In line with the months which preceded it, Christmas 2014 was rotten. I spent most of it suffering from a horrible cold/virus which didn't go away for ages. The TV was awful. I needed something to cheer me up on Sunday 28th December as I was going back to work the following day. So what better than the Albanian national final?
Strictly speaking of course, Festivali i Këngës (or FiK as I'll refer to it from now on) isn't really a national final. For the uninitiated, the Albanian national song contest existed long before the country started competing at ESC. FiK has a turbulent history with its darkest time following the 11th final in 1972: however these days no-one is killed or imprisoned if their song lyrics fall foul of the authorities.
My first FiK experience was in 2012. Watching the show for the first time I was bowled over by the "old Eurovision" feel, with the orchestra and the different conductors. It was like a real blast from the past. Then there is also the "different sound" of Albanian music, which maybe doesn't have the hooks or song structures we are used to. Add to that the strangeness of the Albanian language and the utter joy of those ad breaks and I was completely hooked! I managed to see two nights of the 2013 FiK so was determined when it came around again that I would be there for all three nights. FiK always takes place around Christmas time and 2014 was no different: I welcomed the break from the usual bad TV and it was just great to hang out on Twitter with everyone else who was watching FiK of course!
There seems to be a trend of doing away with much-loved theme tunes (hello Iceland) but you will be glad to hear that the legendary FiK theme is still around. Here's the FiK 53 opening titles....
FiK 53 had a new male host - out went Enkel Demi and in came Turjan Hyska, who soon won me over. You can always expect lots of glamorous frocks to blow TVSH's budget, and so it was again this time round for his co-hosts Liberta Spahiu and Floriana Garo. The remaining money in the TVSH budget this year went on buying those very pricey Beats headphones for the RTSH orchestra. No, actually they must have had a bigger budget this year - that stage (pictured below) was dazzling and quite spectacular, wasn't it!
The greatest thing about FiK - it's 100% Albanian - all songs must be in the native language and all composers/artists must be of Albanian origin too. It remains, along with Sanremo, one of the finest old-school song contests and completely uncompromising. But that just makes us love it more!
There was a large number of returning performers this year. Thankfully RTSH dropped the stupid duets from last year and just went with nights 1 and 2 purely focused on this year's entries, before the final on Sunday 28th December. Which turned out to be a very long night!! But a very enjoyable one. I must mention the ad breaks. There are lots of them, with the same ads repeated over and over again. And one very entertaining ad with chickens on a treadmill (!!). If you want to get the most out of your FiK experience, you must embrace the ads :)) By the way, FiK 53 is available to watch all over again at www.eurovision.tv (go to the Web TV section which lists all national finals available to watch).
My pre-contest favourite was Rezarta Smaja, competing for her third year in a row. I loved "Ti....", didn't like last year's song as much (although it was ok), but completely loved "Me Rrëmbe" on first hearing. This song would not work as an ESC entry - it's probably too 'old-fashioned' but I still continue to play it to this day. I love everything about it, from the ethnic intro to the live orchestra to Rezarta, well, just being Rezarta, although she does run out of steam at the end of the song.
When I am not listening to that song, I'm probably listening to "S'te fal" which threatened to drag FiK kicking and screaming into the modern age. They'd probably never seen anyone like Linda 'Lindita' Halimi at FiK before, strutting her feisty stuff all over the stage like an Albanian Beyonce (I nicknamed her "Albeyonce"!) . She was fierce and fabulous, and probably too much for the traditionalists, but we had some Twitter fandom going for her on the night of the final and I was particularly delighted that she read and retweeted my tweet, so she will always be in my hall of fame. Hope to see you back again at FiK some day Linda!
One of the best things about FiK is that most (all?) of the songs don't pretend to aspire to be Eurovision entries. The offbeat orchestrated jazz of Jozefina Simoni's "Mendje Trazi" would have no chance at Eurovision, but for some reason I rather liked it.
The final featured a number of talented female singers, many of whom had come through the talent show process. One of them even won a talent show in Italy. But more about her later...
As for the guys, where would FiK be without a bit of Rock! As if Altin Goci's song (never sing a rock song where the word rock is repeated endlessly) wasn't enough, we were treated to FiK repeat offender Bojken Lako with his tortured rock number "Të ndjej". But for a few of us on Twitter, our main man was not one of the singers but one of the conductors. FiK wouldn't be FiK without Gridi Kraja :))
In their semi-final, Offchestra had impressed me with "Bajram". It's like an Albanian variant of "Alcohol Is Free" but failed to make it out of the semi-final. Nevertheless they did get to perform it again on the final as the song won an award.
The interval act included Aurela Gace paying an emotional tribute to Dr Flori, who recently passed away, aged 35 years old. Dr Flori was a famous songwriter and producer and was responsible for many FiK songs including Rezarta's song this year and also my all-time favourite Albanian ESC entry Zharr e Ftohtë.
There was one particular female artist who got a lot of attention before she even stepped on the Tirana stage. Elhaida Dani had not only competed in various Albanian talent contests but had gone a step further and competed in - and won - the Italian version of The Voice. In the final, Elhaida swapped her plain black frock of night 2 to a glittery red gown (and a bad hair day!) to perform "Diell" in the final. Whilst Elhaida had world-class vocal diva quality, unfortunately the same could not be said for the song, one of the most forgettable of the evening, nothing more than a vocal workout for Ms Dani. Although it could have been worse: sorry Bojken Lako fans, but just imagine....
Despite Diell being a non-song, that didn't stop the jurors (which this year included Rona Nishliu) showering the song with top marks. Elhaida was a runaway winner, with Bojken Lako Band in 2nd place and Lindita 3rd - she should have won! As for Rezarta, she came 7th out of 18 entries so didn't do too badly.
It's (not) the same old song.....
Whilst Elhaida's vocal talent was acknowledged and acclaimed within the fan community, the same could not be said for Diell. The song was an unpopular choice with fans and its chances written off at an early stage. And then in February came the shock announcement that this song was being replaced as Albania's ESC entry, seemingly 'withdrawn' by its composer, and replaced by a new song, "I'm Alive" written by Zzap and Chriss of "S'te fal" fame. I was temporarily excited by this move, expecting something similar to "S'te fal" however it was not to be. "I'm Alive" is certainly an improvement on "Diell" but it doesn't really float my particular musical boat. I'll write more about this song in my ESC preview post coming soon.
In a calendar of national song contests, Festivali i Këngës is unusual, different and special, and is always a great way to start national finals season :)