Music connects, music reconciles
The Kosovo conflict has left Mitrovica divided. Albanians live south of the river Ibar, Serbs in the north. The Mitrovica Rock School connects Serb and Albanian youth through music and brings back a musical tradition that makes both sides proud.
Emir Hassani is a musician, teacher and director of programs at Mitrovica Rock School, where he stands for quality education in popular music, teaching employable skills, and putting the “rock” back in “Rock City.”
Fari Sow: First, you can introduce yourself, introduce the school, tell us what you do in your programs.
Emir Hassani: I’m Emir Hassani, director of programs, but also teacher and doing the few more roles on and off here in Mitrovica Rock School, which is a music school based in Mitrovica, in Kosovo, one of the few divided cities in Europe still. Our goal from the beginning is quality music education, but also there’s an important aspect of bringing people together from both sides, which would otherwise never meet, especially at that age. We are working with mostly with teenagers, also younger students and up to 25 years old.
Fari Sow: When was it founded? How long have you been working there?
Emir Hassani: It was founded in 2008. The conflict here was happening in 1998 and 1999. But before that, the city of Mitrovica itself was always known for popular music scene. There were a lot of Jazz and Blues bands before, but then also a lot of popular music, and Rock music in general. And people were of course playing together, with no differences regarding what community they come from. There was an idea that after the conflict, something like that should be continued in some way. It didn’t happen up until 2008, when a local organization, Community Building Mitrovica came together with the Musician Without Borders from Netherlands to start with a band camp in the so-called Neutral Zone, which was Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. Young people from both sides between south and north went to the band camp there and had just cover bands and just played for one week, and everybody seemed to like it. I wasn’t there yet but this is the story I got from other people. They decided that maybe something similar should be happening here and that’s how it started.
Basically, they came back to Mitrovica, and they wanted to do one school, one building in the central city. It wasn’t possible because you must choose sides since it is divided by one river between south and north side. The school had to be somewhere and then the students from one side couldn’t go to the other side. The decision was to build the two different branches, and still to this day, these two branches exist but, in the beginning, the only common activities for students from both south to north were happening outside of Kosovo and only in the band camps and tours and similar events. These days everything works in both branches, the students are using both buildings equally, all the programs, except for the daily lessons, are happening in both branches. That was a process from 2008 to now and it was slow, but it was the only way that we could really do it, because we had to be really careful with all the steps we took to come here.
Fari Sow: We’ll get back to the school in just a moment. I’m just interested in your musical upbringing first; did you grow up in Kosovo?
Emir Hassani: Yes.
Fari Sow: How did your music journey start and how did it evolve in this context?
Emir Hassani: I started learning about instruments when I was really young. I had a lot of them at home, so it just felt natural. It never felt like I was learning something, it was just part of growing up. And then I started in a music school. Back then, there was basically only one option, which was a classical training school, which I went through it all. I did my primary school, high school and then college and then classical music school. But beside that, I was always into popular music and rock music. I was in bands and was writing songs, performing. Back then in Mitrovica, which is not a big city, there was a big lack of rehearsal spaces and recording spaces, so we had to do everything by ourselves, it was all garage-based. When Mitrovica Rock School started, I was playing in a band already, but there was also an opportunity to use the school premises as a space for us. Back then, this was something phenomenal for an amateur band. Once I also learned about the other programs the school was doing, I slowly got into it. My first involvement was the sound engineering course, and this was something that I never did before, but this is how I got involved. And from that moment on, I was involved in school in many different roles. I started as a trainee teacher, then junior teacher to teacher, and I joined the management team four years ago.
Beside the classes from the teachers, about once or twice a month, they would also get one class from a teacher from the opposite side of the city. This is how they get involved into the social part of our school, how they learn about the other side.
Fari Sow: Could you tell me more about the creative scene in Kosovo? Is a rock school expected there, or is this something that gets out of the box compared to other musical establishments in Mitrovica or Kosovo in general?
Emir Hassani: There’s always been two sides to the music scene here. There’s popular music, some call it folk, but it’s not really folk music. It’s a new wave folk, a lot of electronics combined with Hip Hop, a little bit of everything. Nowadays it’s developing into the same pop music that is all over the world. That was always the most popular music style, but there was always a big scene of so-called alternative music scene, which was everything from punk to metal or jazz. There was always a strong sense of it being self-supported, it was really indie and was organized by the scene itself. So, a rock school wasn’t that unexpected, especially for the scene. There was always a lot of bands playing rock music. And it is called Mitrovica Rock School, but we’re not strictly connected to rock music, whatever that would mean. As broad as it is these days and as it always was, it’s really a music school. We just don’t teach folk music, I don’t teach classical music, but everything else can be a part of it.
