Festivali i Këngës: The Aftermath

After the split jury results of the Albanian national final, the 58th edition of Festivali i Këngës, were announced, many members of the international public and even key figures in this year’s festival have spoken out about the process and results. This is a developing story.

The Voting

ESCtakeover has discussed the voting results in detail in a previous post. Below is a summary of the findings:

  • Elvana Gjata’s song “Me tana” was the most polarizing of the night, followed by Bojken Lako’s song “Malaseen”.
  • Arilena Ara’s song “Shaj” was generally well-liked, receiving at least 10 points from all jurors.
  • “Shaj” received 3 more points than “Me tana”, in part due to large differences in juror opinions. It will represent Albania in Rotterdam, likely translated to English, which was actually the original written language.
  • Many people have alleged corruption at the disparity in voting. ESCtakeover cast doubt that the voting was necessarily done in bad faith.

Public Reactions – A Timeline

The following is a timeline of publicly communicated events from 19-29 December in chronological order of public release.

19 December

On 19 December at 22:42 CET, a person tagged a group of Albanian musicians in the Albautor collective management agency – including Eriona Rushiti and Enis Mullaj, composer and arranger of Jonida Maliqi’s song “Ktheju tokës”, respectively – and shared a declaration on Facebook. In the statement, they decried the unannounced opening of the Albanian national selection to foreign songwriters who wrote Arilena Ara and Era Rusi’s songs. Their rationale was that the countries mentioned in the statement did not reciprocate and would deny the applications of Albanians on account of their passports. The statement also emphasized that RTSH was funded by Albanian taxpayers and would do best to protect the Albanian interest.

23 December

After the victory of Arilena Ara and the revelation of the juror votes at 12:33 CET on 23 December, many members of the public alleged that the Albanian jurors deliberately voted in favor of Arilena in order to sink “Me tana”.

At 13:18 CET, Festivali i Këngës host Alketa Vejsiu posted on Instagram. While congratulating Arilena on the victory, she lauded Elvana’s song, the high view numbers, and the international jury’s perfect scores. She also attempted to shame the Albanian part of the jury – specifically Dr. Mikaela Minga – for only giving “Me tana” 2 points. Wiwibloggs claimed that Alketa and Arilena may have unfollowed each other on Instagram, but there is no evidence of this as of now apart from their not following each other in the present.

Not 1.5 hours later, Rushiti wrote a scathing post regarding the situation at 14:46 CET. Instead of placing the blame on any jury member, she rebuked the leadership team of Vera Grabocka (director) and Vejsiu (leader) for corrupting the process to the point where she declared that the 58th edition of Festivali i Këngës would instead occur next year. She accused leadership of bending and/or breaking rules and traditions, up to and including:

  • Postponing the song submission deadline because singers were chosen before songs
  • The allowance of foreign songwriters before rules were amended to allow foreign songwriters like Darko Dimitrov and Lazar Cvetkoski, incidentally the writers of Tamara Todevska’s “Proud” and the latter who helped write Mila Moskov’s “Fire”
  • The utilization of a foreign jury unaware of Albanian tastes and styles despite the festival’s status as an Albanian display of music since communist times
  • The addition of two additional Albanian jury members when it seemed like “Me tana” would win the attention of the international jury

At 23:56 CET, Gjata posted on her Instagram page. She wished Ara best of luck and no hard feelings while thanking the international audience and jurors for their support and full marks. She also seemingly took an indirect swipe at Dr. Minga, saying that not even Dr. Minga’s 2 points could stop her from giving love.

At some point after the final, the videos associated with RTSH’s YouTube account were taken down due to multiple third-party copyright claims. The RTSH account was remade, and the lyric videos were re-uploaded at around 11:00 CET on 27 December.

24 December

At 12:15 CET on 24 December, Top Channel Albania, one of Albania’s national commercial stations, released an interview with Rita Petro – poet, textbook author, and Festivali i Këngës juror – on the show Wake Up. During this show, Petro said that “Shaj” was more to her tastes and that none of the artists themselves were discussed – presumably, the songs were the subject of discussion instead. She also expressed offense at allegations of jury corruption, saying that the jury enjoyed all the songs. Later, at 22:21 CET, ABC News Albania posted an interview with Rita Petro on the program “Provokacija” (Provocations). A written excerpt of the show can be found here. In this interview, she seems to laud the lyrics of Kamela Islamaj’s song “Më ngjyros” and, despite not voting simply for lyrics, voted more strongly for songs that were more lyrically fulfilling. She also seemed to criticize the lyrical content in “Me tana”, as the content of the lyrics may have been communicated better with editorial work regarding syntactic and grammatical choices.

