The fuzzy, metal-infused guitars and punk rock attitude of Mitrovica Rock School alumni, Proximity Mine, stand for much more than just youthful attitude and rebellion. Hailing from Mitrovica, the new band joins the ranks of a long line of influential rock musicians from Kosovo’s “Rock City”. They, along with the six other currently active bands at the Rock School, are carrying the torch forward for a city steeped in musical heritage that somewhat lost its way in the wake of the bloody Kosovo War of 1999.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Rock City was home to a buzzing music scene that spawned some of Kosovo’s most influential bands, including the ethnically Albanian TNT and bi-ethnic MAK, and hosted several music festivals. However, with the steadily increasing tensions of the 1990s and the outbreak of war in 1999 the music scene in Mitrovica was replaced by aggressive ethnic rivalry. As a city so close to the Serbian border, with a sizeable Serbian minority but boasting an ethnically Albanian majority, it became a symbol of the ethnic divisions that were tearing Kosovo apart. After the conflict, a deep rift remained, with the River Ibar that runs through Mitrovica’s city center serving as a physical barrier that separated the Serb enclave in the North from the Albanian-dominated South.
In the years following the conflict, the city’s precarious situation has resulted in occasional outbreaks of violence and it is still considered dangerous to cross the New Bridge that spans the Ibar. People on both sides of the river have suffered as a result of the continued animosity and the city bears the emotional scars of nearly two decades of ethnic confrontation. Despite seeing some progress in recent years, there are still few signs that the underlying drivers of conflict are being appropriately addressed at the political level, and the division of Mitrovica remains an impediment to the cultural, emotional and economic growth of the city.
Understandably, this tense and often dangerous environment is not conducive to the creative atmosphere required for the Rock City to flourish. Talented musicians with similar tastes in music, who may have otherwise met at a rock venue and started a band organically, do not mix because they do not venture to the opposite side of the river. The visitors that once flocked to the cities for concerts and festivals have been replaced by international organizations. EULEX police and K-FOR troops stationed to keep the peace now appear alongside NGOs working towards rebuilding community ties across ethnic lines. However, the problem with many of the transitional peace initiatives aimed at bridging divides is that they continue to shine a spotlight on the differences between the cultures of the people involved; the very issue they are trying to overcome.
The Mitrovica Rock School was founded in 2008 as an alternative to the more traditional methods of peacebuilding being implemented in the area. The central idea behind the project, founded by INGO Musicians without Borders and local NGO Community Building Mitrovica, is that music is a tool that brings people together and creates a sense of shared identity, irrespective of ethnic heritage or language spoken. As Emir Hasani, Project Manager and Band Coach at the Rock School, points out, the great ethnically mixed bands that came out of Mitrovica in the 1970s and 80s were not referred to as ‘mixed bands’, but just bands. They were not Serb or Albanian musicians, but rock stars. The toxic identity politics that has clouded civil life in Mitrovica does not change the fact that many of the city’s youth still listen to the same music and want to play the same instruments.
Because of the continued ethnic tension in the area, the only way the Rock School could function at its outset was from two separate locations – based on either side of the river – that provided classes for musicians of all skill levels. In order to facilitate socializing across ethnic lines (something that would have been impossible in Mitrovica at the time) the school began to hold summer schools in Skopje, Macedonia, in addition to band camps and training weeks. This meant that for a couple of weeks throughout the year the students of the rock school could interact, talk about and play music together without fear of the reprisal they might have faced at home. Out of this experience, bands began to form, across ethnic lines.
Since 2011, the Rock School has been fostering ethnically mixed bands that are writing, recording and performing together, some playing gigs as far away as Italy and The Netherlands. In 2016, some of these bands had their first gigs in Kosovo, playing both in Priština and Gračanica. The next step is to put together a concert in Mitrovica itself, which proves a more difficult task due to the city’s ongoing divisions. Band members are currently only able to practice together one week out of every two months, with the school providing secure transport for students wanting to cross the river to the other side of the city. It was only in the last year that some of the students felt safe enough to cross the bridge by foot. Nevertheless, this demonstrates just how far the school and the city have come.
The new generations of artists making their way through the school are pushing the boundaries even further than their predecessors. While the previous bands were exceedingly cautious about the hometown concert, the new bands are committed to making it happen. Their drive to perform in Mitrovica is not borne out of political desire, but a desire to play music for their friends and family, to show off what they have learned at the school and to display what they and their bandmates have created. Although the school is indeed a project with reconciliatory and political aims, it does not like to purely define itself as such, noting its primary source of pride relies on the fact that it is one of the only alternative music education institutions in South-Eastern Europe.
Music is an escape. It is a celebration of what people can achieve when they come together. Music is not about ethnicity or culture or language. It is about humanity. And as long as there are young people in Mitrovica willing to follow their passion rather than concern themselves with the identity politics of the past the city will continue to heal. In a city where everybody is preoccupied with the issues of ethnicity and nationality, Mitrovica Rock School’s message is simple: sit back and enjoy the music together.
Listen to Proximity Mine’s debut single “Mwah”:
Cover Photo: The ethnically diverse rock band, Proximity Mine (Credit: Mitrovica Rock School)