Interview: Shkodra Elektronike – Making Post-Immigrant Pop Waves (September 2023)

Throughout history, the flow of ocean waves, human migration, and cultural exchanges have significantly influenced the shaping of societies. The Atlantic Ocean is often cited for its major role in connecting different cultures, but the Mediterranean Sea has also seen its share of cultural exchanges, albeit on a smaller scale. The Adriatic Sea, in particular, has been a conduit for continuous cultural dialogue among its bordering countries, such as Albania and Italy.

Against this backdrop, a Milan and Perugia-based duo epitomises this ongoing cultural conversation. Kolë Laca and Beatriçe Gjergji have crafted a unique sound they’ve dubbed “Post-Immigrant Pop.” Since 2019, their goal has been to infuse traditional songs from Shkodra, their Albanian hometown, with a forward-looking electronic flair. Their collaborative effort, Shkodra Elektronike, has garnered attention in both Balkan and Italian music circles, earning them invitations to prestigious events like the Venice Biennale, Autostrada Biennale Hangar in Prizren, Kosovo and the MOST – Balkan Music Export programme.

Our encounter with Shkodra Elektronike occurred during the grand finale of the latter, at Balkan:Most Festival in Veszprém back in September. Following their soundcheck for their night’s showcase on the central Old Town Stage, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Kolë and Beatriçe to discuss their music, the Adriatic connection, and the Balkan music scene.

Reflecting on the BALKAN:MOST initiative, Beatriçe remarked on the uniqueness of Balkan countries collaborating in such a groundbreaking way. “It’s really something new for all these Balkan countries to join forces. Sharing their music and teaming up on a project like this, collaborating and working together is pretty groundbreaking.”

Kolë highlighted the extensive support they’ve received, which has opened new avenues and even helped with practical aspects like video production and travel arrangements. “The help’s been amazing. We’ve connected with musicians from all over, tackled the tricky bits of the music business, and it’s really opened new paths for us. They’ve even helped us out with making videos and sorting out our travel for different shows.”

Beatriçe discussed the challenges of creating Balkan music from Italy, emphasizing the importance of understanding the region’s culture. “Making Balkan music requires an understanding of the people and the music culture in the Balkans. This project has been instrumental in introducing us to that reality.”

The concept of “Post-Immigrant Pop” became a focal point, with Kolë describing it as a reflection of their identity, blending traditional roots with contemporary sounds to narrate their cultural journey. “Post-immigrant pop goes beyond just describing our music; it encapsulates our identity. Despite having Italian citizenship, I, like many immigrants, don’t feel entirely Italian. It’s a unique struggle of not fully belonging to either your homeland or your current residence. This term reflects the amalgamation of traditional roots with contemporary elements that define our music. Our music narrates a journey through cultural crossroads, migrations, and the blending of diverse influences, exploring the space between cultures.”

Beatriçe elaborated on the genre’s breadth, incorporating diverse folk and traditional elements into their music. “Exactly. It’s not a narrow genre classification; it’s about blending popular folk and traditional elements into a broader musical expression, encapsulating our journey and the shared experiences of navigating the complex space between cultures.”

Kolë shared their approach to combining traditional melodies with electronic music, a direction they feel is a natural progression for their style. “Electronic music, especially techno, resonates with ancient, repetitive traditions like Sufi music and trance. It’s a natural progression for us. We’re not pioneers in blending electronic elements with traditional roots. Many musicians have done it since the ’90s. Electronic music is the next step in this evolution.”

It all started when Beatriçe came across a captivating YouTube video… She recounted finding a video where two artists were putting a modern spin on ‘Turtulleshë,’ a classic Skodra tune. The fusion of traditional music with electronic vibes really caught her attention. She laughed, “I guess the responsibility is mine, I believe is my fault. I found this awesome video featuring Kolë playing a rendition of a Skodra song called ‘Turtulleshë’ with another female artist as part of their collaborative project called Two Pigeons. I was immediately captivated by the blend of electronic and traditional elements in that performance. At the time, I had a band in Perugia and wanted to incorporate that song into our repertoire.

Kolë added his perspective: “We formed an electronic duo with a girl, focusing on a single song from my homeland. I taught her how to pronounce the Albanian language, creating our unique version. I’ve always been into fusing old song recordings with new sounds, but never really had the chance to dive in because of other band commitments.

Finally, when Teatro degli Orrori [Kolë’s main musical endeavour at that time] disbanded, I saw an opportunity to focus on this idea. The disbandment of another Italian band I was part of left me pondering my next steps, especially after parting ways with the girl from the previous project. Reflecting on my history with bands disbanding, I started to wonder if I was the common factor in these splits.and suddenly I had the time. Another band I was in fell apart too, leaving me wondering what was next. During this time, I started thinking back on some of the old stuff I’d worked on. That’s when Beatriçe and I realised we’re both from Shkodra, and it just clicked. We decided to dig into our roots for inspiration, starting with traditional songs but gradually working on our own material. The whole idea of bringing electronic elements into our heritage music just felt right.

