activities with which to pass your time. Eventually we played ball in the neighborhood. And we played music.”
From the basement, calls of rebellion
And that is what they did. They played music.
The band was born in a garage in the Dardania neighborhood, where Carkaxhiu and his close friend from high school, Donat Kaci, practiced. Inside, the yellow walls were decorated with various tools. The door was made out of sheet metal and the floor was concrete. In front of the garage, there was a basketball hoop where Albanians and Serbs would occasionally play together — not such a common sight during those times of segregation.
“With Donat I had among the first exchanges in music ideas,” said Carkaxhiu. “We listened to the same bands, had the same influences.”
Beside Public Enemy and Anthrax, Jericho was also influenced by bands like Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and Biohazard. They were later also influenced by the Seattle grunge scene, said Carkaxhiu.
Once the garage became too cold for their nimble fingers to pluck at guitar chords and play the drums, Jericho moved to the basement of Carkaxhiu’s home.
The music video for “Destiny” was shot in this very basement. As the band plays, one can spot strings of garlic above the heater. Jars of jam stacked up high. The drums. Some old boots next to a set of skis.
Beside their music instruments, at their basement studio they also used a voice effect processor, a turntable borrowed from a friend who lived in Switzerland, and a Moog synthesizer, all of which enabled Jericho to experiment with sound effects such as delay, echo, pitch shifter, as well as use sound samples for the background atmosphere of their songs. This gave a psychedelic feel to some of their early songs.
“‘This is My Home’ is this kind of a song,” said Carkaxhiu. “It has an electronic background over which the band played its instruments.”
In fact a performance of this song was also Jericho’s first media appearance at the 1998 New Year’s Program at Radio Television of Prishtina, which at the time was operating in exile as part of Kosovo’s parallel institutions and had a two-hour slot on Albania’s National Television, RTSH.
But by then Jericho had already had its first live performance in April of 1997. It was held as part of the post-pessimists arts movement at the Casablanca club — one of the few, possibly the only, Albanian-owned discotheques at the time — located at Boro Ramizi, the current Palace of Youth.
The lineup of songs that Jericho performed at that first concert brings to mind slogans of war and rebellion — “This is my Home,” “Don’t Fuck with Albanians,” “Destiny,” “Stop the Violence,” “Fight for Freedom” — almost a foreshadowing of the events that followed that year in Kosovo.
“It was the year when the peaceful resistance was shattered,” said Carkaxhiu. “It was the year of the first public appearances of KLA. It was also the year when the October student protests were organized.”
The war and its (atmospheric) aftermaths
After their first concert at Casablanca and their first TV appearance, Jericho continued to work on publishing their first album with a studio in Mitrovica. They got to travel a lot via bus and pass through many police checkpoints. Often, police would ask them to step out of the bus and unpack their music instruments under the suspicion of smuggling weapons. As the fighting increased, the band had to put the production of their first album on hold.
In August 1998 Carkaxhiu started working as a translator for various international news media. Through this job, he witnessed some of the worst massacres committed by Serbian police and military forces against civilians.
“Twenty four people, killed, massacred, in Rogove, near Prizren,” said Carkaxhiu.
After the war, the atmosphere of anxiety and trauma made it into many of their songs. “All those experiences were embedded into my mind, into my life,” said Carkaxhiu. “They became ever-present, constant reminders [of things that happened].”
One song inspired by this overall mood is “Kur do t’pushoj kjo kange” (When Will This Song Stop), produced in 2005. The song portrays the aftermath of war crimes, a neverending pain of longing for the missing persons, the endless torment without closure. It makes one think about fates worse than death.
The song starts with mellow and melancholic tunes. “My eyes are heavy; Dear, stay with me,” pleads its mournful text. The music video is simple. The band performs in front of the Kosovo Parliament building. On its fence, the photos of missing persons stand attached, all faded and weathered by time. As elements of traditional Albanian tunes set in — drums and guitar riffs imitating ciftelia — the pace picks up and turns the rhythm of melancholy into that of rage. “Devil’s blood runs through my veins; scraping the walls, through my hands to escape.”
