This blog originally appeared on Kosovo 2.0. Available here in English, Albanian, and Serbian.
When you think of Kosovo’s musical legacy, one name that comes immediately to mind is the legendary Gjurmet. Other, lesser-known examples include MAK, Diadema, Lindja, and KEK.
When pop music in this country is discussed, it is all too often the case that the women of the scene are under-represented — and this needs to change, as these are women who have broken ground in more ways than one. This list is by no means all-inclusive, but it’s our attempt to make note of some (really cool!) milestones in terms of artistry, lyrics, and presentation.
1. First up: Zana Nimani. Born in Belgrade in 1968, Nimani traces her roots back to Gjakova, where her Albanian-born parents came from. She began performing in the late ‘70s, and — as befits the “Brotherhood and Unity” sentiments of the time — she sang in Serbian and dated her guitarist, Radovan Jovicevic. In 1986, she launched her first solo album, Noćas pevam samo tebi (Tonight I Sing Only for You). Today, she’s remembered for her ‘80s rock aesthetic, and her successful straddling of new-wave, synth-pop and rock. When Yugoslavia began to fall apart, Nimani emigrated, making a new home in British Columbia, Canada.
2. Nexhmije Pagarusha is easily one of the most famous names in Kosovo’s Albanian folk scene. Born in Malisheve and educated in solo canto in Belgrade, Pagarusha was known as the Nightingale of Kosovo (Bilbili i Kosoves). The warmth of her performances, combined with the perfection of her classical training set Pagarusha apart from her ’60s contemporaries. Her most famous song is Baresha (the Herdswoman), a song about the pastoral, mountain-ringed life of the song’s protagonist.
3. Adelina Ismajli could — for lack of a better term — be called “the Albanian Madonna.” Ismajli broke new ground in the early ‘90s with her provocative dress and lyrics. A former child star, Ismajli’s early songs discussed political themes such as the Berlin Wall, endurance, and the idea of “The Fatherland.” Once she hit puberty, her themes quickly changed to the eternal problems of love (some song titles: “Two sisters, one boyfriend”; “Stay away from my boyfriend”), and patriotism (“Skenderbeg”; “Honor to my fallen soldier”). Pagarusha referred to Ismajli as “the only original singer of her generation.” Say what you will about Ismajli, but you definitely cannot ignore her.
4. Retrovizorja released a number of songs without the assistance of vocalist Elina Duni, but when Duni is present, you can feel the difference. Many people know Duni for her recent work with the Elina Duni quartet, but most Kosovars are familiar with her collaborative work with alternative group Retrovizorja. Their sound is deceptively simple, filled with nostalgia, unease, and longing; for the generation of people who grew up in postwar Kosovo, this music struck a powerful chord. Duni’s vocals carry these songs to impressive heights, in a way that is notably different from her more ethno-jazz influenced performances in the Elina Duni quartet.
5. Formed in 2005, Gillespie’s sound is uplifting and optimistic — two words not usually associated with Kosovar life or music. The star of the show is Hana Zeqa, who performs the vocals for the indie rock band. Her voice is polished and approachable, and breathes life into Gillespie’s songs. If any band has a good shot of making it big outside of Kosovo, Gillespie is probably that band.
6. First, an admission: Rita Ora’s first single, Hot Right Now, was my ringtone for a long time. It’s hard, really, to find an Albanian that doesn’t acknowledge the success of Kosovo’s prodigal child. Born in 1990, Ora emigrated at a young age to London with her parents. She studied music and sang as a child, and eventually she caught the attention of Jay-Z, who signed her to his Roc Nation label in 2009. Since then Ora has released her debut album, Ora, which garnered Top 10 singles like How We Do (Party), R.I.P., and Shine Ya Light.
7. Blerta Kosova is one part of minimalist duo Bicalko. Kosovo 2.0 profiled the duo in July, praising their experimental orchestrations of “soulful vocals, computers, and synthesizers.” Born in Mitrovica in 1994, Kosova is a masterful manipulator of sound, while her vocals range from the heartfelt to the ethereal. You can find samples of her solo work on her YouTube channel and Soundcloud account.