Today is Independence Day in North Macedonia, which commemorates the 1991 referendum where the Macedonian people voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Yugoslavia.
To commemorate this important day in the Macedonian calendar, we look back at 'SkopjeFest' – the country’s old national final format, which used to be a key part of the Eurovision calendar but has fallen by the wayside in recent years.
Like several other national finals – for example, 'Sanremo' in Italy or 'Festivali i Këngës' in Albania – 'SkopjeFest' long predates North Macedonia’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. Quite simply, it started as a song competition which took place in the city of Skopje to show off Macedonian and Yugoslav singing talent. In this format, it ran from 1968 until approximately 1980, and was revived in 1994.
When North Macedonia sought to join the Contest as an independent country, the competition was repurposed as a national selection. The first year 'SkopjeFest' was in this role was in 1996, and it then served as North Macedonia’s annual selection show relatively consistently from 1998 to 2015.
'SkopjeFest' became one of the biggest events in the Macedonian TV calendar, and importantly was a celebration of genuinely Macedonian music. The show had a language rule, with all entries performed in Macedonian, and a live orchestra was used on and off right up until the show’s final years in 2014 and 2015.
While performances from the older shows are quite difficult to track down, here are four iconic 'SkopjeFest' entries which you owe it to yourself to check out – including a few familiar faces!
1. Kaliopi – 'Samo Ti' (1996, 1st place)
'SkopjeFest’s' first year as a national final was in 1996, where it was won by a name familiar to Eurovision fans – Kaliopi, with the song 'Samo Ti'. The song feels like a throwback in all the best ways, mixing blues elements with a massive sing-a-long chorus. A very young-looking Kaliopi sings the hell out of every line with her distinctive vocal timbre.
You might think that winning 'SkopjeFest' means that Kaliopi went on to perform at Eurovision 1996 in Oslo. You would be wrong.
During the 1990s, the EBU experimented with several methods to manage the rapidly ballooning number of countries wanting to compete at Eurovision. In 1996, the chosen method was a non-televised qualification round, where North Macedonia – along with six other countries – failed to progress from.
Fortunately, Kaliopi would get to represent her country twice, in 2012 and 2016 – at which point Eurovision had two televised semi-finals. If you’re a Kaliopi fan, you should also check out 'Ne zaboravaj' – the massive Balkan ballad she entered 'SkopjeFest' with in 1998.
2. Sašo Gigov-Giš - 'Samovilska svadba' (1998, 2nd place)
First of all, Sašo has an incredible operatic tenor voice, which gets a real workout in this fantastic ballad. Like all the best 'SkopjeFest' entries, this is a song which feels informed by Balkan chord progressions and instrumentation, while still feeling appropriate for the late 90s (as in the synth-heavy intro). With his long curly hair and traditional, slightly piratical get-up, Sašo also makes an appealing frontman. For newer Eurovision fans, he’s almost like a 90s Michal Szpak.
However, I mostly want to draw attention to Sašo’s backing singers, who appear to be members of the Macedonian Medieval Re-enactment Society. Two women in white dresses sashay onto the stage at the beginning enthusiastically giving us octopus arms. They’re followed by two men dressed as medieval peasants, who do a good one-two step along the back of the stage. While the song is engaging on its own, this is a great 90s example of a song lifted by memorable staging.
After Kaliopi’s ordeal, this very nearly became North Macedonia’s first Eurovision entry back in 1998 – it’s time to rediscover this overlooked gem!
3. Tamara Todevska - 'Brod shto tone' (2014, 2nd place)
Tamara Todevska became North Macedonia’s most successful Eurovision participant in 2019 with her feminist empowerment anthem, 'Proud'. Her 2014 attempt, however, might be even better – a brooding Balkan power ballad delivered in Macedonian. Presented with raw piano accompaniment, Tamara has never sounded better, absolutely slamming her way through all the big notes.
This is also a terrific example of how 'SkopjeFest' did a lot with a very low budget – the simple LED background of rolling ocean waves puts the emphasis on Tamara’s voice, which is the main event here. Her dress is also very interesting – a pair of handprints are visible pulling at her sides, like someone is trying to drag her back into the waves behind her. The atmosphere throughout it palpable.
Tamara was narrowly beaten to the crown by Daniel Kajmakoski with Esenski Lisja (Autumn Leaves), which unfortunately failed to qualify at Eurovision 2015 in Vienna. For Balkan ballad fans, though, this will be right up your alley – get it onto your playlists this very second!
4. Eye Cue - 'Ubava' (2015, 1st place)
By 2015, 'SkopjeFest' had ceased to be a Eurovision national selection show, and was run simply as a competition to showcase local Macedonian talent. The winners were a duo called Eye Cue, who would go on to represent North Macedonia at Eurovision in 2018, with their EDM/Reggae fusion track 'Lost and Found'.
While the opening bars sound a little bit like Waltzing Matilda, this quickly becomes a retro banger. It’s also a great chance to hear Eye Cue’s male vocalist Bojan in action. The vocal line is well-balanced between him and Marija, who sang the lead on the group’s Eurovision track.
Fortunately, Eye Cue eventually got the chance to share their talent with all of us at Eurovision. While they unfortunately failed to qualify, they found their place in the history books due to Marija’s memorable outfit - a shiny pink blouse, worn backwards.
Will we ever see 'SkopjeFest' again?
In a 2019 article, Macquarie University scholar Nina Markovic Khaze emphasises that Balkan countries at Eurovision have often had to strike a balance between Eastern and Western elements to succeed. The new states which emerged from the former Yugoslavia often found themselves torn between representing themselves as “pan-European” and emphasising a sense of national identity through traditional instruments, costume and singing styles.
SkopjeFest was an opportunity for North Macedonia to showcase its local talent and grow a local identity, as we’ve seen throughout this article. However, the festival took a break from 2004 until 2006 for budgetary reasons and hasn’t been seen since 2015.
Ironically, this is often attributed to the costs of Eurovision participation itself. This shows one of the challenges which smaller broadcasters overcome every year – to represent North Macedonia on the Eurovision stage, MRT had to sacrifice a competition focused on the local music industry.
With national finals proving very successful for participating countries at Eurovision 2021, however, perhaps there’s a space for 'SkopjeFest' to return in future. Many of North Macedonia’s recent acts – Tamara Todevska, Eye Cue and Kaliopi among them – were pulled from 'SkopjeFest' alumni. As such, a new national final would be a great way to help up-and-coming talent break into a bigger market.
Here at Aussievision, we wish a very happy Independence Day to everyone in North Macedonia – we can’t wait to see you at Eurovision next year!