The song is a departure from Jericho’s early rapcore influences that were sung in English. In fact, after the war the band sang in Albanian and incorporated Albanian folkloric elements in their tunes.
“[After the war] there was this psychological pressure to forget the past and reconcile with Serbs,” said Carkaxhiu, implying that the attempts for reconciliation, emphasized by the international community, might have been premature, while the wounds of war were still fresh, especially for those whose family members had died during the war, or those who did not even know about the exact fate of their loved ones.
“We were expected to forget all those experiences quickly and easily,” continued Carkaxhiu. “Which was a very unjust thing to expect from a person who saw and experienced all that terror. It was simply impossible to let go just like that. And, ‘Kur do t’pushoj kjo kange’ was the very expression of that post-traumatic atmosphere and mood.”
Supervised freedom and its discontents
The early 2000s — when Kosovo was administered by the UN — saw Jericho dealing with the aftermath of the war and traumatic experiences, but the band continued to deal with social and political issues.
“‘Zgjohu’ (Wake up) comes exactly as a result of that post-war atmosphere when political figures, or people who worked for the the good of the community, were gunned down, such as was Rexhep Luci’s case in Prishtina, who was an architect and urbanist,” said Carkaxhiu, referring to the assassination of an architect who worked for Prishtina Municipality and was in charge of issuing construction permits.
In the music video for “Zgjohu,” the band performs in white masks, their uncanny presentation making the viewer uneasy. “Is there anyone else to walk over my blood? Whose feet keep kicking my honor?” ask the lyrics before calling upon the people to wake up.
“In a subconscious way,” said Carkaxhiu, “we were engaged in a type of a cultural resistance towards that social pressure during the transitional period, where there was an attempt to negate and deprecate everything traditional.”
In “Tomlin e Nones,” produced in 2005, remnants of the old rapcore influences are still noticeable. Yet, it begins with a melody played by zurle, a wind instrument used in Albanian folklore and is accompanied by hip-hop drum beats. The lyrics are inspired by a poem by Ali Podrimja, one of Kosovo’s most well known poets. “East or West? Like a sheep at the marketplace, they say ‘you’re between civilizations.’ Two ropes around your neck. Both pulling, while your mouth foams.” It is in a sense a song for a society going through an existential and identity crisis.
“Immediately after the war, Kosovo society was faced with a very savage transition,” said Carkaxhiu. “A society that had deeply embedded traditional values was asked to instantly replace them with a contemporary Western reality.”
“It is not right,” said Carkaxhiu, “this tendency to negate the sacrifice of an entire generation and present it as something primitive,” said Carkaxhiu, referring to way nationalism begun to be seen during that period. “Nationalist activity enabled us to now enjoy an environment without the Serbia’s repressive apparatus in Kosovo.”
In fact, some of Jericho’s lyrics have been criticized for their nationalist tone.
But they also express themes of discontent which continued to be relevant in Jericho’s music even after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. If anything, now the critiques were only exacerbated by the idea of ‘supervised independence’. The lyrics and the melodies seemed to begin to draw even more from the folk tradition.
In “Shkaba” (The Eagle) accompanied by traditional drums and zurle, guitar riffs emulate ciftelia and sharkia. Produced in 2010, its lyrics lament the loss of traditional values. In the song, a youth no longer cares about stories with heroes; the voice of the elders is no longer heard in village assemblies. “A devil has killed the hearth’s best folk.” Use of old Albanian words, many of Turkish origin, appeal to and reaffirm conservative patriarchal values. They evoke Albanian traditional rhapsodies in which bards play single-string lutes and sing of heroes and their deeds.
Meanwhile the lyrics lament a loss of an idyllic brotherhood among Albanians untempered by ‘foreign’ influence, even striking a sexist note: “Between brothers, oh, this bitter discord; Foreign women will turn into our house-lords.” Like a scene from Homer’s Iliad, the pace picks up and the song turns into a battle cry. “Arise, the time has come. We’re masters of this land. Hear this, you, the foe’s hand: Plenty of heroes for motherland will stand.”
