Agim Berisha – Rock Legend of Kosova (Part I)
1964 was a year when many famous world rock bands launched their singles, such as: The Searchers with “Needles and Pins”; The Supremes with “Baby Love”; Roy Orbinson with “Oh Pretty Women”, The Kinks with “You Really Got Me”… that year the hit albums in the British and American top lists were: “Rolling Stones”; “Beatles for Sale”… probably many would be surprised that that same year the first rock band of Kosova was born; probably many would be surprised that rock music in Kosova has all these decades of tradition!! But, this is true!! Many will also be surprised if we say that an Albanian has worked in the rock music world for forty (40) years now! But, this is also true! In 1964, Kosova saw the formation of the first rock band – “Blue Stars”, while its cofounder and member Agim Berisha, still continues to rock. Indeed, his friends are right when they say that he’s “crazy”: He is an “irrevocable” rocker!!!!
The beginnings of rock in Kosova!
It all began in the early 60’s when Agim Berisha (born on 9 October, 1951), was enrolled in the elementary school with his classmate Afrim Luboteni. Afrim had bought an acoustic guitar at the time, which he would play at school, whereas Agim would follow him by improvising, that is, by using the school desk and chair as drums. Their after-school hours where reserved for listening “Radio Luxembourg” where they would get the latest news on music around the world, mainly western Europe and the U.S. for instance, they listened to the “Shadows”, “The Moody Blues”, “Animals”, and so forth. They would thereafter execute pieces in the instrumental form. It was this year, 1964, when Agim and Afrim decided to form their band, which was named “Blue Stars”, which at the same time was the title of an instrumental song that they used to perform. Hence, the first members of this band were: Agim Berisha – drummer, Afrim Luboteni – guitar player, Veton Berisha – guitar player as well, and Luan Berisha, Agim’s brother, who played that base guitar. Their first performance as a band was in a cocktail reception in the former Yugoslav Army Building in Prishtina (the present UNMIK Headquarters). Shortly after their first performance, Luan Berisha left the band since he was no longer interested in pursuing a career in music, and the band experienced changes: Veton Berisha passed on to playing the drums, whereas Agim was “stuck” with the base guitar. It is interesting to point out that the first base guitar that he owned, Agim built on his own, with the help of Veton’s brother, Bajar Berisha. However, the first guitar that Agim received as a gift was that from his father Engjëll Berisha, the great Albanian painter. But, there was a catch: he had to learn to perform a song for his father so that the latter would be convinced of Agim’s genuineness for music. “He never tried to keep me away from making rock music my career, on the contrary, he always supported me and helped me”, speaks Agim of his father.
My five decades in rock music! (Annex part)
1964-1969: during these years we had a humongous absence of music instruments, even of low quality ones. But, the unity among colleagues of the same profession was very strong, thus we always helped each other through lending instruments to each other whenever one of us had a music gig, and we also showed our support by always attending each others performances. That was a period of time when pop music was mainly hit, and in Kosova you could mostly feel the influence of Croatian pop and pop music that was performed in Belgrade. But, us, “Modestët” tried to be and perform a more energetic type of music, and that of course was rock. 1970-1979: these were the years when rock in Kosova really bloomed. Many new bands were formed those years, and the leading band was “MAK” from the city of Mitrovica. It was also the time when the music festival “Rinia Këndon” began, which served as a good opportunity and way to introduce the new bands that were coming out. Also the unity and relations between the bands of that time were quite good, although there was also potential for band break-ups and emergence of solo carriers. Another milestone of this period of rock music in Kosova was the numerous live concerts before the public and the ones on radio stations. The Radio and Television of Prishtina (now Radio and Television of Kosova), gave a lot of help and support, especially by granting the rock bands to record free of charge. Ultimately, I remember the 70’s as the breakthrough years of the Kosovar rock music.
