Urban Soundtracks: Rome via Albania and Serbia According to Opa Opa

 

Moronic journalists have made a habit of reducing tensions between Albanians and Serbs to that of “an old conflict.” Luckily, we now have Rome’s Opa Opa to remind ourselves of the superficiality of petty nationalism. Opa Opa was founded as a musical project by Albanian-born Jonida Prifti and Serbian Iva Stanisic in Rome, in 2011. As a duo, they succeed in subverting nationalist narratives by bridging the gap between Albanians and Serbs, showcasing the overlap between both cultures. Instead of simply rejecting the imagery associated with Albanian and Serbian nationalists, they embrace it, revealing its shallowness.

Despite their shared Balkan heritage, this project is a logical consequence of Rome, a city where thousands of Serbs and Albanians come to work and study. While Italy only lies across the Adriatic Sea for both countries, Serbs and Albanians have existed in a similar position of being treated as “immigrants”, and the source of cheap labour. For that reason, Rome serves as the ideal ground for the two nations to strip nationalism to its core and reveal a shared commonality. In that fashion, Opa Opa represents that space that triangulates Rome with Serbia and Albania- providing a mix for us to soundtrack that triangle, as well as a great interview.

 

I assume there is a particular attraction to your project because both of you guys belong to communities that have had recent political conflicts. The idea of a Serbian and an Albanian collaborating certainly catches the eye. Can you please speak about how Opa Opa emerged? What was your inspiration to work together?

We are both based in Rome and we are working together since 2011, which is when we started the project. One of the aims of the project was to make the Italians more aware of the most interesting and authentic aspects of our cultures, given the prejudices towards our countries of origin in Italian everyday life. At the same time, since we both have been immigrants in Italy for many years (Jonida from 16, Iva from 20), we wanted to get closer to our culture and do more in-depth research. That research was not only focused on music, but also on language, art, and customs. After a brief meeting, we decided to organize a series of events with musical selections based on traditional songs, dance, hip hop, turbofolk, tallava, etc. Through music, we noticed that both countries have many things in common, such as music, food, common words, etc.

 

One of the brilliant things that you pull off is showcasing the shallowness of the nationalism of both Albanians and Serbians. To both these reactionary voices’ horror, they have far more in common than they prefer to recognize. Do you want your project to be interpreted as a political project?

Even deciding not to be political is a political act in itself. Our primary aim is to create funky tunes, bring the people together, and make them dance. Not all our songs are explicitly political, but more so a game of phonetic words and similarities. On the other hand, we do have songs like Buongiorno Italia, where we try to be ironic about the prejudices of the Italians towards our countries. In Kultural Impakt, we talk about the feeling of unease with being stateless and the impact of a foreign culture, and on Kurva Picka Kucka, we denounce the use of literally identical terms in our languages that are derogatory and sexist. We think of living in the present, because the two countries’ past is troubled and very complicated. We are interested in linking the two different worlds of two women, aspiring to freely express themselves, through art – despite their origin. Italians are not much impressed by our heritage as they are unaware of the historical events, but in the meantime, our origin kind of annoys them. This feeling is historically related to the influxes of Albanian and Serb migrants who found their homes in Italy.

 

Both your stories of coming to Rome reflect the diaspora heritage of most Albanians and Serbians across Europe. Both arrive to other areas of Europe like Italy, Germany, and England facing generally similar discrimination and poor economic conditions. What is the relation between Albanians and Serbians in Rome? Is there much bonding over a shared Balkan heritage?

Iva: There are not many people of Serbian or ex-Yugoslavian origin in Rome, since their main destinations are northern Italy, Germany, and Austria. However, recently I participated in a documentary about female artists from ex-Yugoslavia living in Italy, so I met a small community of people of my own origin.

Jonida: I am part of the wave of Albanian immigrants coming to Italy to go to university, because in Albania there was only chaos and poverty. In fact, I have been able to build friendships with many of them, but over time I started to prefer other companies in order to learn more about Italian culture. After a deep dive into Italian reality, it became natural to return to my origins and seek contact with them, but most had returned to Albania to invest their time and academic accomplishments. Despite the differences in our countries, there is a common dimension in which all the Balkans are united: through music, food, the way of thinking, and the philosophy of life, which we often feel is lacking in Italy.

 

Within your mix, you bring together a lot of turbo folk and tallava, which are two genres that tend to be associated with nationalism. It is shamefully enjoyable music that sounds amazing for a party, but a bit dismaying when you actually find out what is being said in the lyrics. How would you describe your relationship with these genres of music?

The majority of the songs in our mixes actually talk about love or are apolitical. Of course we are aware that these genres are linked to nationalism. At the same time, 90% of today’s hip hop or rock music is filled with sexism and derogatory terms, which doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the music and the beats. It’s the same old issue with political correctness, which sometimes leads to ‘imprisonment’.

Iva: In the 90s in Serbia, there was a great schism between the turbofolk scene, that openly sustained Milosevic, and the intellectual and underground scene. Being a teenager with a punk background, I also thought that all evil was coming from the turbofolk scene – and in a way it was. But, over time, the lines between these two different cultures started to blur. Turbofolk producers started appropriating hip hop, dub, reggaeton, and other more underground sounds, and the alternative musicians started using turbofolk samples in their productions. We often put some of them in our mixes, like Lenhart tapes, Mangulitza, etc.

Jonida: In Albania in the mid-90s, the tallava started as a result of the opening up to the outside world. Before that, it was not possible to experiment with music and arts due to Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime. Before, Albanian music was just the genre of light and popular music. Albanian musicians became aware of this genre through Kosovar music, which already used tallava since the 80s. In Albania, the common thought is divided into two parts: those who criticize the tallava by considering it light and commercial, and those who instead support the nobility of such genres for mixing popular sounds with light music. Most musicians were self-financed by distributing their own products, as the small Albanian music industry was  dissolved after the collapse of Hoxha’s totalitarian government. That’s why many underground musicians have been able to explore this genre by introducing various instruments, from classics to synthesizers, with the intent of reinterpreting the past in a modern way. There is also a certain general boredom in underground music, not only in our countries, but also in the world. Sometimes we think that the punk or rock’n’roll attitude itself is actually more present in turbofolk and tallava singers than in indie musicians today. We find turbofolk and tallava lyrics to be more straightforward, risky, and somehow closer to reality than some alternative musicians who won’t stop gazing in their shoes by blurring out incomprehensible lyrics. What inspires us the most in turbofolk and tallava is not only the rhythm, but also some Turkish-Arabic melodies that allow you to be melancholic, but not sad. And what absolutely fascinates us, is that some synthwave bands and turbofolk and tallava musicians use the same synthesizers. Finally, we aim to use the turbofolk and tallava musical patterns but with a change of the meaning of the words, making them more subversive yet keeping the immediacy and the spontaneity of turbo and tallava.