With Kosovo’s electronic music scene set to debut on international streaming platform Boiler Room on Wednesday night, Prishtina Insight met with DJs from across three generations to see how house and techno captured the capital.
It’s been a busy ten days or so for electronic music in Prishtina.
Over the last two weekends, the city’s Oda Theater has reverberated to the sounds of several shades of techno, from the raw and pummeling to the wonky and ecstatic, with Kosovar DJs playing alongside counterparts from France, the UK and Serbia. By Monday, even the opening of the EU’s new Europe House cultural center was accompanied by a soundtrack provided by some of Kosovo’s more deep and minimal house and techno DJs.
But Wednesday will see perhaps the most significant club night put on in Prishtina yet. The Hapesira collective’s 15th party since its inception in 2015 will be streamed live on Boiler Room, a global online music broadcasting platform and definitive tastemaker in the world of underground electronic music with over two million subscribers on YouTube.
For Uran Badivuku, co-founder of Hapesira and one of the DJs that will play at Wednesday night’s party under the name Uran B, appearing on Boiler Room feels like recognition for the four years of work the collective have put in. “It will be emotional for me,” he tells Prishtina Insight.
While Prishtina’s nightlife has been capturing international attention for a while, this is undoubtedly its biggest showcase yet. “It’s not that Boiler Room has put us on the map directly,” Uran says. “But Boiler Room is more or less a stamp. Sometimes you need to be recognized by a bigger institution.”
For Driton Pllana, a veteran of Kosovo’s clubbing scene that will also DJ on Wednesday night under his usual moniker of ‘Toton,’ the news came as something of a shock. “When Arbnor [Dragaj, co-founder of Hapesira] said ‘you have been selected to play for the Boiler Room,’ I was like… ‘What boiler room? Where?’” he tells Prishtina Insight. “It seemed to be such a far reach to get Boiler Room here.”
For Toton, Boiler Room is up there with the best platforms in electronic music, and for a Kosovar night to meet their conditions, both in terms of technical capabilities and their egalitarian philosophy, he sees as both an excellent achievement and great opportunity. “You’re in that circle now,” he says. “There’s no going back.”
Uran is also relishing the prospect of appearing on the platform, as Boiler Room have helped shape his career as both a DJ and a promoter. Watching streams of events on the platform has helped him approach things in a more holistic fashion, with choice of venues and promotional artwork being considered almost as crucial as the music.
Boiler Room also helped Uran explore the global electronic music world despite the typical financial and visa restraints he experienced as a young Kosovar. “I’ve never been to Berlin or London but you can get a glimpse of what is happening,” he says.
Tonight’s show will be being streamed live from the Rilindja (‘Rebirth’” or ‘“Renaissance’) warehouse, which used to house a printing works that published a number of classic texts in Albanian, as well as the first Albanian language newspaper in Yugoslavia.
The warehouse has hosted the majority of Hapesira’s parties to date, and according to Uran is “the perfect fit for what we do.” Toton, who has played at Rilindja three times prior to tonight, feels that the post-industrial landscape and techno soundscapes provide an ideal complement to each other. “If you look at those machines, you think of that music,” he says.
While Uran also believes that the visual backdrop provides an added charm, for him another aspect of the old printworks was even more significant. “The most important thing was its name, Rilindja. We believe more in rebirth than revolution,” he says, adding that, for him, the need to create something new rather than changing the hands of power is the essence not just of Hapesira, but of Kosovo itself.
Indeed, Kosovo’s electronic music scene stands somewhat apart from its neighbors, and Uran reveals a slightly bashful pride in beating most countries in the region to being streamed internationally.
Both Toton and Uran credit the rebellious and lawless post-war atmosphere in Kosovo as being crucial to helping develop the scene, with Uran drawing parallels to the seminal Berlin techno scene’s development after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Toton, one of the first people to DJ in Prishtina after the war, adds that the necessity of a do-it-yourself attitude after “ten years of institutional halt” worked in the scene’s favor, and feels that Kosovars have a hunger for the new. “Because we’ve seen evil things, we just want to move forward.”
But it’s not just the escapism of dance music that Toton believes has pushed electronic music in the country though; a competitive spirit has also driven things on.
“It is in the culture of Kosovo to try be the best at what you are,” he says. “I don’t know how good that competitive nature is in other areas but in the arts it’s working out great. For the number of people we have some great stuff coming out: in metal, house, hip hop. People making it out, new talent…”
Both DJs are natives of the capital, and feel that growing up in Prishtina has also directly influenced their artistic output.
For Uran, the National Library provides an iconic visual for the city which always makes an impression with his international guests, while being born and raised in Prishtina has always drawn him to post-industrial buildings. “They have some sort of energy within them,” he says.
Toton meanwhile describes Prishtina as the “ultimate punk industrial city of the world,” and feels its landscapes can provide a healthy motivation for creativity. “It’s dark. It’s ugly. It’s an evil looking city — which kind of helps you build your identity,” he says. “Music gives you the option to make this place more beautiful.”
Hapesira has come a long way since its first party at Rilindja in March 2015, when Uran says he was trying to “break the routine that existed in Prishtina.” He recalls that at that time, everyone would end up in the same club together, whether they were looking for a hedonistic journey into a deep house set or an opportunity for a more commercial and glamorous night in a suit or high heels. “We were looking to divide that,” he says.
Toton, who has been a fixture of the scene since its early beginnings in post-war Prishtina, feels that Hapesira has helped achieve this. “Many people were afraid of the scene splitting up, and it has split up, but not in a negative way, in a positive way,” he says. “It’s created niche.”
