Merry “FiKmas” everyone! We are celebrating Albania’s Festivali i Këngës this week on ESCBubble. This festival is generally well-known by many Eurovision fans, as it is usually the first national final every year. With the 60th edition of FiK kicking off shortly, let’s take a look back through the history books (literally), and discover some things you may not have known about Albania’s “Festival of Song”!
FiK has been around since 1962, when it was first broadcast over the radio only. The history of this festival is closely mirrored in the history of Albania itself. When the first edition was launched in 1962, Albania had already been under communist rule for almost two decades. As a result, these early contests were heavily affected by censorship. This primarily included the song lyrics, but also the outfits, and even their gestures on stage!
Back then, the songs were usually simple shorter orchestral pieces designed to appeal to a wider audience and promote government ideas and were sung no less than two (and sometimes three) times by different singers, however only one version could win!
The first winner of FiK in 1962 was Vaçe Zela who performed the song “Fëmija i parë” (The first child). It is about a happy mother who is thrilled to have been blessed with a child in her life. The theme and lyrics are very unprovocative and neutral, pleasing the communist regime of the time. Vaçe Zela went on to win FiK another ten times (a record that still stands today).
She is considered one of the most influential Albanian singers of the 20th century. While her music career started at FiK in 1962, she went on to win countless awards and music prizes (too many to list here) and continued singing until her death in 2014 at the age of 74. While there is no video recording of Fëmija i pare, you can listen to the audio of a live performance here:
Tough government censorship continued through the 1960s, but in 1972 the show took a dark turn. Albania’s communist dictator Enver Hoxha condemned the 1972 edition, claiming it had become too upbeat and sounded too western. The winning song was “Kur vjen pranvera” (When Spring Comes) sung by Tonin Tërshana. “Spring” in the title was interpreted as an awaking for the people to turn against the Party and towards more liberalisation, like the Prague Spring of 1968, only four years prior.
As a result, Hoxha labeled several of the organisers and participants as “Enemies of the Public” and they were sought after by State authorities. FiK director Michael Luarasi was sentenced to eight years in prison, while director of Albanian Television (RTSH) Todi Lubonja was also arrested and imprisoned for his role in FiK 11. Other organisers were even murdered for their roles. In response to this perceived westernisation of Albanian socialist culture, at the Party Congress six months later Hoxha proclaimed,
“It is precisely this [western] culture, coated with a glossy veneer, accompanied by sensational advertisement, handled in the most commercial way and backed up and financed by the bourgeoisie, that inundates the cinema and television screens, magazines, newspapers and radio broadcasts, all the mass information and propaganda media. Its objective is to turn the ordinary man into a passive consumer of poisonous bourgeois ideas, and to make this consumption an addiction. Not only have we nothing to learn from this culture, no reason to impart it to our masses and youth, but we must reject it contemptuously and fight it with determination. […] the spread of certain vulgar, alien tastes in music and art, the adoption of extravagant and ugly fashions, and unpleasant behaviour contrary to socialist ethics and the positive traditions of our people (…) degenerate ‘importations’ as long hair, extravagant dress, screaming jungle music, coarse language, shameless behaviour and so on […] If the influences and manifestations of the bourgeois-revisionist way of life are not nipped in the bud, they open the way to the corruption and degeneration of people which are so dangerous to the cause of Socialism!”
It is interesting to point out that in those days, very few Albanians owned television sets. Imported TVs were almost impossible to find, and when the first 15,000 locally-manufactured television sets first appeared in 1972 (the same year as FiK 11), they cost a whopping 4,000 Lek when the average monthly salary was around 400 Lek. Thus, the vast majority of Albanians did not see the costumes and suggestive dance moves that drew the ire of Hoxha, as they were listening to FiK on their radios.
TV owners were mostly state heros and the socialist elite, yet before Hoxha’s crackdown, it was relatively easy for Albanians with TVs to access Italian, Greek, and Yugoslavian broadcasts, as the regime did not understand the influence western media was having on its population. Many Albanians would leave, in particular for Italy, drawn by the festivals, wealth, glamour, and lifestyles they saw on Radiotelevisione italiana (RAI).
Hoxha’s words and actions were meant to set the tone for future editions of the festival – and it worked. Already in 1973, the tone had changed as a wave of anti-liberalism swept across the country. Broadcast signals from outside the country were blocked and Albania entered a period of self-imposed isolation at a time when they had cut ties with the USSR, and relations with China were beginning to strain.
