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04 Jun 14

Northern Mitrovica Shakes off the Blues

The North City Jazz and Blues festival, held near Mitrovica in Kosovo, is seeking to change the image of a town known nowadays mostly for ethnic conflict.

Nemanja Cabric
Birn Mitrovica

Two days of jazz and blues music provided a welcome break for the people of Zvecan, a mostly Serbian town in the north of Kosovo. The twelfth edition of the North City Festival took place there from May 30 to 31.

A selection of RnB, soul, jazz and blues musicians and bands lifted the spirits of hundreds of visitors to the Cultural Centre in Zvecan, near Mitrovica.

Headliners at the festival were Thornetta Davis, Lenny Fuzzy Rankins and Peter Bernstain from US, Michael Cuvillon from France as well as Jazz Mikan Trio and Deca Losih Muzicara from Serbia.

Thornetta Davis | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

The real fun came after the official programme when the festival moved to a club space in Mitrovica where jam sessions took place until the dawn broke.

These after-show parties, where the true spirit of jazz and blues could be felt, offered visitors some impression of the jazz and blues tradition that flourished in Mitrovica for decades before it withered during the conflict of the 1990s.

The town that had once boasted one the best Big Bands in the former Yugoslavia is today a symbol of the conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, separated into northern and southern parts along an ethnic line that follows the Ibar River.

However, the festival organizers say they hope the image of their town will now change, and that young people will get more educated about quality music.

Nesko Ilic, one of the founders of the North City Jazz and Blues Festival, says the town has not forgotten its long tradition of quality jazz and blues music.

Nesko Ilic, one of the founders of the North City Jazz and Blues Festival | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

“Young people here do not listen to that new music, folk music, or whatever it is, that they are crazy about in Belgrade,” Ilic said.

History of jazz and blues:

Although Mitrovica was once among the six top destinations for jazz and blues in former Yugoslavia, since the war it has lacked a concert space, which is why the festival has moved to Zvecan.

Bands existed in Mitrovica even before the Second World War, and continued to grow in the Communist era.

The local jazz scene culminated with the formation of a Big Band that existed from 1979 to 1989.

“It was a multi-ethnic band - the sixth in size in the former Yugoslavia,” said Nesko Ilic who played trombone in the band, and is now one of the organizers of the festival.

According to Ilic, the Mitrovica Big Band boasted six saxophones, five trumpets, four trombones and a complete rhythm section.

“We were amateurs but we created a professional sound. Many of our members were lent to scenes in Skopje, Pristina and Podgorica, so they also could have full Big Bands,” he recalls.

The first festival was organized in 1989 under the name Mitrovica Jazz Festival, without blues in the programme.

“Our Big Band performed at the opening of the first edition of the festival, and that was also our last performance together,” he said.

“Politics dismantled the band, not music. Demonstrations of Albanians started, so people could not come to the rehearsals anymore,” he added.

The second festival was not organized until 2003, which is when blues was added. The third festival in 2004 included international stars for the first time. Since then, it has taken place every year.

“The idea is to bring back to Mitrovica the glitter it had before the war and before everything that happened in the past,” Ilic said.

“We have put it back on the map of the region, of Europe and of the whole world, with our festival”, Ilic told BIRN.

Jammin’ in the North:

The two festival evenings were an event to remember with crowds following every detail of the show and discussing them on breaks under heavy clouds of smoke, and with the whiff of plum rakija brandy and beer in the air of the hall of the Cultural Centre.

Many in the audience said there was no place in the world where a visitor could get so close to the performers as in Mitrovica, where everybody feel familiar and relaxed after the concerts. Without the glamour of the larger festivals, Mitrovica is really all about the music and the sound.

Jam sessions at the first festival night: Julia Charler and Lenny Rankins | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Performers that BIRN talked to in pauses in the shows said that while the audience did not take concerts for granted, they knew how to enjoy every tone.

Thornetta Davis, who filled the hall with subtle RnB Detroit sound, says she did in Mitrovica what she does best – having a good time and getting people dancing.

“The guys are wonderful and they treated me so well,” Davis said after the show. “I think my energy comers from up there. God gave me the strength. I want to do it so bad, to entertain the crowd, so I do what I can”, she said, wiping away sweat after Saturday’s performance.

Davis said she was in Mitrovica for the first time, and it reminded her of her hometown of Detroit where “people have their struggles, while people here have theirs, too.

“It is music that can bring everybody together and make them to start love one another,” she said.

The second day of the festival on May 31 will certainly be remembered in Mitrovica by a wild two-hour concert by Deca Losih Muzicara, DLM, (“Children of Bad Musicians”), which set some two or three hundred people on fire with a recognizable mixture of funk, soul and blues.

Ivan Jevtovic, singer in DLM, a band that has been around for more than two decades, says the idea to participate at the Jazz and Blues festival was born at the last Nishville jazz festival in Nis, in Serbia.

“DLM is a funky, soul and a blues band from Serbia. Blues is the root of jazz and rock and roll. In our performance tonight after two jazz bands, we will turn this genre into something much wider,” Jevtovic said before Sunday’s performance.

Katherine Theroux played in almost every group on the stage, dominating the scene with her contrabass on both festival days.

Katherine Theroux from Los Angeles, graduated in Berkley | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Theroux, who comes from Los Angeles, says she lives for the music she performs, and it is the only thing that can make her happy.

“If I can’t play bass it is so sad. I had surgery last year and that kept me off the bass for a whole month,” she recalled.

“One of my colleagues held the bass for me and I played it with one finger, and it was enough to make me happy,” she said.

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