Fari Sow: How are your programs and activities today? Do you work with the same groups of students through the years, or do you have new classes every year? What is the process like?
Emir Hassani: For example, if a student joins the school, it depends on whether they already know how to play an instrument, we also accept students who don’t know at all, it’s completely fine. It depends on which level they enter the school. Most of the time, it’s why the students are joining because it’s always tricky to go into the band directly, so all of them really want to learn the instruments first. There is the basic program, which is in every music school, to learn how to play the instruments, to develop your skills, but then also to develop whatever you want to work on. We also try to pay attention to every student individually to develop what they want. Beside the classes from the teachers, about once or twice a month, they would also get one class from a teacher from the opposite side of the city. This is how they get involved into the social part of our school, how they learn about the other side.
I think that we set as an aim for a lot of students, that if they manage to do this, they can become part of the band program, and then become part of the mixed band program, which means they will be with the students from the opposite branch. These bands are put together by teachers and we mostly look at their skills, their age and what type of music they like, and we try to combine them into one band. It doesn’t always work, which is okay, because sometimes they simply don’t work well together, but once they get initiated in that program, they’re free to make their own bands. The bands usually stay for 3 years, here the students would be in school mostly until 21, 22 years old because, in the north part of the city there is the university, so some students stay because they go to the university, but in the South, they only stay up to high school. This is why it’s pretty rare that they stay together for longer than three or four years. It also depends on how they work as a group.
Fari Sow: You have such a unique way of operating because of the social and political context you’re in. Is there an evolution that you can see in the students in the year or the years that they’re with you? Since they’re from a divided city, from their respective sides, they can have different ways of thinking. Do you see an evolution in their way of thinking through the school years, through their music, and the way they interact with each other?
If you don’t do something interesting with every project, something new, something different, then it’s hard to keep the school funded. We somehow managed, which was important for us because of those small steps that take years and years to just create. But after this period, when you see it all together, it doesn’t look like a small effort.
Emir Hassani: I definitely do, I see it individually, but also as a generational thing. We actually did some research. There was a generation of bands, and we asked them back then, how they would feel about performing here in Mitrovica with the mixed bands and we got 100% “No” answers, that wouldn’t be possible. And that’s something that they would do anywhere else, that would be fine, but here they are not doing it. But then, 2 hours later, the same day, we had a group of another age, from a different generation that started in the school later, we asked the same question and got 80% of yes. Two years later we did the concerts in Mitrovica, and we are still doing them, which was something that, five years ago, you would never think of. In that sense, we definitely see an evolution. But as I said, because we are really careful about things, we do things really slowly, if they said no, we would never push them to do it.
Fari Sow: Are there any values that you try to foster consciously or unconsciously through the music? Because it’s been a tool for activism, to talk about topics that you can’t just get on the street and talk about, and people usually use music to approach those themes. In your context, is that something that you try to develop in them?
Emir Hassani: Intentionally, we never have them write about a specific topic we choose. In the songwriting workshops, we can ask to explore a certain theme only as an exercise, but when it comes to their own music, we really want them to express themselves as much as they can, so everything is allowed as long as it doesn’t affect the other ones in the course. Through the school, there is a certain way of behaving, you cannot wear fancy clothes and there are some symbols that we wouldn’t accept, for example.
Fari Sow: You’ve done a concert recently this year, how is the concert experience with the mixed bands?
Emir Hassani: It was great because it had been a long time with no concerts or just small performances because of the pandemic. We were glad to be able do it and that we survived the pandemic as a school. We found new ways and tools to work through it, and it once it happened, it was beautiful. Nowadays, we are preparing for band camp again in Skopje because it is still a tradition. We could not do it for two years, and now we are bringing it back and everybody’s super excited.
Fari Sow: And those concerts are open to the public?
