Just around the corner from the Grand Hotel, which Timothy Garton Ash famously called the worst five-star hotel in the world, stands Prishtina's music academy. Like many state-run cultural instutions, it's in a bad shape. The hallways are mucky, the stairs dilapidated. Upstairs, twenty kids crowd into a rehearsal room and unpack their instruments.
Ilir Bajri is their director. A tall gangly guy with a winning smile and bad teeth, Ilir has been playing the town as a jazz pianist since the early nineties. He shoots documentaries, edits video's for others and produces soundtracks. He is also the director of the new Prishtina Jazz Festival, in a city that boasts an active jazz, hiphop, dj and underground rock scene. Now he has taken up directing this group of students in the informal, unpaid experimental department of the academy.
He told me it took him three weeks of intense work to drill some concentration into this bunch of teenagers, most of them fresh out of highschool. During the nineties, he says, they would follow music lessons in private homes, as a part of the intricate network of alternative education under Serb occupation. At home, their parents barely listened to their stories, as they were glued to the tv sets showing news about the wars in other parts of their former nation, nervously waiting for the violence to spill over into Kosovo. When it finally did, in 1999, most of them fled to the refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania. After the NATO bombardments, they returned to a ravaged country: more or less free, guarded by international troops, heading for an uncertain future. As a result, these kids were insecure and defensive, taking out their fears and anger on each other. During rehearsals, this meant jeering at every mistake someone else made. Now Ilir is teaching them that playing in an orchestra means they need each other to perform.
There is a boy with a gypsy grin, playing his violin with all the grace of a construction worker. The girl with the ponytail clobbers a piano that goes mute on the high notes. The fat guy plays the cello with melancholic majesty. And four fragile, giggling girls play the flute. Ilir wastes no time before getting them into the first piece, written by a young local composer. Twenty young faces concentrate on the staccato section, adding layer upon layer of pretty complicated rhythms. Once they reach the lyrical part, with the flutes and violins soaring, the relief is visible - and they ease back into a moderate sway, falling behind Ilir, who is dictating the relentless groove with pumping arms.
After a short break, even more musicians fill the place, now including guitars and singers. Ilir has made an arrangement to an old Pat Metheny composition that builds up gradually to a triumphant, repeated climax. The four girls standing in the back sing their hearts out. The whole orchestra gets so lost in the whirlwind music that they blast at full force, forgetting about the need for nuance between the different sections. Halfway through the second attempt at getting everything right, there is one of Prishtina's eternal power cuts. Dusk falls in, the music sheets are now useless and everyone plays it by ear. Through the windows, I stare at the grimy highrises of the city and the mountains beyond. It's almost dark when the orchestra reaches the dramatic finale. The roaring ovation that should follow is just two weeks away. Ilir has a handful of rehearsals left to polish up the remaining imperfections. He's fallen in love with all of his kids, and I have no doubt he will succeed.