At 20:46 CET, the site FaxWeb published an article supposedly penned by Dr. Minga regarding her views on tallava music, a folk music genre considered both popular and low-class by its minority origins. Upon personal correspondence with a source affiliated with Dr. Minga, the author was notified that the site published the article with a malicious title and without permission. The original article, published in 2016, can be found on the blog Peizazhe të fjalës (Landscapes of Speech) under the title “Tallava in Albania”. A 2018 English analysis of the article and greater overview of tallava music can be found courtesy of Ardit Kika of Prishtina Insight. The bad-faith source, however, may have received attention from several people, including at least one big name to be mentioned later in the timeline.

25 December

On 25 December at 19:49 CET, poet, director, and screenwriter Petrit Ruka criticized the lyrical content of “Me tana” on Facebook as not being worthy of being sung even “in the dump” and would not accept the undignified text even if set to the music of famed composer and film scorer Ennio Morricone. Ruka suggested that the top 10 poets in Albania should review the lyrics before giving them the go-ahead for public consumption.

26 December

On 26 December at 12:07 CET, Mullaj penned a Facebook post continuing the tone of the 19 December declaration. He took the introduction of foreign elements as a threat to Albanian musical identity and decried the drop in musical quality stemming from the countless number of songs published in Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo alone daily. He also noted the popularity of “Me tana” but also ubiquitous code-switching between Albanian varieties and vapid recycling of ideas and lyrics. He concluded by saying that the media people consume is what people like and what people are, possibly implying that people have become as empty as the music and lyrics they consume. In other words, this was possibly a more damning version of “you are what you eat”. However, Mullaj also mentioned “tallava”, something that Dr. Minga did not discuss publicly this month. Mullaj also wrote a post reflecting on Aleksandër Peçi’s (winner of Fest 28 in 1989 with the song “Toka e diellit”) similar opinion regarding the situation at 21:08 CET.

Peizazhe të fjalës co-founder Adrian Vehbiu posted his own editorial on the jury issues at 12:45 CET. He suggests that jury secrecy for non-staged events (as explained by Roomie Official and parodied by others) may be worth the privacy of individuals who are acting as a professional group instead of representing the interests of the public like an elected official or delegate. Using the bullying of Minga as an example, he argues that in their line of duty, individual jury members of an institution must be protected by the institution from repercussions to avoid public outcry as well as a chilling effect, or a quashing of less favorable opinions regarding a situation. While this raises a question of transparency, as has been an issue in Albania, he also suggests ways to factor in public opinion alongside a jury, not unlike the Eurovision format.

At 14:31 CET, Albanian site Panorama penned an article stating that Thoma Gëllçi, the festival’s general director, intoned that “the jury’s verdict is independent and unquestionable.”

27 December

On 27 December at 0:19 CET, Vejsiu posted on her Instagram again. She hinted that she would make a documentary about everything that happened behind-the-scenes at Festivali i Këngës.

At 12:40 CET, Fiona Kapali, who has studied law and English and published books, wrote a critical piece on Peizazhe të fjalës regarding the “cultural police” and the judgment placed upon the lyrics of “Me tana”. Comparing the text to Kosovar hit “BonBon” by Era Istrefi, “Soldi” by Mahmood (Italy 2019 and interval act in the first semifinal), “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, she dismissed the claims that the lyrics should be banned, saying that this is a consequence of the development of language and popular music. One can argue that her point stands through the worldwide music scene, as the vocabulary in American chart-topping songs – which nowadays often influence the charts in other countries – has been decreasing with time, as Calvin Morris found in analyzing songs from 1958 to today. However, Kapali’s argument is a bit of a stretch, as the choruses are generally the most repetitive parts of songs: “Hallelujah” and “Soldi” have relatively wordier verses, while “Me tana” has repetition throughout.

At 19:15 CET, Oikotimes reported on a murder case from 2018 and mentioned that Gjata and her partner Ervin Mata had fled Albania for 30 days following a bar standoff that left one person dead and more wounded. Gjata and Mata were likely deposed, but both of them are free right now. Oikotimes doubts that such extramusical affairs affected the results, and only Mevjol Bilo, Gjata’s bodyguard, seems to have been charged with a crime; however, these events may reflect poorly on the general attitude towards Gjata from the public – not the jury.

At 19:28 CET, journalist and TV host Mira Kazhani provided commentary about the Festivali i Këngës controversy. According to a transcript provided by ABC News Albania, Kazhani dismissed the commentary about song lyrics, claiming that political speeches in the state parliament were illiterate and “lack of art” in the arts was ubiquitous. She also claimed that the jury list was changed three days before the final (on the day of the first semi-final) and that all facts so far seem to point to the director, Vera Grabocka, favoring Arilena.

