When music raises ethnic tensions: Goran Bregović in Korçë’s Beer Fest

Former Yugoslav rock star, Goran Bregović, announced a concert at a beer festival in Albania. This caused tensions for weeks in Kosovo and Albania as he is seen as a supporter of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and a motivator of massacres during the 1999 Kosovo war. The debates continued among Albanians and the police arrested 8 people for trying to stop the concert with tear gas bombs.

On the night of August 23, the Albanian police blocked all the entrances of the city of Korçë in Southern Albania, some 170 kilometers from Albania’s capital Tirana. Security forces did a thorough check-up and took away everything that could have caused an incident at the Korçë’s Beer Fest. The reasons for such high security checks was Goran Bregović’s scheduled concert. Goran Bregović who was born in Bosnia before the dissolution of former Yugoslavia is one of the most internationally known musicians from the region. However, as ethnic tensions are still high in the region, his participation caused a lot of stir. Many Kosovo-Albanian, as well as Albanian artists, called for a boycott and cancelled their performance saying that Goran Bregović represents  Serbia which “motived war crimes and massacres” in the Kosovo war during 1998 and 1999, which ended with an airstrike bombing campaign by NATO.

Some minutes after the concert started a young Albanian citizen activated teargas in order to stop Bregović’s performance. “He began the concert in Albanian with his song ‘Kosovska’ in Albanian. After that, in-between tables, we saw smoke, and then just near me another teargas capsule was activated. People started moving around, but didn’t leave the party…”, says Dhorjela Cule, a journalist from Korçë who was reporting from the event, explaining that, the teargas hit a table where two ministers from the Albanian government were sitting.

“There were less people compared to other festival nights, and many tickets were given for free to invited guests so the organizers didn’t say how many tickets were sold. Discussions prior to the concert surely affected the number of concert attendees”, Cule tells  RDN 2.0.   

The Albanian police arrested 8 people involved in the incident. However, the concert continued till the end.   

Goran Bregović was the leader of one of the most popular Yugoslav rock bands Bijelo Dugme (The White Button), which brought western rock n’ roll music to the communist country. After Yugoslavia’s disintegration and the split of Bijelo Dugme, he started composing film music, primarily for films directed by Emir Kusturica, a Sarajevo born artist who lives in Serbia and supports Serbian politics on various topics. Bregović and Kusturica even became “best men”, but years later Serbian media reported that they had fallen apart.

Bregović became world-famous after composing music for the movies Time of the Gypsies (1989) and Arizona Dream (1993). During the Yugoslav wars, he lived in Paris and Belgrade, and later performed Balkan and Romani music around the world with his new ensemble of 37 musicians named “The Wedding and Funeral Orchestra”.  

Kosovo based media and partly media in Albania link Bregović’s career with the support of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević who served as a President during the Yugoslav wars in the 90’s. “Bregović’s Kalashnikov song motivated Serbian paramilitary members to kill people in Kosovo”, were some of many news titles in Albanian-speaking media. For weeks, numerous TV debates were organized on the topic of Bregović’s role in the war of the ‘90s. “He performed a concert in Greece against NATO bombing in 1999”, some of the titles said.   

Most of the reactions came from Kosovo saying that Albania invited Serbs to perform ignoring the fact that more than 10000 Kosovo Albanians were killed during the 1999 war. The media, people, and artists called for a boycott of the concert.   

Arta Berisha, an experienced journalist from Kosovo’s capital Pristina and a university researcher on media issues, says the way Bregović’s participation was covered by the media in Kosovo, Albania as well as Serbia was very one-sided.

“Many of these media are not edited by professionals, but by groups of interests and political parties. This partisan reporting was also reflected in the case of Bregović’s concert”, Berisha told RDN 2.0 and explained further that most reports were individual pro-et-contra statements, but not really journalistic reports.

“Most media are only emotional. They didn’t talk about what kind of music it was, turbo-folk or music of ex-Yugoslavia, or what was going to happen at this event, and didn’t have first-hand information on the topic”, she argued.   