1970-1979: these were the years when rock in Kosova really bloomed. Many new bands were formed those years, and the leading band was “MAK” from the city of Mitrovica. It was also the time when the music festival “Rinia Këndon” began, which served as a good opportunity and way to introduce the new bands that were coming out. Also the unity and relations between the bands of that time were quite good, although there was also potential for band break-ups and emergence of solo carriers. Another milestone of this period of rock music in Kosova was the numerous live concerts before the public and the ones on radio stations. The Radio and Television of Prishtina (now Radio and Television of Kosova), gave a lot of help and support, especially by granting the rock bands to record free of charge. Ultimately, I remember the 70’s as the breakthrough years of the Kosovar rock music.
1980-1989: many new bands were formed, such as: “Ilirët”, “Gjurmët”, “403”, “Telex”, “Seleksioni 039”, “Minatori”, “Menkis”, and so forth. It was as if the 80’s were a continuity of the 70’s for the rock music scene of Kosova. The bands at that time were performing in the Sports and Youth Centre, or better known then as “Boro & Ramizi” Centre. The radio gigs, live concerts and TV appearances were by this time a recurrent event.
Music and parties during the 60’s!
In 1966, “Blue Star” changed its name into “Modestët”. This name was suggested by Reshat Randobrava, who explains Agim, was in a way as an artistic consultant to the band. During this time Agim and his band performed mainly in different parties and proms. They executed famous pieces of “The Beatles”, “The Rolling Stones”, “The Moody Blues”, and so on. Their music instruments were in a very bad shape; the guitars were a Czech production, while Veton – the drummer had a pair of very old drums. Thus, many times they would borrow the sound system equipment from “Sami Frashëri” High School. “Our late physics professor, Hamdi Spahiu, helped us with the instruments, he never hesitated in lending them to us”, vows Agim. He reminisces about the 60’s and recalls how they always had support from their professors for the music they played. However, their teachers did not support the long hairstyles they carried because they were still students!
“It was an idyllic era. I remember in an event where we performed, we had problems with our sound system, and the people waited patiently for three hours until we were able to continue performing. The young people would never stop dancing in those events”, Agim points out, reminiscing many moments of their performances at that time. While explaining the difficult conditions that the musicians had to deal with in that period of time, Agim recalls another story to continue illustration the 60’s and rock music in Kosova. “The 60’s were very difficult times for musicians. Some musicians even had to perform with guitars which had wires missing”. Agim continues talking about these problems and he reveals a story that had happened to his band: “We had a contract with our band, in 1966, with primary school “Elena Gjika”, whereby we would perform for their prom night. The school headmaster had had previous bad experiences with musicians because of the poor quality of music instruments, and hence he had added a point in the final contract, which today sounds funny, and that was: “The guitars have to have all wires in place.”
“Even though we performed with primitive instruments the people enjoyed our music. We didn’t even have transportation means; we would carry the instruments ourselves.”
During the 60’s “Modestët” performed songs of famous rock bands, and their band practices were held in the basement of Agim’s apartment building. And then the 70’s came. During these years, “Modestët started performing hard rock music of famous bands of that age, such as: “Deep Purple”, “Led Zeppelin”, “Status Quo”, and so forth. In the early 70’s, Veton went to London where he bought new music equipment and now the band also had a lead singer, the diseased Fahri Bejta. Tomorr Berisha joined him in singing from time to time and so did Sinan Alimanoviq, the director of Sarajevo Radio Television Orchestra. In 1972, after the University of Prishtina was founded, “Modestët” began performing in the events that were organized by the University, which mainly took place in the hotel “Iliria”. They also recorded at that time in Radio Prishtina a few songs of the famous Dutch jazz-rock band “Focus”. From time to time they also performed as a session-band for other singers and bands such as: Nexhmije Pagarusha, Sabri Fejzullahu, Gazmend Pallaska, Luan Hajra, Liljana Cavolli, etc. But, “Modestët” did not have their own repertoire. The reason for that was, as Agim reveals, that they had many performances and their main focus at that time was to be a session-band. Besides that, their main focus was their studies: Agim studied Law; Veton studied Architecture, while Afrim & Fahri studied English Language and Literature. During mid 70’s the band got equipped with higher quality music instruments. The transportation problems were solved at that time as well.
