The OneBeat Podcast

Bajram "Kafu" Kinolli - Between Two Fires

Episode Summary

OneBeat 2015 alumnus Bajram “Kafu” Kinolli discusses his upbringing as a religious Sufi Muslim in a small city in Kosovo during periods of unrest and war in the 80s and 90s; where violence has affected the lives of the people of the Balkans, and discusses how music — which has been intertwined with both violence, survival, peacemaking, and even humor — can play a role in healing and uniting people in a still-fractured region.

Episode Notes

The eighth episode of The OneBeat Podcast is the first of a two-part series that features the perspectives of OneBeat 2015 alumnus Bajram aka “Kafu” Kinolli and his wife and collaborator, Milica Milović. The two have led festivals and music residencies, including OneBeat Balkans in 2019 and 2020, in the belief that collaborative art-making is vital to counteracting racism and divisive nationalism in the Balkans. In the first part, Kafu sits down with OneBeat co-founder Jeremy Thal in what is a highly affecting reflection of his own story, growing up as a religious Sufi Muslim in a small bucolic city in Kosovo during periods of unrest and war in the 80s and 90s. 

Throughout the episode, we’ll listen to how music accompanies and inspires the best and worst of human behavior; discussing the way that violence has affected the lives of the people of the Balkans, and how music — which has been intertwined with both violence, survival, peacemaking, and even humor — can play a role in healing and uniting people in a still-fractured region.

Warning: This episode contains descriptions of violence and explicit language. 

Produced and Edited by Jeremy Thal

Production Assistant: Nyokabi Kariũki

Mixed by Jeremy Thal

Executive Producers: Jeremy Thal, Elena Moon Park, and Kyla-Rose Smith


Bajram Kinolli

A full playlist of music featured on this episode can be found here.

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, & produced by Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation.


Episode Transcription

Elena Moon Park: Hello and welcome to the 8th episode of this first season of the OneBeat Podcast. I’m Elena Moon Park.

Kyla-Rose Smith: And I’m Kyla-Rose Smith. This episode is the first of a two-part series featuring OneBeat 2015 alumnus Bajram aka “Kafu” Kinoli, who’s from Kosovo, and his wife and collaborator Milica Milović, who’s Serbian. The first part focuses on Kafu’s story, beginning with his childhood in the 80s and extending through the Kosovo War in the late 90s.

In a conversation with OneBeat Co-Founder Jeremy Thal, Kafu discusses growing up as a religious Sufi Muslim in a small bucolic city in Kosovo, and how the region was devastated by the war.  At each step along the way we’ll listen to how music accompanies and inspires the best and the worst of human behavior. Kafu and Milica now live in Novi Sad, Serbia with their 2-year-old adopted son Boban. As Kafu’s interview was recorded at home, you’ll hear the sounds of Milica and Boban in the background of this interview.

Elena Moon Park: In the second part of this series, we’ll hear Milica’s experiences growing up in Serbia, which was ostensibly on the other side of the war. We’ll then hear how Kafu and Milica met, and how they are now working together to counteract racism and divisive nationalism in the Balkans, through leading festivals and music residencies — including twice leading the OneBeat Balkans program in 2019 and 2020.

And before we begin, we want to warn you that some of the content in this episode may be triggering for those sensitive to descriptions of violence. 

Kyla-Rose Smith: During this episode there is mention of violence committed by Serbian paramilitary organizations. We want to make it clear, however, that all parties involved in this conflict have been documented to have committed atrocities and violated human rights. We do not wish to place blame on any ethnicity or nation, but rather to discuss the way that violence affected the lives of the people of the Balkans, and how music was intertwined with conflict, peacemaking, and survival. And ideally, how music can play a role in uniting people and healing wounds in this still-fractured region.

Music Interlude: Djelem Djelem” from the 2015 OneBeat Mixtape

Jeremy: In 1980, Josip Broz Tito died, leaving a power vacuum in his wake. Tito was the leader of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Though there are many different opinions about Tito, he did achieve the rather remarkable task of holding together a multi-ethnic state, despite the centuries-old rivalries that would tear the country apart after his death. But for many years — especially in the 60s and 70s — life was relatively peaceful and prosperous in Yugoslavia.

The rumblings of unrest began soon after Tito’s passing, and erupted into full-scale civil war in 1991. The Yugoslav Wars, as they are now known, lasted for 10 years, beginning in Croatia, Serbia, and then Bosnia in the first half of the 90s, followed by the Kosovo War a few years later. In 1999, after the NATO-led bombing of Serbia, the war officially ended, and soon afterwards, Yugoslavia ceased to exist.

