Can a Music Festival Make Kosovo Cool?

Dukagjin Lipa onstage at the Sunny Hill Festival in Pristina, Kosovo. Mr. Lipa, whose daughter is the pop star Dua Lipa, said he wanted to change the way Kosovo was seen abroad.

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Last Friday afternoon, Dukagjin Lipa, 49, sat backstage at Kosovo’s first major music festival, bleary-eyed and trying to ignore the two cellphones ringing on the table in front of him.

“Oh my God,” he said. “I didn’t sleep for 48 hours now.”

Founding the three-day Sunny Hill Festival — headlined by his daughter, the pop star Dua Lipa — had turned out to be tough. “No promoter would willingly come to Kosovo. It’s a logistical nightmare. It’s a financial nightmare,” he said, when asked why no one had put on a similar event before.

Mr. Lipa said he had hired sound and stage equipment worth $2 million from Romania, and had to call in some favors to ease its passage through customs. “We don’t break any rules, we just make it easy for a good thing to happen,” he added.

He felt the need to put on the festival for one reason, he said: “For more than 50 years, there’s been a misconception of Kosovo. It’s not what you read.”

In the minds of many, he said, Kosovo’s image was still shaped by the war in the late 1990s, in which ethnic Albanian rebels fought for independence from Serbia, and the refugee crisis that followed. Mr. Lipa and his family are ethnic Albanians, like an estimated 90 percent of the country’s population.

Kosovo’s relations with Serbia remain tense. The two nations have yet to agree a border, a key step for Serbia to be able to join the European Union.

The political situation adds to poor perceptions of Kosovo, Mr. Lipa said. He senses it when people ask where he’s from, he added. When he says “Kosovo,” they often reply, “ ‘Oh, how sad, I feel so sorry for you,’ ” he said.

Mr. Lipa said he wanted to show that Kosovo was a vibrant place where people could have a good time. “We have our troubles, but we have one of the most wonderful youths in this part of the world,” he said. “They are intelligent, they’re creative. They have something to say.”

Serbians, many of whom see Kosovo as an integral part of their country and do not recognize it as an independent nation, may be difficult to convince. “I replied to a Serbian kid a couple of hours ago on Instagram,” Mr. Lipa said. “He commented something derogatory about Albanians and I said, ‘It’d be much nicer if you come over here and have fun with your neighbors. If you do, I’ll spot you the ticket.’ ”

But it wasn’t just an international audience that Mr. Lipa’s festival needed: To fill its 15,000 person capacity, it had to find a domestic one, too. He had some problems with this. There were complaints about the price of the tickets: 55 euros, or around $62. Over half of Kosovo’s 15-to-24-year-olds are unemployed, according to the United Nations, so they have little disposal income.

Mr. Lipa said that the tickets were as cheap as possible given he was trying to stage the event to international standards, which included bringing in world-renowned acts like his daughter, Ms. Lipa. The pop star was born in London, but spent four years of her childhood in Pristina. She regularly talks up her Kosovar roots in interviews and to her 16 million Instagram followers. Other Kosovar musicians, such as Rita Ora, have also brought attention to the country.

Mr. Lipa was born in Pristina when it was part of Yugoslavia. His father was the head of Kosovo’s history institute, his mother a teacher, and he had a comfortable, middle-class life (“We went to Thessaloniki for shopping, would you believe?”). At age 15, he fell in love with the guitar and somehow wrote a hit song with his friends, but there was no money to be made from singing in Albanian, so on his parents’ advice, he trained to be a dentist.

His studies took longer than they should have. Yugoslavia’s government banned teaching in Albanian at Kosovo’s university in 1991, and Mr. Lipa moved to Bosnia to continue college. He got caught in the country’s civil war, spent two months in besieged Sarajevo and eventually left for London. It was events like these that had made him patriotic, he said, adding that he has since tried to pass that feeling onto Ms. Lipa and his other children.

A strong sense of ethnic Albanian identity was everywhere at the festival. Dua Lipa wore red and black, the colors of the Albanian national flag, when performing her 90-minute set. She spoke almost entirely in Albanian between songs. Later, she held the Albanian flag aloft to screams from fans.

Many of the acts, who ranged from Albanian rap stars like M.C. Kresha to Jericho, a band widely seen as Kosovo’s answer to Rage Against The Machine, drew cheers from the crowd by making a double-handed sign that represents the black eagle on Albania’s flag. The American rapper Action Bronson, whose father is Albanian, also made the gesture during his set.

Kosovo’s blue flag, which features six stars to represent the country’s main ethnic groups, was nowhere on display.

Bajram Kinolli of Gipsy Groove, a band that played at the event, said his only criticism was that the festival didn’t represent everyone. A Serbian act should have been booked to attract ethnic Serbs who live in Kosovo’s north, he said. “And there’s only one Gypsy,” he added, laughing, referring to himself.

The event did attract some foreigners, but most seemed to be ethnic Albanian members of the Kosovar diaspora. One of them, Nora Thaci, 18, a college student, said her father had driven her “for, like, 24 hours” over 1,000 miles from Switzerland to see Dua Lipa.

But there were some non-Kosovars, too. On Friday morning, Sara Aleksieska, 18, a high-school student from neighboring Macedonia, got onto a packed minibus in the country’s capital, Skopje, with her sister and a friend to travel for two hours to the festival. It was her first time going to Kosovo, she said, and she didn’t know what to expect. Whenever her parents had talked about the country, it was always to do with politics and always very serious.

Before she left, she said, her father had told her repeatedly to be safe.

But on Saturday evening, lazing in the festival’s chillout area, Ms. Aleksieska said she would try to bring her parents next year. “I’m going to go back and tell them how great this place is,” she said. Everyone was friendly, the bands were great and the food was cheap, she added.

She had not understood any of the Albanian spoken from the stage, she said — she knew no Albanian words; her sister only the numbers up to 10 and the word for ice cream — but that hadn’t mattered.

“When everyone yelled, we yelled. It’s been so much fun.”

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