In Albania, people were also divided as some media criticized the government for not taking into consideration “the open wounds of Albanian brothers in Kosovo”. “Edi Rama wants better relations with Serbia in spite of massacres in Kosovo”, some of the reports said.   

The Albanian PM, Edi Rama, who governs Albania in his third mandate, hosted Goran Bregović in 2006 when he visited Albania for his first concert with the “The Wedding and Funeral Orchestra” in the Congress Palace in Tirana. Back then, PM Rama was Tirana’s mayor and hence honored Bregović with “The Key of Tirana”, the highest honor of this town.   

PM Rama reacted twice to the accusations by addressing Bregović’s opponents as fire instigators: “A famous musician from Sarajevo whose father was a Croat, mother a Serb, the wife a Muslim, turned to be a “Serbian criminal”. However, Bregović never said anything against Albanians, he never promoted massacres and Milosevic’s regime”, Rama wrote on his Facebook profile and called the reactions a medieval hysteria.  A few days later, after the concert, Albanian PM Rama wrote again: “They made Bregović a Serbian criminal without any fact, and now they say I have compared Dua Lipa with him! The hysteria continues. I didn’t compare Bregović with Dua Lipa at all, but I said the truth that those who revile and curse artists and sportsmen in either Serbian or Albanian are the same! Fascistic hysteria does not protect or honor, but only dishonors Albanians who can never be an example of hatred”, Rama stated on social media.  

Jonila Godole, the executive director of the Institute for Democracy, Media and Culture and professor at the Department of Journalism and Communications at The University of Tirana, says that media did follow the principle of provocation and clickbaits.

“During August, there is not much happening in politics so the media used Bregović’s concert to fulfill this gap”, Godole pointed out explaining further that most reports she read were “black and white”.   

As a media expert, Godole says that the interference of Albanian PM Edi Rama in this debate was very wrong.

“This concreted even more the division between those who were pro and those against this concert, and the media missed the chance to create a real debate on good relations in the region, the past or the war crimes against civilians or long-term good relations in the region, beyond the political demagogies”, she stated.   

For Ms. Godole this debate is additionally provoked because Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo or the crimes that happened there. Godole says that this debate also helped the government to hide problems with fires in the country’s south as well as the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan.   

On the other side, some Serbian tabloids accused Kosovo-Albanians arguing they “hate everything Serbian”.   

Petar Janjatovic is one of the most famous Serbian and former Yugoslav music journalists and rock critics, and his book “Ex-Yu Rock Encyclopedia” was republished many times after its first edition. Janjatovic states that Goran Bregović is one of the most successful artists from the region and his career deserves absolute respect:

“We could talk esthetically about whether his music is good or not, but in the world where everyone wants to be on stage he made a huge success”.  As a journalist, Janjatovic is well acquainted with Bregović’s career, and he thinks that people can always use a situation to make a media campaign against someone, but not really based on facts. “Bregović never supported Milosevic and he was against the war in the beginning, and that was important. Later, he moved to Paris and then Belgrade and he chooses not to talk much about the war”, argues Janjatovic adding that he personally thinks it is very important for artists to have a clear message on important issues.

“We can judge why he didn’t say more, but I think this situation is out of the context”, Janjatovic explains, although he adds that Bregović used some benefits from the state of Serbia back in the ’90s. “Bregović supported very openly Zoran Đinđić (the opposition democratic leader and later Prime Minister who was assassinated in 2003), and that is clear”, adds Janjatovic stating that at the end “we are only talking about a beer festival”.   

The only political interview that can be found online with Goran Bregović’s name on it dates from 2018 and it was given to Belgrade weekly “Nedeljnik. “I was beaten up by criminals in Belgrade because I said to a Sarajevo daily that Milosevic would bring us 100 years backward. Unfortunately, that is how it is. We lost so much time in the world that was growing, and we did live so many years under a handbrake”, Bregović was quoted in this interview.   

At the end of the concert in Korçë, Bregović did sing his song Kalashnikov adding: “This is an ironic song for those guys who go to the war. I hope that this place will be the last where you hear this word”.   

Author: Idro Seferi

Photo: Piotr Zajac / Shutterstock