THIS IS PRISHTINA WITH ODA HALITI
Kosovo is a young nation carrying "future" on its sleeve—quite literally when you consider half of population being in their mid-thirties. As mobility remains limited (most Kosovars need visa to travel) the streams that shape its youthful culture get intricately intertwined, while the ambiguity of lived experience lends itself to constant questioning, renewal, and reinvention. Challenging the old dominance of patriarchy and political instability, the young, independent and self-organized initiatives are giving rise to unofficial culture with a pulse for taking things into your own hands. For activist and DJ Oda Haliti, such line of personal politics began with serving drinks and organizing events at "Gegë", a small bar she bought in her early 20s. Nowadays, the Prishtina native brings her brazen music style and voracious appetite for genre-bending sets of experimental, acid disco and techno on international tours.
THIS IS BADLAND: Kosovar names are very associative, almost lyrical, how about yours?
ODA HALITI: The name "Oda" was given to me by my father and his friend, Regjep Ferri, a known Albanian painter from Kosovo and a family friend. My dad was always fascinated by short, traditional and unique names. He was rather fond of the idea to break the patriarchal connotation that goes with the name. In Kosovo, "Oda" is a room for men, and each household used to have one Oda in the old days—the biggest and best room of the house. It was a "socio-educative institution", only accessible to men. Women were not allowed to go in and partake in the important decisions made there. I don't know if purpose fully or not my father wanted to deconstruct this idea by giving that name to a girl. But he did. And so, I was the first one to carry that name, as far as I know, in Kosovo. I am happy and eternally grateful for my dad and his friend for naming me so. I always say, my father made me a feminist, by giving me the name Oda.
TIB: Prishtina's undeniable love affair with music, whether traditional or pop, is generating a number of internationally acclaimed stars, more than any other country in the Balkans, at least from what I've witnessed during my recent stay there. How did your childhood in this city influence your creativity?
OH: I don't know exactly if Prishtina made me a creative person or not, but one thing is true: when you live in a place where things are restricted, in a country where you feel isolated, and cannot travel without a visa, a country that is closed in so many ways, the need to create, the change becomes imperative, as a desire to live freely, differently.
When you live in a country where you experienced war, growing up with fear becomes part of a certain kind of “condition of leaving". Such fear made me active and creative, I guess. It’s not only the social structures that transform us into who we are, but we also transform them back.
TIB: When did the interest in music begin for you?
OH: It was never in my interest to become a DJ, it chose me. Music was part of my life since childhood. I used to play guitar when I was a teen. I used to be the DJ in the family, as well as in my class at high-school. I remember researching new music on a daily. In my third grade at the primary school, the first Kosovan rap song came out, it was called "This is our Life". At that time this song was a real revolution in Kosovo. We recorded those songs on tapes, and I was so obsessed with the song—I was dying to know the lyrics. I remember recording the entire song and writing down all the lyrics from the tape, simply with a pencil. The lyrics were quite powerful, they talked about the socio-political condition of Kosovo at that time; the war, the war with Serbia, the rift between rap artists and hippies, the trendy jeans... Kosovar life in the 90s.
The musical spectrum in Kosovo during the 80s and 90s was shaped by international profiles like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Roxette, New Kids on the Block, George Michael, Prince, etc. Kosovar pop stars Armend Regjepagiqi, Violeta Regjepagiqi, Aida Baraku were my inspiration both music and fashion-wise and I drew stimuli from their courage in singing, acting, dressing, living in a completely different way from the mass at that time. I still find a few of their songs very cool, true and timeless. Gjurmët was also my favorite band, they were New Wave, Rock/Alternative of the 80s. I like to mix all of them sometimes when I play music. To weave in a piece of alternative Kosovo-Albanian music that I used to grow up with. Specifically, when I play abroad I have a need to promote more of our culture and identity.
TIB: To a certain extent you were a seasoned observer before translating these findings into music. In fact, your DJ career evolved from a cultural environment around the bars you owned?
OH: My DJ career started in 2010 when I opened my very first business—a coffee bar called "Gegë" when I was in my early 20s. From the onset, it was not going to be easy - the owner would even avoid eye coxqact with me because first of all, I was a woman and secondly, apparently, too young to run such a business. So I paid half of the credit that I took for the bar, but after two weeks the bar owner changed his mind about renting it to me. He was afraid that I would walk away after three months and decided to give it to some guys. I was devastated. "If you really insist on this bar, you need to come with your father," he said. He needed a masculine figure to set the deal. So I had to work twice as much to convince him. After a lot of frustration that entailed my father’s presence in baptising the contract signature, “Gegë” was finally mine.
I ran "Gegë" for three years—it was my first baby, I grew up with it and it’s going to be my lifetime love! The ironic part is that after I closed "Gegë", the same place with other male owners never worked out, nor had the same success. One year later, I opened my second bar/club "Shallter" at the train station. It had one of the most special locations in Prishtina and I developed a different concept from "Gegë". It was a brewery with more than 80 types of beer, available for the first time in Kosovo. It kept me traveling and sourcing speciality beer from Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia just to keep that concept. Also, "Shallter" had functioned as a small club during the night, where I would produce events with my friends or play music. Funnily enough, my last venture ended on a more gastronomical note—a french cuisine restaurant called "Leggier". All the bars I used to ran were different from one another, I never only did hospitality—I tried to use them as a springboard for creative interconnections. They filled the role of small cultural spaces; organising a variety of events, promoting new artists, experimenting with different formats and connecting with our culture.
TIB: The precarity of female identity in the social and political environment at the time, gave rise to a number of social justice movements in Kosovo.
OH: On the side to my investment in bars, I was part of a feminist movement in Kosovo and worked at the largest NGO for human rights, Kosova Women's Network. Then I helped to organise the first and only Feminist Festival in Kosovo for three years. We worked hard and did a good job together. More than 2000 people attended the one-week festival. The festival brought together around 200 artists and activists from Kosovo, region and the world, offering space, opportunities and support for empowering women and human rights.
TIB: How have these forces of change matured since then and impacted your own involvement?
OH: After a few years I left the feminist festival because I felt disconnect from our view on feminism. I decided to take my activism somewhere individually, with music as my main tool. I believe music is one of the best mediums to protest—a powerful way to resonate social, political and individual issues. I cannot begin to describe the satisfaction I feel when I play in front of large crowds and sense the moments which open to the possibility to provoke with music. The impact becomes bigger and bigger every time.
Portrait: Meddy Huduti, ZYRE International
Interview: Nina Vukelić