The majority of the people living in Tito’s Yugoslavia were Slavic people such as Serbs, Croats, and Macedonians — but many were non-Slavic peoples, including the Roma, Turks, and Albanians. In Kosovo itself, roughly ninety percent of the population is ethnically Albanian, around five percent Serbian, and one percent Roma.

Kafu — Bajram Kafu Kinolli — was born 5 years after Tito’s death, in 1985.

Kafu is Roma, and as he puts it, “was caught between the two fires” of Serbian and Albanian nationalism, while also having to face the anti-Roma discrimination that is still pervasive in the region. Kafu grew up speaking Albanian, and was educated in Albanian, in the small city of Gjakova in the southwestern part of Kosovo.

Kafu: Gjakova is like surrounded with the mountains, we have like, many rivers, and it’s beautiful, really beautiful city. The main religion there is Dervish. It’s like Muslim, but I call them ‘punk Muslim’.

Jeremy: Why ‘punk’?

Kafu: Because they are like more rebel, in a sense of, they fight for freedom, for love. They make music, they love music. They love dance, they love celebration. And that's where I'm born, like in a family of Sufi. 

Jeremy: What is your earliest memory of listening to music?

Kafu: My grandpa was like a violin player, and really lover of music. And my uncle from my father's side, was like, uh, a great singer and a composer. I remember when there was like a group of men in one room and singing about love or about nature or about God. 

Jeremy: Do you still remember those songs?

Kafu: Yeah. Umm there is a song about the flower, the yellow flower, the first flower in the spring. It goes like this:

Music: Kafu singing “Oh More Lulja e Sarit”, a cappella

And it goes on and goes on. This kind of melody sounds a little bit Byzantic; it sounds a little bit of Ottoman. These kind of melodies, I used to sing mostly. We will have like a lot of percussions in the room, and this goes with the percussion —[imitating percussion sounds] boom pa pa pa boom —and it's kind of tribal music for us, in that time.

Jeremy:  At that point, would you and your family have considered yourself more Roma, more Albanian, or more just, Yugoslavians? 

Kafu: If you ask me, like personal me,  I will say we are from Kosovo, and we are like Kosovar people. And for my family, they were like more Yugoslav, because they lived in the great Yugoslavia. But  when I was seven, there was start the war in Croatia. So it's like, for me it was more more Kosovar. And then, and then later, I understood that I'm the second hand of the Kosovar because I'm Roma [laughs]. So, that was like even harder.

Jeremy: When did you first start to feel discriminated against for being Roma? 

Kafu: That was like in a teenage, that was like, just before the bombing and the war starts in Kosovo. This was like 12, 13 years old, yeah, it was ‘98, something like that. Because in the school the first time they asked me, “what are you?” I answer like, “I'm human.” [laughs]. And the teacher says, “when you go back home, ask, ‘what is your family? Like, are you like Albanian? Or you were like, uh, Roma you're like, whatever, what are you? Like, what nationality?’” That started to define, ‘what are you’? I mean, we know that there live Serbs and Albanian and stuff, but, like, that directly from the teacher when they ask you like, ‘what are you?’ then you have to, I didn't think about that. Why should we think about that? In school? We are learning.

Jeremy: Tell us about your name. Why do people call you Kafu?

Kafu: My real name is Bajram. Why people call me Kafu is because “coffee man”. My skin is like a bit darker, so that's why they called me “coffee man.” It's like, uh, a little bit racism, but I like it. I used to play football also, and Cafú was like one of the great player from Brazil -- Evangelista Cafú. 

Audio: Cafú clip from Italian TV: unbelievable  Cafu skills 2005

Music Interlude: wonderwaves - Kona

Jeremy:  So to give some context here for the listeners: In 1989, the Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević came into power as the President of Serbia, which was the biggest republic within Tito’s Yugoslavia. Two years later, in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia, effectively beginning the Yugoslav Wars. So Kafu, when you were a student and your teacher asked you ‘what are you?’, Serbian nationalism was on the rise, and Kosovo was technically still an autonomous province within Serbia, but less and less autonomous as the war continued. Did you notice a change in the music you would hear on TV and radio that corresponded with this growing nationalism?

