As the applause echoes around the leather sofas and chocolate-coloured walls of the Hamam Jazz Bar, it’s hard to imagine being in a more hip and urban environment. Yet this isn’t an achingly cool bar in Brooklyn or the east end of London. The Hamam is located in the centre of Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo and an unlikely hub for a thriving live music scene where jazz is placed in particularly high regard.
“I think that jazz is popular in the Balkans due to its hot, dancy and eccentric nature,” says Genc Salihu, a local musician and poet who I speak to the next day.
“I also think there’s a deeper, more spiritual connection with jazz among all repressed peoples, due to the very nature of jazz that allows for sensational freedoms within limited spaces. What I do know is that Kosova had a big band in the ’60s, which is crazy! Armend Xhaferi and Ilir Bajri are just two of our biggest names.”
IIir Bajiri is the founder of the Prishtina Jazz Festival, an event which, over the past seven years, has seen international stars such as Uri Caine, Tom Kennedy and Reggie Washington come to this tiny landlocked Balkan state — which only lost its status as the world’s newest country when South Sudan declared independence in 2011.
Prishtina is a city where the recent scars of war live on in the form of streets named after Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. There’s still a sizable contingent of UN and NGO workers in the city, although the concrete architecture harks back to an earlier time when this city was part of communist Yugoslavia, presided over for decades by the often-ruthless President Tito.
The days of state repression are now gone, for the most part, and the amount of blue-and-yellow Kosovan flags hanging outside people’s apartment balconies in Prishtina suggests this is a new nation growing in confidence. Big international names on the jazz scene locally are Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper; and one local guitarist, Taulant Mehmeti, is currently at the beginning of a career performing and recording in New York, as Genc proudly informs me.
Later that day I arrange to meet Alban Rafuna, owner of the tour operator Be in Kosovo, who can arrange tailor-made tours of the live music bars and venues in Prishtina.
“I love Hamam Jazz Bar and Sokoli dhe Mirusha Bar,” he tells me over strong coffee. “They constantly organise live jazz music and it’s a special feeling being in such places and surrounded with people that love such places too. Basically, this gives me a message that, a simple relaxing thing as it is, music can be such a connecting point and a bridge-building factor. One of the things uniting people here in Prishtina, for sure, is jazz music.”