The Obsession for Good Guitars!
In 1981 Afrim leaves to go to the States, so “Modestët” were left without their guitarist and the fact that all the members were also engaged in other responsibilities as well, the band fell apart. They decided to part after 17 years of being a band. “My time with “Modestët” was the best time ever. We never had any problems between each other, that is why with Afrim’s departure we just simply decided to end the work of the band”, says Agim. Everyone who knows Agim knows about his obsession for good musical instruments. In 1975 he purchased a “RickenBecker 4001” Base guitar, which he ordered in Germany. It cost 3,000 German Marks. Agim recalls how his friends from all parts of Kosova would come to see his guitar at that time. “Many of them that would see the guitar would even be afraid to touch it. Some would even say: “Apparently there are fools in this world who will pay 3,000 DM for a base guitar”, adds Agim, recalling that his base guitar was used for band performances by all bands from Prishtina, such as: “Ilirët”, “Gjurmët”, “403”, “Minatori”, etc. however, the guitar was stolen from him in 1982 and at that time in order to be able to perform, he was forced to borrow guitars from his colleagues.
“It was at that period of time when I faced the dishonesty from the part of my colleagues who would hesitate to lend me a guitar that would cost 200-300 German Marks. That’s why I was obliged to by an ‘Ibanez’. Fortunately, my famous base was found ten months after it was stolen, but by then I was taken by the mania of high quality base guitars, thus from that period of time until today I have changed over 150 base guitars”, emphasizes Agim. The base guitars weren’t the only passions of Agim at that time. He was also passionate about good sound system. He had bought “Peavy” & “Electrovoice”. These were followed by brands such as: Yamaha, Roland, Fender, Marshal, and so on. “I also lent my sound system to my colleagues at that time, free of charge. In 1974 I bought the first tape recorder and player and it was a rare thing in Kosova at that time. My brother and I would record different songs from ‘Radio Luxembourg’ and then we would exchange them with friends. Some of us would travel to Western countries and by records by famous English and American bands and we would then lend them to each other. That was a very difficult time for us to follow music trends and keep up with the news in the music world. Luckily, this problem was solved in 1980 when Zagreb opened up the then “Jugoton” in Prishtina, which enabled Western music to reach the Kosovar public in an easier way.”
THE PLEASURE AND THE DISILLUSIONMENT
During his music career, Agim Berisha, performed in more than 300 recordings of various bands and singers in studio; he performed in more than 2,000 gigs and in over 500 concerts. And, except once, from the band “Fisnikët”, he never received money for the recordings he performed in.
“Rock to me is a form of living. I have tremendous love for my guitar, from the moment when I take the guitar in my hands and especially in front of the crowds… And this feeling is worth millions”, vows Agim, who is not at all disappointed from not benefiting financially as much as many of his colleagues in the music industry did. “Thanks to my strong character I never let myself get too disappointed. However, I’ve been bothered with the lack of humanity among many individuals, and especially about the gossip which is not an attribute that characterizes a true man… I would like to now draw a parallel between my music and sports career: when someone couldn’t do anything about the way I performed in sports, they would say: He likes to dress good. Whilst, concerning my music performance there would be reactions such as: there is nothing good about his performance except for his music instruments”, tells the stories Agim and laughs through it. According to him, his biggest financial treasure are his ten (10) guitars: “Rockfinger Custom Jazz Bass” (made in compliance to his requests); “Precission ‘62”, “Gibson RD Standard”; “Music Man”; “Schecter Custom Shop”; “Cort Headless”; “Bogart Grafit” (hand made); “Custom Brice”; “Carl Thompson” (hand made); and “Godin ST3”. Altogether they are 15,000 Euro worth. “This is the material gain that I’ve had from music. Nothing more! I’ve been living in the same apartment for 42 years now, same address, same phone number; same Agim with long hair and moustache, only older now…”, Agim says
AGIM BERISHA, ROCK LEGEND OF KOSOVA (PART 3)
I have two dreams: To play the guitar as long as I shall live and die with my guitar in my arms!...