The DJ recalls a time when everyone playing house and techno in the city would buy vinyl from the same distributor, meaning distinguishing yourself and finding enough unique material for a set would be tough as everyone owned the same records. DJs would also throw in tracks from every genre of electronic music into a set to help pad things out.
However, the rapid development of numerous electronic subgenres have led to a completely new scenario by 2019. As Toton puts it: “What used to be one track 20 years ago is now a complete genre!”
While the Prishtina house and techno scene emerged inside flagship venues like Megaherc, Spray and Shallter, the current situation relies more on promoters. Alongside Hapesira, Servis and Vakuum have started putting on more purely techno nights in Prishtina, while in Ferizaj and Gjakova, Euphoria and Frekuenc have developed local scenes in their own vision.
For Uran, there are pros and cons to this new model. While he laments the loss of some of the clubs, he believes that promoters keep the nature of the parties uncommercial and alternative.
It’s a new world that has definitely captured the imagination of young filmmaker Leart Rama, who has made a number of promotional videos for club nights in Kosovo, including Hapesira and Servis, and has just begun DJing himself.
Leart discovered techno as a 16-year-old during a trip to DokuFest in 2014. Despite then going to study in Tirana, Leart and his friends made regular weekend trips to Prishtina over the last few years in order to enjoy the club scene, which they felt offered more originality and realness than in the Albanian capital, which he describes as overly commercial and in thrall to ‘ugly’ Italian house music.
He and his friends even created their own microscene in Tirana when they started playing music in their 11th floor student apartment. The reputation of their parties grew, with people referring to them as ‘Banesa,’ the word for apartment in Albanian. Leart says he still receives texts about Banesa now.
Whilst Leart envies those that experienced the DIY thrill of the post-war scene or the legendary parties in seminal clubs, he believes the current situation is also something to take pride in. “I’m really proud to be alive in these times and witnessing all this,” he tells Prishtina Insight.
Toton also welcomes diversity in promoters, as it gives the crowd an opportunity to find the sound that is right for them. “Some people used to come and see me but really they wanted me to play harder stuff,” he says. “Now if they want harder stuff there is an organization doing that…”
Leart echoes the view that there is strength in plurality, and urges a sense of unity among promoters rather than getting weighed down in conflict, dismissing any views that the organizations should be seen as rivals to each other. “If you want to do something for your community there is room for everyone,” he says. “You shouldn’t compete with each other. The club scene is about peace and love.”
Unity and collectivism is a value that Uran feels Hapesira has always tried to push and hopes that its replicated not only in the future of the club scene but in endeavours across the country. “Only by developing this sense of collectivism can we progress,” he says. “Otherwise, Kosovo, with this individualistic sense that we still have, we will get nowhere.”
Egotism is a topic which frequently emerges, and stripping the DJ of any pretensions or megalomania has been a goal of Hapesira, and Toton’s biggest recommendation for the health of the scene.
“When we started, the [DJ booth] was the king and the dance floor were the slaves. Hapesira changed this,” Uran says, pointing to their collective’s policy of not allowing people to stand around the DJ as if he was some sort of celebrity at their events.
Toton, who hopes to title his next EP “Modesty is a good idea, you should try it sometime,” would like to take it one step further, removing the DJ from sight altogether in order to leave focus strictly on the music. “Let the music do the talking,” he says.
As for the music the two DJs will bring to both the Rilindja warehouse and the watching world on Boiler Room, both Toton and Uran have been working on their sets for weeks.
Uran has created four or five potential playlists but insists that many selections will be made in the moment depending on the vibe of the crowd. Regardless, Uran’s set is guaranteed to be eclectic, switching across genres and producers from around the world. “We may be isolated, but in this globalized world we can follow everything,” he says.
Toton meanwhile promises a trademark set, showcasing exactly what he’s been doing for the past 20 years. “I’m just gonna do my thing. As a DJ, as ‘Toton,’ I only do that,” he says. “Coca-Cola only has one taste. When you start adding cherry it’s not Coca-Cola for me.”
As for what that trademark sound is, Toton describes his brand of tech-house as pure party music. “A party is a party. You’re not going to an intellectual debate,” he says. “Yanis Varoufakis isn’t cutting tickets at the entrance… that would be amazing but it’s not that… he’s a communist anyway, so he wouldn’t take any money.”
While Wednesday night tonight has the potential to be a pivotal moment for electronic music in Kosovo, both DJs appearing at the event already feel like the future of the scene is in good hands. “There’s a lot of great DJs in Kosovo who will definitely surpass what I’ve done,” Toton says.
Uran describes 2015, the year Hapesira began, as a changing of the guard, with old generations fading out and new generations fading in. He defines his own collective as completely dedicated to these new generations, and feels that providing a demonstration of what a party can be, a non-formal education in dance music culture was a key element of what they tried to achieve.
The new wave of promoters are a testament to the success of this endeavor, and Uran hails their independence and alternative ways of thinking. It is a view echoed by Toton. “This is what I wanted to see years back, people with independent minds,” he says, joking that his only concern is the sheer number of DJs. “I’m just afraid there’ll be no more doctors left!”
As one of the scene’s originators, Toton believes the time is now for young artists to build on what has been created. “As artists in the 21st century we have the world in our hands and we should use art to produce a better life for everybody,” he says. “More artists should be political, otherwise what’s the point?”
Unendingly independent, he encourages this next generation to be fearless, and, above all, true to themselves. “Don’t be afraid. They ain’t gonna kill you. They’re gonna kick you out of jobs, they’re not gonna book you, but that’s gonna pass,” he says. “Just do your thing. We’re all in it for the scene.”
Jack Robinson is a freelance writer specializing in politics, culture and football in Kosovo and across the Balkans.