Emir Hassani: Yes, but they’re not presented as a special event for mixed bands. We just read the names of the bands and present it as a school concert. It’s pretty open to everyone and we never have super visible security, because it wouldn’t feel normal. We, as the management team, try to keep everything as normal as possible and we pay a lot of attention to that so the students don’t have to think about it. For us, it can be really stressful sometimes organizing everything. But I think I mean, this is a moment for them that should feel completely normal, like any other concerts everywhere else in the world.
Fari Sow: Do you get that feeling also from the crowd or the people that support you? That they’re not coming to see a political act, they’re just happy to attend your concert, that it’s normalizing mixed bands?
Emir Hassani: Yes, most of them I would say. As I said, it’s not a big city, so in terms of the scene right now, you usually know the groups that are coming to the concerts, to gigs. So there was never an issue. I think most of them were coming because of music. but it’s also there is also that side that is interesting, they want to see how the students or musicians from the other side are playing, how good they are. I think it’s all great intentions from a lot of people.
Fari Sow: On your scale, do you do feel like you have an important role to play in the music scene of Mitrovica right now?
Emir Hassani: Yes, definitely. I mean, there’s not much else happening, except for a few bands that are working on their own music as always. There’s a lot of new bands that are happening because members went through our school and they’re still a part of it, but not in the same way. We always keep our communities and stay in touch with the musicians and music scene here, but also around the region.
Fari Sow: Are there other organizations in the creative scene in general that are using this type of format of art to bridge the two sides?
Emir Hassani: There are a lot of different beautiful initiatives that are happening, but I think the difficulty with it that it comes up as a project and then it goes away. And the results are beautiful and everything that’s happening is beautiful, but it’s temporary. I’m always glad to be there in those moments, but I think what we do is different because we manage somehow to keep the school together and keep the relationships and we manage as a school to present ourselves in both sides of town and build a reputation about what we are doing, it’s really important in a small city. There are other projects, but the problem is that they don’t last long. Recently they started doing different types of art festivals, which works great writing for the people that are already in the arts, but then also they present that they’re doing it together, which is great for the whole community.
Fari Sow: You would say you have longevity compared to others.
Emir Hassani: Yes, this is why I think we are successful, in a way. And we could manage throughout all these years to keep the same thing going on, which was always hard because of the funding. If you don’t do something interesting with every project, something new, something different, then it’s hard to keep the school funded. We somehow managed, which was important for us because of those small steps that take years and years to just create. But after this period, when you see it all together, it doesn’t look like a small effort.
Fari Sow: You said you survived 2020 as a school, how was that like? For most schools, going online was a shock, but for a music school in particular, when people have to learn together, rehearse together, be together just in general to continue learning, how was that transition for you?
Emir Hassani: At the beginning, everyone was sure we could do it, but was really scared about it, but we have to do what we have to do. We went online, some programs wouldn’t continue like the bands program and ones with activities like travels, band camps, those things had to be canceled. But everything else that could be done online, we did it. I would say that it was pretty frustrating, especially for music classes with problems such as the latency. It was a mess, but we somehow did it and we were always watching the news and keeping up with the situation and, anytime we could meet, we’d have one big room and it was so great to be together. And as things were developing and changing, we started recording online concerts, and arranging studio time and recordings. The worst thing was motivation for the students, but also for teachers. We always set goals for something as teachers, but also as fuel for the students, for the bands, for the groups, for the classes. But it didn’t make much sense in that period, so we tried to adapt. I think when we did well, as much as we could.
Fari Sow: I’m going to close with one last question. As a teacher, what’s one thing you’ve learned from your students?
Emir Hassani There are tons of things that I learned from my students. Like many musicians, sometimes I tend to stay in my own music and don’t learn new things. Because I’m teaching a lot of young people, I get to learn about all the new music, and there’s a lot of beautiful music coming out all the time that I would never reach out to and never listen to that much because it’s hard to pick the right things. I am growing not just as a musician, but as a human being, as a person and as a teacher, and it makes me feel young. Every student is really different, but from my experience during this time, we had to find a new angle, and I never worked with the same students as classmates. It was always about a new beginning, a new start, new ideas, new atmosphere. I think that’s also what’s what I learned, how to communicate with people better.
In 2021, Mitrovica Rock School was one of the first organizations to receive the Moleskine Foundation’s Creativity Pioneers Fund, becoming part of the Creativity Pioneers network. In 2022, they contributed to the conversation on Music as Language, healing and Community for the cultural publication Folios volume 4, “Creativity in Conversation”.