It is a song about growing pains of a young state lacking power to make decisions on its own, and an attempt to rectify its many disillusions with one of the few remedies Jericho got to know well — nationalism, something that Carkaxhiu has complicated feelings about.
“I don’t consider myself a nationalist,” said Carkaxhiu, “I simply do not believe in nationalism. But for us Albanians, in the last 100 years, nationalism was the only means that helped us survive — that’s how we saved our necks.”
Disillusions, and all their complexities
Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 did not bring an end to the problems. If anything, some things seemed to have become more difficult.
“Kanga Jone” (Our Song) came in 2011 directly as a result of a great disillusionment with the ruling political class. It is a call attempting to reawaken the feelings of idealism and humanism for the creation of a prosperous society, said Carkaxhiu. Here too, the song’s lyrics employ nationalist and patriarchal imagery to get the point across: an elderly mother, forgotten by time, calls their sons to return; a shameful catastrophe is befalling their home; the stone tower is being destroyed brick by brick.
The song is divided in two by a video shot during the Kosovo War, where an elderly gentleman delivers a riveting speech just after a massacre of Albanian civilians. “The image of the elder,” said Carkaxhiu, “is a type of a reminder of how we were able to find strength during those very difficult moments and reach solidarity.” The video is then accompanied by images from Kosovo war, destroyed homes, an exodus of people, refugee camps, student protests, miner demonstrations — all visual cues reminding Albanians in Kosovo of the various struggles they went through over the years. And to add to the group cohesion, yet another nationalist device is used in the lyrics, the so called ‘gathering around the flag’ — “Let the love between our hearts, be like that for our flag.”
The theme of disillusion is taken to the next level in “Nentor i Ftohte” (Cold November), which debuted during 100-year anniversary of Albania’s declaration of independence. Beside publishing the video, Jericho also performed it in a live concert in a swarming town square in Diber, Macedonia. It puts a spin on the idea of celebration and turns it into one of lament.
“For a century we’ve been walking, yet we still fall… A century of learning, we still don’t know a thing.” Even though full of nationalist imagery, it is a critique of nationalist euphoria that at the time had overtaken Albanians everywhere. Grand celebrations sprung in towns and cities from Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, all the way to different capitals of Europe. Even Times Square in New York City got all red and black. In the music video, a woman in black inside a bare-walled room carefully arranges flowerpots, perhaps each standing for one of the countries where Albanians live.
For Carkaxhiu, the jubilee was not something to be celebrated: for him 1912 is the start of a very difficult period for Albanians, many of whom found themselves living outside of Albania’s borders and dealt with problems from mass migrations to struggles to reach statehood.
By the end of the song, in a fit of madness and rage, as if possessed by the Furies, the woman in black smashes pots and destroys the flowers. “The veil they made for me, I wear it full of pride. They dance, I follow their steps like a beautiful bride.” The song bluntly voiced Kosovo’s, as well as Albania’s, struggles to form a (functioning) state.
Future of an illusion
Throughout the 20 years of their existence, Jericho remained a quintessentially socially engaged band. Their music was and is a social commentary, a demand for change, or, as seen in their later songs, an expression of their dissatisfaction with change and a call for the return to traditional values which, they thought, were disappearing too fast.
Kosovo and its society changed a lot in the last 20 years. Yet some things seem to have stayed the same. In 1997 Jericho sang about ghettoized youth, similarly to, and inspired by, bands like Public Enemy. Kosovo is independent now, but a ghetto nonetheless. Its youth still trapped inside, denied access to Europe, surrounded by tall invisible walls of bureaucracy and visa paperwork.
I wondered if the sound of Jericho’s horns, or zurne, would continue to try to bring them down crumbling. And so I asked Carkaxhiu about all those ideals that Jericho held back in 1997. I asked him how he saw the evolution of Kosovo’s society — for good or ill — and how did it all measure up to the expectations of the time.
“As years go by,” said Carkaxhiu, “with more life experience, you have a clearer idea of how the world works. At the same time you also realize your powerlessness to be part of great changes. But no matter how small and powerless you are, with hope, a healthy dose of idealism, and hard work you can still somewhat affect the society you live in.”