When Albanian Singers Crushed the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the fall-from-communism fruit fell far from the fall-from-communism tree.
By Eugene S. Robinson
You hear that? The dulcet sounds of a song floating over and through your Billboard charts, your radio, the TV at your gym or a Grammy Awards ceremony near you? Sure you do, but there’s something else we’re pretty sure of, and that’s this: You had no idea the music had roots in Albania, did you?
Given the fact that politically the 2.9 million strong country is currently aflame — anti-government protesters in the capital city of Tirana are throwing gasoline grenades at riot police as they protest corruption and vote stealing — it’s easy to miss it. But a growing number of Albanian-origin stars are offering an alternative insight into the former communist country, ripping up the international music charts and demonstrating rare success in award shows — and you’re running out of excuses for not knowing.
Born in London to Albanian parents, 23-year-old Dua Lipa is arguably the biggest name of this brigade. Her best new artist win at the Grammys this year, though, also helped highlight how she’s got other Albanian-origin singers close on her heels. Among the artists Lipa edged out to win was Bebe Rexha, a 29-year-old Brooklyn singer born to Albanian parents. Rexha’s Meant to Be single stood in second place in the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017. Sweet but Psycho, 25-year-old Ava Max’s single, topped charts in more than 20 countries in 2018. Max was born in Milwaukee to Albanian parents.
Elvana Gjata, 32, was born and raised in the Albanian capital of Tirana and is working with none other than David Guetta and Poo Bear. Over in the U.K., 28-year-old Rita Ora became the first female solo artist ever to have 13 top 10 songs in the country in October 2018. And just in case the Grammy nod isn’t clear enough, Lipa reached No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart last year with her song One Kiss. All of these millennial female singers — with origins in a country with a fourth of London’s population — are hitting their peak, almost simultaneously, in just the past two years. And their success is laying the ground for the next generation back in Albania: the Tirana University school of arts is expanding its student intake, and new schools — such as the Prodjschool Metronom in Tirana — have emerged over the past three years catering specifically to pop and electronic music.
“We’ve had our eyes open to stuff from the former Eastern Bloc since communism fell,” says music industry analyst Matt Harper. “But our ears? To traditional Balkan music, sure. This new stuff though? Like crack.”
Eurovision, the global singing competition — think American Idol but for the world, or at least Europe — is partly responsible for this surge of success, say experts like Harper. Though the competition has been around since 1956, Albania only entered in 2004. But while the country’s inaugural bow saw it place 17th in the rankings, by 2012, Albanian contestants were placing as high as fifth. Something that clearly would not have been lost on the then 17-year-old Dua Lipa, the daughter of a rock ’n’ roll frontman, an Albanian who had moved to London three years before she was born.
All of these millennial female singers are hitting their peak, almost simultaneously, in just the past two years.
So by 2015, after a smallish career as a model and bit parts on television, Lipa was signed by Warner Music, which concluded it made sense to have her make a record. They were right. Singles from this record, described by Lipa as “dark pop,” ripped up the charts in Belgium, Poland, Slovakia and 11 other European countries. She was 20. Four years later, she beat out Greta Van Fleet, Luke Combs and Bebe Rexha for the best new artist Grammy.
To be sure, some experts caution against concluding an Albanian takeover just yet. “They are great pop singers — and they just may bloom into serious artists as well,” says multiple Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose most recent work has seen him behind the boards with Morrissey and Broken Social Scene and, earlier, with Tori Amos. “But invasion? Not really.”
Anthropologist Addison O’Dea, who two years ago shot a few episodes of a show in Albania for Discovery, also points to the ethnic diversity within the Albanian-origin singers. “Rita and Dua have Albanian parents, technically, but they are Yugoslavic and Kosovar, respectively,” says O’Dea, drilling down deep into the divides that have traditionally made the Balkans such a political bear to deal with, for more than a century. The U.K., in particular, witnessed a wave of incoming Albanian diaspora from former Communist states after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “That two or three have managed to become Western pop stars? An anomaly that has no accepted theorem yet,” he says.
Except it’s no longer just two or three singers — nor are these artists sitting on their laurels after just one-hit singles. Ask fans and they’re dismissive of O’Dea’s conclusion. “I think it’s their sense of themselves as outsiders, or others, that I’m relating to,” says longtime listener and fan April Joy. “Even if they never set foot in Albania, their music is elementally Albanian.” That love for these musicians is shared with the next generation too. For Joy’s daughter, she says, “Ava Max’s Sweet but Psycho has become a sort of anthem.”