In 1975, Agim was surpised with the interpretation of John Entwisle in the musical “Tommy”. He was astonished with Entwisle’s base interpretation and his unique style. “I felt wonderful in that moment. I noticed that John Entwisle plays the guitar by leaning it on his neck, which I was doing as well since 1964. So, I was doing that coincidentally, something that was present out there in the world but was not known here”, emphasizes Agim.
In the 70’s many base guitar players from the Balkan’s were fascinated by the fretless base. And because many of them couldn’t afford such a guitar they would improvise in different ways. However, Agim purchased a real fretless base. He adds: “I couldn’t dare to improvise when it came to the fretless. I invested all the money I had in good music instruments, except for my first guitar that was a gift from my father. Personally, if you cobble together something and you call it a fretless, I consider it as “violence” against an instrument. During his 40 years of career Agim didn’t limit himself to just one kind of music genre. During these years he has listened to many bands that have left traces in the music world. “When I started my music career performing and giving your best for the audience was an imperative thing to do. Thus, absorbing as much information as you can helps a lot in this aspect, that is, giving your best. Therefore, I listened to the “Moody Blues”, “Animals”, “Shadows”, “The Beatles”, “Rolling Stones”, “Status Quo”, “Led Zeppelin”, “Pink Floyd”, “Iggy Pop”, “Black Sabath”, then there were the “Sex Pistols”, “Talking Heads”, “Kraftwerk”, “New Order”, “Duran Duran”, Sade, many great jazz artists, and so on. In short, I collected information from a high number of great bands and musicians. Surprisingly, during those years even though it was harder, the will to expand your knowledge scope was much higher; we were much more flexible in accepting information; for us there was no strict or ‘one-way to go’ when it came to music. There’s always someone who has something to tell and also learn. That’s why I did not limit myself to one type of music, because you learn from different kinds…”.
Always on the right path!
“My strong character has always helped me throughout the years, the artistic soul that I inherited from my grandfather, father and uncle, and above all my love for my profession. My love was so strong that I would for instance, take of the plaster from my arm on Friday, and by Sunday I would be out in the football field or I would be performing somewhere. Nevertheless, I’ve had moments when I was shaken from the dishonesty that some people showed, from the weakness that people can show for an extra 10/20 Euros so that in this way they can distinguish themselves from others”, says Agim by adding: “I never did anything so that people can say: bravo Agim, you’re the best. I have never worked to be better than others; I have worked to be better than myself. That is why when people stop me on the street for autographs I feel wonderful. Because this is a proof that I achieved something, it is a proof that I was on the right trail”.
Once, Onufër’s friends (Agim’s son) said to him: if Agim was our father we would carry his photo printed on our shirts. Agim points out that these kind of words, coming from youngsters who are more than 30 years younger than him, made him very happy. “This convinced me even more that I have never mistaken so far. Money is not everything in this world. There are many other things, which may seem small, that make one happy. Fortunately, many others, in this case Onufër’s friends as well, are making my assurance even stronger”.
Agim is very straightforward and easy in conversations, never imposing on anything. He says to have always been this way. “I have always felt equal to others. Often I talk to my son’s friends and at that time I ‘erase’ the decades of my age in order to be a closer friend to them. This is my attitude in life. If someone likes me the way I am, fine, if now, it’s their problem, not mine…”
At the moment, Agim is working on promoting his new album. At the same time, he is working on some new ideas. In the end of our conversation he points out: “I am happy and I wouldn’t change my life for anything. But, I have to dreams that I want to achieve: to perform for as long as I shall live and die with my guitar in my arms!...”