Unsurprisingly, the themes of the songs at FiK 12 in 1973 included: the communist party, Albanian patriotism, work, and successes of socialism. The winning song that year, “Gjurmë të arta” (Golden Traces) reflects all these themes. Its chorus reads, “In centuries you walked through gunshots, through the hail of bullets, tightly connected to your land and to the dream, the most beautiful, bright one. Your soil provided your support, in every joy, or storm, oh Albania!” On a lighter note, it was another win for Vaçe Zela – her fifth!
Not much changed for the rest of the 1970s. Winning song titles include “The girl from my village,” “The bread of our hands,” “Buds on the tree of freedom”, and “Albania has a holiday today” (my personal favourite!).
A bit of controversy also surrounds FiK 19 in 1980. It is rumoured that Alida Hisku’s song “Njerëzit e agimeve” (People of the mornings) was supposed to win, but the government intervened and gave yet another victory to Vaçe Zela’s song “Shoqet tona ilegale” (Our illegal friends). While Zela’s song deals with the liberation of Albania from Nazi forces, Hisku’s song made strong references to an intellectual awakening, ending with the lyrics “new days will come.”
Enver Hoxha died in April 1985, and so did some of the censorship that was suffocating the festival. While Albania would remain in the communist sphere for another seven years, the new regime was not as strict.
Pro-socialist songs had to remain in the competition, but FiK 24 in December 1985 we began to see more diverse songs, particularly ones that appealed to Albania’s youth. In fact, the winner that year was “Në moshën e rinisë” (The Age of Youth) performed by Parashqevi Simaku. While the song does refer to the “motherland” in the chorus, the lyrics go on to describe the joys of being young and in love, and making one’s own decisions, “If you love me like I love you, come and search for me … where life shines the most, because there I am.”
By the late 1980s, the communist regime was silently consenting to more western influences in the songs and performances at FiK. The writing was on the wall for communism as it began to collapse in the countries across Eastern Europe, and the Albanian authorities knew it was only a matter of time. While Albania would be the last country in Europe to do away with communism, the winning song of FiK 28 (“Toka e diellit” [The Land of the Sun] by Frederik Ndoci) in 1989 was a ballad about freedom and hope for the future, something that never could have won in the days of Hoxha.
Improvements came to the contest throughout the 1990s, despite the political and economic turmoil Albania faced after the end of communism. Many songs at this time reflected the situation the country was facing. At FiK 31 in 1992, the first after communism, the winning entry sung by Aleksandër Gjoka, Manjola Nallbani & Viktor Tahiraj was called “Pesha e fatit” (The weight of fate).
Singer Elsa Lila won the contest in 1996 and 1997 with songs that dealt with the economic stagnation in Albania post-communism. Albërie Hadërgjonaj took the win in 1998 and became the first Kosovar-Albanian to win the Festival with a ballad entitled “Mirësia dhe e vërteta” (Goodness and truth) with a humanitarian and anti-war message, poignant given the ongoing troubles in Kosovo at the time.
Radio Televizioni Shqiptar (RTSH) were ready to join Eurovision in 2002, but due to the high number of competing countries, were denied by the EBU until 2004, when FiK became the national final for Albania. Anjeza Shahini won FiK 42 in December 2003 and flew to Istanbul in May 2004 to represent Albania in Eurovision for the first time ever. With the upbeat and catchy song “The Image Of You”, Anjeza placed a reputable seventh and earned 106 points!
Since 2004, Albania has participated in Eurovision every year and has qualified for the final on 10 of 17 occasions. Their best performance so far came in Baku in 2012 when “Suus” (His Own) by Rona Nishliu placed fifth. She had won FiK 50 by getting 12 points from five of the seven jury members.
While Festivali i Këngës has seen many changes over the years, the rules and format have remained mostly the same for the last several years. Generally speaking, a panel of seven jury members ranks their top songs by giving the Eurovision 1-8, 10, and 12 points. The artist and song with the most points is declared the winner and will represent Albania at Eurovision.
Yet a peculiar incident happened at FiK 53 after Elhaida Dani won with her song “Diell”. Three months before Eurovision 2015, Elhaida announced on social media that she would not sing her ballad “Diell” due to “personal and irrevocable reasons” which were never elaborated upon. She was able to reach an agreement with RTSH whereby she would still represent Albania, but with a new song. The English song “I’m Alive” was revealed in March and went on to secure Albania a spot in the Grand Final for the first time since 2012 and finishing in 17th place.
Festivali i Këngës is now bigger than ever, held over three evenings each December. In fact, due to it being held so close to Christmas, it is often affectionately called “FiKmas” by fans who watch the show online now from all over the world.
Who do you think will take the crown at FiK 60 and represent Albania at its 18th Eurovision Song Contest? Vote in our poll below and leave a comment! If you haven’t listened to the songs yet, make sure to check them out before FiK 60 kicks off at the Pallati i Kongreseve in Tirana on Monday night!