28 December

Albautor posted at 16:12 CET a letter dated on 24 December requesting a copy of the contest rules from 2017-2019 (the 56th through 58th editions) and their formal approval from RTSH. The untranslated contents (apart from the beginning address and stamp) are below:

Nr. 319 Prot. Tiranë më, 24.12.2019

KËRKESË PËR INFORMACION

Drejtuar:  Z. Thoma Gëllçi, Drejtor i Përgjithshëm i Radio Televizionit Shqiptar
Këshilli Drejtues i Radio Televizionit Shqiptar

Për dijeni: Komisioneri për të drejtën e informimit dhe mbro jtjen e të dhënave personale.

Objekti: Kërkesë për lëshimin e një kopje të rregulloreve të Festivalit në Radio Televizionin Shqiptar për vitet 2017, 2018 dhe 2019.

I nderuar Z. Gëllçi,

Të nderuar anëtarë të Këshillit Drejtues të Radio Televizionit Shqiptar,

Në bazë të ligjit nr. 119/2014, datë 18.09.2014 “Për të drejtën e informimit”, ju kërkojmë të na pajisni me një kopje me vulë të njomë të:

1. Rregullores së Festivalit të 56 në Radio Televizionin Shqiptar, së bashku me aktin e miratimit të saj.
2. Rregullores së Festivalit të 57 në Radio Televizionin Shqiptar, së bashku me aktin e miratimit të saj.
3. Rregullores së Festivalit të 58 në Radio Televizionin Shqiptar, së bashku me aktin e miratimit të saj.

Prandaj, Ju lutem, çdo njoftim ta adresoni në: Agencia ALBAUTOR, Bulevardi “Bajram Curri”, Pallati 114, Kati 2, Ap. 1, Tiranë.

Me respekt
Erlir Puto
Drejtor i Albautor

29 December

At 19:14 CET, the RTSH Instagram page disclosed publicly the nature of its YouTube disappearance. They accused the aforementioned Albautor agency, as well as Qendra S.U.A.D.A. (Sporteli Unik për Administrimin të Drejtës së Autorit, a copyright management group), of levying false copyright claims in violation of the festival contractual agreements that led to YouTube’s termination of the RTSH account. They also wrote that they would be compiling evidence that would lead to litigation.

Ramifications of the Process

There are multiple issues that seem to be at play in the selection:

  • Albanian nationalism
  • Misinformation and censure of contrasting opinions in the public realm
  • Alleged corruption in the upper echelons of RTSH
  • An upcoming bilateral legal battle between songwriters in previous years and RTSH
  • Possible voting format changes

The fourth point is a developing story and will not be commented upon until the relevant legal documents have been revealed.

Albanian nationalism

Many ex-Communist countries have sent historical and/or nationalistic songs to Eurovision or to the national selections, and Albania is no different. Some of these include:

  • “1944”, Jamala (Ukraine 2016; winner)
  • “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, Stephane & 3G (Georgia 2009; disqualified)
  • “Spring Will Come (Pryyde vesna)”, Sympho-Nick (Ukraine Junior Eurovision 2013; 6th place)
  • “Flame is Burning”, Julia Samoylova (Russia 2017; disqualified as a persona non grata)
  • “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”, Verka Serduchka (Ukraine 2007; title sounding like “Russia goodbye” and lyrics about Ukraine’s strength and coolness)
  • “Ktheju tokës”, Jonida Maliqi (Albania 2019; 17th place)
  • “Shqiponja e lirë”, Gena (Festivali i Këngës 2019; 10th place)

While all countries have their nationalistic songs, those that have experience authoritarian rule or adversity are more likely to express patriotic or nationalistic opinions, in particular through song. The Balkan Network for Local Democracy posted an article penned by Granit Karagjyzi discussing folk music as a vehicle for nationalism. From the late 18th century onward, a Romantic inclination towards nationalism spread across Europe culminated in the Revolutions of 1848. Under the umbrella of Ottoman rule, Albanians had enjoyed mutual religious interests as a majority-Muslim population. As a result, Albanian nationalism did not truly develop until the 1870’s according to Kaser and Kressling (2002, p. 19). Indeed, Albanian nationalism may have been delayed due to the lack of a historical Albanian state, as well as the lack of a proper class system, unified religion, or even a standard written language before the mid-19th century (Rrapaj, Kolasi 2002, p. 198).

