Almost sixty years ago, a new music festival began in the city of Tirana – Festivali i Këngës. This festival would continue for decades, through communism, dictatorship, prosecutions and censorship, before coming the music show known and loved around Europe today.
It’s through the shows long and difficult history that we can see how the contest grew and developed into the festival that now airs today.
Beginning in the December of 1962, the festival was centred around light music, and was won by Vaçe Zela and her song ‘Fëmija I parë’. The song was about a happy mother who was thrilled to have been blessed with a child in her life.
Over the next few years, the festival developed, starting with neutrally themed entries which were used as a tool by the governing Community Party of Albania in promoting its ideals throughout the country through the show’s strong popularity.
Censorship during the show’s early years were incredibly strict, and songs were disqualified for not being deemed appropriate by government standards. The Communist Party also had the power to decide the outcome of the contest, with some victories arranged for a political purpose instead of by a jury of music professionals.
The eleventh edition of Festivali i Këngës, which took place in the December of 1972, is now infamous in the show’s history. Many of the songs were about social change, or normal people. The music was considered too upbeat and Western for Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.
After the festival was held, authorities went out in search of organisers and participants, accusing them of treason, and being declared “Enemies of the Public” by the Albanian dictator. The organisers were accused to endangering the population with the immoral aspects of the songs and performances, and for plotting against the ruling government by influencing the Albanian youth.
The director of the festival, Michael Luarasi, was sentenced to spend eight years in prison. Todi Lubonja, the directior of RTSH, who had been given the go-ahead for the contest, received all of the criticisms, before being arrested and imprisoned.
Other organisers of the eleventh edition of the contest were subsequently murdered. The murders were then used as an example to the future organisers of the show.
Following the eleventh festival, censorship became stricter. Songs were monitored, and themes were related back to the development of the country and the government. The festival suffered under these restrictions for over a decade until 1984, when Dictator Hoxha died. The following year, the lyrics in songs changed, and censorship restrictions were relaxed.
Songs about love, and songs about motivating the nations youth became increasingly popular over the years. Rock groups made a considerable impressions with their breakout into the Albanian music scene. The Communist Party leadership realized they could no longer control the music festival with the realization that their days were coming to end, along with the days of communism in Eastern Europe overall. Communist rule ended in Albania in 1992, the last Eastern European country to do so.
The 1990s saw some of Festivali i Këngës’ glory days, with a boost in the quality and diversity of the songs on the stage. The performances reflected the transitional period of the country. Entries about immigration and freedom became increasingly popular, and the word “God” was sung for the first time at the contest (previously being illegal in Albania). Albanian singers from outside of Albania also began competing.
Between 2000 and 2002, ratings for Festivali i Këngës began to fall slightly, as audiences started falling in love with two other more liberal music festivals – Top Fest and Kenga Magjike.
Both of these music festivals are still massive events in Albania to this day, with Eurovision contestants taking part in both of them. Aurela Gaçe, Jonida Maliqi, Juliana Pasha and Eneda Tarifa have all won Kënga Magjike, while Linda Halimi and Elhaida Dani have won Top Fest.
However, in late 2003, Festivali i Këngës regained some of its popularity back, as the winner of the competition would now go on to compete at the world-famous international singing competition – the Eurovision Song Contest.
Anjeza Shahini won the forty-second edition of the festival, and went on to place an impressive seventh place at Eurovision in Istanbul. The incredible placing of the country’s debut entry at Eurovision brought international interest to the competition as a national final. The show has seen increased viewership in Albania and around the world, and over the years hashtags regarding the competition make top trending places on Twitter in many European countries.
Festivali i Këngës is usually the first national selection process of the Eurovision season, and its common scheduling during the week of Christmas, has led fans the world over to give it the nickname of “FIKmas”. And with “FIKmas” just around the corner, fans are getting ready once again to start off a three-month long period of national finals and internal selections.