Kafu: Of course. I mean, the radios and television was all Serbian. Like, for example, I was lucky in Gjakova there were, I was like a part of the music community, so I heard more Albanian music and more Turkish, and Roma, this was like more diverse. But imagine like in some village where you have only radio and TV and then you can listen, like Serbian music.

Jeremy: So Albanian language, music, and media was fairly hard to find at that point?

Kafu: Yes. Because they took out also the TV, it was like TV Pristina, was like broadcast for Kosovo. They closed it.

Jeremy:  So what was left, what would you listen to?

Kafu: I mean, there were a radio in Gjakova, it's like a new radio was start ‘95 or ‘96 called like Kosmos radio. And it was like multi-ethnic radio, was like Albania, Roma and Serbs. In the beginning was like that, then later started to become like really dangerous as propaganda. But I wanted to say, what we hear there was more pop, but really bad pop.

For example, yeah, there were like this song: ‘I'm eating bread, I'm eating bread.’ 

Like, [sings]. ‘With uh, paprika, hot paprika.’

Music: Ismet Beqiri, “Pershesh Hangra”

Jeremy: Wow, urm.

Kafu: Yeah. I made, I made the cover. I made the cover like just three weeks ago about that song. It's like, reminds me of the 90s. I can send you that, so you can put it there. 

Jeremy: Please, Please.

Music: Kafu cover of “Pershesh Hangra”

Jeremy: So basically Albanian music was allowed under Serbian rule, as long as it was apolitical?

Kafu: Yes, that fits propaganda of Serbians, yes. It’s like dictatorship: they check every words. There were no song that you can be proud about Kosovo. If you sing something, one word, you go to jail.

Jeremy: Now, were there musicians that were underground at that point, that were fighting the system?

Kafu: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, there is Jericho band, for example. But I didn't know about them because they were like in Pristina. So there were like no connections really from the city to the city, they were like really bubbles. 

But for example, Jericho started in that ‘95, ‘96. There were like, kind of uh, Rage Against The Machine of Kosovo. 

Jeremy: Can you sing us a Jericho song?

Kafu: uh, yeah. [sings]. Don't f*ck with Albanians.

Jeremy: Is that a real song?

Kafu: That's that's the one song. 

Music: Don't F*ck with Albanians, by Jericho

Kafu: I mean, this is like more nationalist for me, for my taste — but still it's showing like a lot of power, because people were like, really in that time, uh, oppressed and really like depressed, and, and, and, it was like a hard time for them.

Jeremy: So during that period of the mid-90s, what was the music you were making with your community? Was it still the Sufi music you had grown up with?

Kafu: Yeah. I mean I’m lucky that I'm born in this kind of family that preserve songs. The songs were about love, about, uh, having fun, about like God or weddings or any kind of celebration. 

Jeremy: So if you could take yourself back in time to right before the war. You're hanging out at a wedding or a funeral or at a party with your family — you’re 11, 12 years old at this point. What song would they have asked you to sing?

Kafu: Hmm. Let me think about that. I have to think, because it's been a long time. It's like, you're digging really good. 

Jeremy: [laughs].

Kafu: Ok, so song is about, the spring is coming.

Music: Kafu singing “Pranvera”, a cappella 

So it's about: ‘Spring is coming, but I'm staying here and waiting for you. Who knows about how much I’m suffering? But I'm still waiting for you.’

But there is like, for example, in the weddings, more happy songs. For example:

Music: Kafu singing “Shota”, a cappella 

Jeremy: What do the words mean?

Kafu: “Dance, duck, dance. I will pay you until the end.” 

Jeremy: [Laughs].

Kafu: Yeah. I mean, it's, it sounds like, very primitive, but it's, you know everybody sings that and then when it sings, like everybody goes crazy, dancing like a duck.

Jeremy:  Can you do it again but drum on the table a little bit, so we can get the beat?

Music: Kafu singing “Shota”, with clapping and hand drumming on the table.

Jeremy: [laughs].

Kafu: It’s like, amazing song.

Jeremy: What instrument would have been playing that da-da-da part?

Kafu: in Kosovo, mostly like clarinet or saxophone. 

Music: VASKE CURRI KENGE, by Laver Bariun

Kafu: So, it's like, very interesting, for example, trumpet, in my area like Gjakova and Prishtina, it was not used so much from Roma people. It's like divided. Serbian Roma people use trumpet. 

Music: Trubacki Mix - 2. deo // Trubaci Balkan [Orkestar Dejana Petrovica - Dubocanka Kolo]

Jeremy: I was surprised to learn that during the war, Serbian Roma brass music was often associated with Serbian nationalist politics. Is that your memory of how it was?