The development of folklore – including music – in this specific setting and backdrop would lead to a largely political undertone behind folk music forms. During the Cold War era, when Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia and Kosovo one of two regions within Serbia, Slavic persecution of Kosovar Albanians accused of Stalinist ideology à la Hoxha led to many arrests and some seeking refuge in Albania. Among those who fled to Albania was folk singer Dervish Shaqa, who would continue to sing about his hometown after fleeing to safety.

Despite Albania being a safer space for Kosovar Albanians, Albania has not always been safe for the most inventive of composers and songwriters. During Festivali i Këngës coverage, the official Albanian Eurovision Twitter account posted a tidbit from the history of the contest:

The aftereffects of such an event may have been an underlying factor regarding the trajectory of Albanian music both in the Festival and otherwise. Even now, two of the 20 songs in Festivali i Këngës 58 have overtly pro-Albanian lyrics.

Another way nationalism has shown itself in the competition is the rise of the Albautor group, including those who wrote and arranged Jonida Maliqi’s song in 2019. Though it is unclear what wording they used to get RTSH’s first YouTube channel terminated, they have been known to use pro-Albanian rhetoric. Using this rhetoric, they publicly railed against the introduction of foreign composers into the competition, claiming that the changes that allowed “Shaj” and “Eja merre” into the Festival were not reciprocated by other countries. Due to the late rise of nationalism in Albania in conjunction with significant political changes even before the fall of communism, Albanians may now have to go to the courts to find a lasting answer to the Albanian question in the modern day, as the population has decreased ever since the fall of communism in 1990.

Misinformation and Public Censure

The public outcry following the revealing of the split vote showed a darker side of both the fanbase and the Albanian public. In ESCtakeover’s statistical analysis of the results, we reiterated that the votes may still have been cast in good faith by the jurors. Many articles, angry tweets, and more concerning the Albanian jury votes have risen to the point where Dr. Mikaela Minga’s TEDx talk regarding narratives on Albanian popular music was dislike-bombed by angry Albanophones. The negativity and toxicity regarding these results towards the jury was such that a colleague from our friends at ESCunited posted an editorial lamenting the toxic environment and lack of balance and respect from the fans, who even posted petitions to send Elvana Gjata to Eurovision. The author expresses the same sentiment from the editorial.

While stern disagreement with the voting format (to be discussed soon) may be valid – previous editions used more jurors and different voting systems that could lessen the effect of each juror on the overall result – some of the censure has come from a spot of misinformation. News must remain balanced in order to represent all people – not just a vocal majority. The malicious reporting by FaxWeb and people who read similar articles from a non-neutral lens may have caused irreparable harm to Dr. Minga’s reputation in the public sphere as the result of bias in public assumptions and reporting.

RTSH Corruption?

Many public figures outside of RTSH along with festival host Alketa Vejsiu have accused the public broadcaster, specifically festival Vera Grabocka, of corruption. Vejsiu in particular has posted that she would publicize the processes behind FiK 58, and Albautor has requested a release of public information from RTSH, who will be seeking legal action against Albautor and Qendra S.U.A.D.A. for their roles in the termination of the RTSH YouTube account. This is a developing story, and if anything comes of it, ESCtakeover will report it as soon as possible.

Voting Format

Festivali i Këngës has been embroiled in many scandals over its history to the tune of a lengthy section featuring only scandals on its Wikipedia entry. A five-member jury was previously last used to select Eugent Bushpepa’s song “Mall” in FiK 56 for Eurovision 2018. Many members of the public have expressed displeasure at the small jury size. Adrian Vehbiu and others have suggested letting the public vote in the contest with a clearly delineated format, and not in the 2016 style, where a proposed 60/40 jury/public split was changed to a 12:1 split, the public vote counting for as many points as one juror. Allegations of juror changes shortly preceding the beginning of competition – yet unsubstantiated by solid evidence but not necessarily untrue – have done little good to quell public distrust of government-controlled systems like the public broadcaster either. In the future, the broadcaster could also allow for completely anonymous jury voting, effectively making the festival a publicized internal selection, at the cost of transparency. It could also put forth a more detailed and transparent festival procedure and jury selection process, thus allowing for the process to be seen as more impartial for all participants and non-participants alike. The 16 years of Eurovision participation have been a growing process for both Festivali i Këngës and Albania, and the end result has been – and should always be – good music, even if parts of the public may disagree on the overall judgments.

Sources

Kaser, Karl; Kressing, Frank (2002). Albania – A country in transition: Aspects of changing identities in a south-east European country (PDF). Baden-Baden: Nomos-Verlag.

Rrapaj, Jonilda; Kolasi, Klevis (2013). “The Curious Case of Albanian Nationalism: the Crooked Line from a Scattered Array of Clans to a Nation-State”(PDF). The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations. Ankara University, Faculty of Political Science. 44: 198.

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