Meet Alban Sejdiu and Mohammad Al – khazali, two darbuka players I’m friends with in Kosovo. The darbuka is a goblet drum played in Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. Alban and Mohammad have an amazing story that reveals just as much about the local identity as it does about them and the music they play. Together with DJ Benity, Besnik Fetahaj, they form the Prishtina based group Baboo Darabuka.
Alban is an Albanian Kosovar, which is the main ethnic group here. He met Mohammad when they were still teenagers just after Mohammad moved to Kosovo with his parents from Jordan. Mohammad is also half Albanian on his mother’s side. Shortly after they met, the two formed a friendship and bonded through the power of music. In exchange for help learning how to speak Kosovo’s main language, Albanian, Mohammad taught Alban how to play the darbuka. They have been friends since.
I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with the guys and was fortunate enough to get some live footage too! The very last song in the video features a local genre known as Talava, something I hope to tell you more about at a future time. Check it out!
Today the duo earn their bread through their craft, which is not an easy thing to do in a country where over 40% of the population is unemployed, and many young people are increasingly turning to the entertainment industry to make a living. “The music business is really competitive here, and you have to be smart about how you market yourself,” said Alban. Like many of their fans, what drew me towards Baboo Darabuka is their originality. They are the only group I’ve found that combines the technology of a sound system with raw drum beats. The darbuka has been featured in Albanian music for decades, if not centuries. So, it makes sense to learn from Alban that, ” [our] young Albanian fan base in Kosovo is very familiar with the sounds of the darbaka, and they love it!”
I had a more in depth conversation with the guys over macchiatoes, a Prishtina specialty and favorite pastime. We casually discussed everything from women, the local music industry, and even Alban’s personal experiences during and since the war here. The most intriguing part of our meeting was a dialogue about identity. My own identity has always shifted because I am an Albanian American who immigrated at a young age. I was naturally curious and drawn to what they had to share with me.
“What are you?” was the main question floating around the table. “Are you Albanian?”, “are you American?”, they asked. To which I replied, “I don’t know, what are you?” Alban proudly stated that he was Albanian and that he had records of his lineage dating hundreds of years back. Mohammad, although his mother is Albanian, would not dare claim the same identity. Alban said, “he’s clearly Jordanian because his father is Jordanian”, and that was the end of that discussion. For me, this brought up the fact that lineage in the Albanian community, whose ideology was at play, is patriarchal. The mother’s side of the family does not matter when it comes to ethnicity. When half of one’s lineage is basically non-existant, then it becomes easy for people here to claim, as Alban claims, “I am 100% Albanian”. I’m not sure how I feel about this as an absolute. However, like all Albanians, I am very proud of my heritage, my family, and my background.
Here, in Kosovo as a young nation and in the Balkans as a region, identity is an important topic. Even today the Balkans are arguably characterized by hyper-nationalism. My theory why is because people have a need to justify and legitimize themselves as distinct , ethnic groups with the right to claim certain land, with enough authority to be, well, nations. My project inherently explores the power of music to cross through ethnic as well as gendered tension and help people heal.
That’s another reason why Alban, Mohammad, and their music is so fascinating to me. Their live performances feature music from all over the world, making Baboo Darabuka a very universal, feel-good group based in the heart of Kosovo. I can understand why youth here flock to their shows. They’re fun! Weather or not Mohammad and Alban, or anyone else for that matter knows it, I think they are a beacon of light in Kosovo: first of all, simply because they exist as a group, but also because they are incredibly talented, hard working, smart, respectful of women, and some of the most fun and good hearted people I’ve met here.
We were pretty hungry by the end of our identity discussion. The boys ordered a pizza and I finally told them who I identify as. “I’m Albanian and American,” I said, “and I’m proud of both”. But, Alban was quick to correct me, “no, you are an Albanian who was raised in America”. It was pretty clear that this conversation had no victor, so we agreed to agree, smiled, and spent the rest of the evening talking about the music industry in Kosovo and Baboo Darabuka’s plans to tour the world someday. These guys are so smart and talented that I really believe they will!