Kafu: Yeah, I mean, even like all the Roma songs or like related to the nationalism -- not the song related, but they took the song or they made it famous, like all these killers, they were listening to these kind of songs. 

Jeremy: Whoa.

Even though that these songs are like singing about love and stuff like that. These songs, like Roma songs were only listened to [in] the small ‘kafana’, it's like a small pub, but a dirty one, cheap one. So, it's not about the music, it's about the people who use the music.

Jeremy: So basically th-, the Serbian nationalist would take a Serbian Roma song, they’d take one of their songs about love and turn it into, instead of love for maybe a girl or a boy, they'd turn it into love for the nation of Serbia?

Kafu: Yeah. I mean, it's almost like a “put it through the march” songs. For example, “Ederlezi” song [sings], this song is used by paramilitary people to kill Albanians. That's why they relate all these Roma people, they’re with Serbs.

No, that's not true. They just use the songs and it's like, how we can stop them to not use it? I mean, we can't, we couldn't do that. 

Jeremy: Can you sing your version of “Ederlezi”, the non-nationalist version?

Kafu: Yeah. I'm not nationalist, so that's why it's not nationalist song. So it depends who sing it. You know, the song became. 

Music: Kafu singing ‘Ederlezi’, a cappella 

Jeremy: Wow, it’s a beautiful song. What is it about?

Kafu: It's more about love song, and it's more about celebration of the, of the new year, because the Roma people has a kind of like a new year, like in a fifth of May. For us, it's like a starting point where we start to travel, where we start to, to go to the market, to sell, where we go to steal your hearts. [Mmm.] So, yeah, I mean, it's like the point where the water is hot enough to get to swim in the river. So that's our new year.

Jeremy: How did that song get distorted and become an anthem of, uh, violence? Like, who, who was singing it, and, and when was that happening?

Kafu: Like a South of Serbia usually use brass music, mostly. And all patriotic songs, it's made by brass, but this is not patriotic, this is like really Roma song. 

It's paradox is stupid. I can't imagine that what they're thinking when they kill someone. But I just don't know what, because I'm just giving this information, that's what happened. 

Jeremy: Who were these people that were killing people and listening to these songs? Where did they come from?

Kafu: They were like paramilitary. Usually there were like refugees, for example, from Croatia Wars and from Bosnia Wars. They came in Kosovo in ‘97 and then, you know, like all the trauma doesn't start in one year, and then, they were like ready. Because after the war, for six years in, in Croatia and Bosnia, they were just like trained to be killers.

Jeremy: Did the militias ever come to your neighborhood?

Kafu: Yeah, I mean, it’'s hard, man. It's like, um...I remember when we were like sleeping in a podrum, like in a basement, we called podrum, that they start to bomb. One week before, we were like, almost locked down. Uh, luckily, my brother were working for some supermarkets, so we had the chance to make reservation for food, like for one or two months. And then, the bombing start eight o'clock, I remember, I remember that day. When the bombing start, we were like staying home, in a basement, for three days, and then we moved to my uncle's basement, bigger one.

And then they came, some other neighbors, and they told us they are killing people in our neighbors and that's how it started.

Then we moved to the middle of Gjakova in a city, like more deep to the city to other uncle's place. One day were like out of bread, but we had bread in our home. So me and mom took, we were like heading to our home, and I remember from the bus station to my house is like around one and a half mile away; and all that street, it was burned. And people killed on the street and, you know, like just covered. I don't know, like my mom started crying and I was just shocked. I was really shocked. I didn't know what to do. 

And we were like, went there and [pauses]. We went like home and took our powder bread, how you call that — flour, and, there were like three Albanians mans running to us. And then, and they asked us, “can we hide in your home?” We were just like, “our home, it's open, you can do whatever you want, just go.” And then they were like other police. Luckily, they didn't saw us speaking with them and they were like, running after these three mens. Um, yeah, one of them was our neighbor, and one of them is killed. We know that.

Kafu: Yeah, it's tough. It’s like, that's what I say. Like, I was always in the middle of two fires. Somehow it's like, it's better that you don't know. it's better that I was young. And I didn't logically, emotionally altogether function so well, because I was like in teenage time and I was at more, uh, self concentration than what has happened outside.