The duo’s journey into merging electronic rhythms with the essence of Albanian tradition recently took them to Albania’s heartland, where they immersed themselves in the rich tapestry of traditional music. Kolë recounts the immersive experience: “Last winter, we ventured to Albania and recorded traditional musicians playing iso-polyphonic music, ensembles of male and female choruses, and a gypsy band. Our journey even took us into the mountains to capture the songs of elder women, and we recorded in a bar as well. We have videos of these sessions and plan to include them in our upcoming releases alongside the songs we’re currently composing.

These profound interactions deepened their understanding of traditional Albanian music and provided a wealth of sounds to incorporate into their electronic compositions. “These experiences have enriched our grasp of traditional Albanian music and supplied a vast palette of sounds for our compositions. It’s an ongoing journey, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to integrate these authentic elements into our electronic framework. We’re now on an exciting path, shaping our musical direction. This journey has been eye-opening, allowing us to work with numerous talented musicians across the Balkans. Before this journey, I hadn’t fully appreciated the wide variety of melodies and sounds present in this part of the world. Discovering them now has been incredibly fascinating,” Kolë reflects.

Shkodra Elektronike’s musical adventure is about more than just fusing sounds; it’s about navigating the complex musical terrain of the Balkans. Kolë speaks to the need for a fine balance in forging a distinct musical identity while honouring the diverse influences within the Balkan musical tapestry.

“While Balkan music shares common threads, each region boasts its unique traditions, yet it’s the different influences that stand out as truly common. It’s a peculiar thing because across the entire region, there’s a shared gypsy tradition and a Turkish influence that originates from the Middle East. Additionally, the whole Balkans are infused with Italian music, Bel canto, for example. This is seen in the Sevdah music of Bosnia, which bears a striking resemblance to the songs from our city of Shkodër.

The Bel canto influence is particularly strong, rendering all the melodies somewhat lyrical. Many of these songs, historically performed by lyrical singers, still carry that tradition. So, yes, there’s this mixture of different influences, and you can find this blend everywhere, with small nuances—a bit more pronounced in some places and subtler in others.” Kolë explains.

Beatriçe widened the cultural discourse: “This concept apply not only to music but also to other cultural aspects, like food. For instance, while the Mediterranean area differs from the interior in terms of cuisine, the common thread throughout the Balkans is a sort of disorganisation that feels familiar. No matter where we go within this region, this sense of disorder makes us feel right at home. It’s a comforting disarray that, to us, feels just perfect.”

In our discussion, the focus eventually turned to their performances and how they managed to build a following in the areas that heavily influence their music. When live events were paused due to the pandemic, Shkodra Elektronike shifted gears to put out new tracks, which significantly boosted their presence in the Balkans. Kolë recounted, “We had only a few gigs in Italy before everything shut down. But, as we started dropping music online during the lockdown, we saw a surge in our fanbase in Albania and Kosovo, leading to invites for festivals and gigs.

Beatriçe chimed in, highlighting their strategic move to tap into areas where their music truly resonated. “It was a logical step to focus on the Balkans, where our roots and the essence of our music lie. The warmth with which our blend of traditional and modern sounds has been received there has been incredible. So, we shifted our focus from Italy to places that were organically connecting with our work. It feels right to grow our base where our music naturally belongs, and we’re positive about completing our album by summer 2024. By the way, the reception, even back in Italy, has been eye-opening. I think that traditional music is always powerful, and this power you cannot be insensitive to, as they say, in front of. These are songs that went through eras,  so it’s normal that they came to the Italian audience every time we had a concert in Italy. Audiences are often surprised by the depth and richness of Albanian music. They are like, ‘Wow, this is Albanian music,’ yeah, amazed.”

Looking to the future, the duo is buzzing with ideas for new music and an upcoming album. “We’re on a path of continuous creation and are excited to bring our latest work to Veszprém and beyond. We’re also exploring how to incorporate our field recordings from Albania into our visuals, adding another layer to our storytelling,” shared Kolë, filled with anticipation for what’s next.

As our interview wrapped up, the duo extended an invitation to experience their music on a deeper level. Beatriçe added a personal note, “We’ve learned to appreciate the unique chaos of the Balkans, which reflects in our music and life. It’s this genuine, vibrant chaos that we want our listeners to feel, inviting them into the rich and dynamic world that drives Shkodra Elektronike.”