Music: “Snow” from OneBeat Balkans Mixtape 2019

Jeremy: When your family was, was all together, like there was, you said, you know, 20-something or 30-something people all in one apartment, what was the music you'd listen to then, or you'd sing to each other?

Kafu: There were no music, man. 

Jeremy: No music? 

Kafu: That, uh, yeah. That's why it's dark. There were no electricity, there were no music, but we had prayers. It's like, we pray and that's, uh, that's kind of, that is music also, if you can call that music — I think that's music. That's what I remember, what we did every Friday, we pray for everybody. We pray for souls and for us to be saved. For souls there and everywhere or in the war.

Jeremy: Can you remember a prayer that you would’ve said then?

Kafu:  Yeah. I mean, it's like most of the, mostly it's like from the, from the Koran. If you know about what is ‘Zikr’? Zikr is what Sufi people do. Zikr is like, uh, going in a trance by praying. So this is what we did, but I will sing, for example, one of the, what we pray, it's like the first, first paragraph in the Koran, it's what we pray always.

Music: Kafu singing

Jeremy: Wow, beautiful.

Kafu: It’s like, I still remember. I still remember after like, Almost 20 years. 

Jeremy: Would everyone sing it together? Would there be percussion? Would there just be one person singing it?

Kafu: Yeah. That we’ll sing everybody in the same notes and it's like, yeah, it's like very powerful. 

This is like the beginning. This is like really the beginning of, of the ritual that we do. And there's like different paragraphs of the Koran that we sing, and then there is a part with the drumming, which is like very ‘trance’. 

Jeremy: What would the ‘trance’ part of the ritual sound like?

Kafu: Yeah. It sounds like, [sings]. Imagine there's like 20 people. Singing in the same. And then there is one or two people singing: [sings two vocal parts].

So it's this kind of like, but it’s like, with the drum [makes drum sound]. And there is a moment when we speed, this, like, [sings] — it's starting to grow from the chakra and the pitch is like, [sings]. It's like more from the diaphragm singing, it’s like more like from the bottom of the stomach. [Mmm.] And then this is like for one hour, one and a half hour. You're moving your body left to the right, left to the right, all the time. And it's like, amazing. After that you feel, you feel like flying.

Jeremy: So even in the midst of this terrible situation, like feeling grief, feeling that you don't have food to eat, you can't go outside. After that, after that experience people would feel, would feel better, would feel healed.

Kafu: Yeah, man. Yeah. I mean, because only that will keep us somehow united with the people that we love: we pray. I mean, a lot of time the police came, but, I mean in so many cases in my town they were like all killed, all the men killed, during the ritual. So, I was lucky. But then when I think, uh, I passed something that, that, uh, I don’t want, nobody to pass that, so. And I wish never happened that, anymore to nobody, not...Doesn't matter what kind of flags or beliefs or ideology you have, because the war it's, it's easy to start, but it's not easy to end, because it will stay always in memory.

Jeremy: Thank you so much for speaking with me about this, Kafu. I know it wasn’t easy.

Kafu: You're welcome, man. Come on. It's like I have a pain now in my chest, but I will go to take a shower, take, uh, release my trauma. Yeah, man, it's like a hard, it's really hard to remember because I, I just like, kind of like grave sometimes. I mean, most of the time I grave all this drama.

Jeremy: Right, you bury it.

Kafu: But it's good to speak out. Thanks, really thanks that you're listening and people will listen this. 

Music Interlude: “Djelem Djelem” from the 2015 OneBeat Mixtape

Kyla-Rose Smith: Thank you for tuning in to The OneBeat Podcast. This episode was produced and edited by Jeremy Thal and Nyokabi Kariũki, with essential help from Elena Moon Park and me, Kyla-Rose Smith. It was mixed by Jeremy Thal.

In this episode we heard tunes by wonderwaves, Kafu’s new duo project with Shpat Morina; “Pershesh Hangra” as performed by Ismet Beqiri and Kafu Kinolli; a snippet of the band Jericho; the clarinet playing of Laver Bariun, and the serbian brass band Orkestar Dejana Petrovica. The track playing now is a version of ‘Djelem Djelem’ performed by Kafu and a group of OneBeat Fellows, which is on the 2015 OneBeat Mixtape.

The views and opinions expressed by our guests on this podcast are their own and not those of the ECA, Bang On A Can, Found Sound Nation, or any of its employees.

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with Bang On A Can’s Found Sound Nation

Music continues playing: “Djelem Djelem” from the 2015 OneBeat Mixtape