Sunday, March 05, 2017

Notes from National Finals - Albania: Festivali i Këngës 55 - 21.12.2016 - 23.12.2016

FiKmas, Këngëmas, Këngësmas, call it what you want....but whatever you want to call it, you can't deny that Albania's annual national song contest provides a very welcome distraction from the stresses of the festive season.  This was my 5th Festivali i Këngës (I've been watching since 2012) and every year I look forward to catching up with the Twitter ESC family, to chat about the three night extravaganza.  The other good thing about FiK is that it takes place outwith "the season" so it doesn't have any other finals/heats competing for our attention.

Regular viewers of FiK will know that this annual experience demands stamina and patience.  As usual, you never knew when the show would actually start, which inevitably leads to many a frustrated tweet, particularly from newcomers to this experience! This year though, there were no comedy clips or model promos or a video of the Tirana Christmas lights soundtracked by Michael Buble.  Ohhh no.  Instead, we were given a real treat: clips of winners from 80s and 90s Fests. In those days of course Albania was a very different country from what it is today. Having said that, some of the FiK winners from the 80s and 90s could probably have fitted very well into the Eurovision Song Contest in those decades.

But onwards to 2016.  Semi-finals 1 and 2 took place on Wednesday 21st and Thursday 22nd December respectively.  That was very considerate of RTSH, as I had finished up on the Wednesday for my pre-Christmas leave from work so I was definitely in the mood for a pre-Christmas Albanian spectacular!

One of the much-loved aspects of FiK is its famous theme song, although we had to wait a little while for it this year. The semi-finals and final began with a colourful little animation of the lights going on all over Albania and everyone making their way to watch FiK55.  The animated sequence was accompanied by a pretty orchestral overture.  Found this clip of the first 10 mins of semi-final 1 - our beloved theme song is 3.30 mins into the clip.

This year's presenters were Kasem Hoxha and Ledina Çelo.  Kasem is a little red-haired guy who (from certain angles) reminded me a bit of Kevin McKidd from Grey's Anatomy.  Ledina of course is the statuesque blonde bombshell who represented Albania when Ukraine hosted ESC in 2005, so there is a nice link to this year's contest.  Over the course of the three night FiK extravaganza, Ledina had many a costume change.

One major innovation in FiK55 was - shock horror - a green room.  Andri Xhahu, the country's Eurovision commentator and ESC voting spokesperson was the green room host, going round and interviewing the contestants, although Genc Salihu was more interested in his phone and this rapidly became a Twitter GIF :)

There were 12 songs in each semi-final, with 7 songs qualifying from each one to the final.  I think the final line-up was a pretty accurate reflection of the best entries over the two previous nights.  I thought Albulena Jashari might have made it, as I quite liked her song but her vocals could have been better and the most offputting thing about it was that she had her eyes closed throughout the song, so failed to make that connection.  And then there was that outfit.  We are talking Barbara Dex award standard...

My main surprise non-qualifier was "Koha Plaket" by Luka and Serxhio Hajdini.  Bit shouty, but they delivered.

Back to fashion disasters and potential wardrobe malfunctions: hello Xhesika Polo.

Xhesika was unwell in the first semi-final but recovered well to perform her very intense song in the final.  Pity about that outfit though!

Talking of 'intense', this brings me to the one and only Flaka Krelani, the woman who keeps the Albanian bronzer industry in business.

Flaka worked two different hairdos in the semi-final (above) and in the final (below).  She brought lots of drama too, spitting out the lyrics with the swagger you expect from her by now.

Another act which caught my eye was the very unusual Franc Koruni (pictured above), Despite being styled like an Albanian Michael Jackson tribute act, he went on to give us a bizarre jaunty hybrid of rap and folk. I'm not sure if it was meant to be funny, but it certainly made me smile and was a nice change from the big-voiced-women-with-powerful-ballads which FiK is renowned for.   

Rezarta Smaja (pictured above) has competed in almost every FiK since I started watching it.  My favourite songs by her are "Ti,.." and "Më Rrembe".  Last year's duet with Klodian Kacani was just too shouty for me, but you can't deny that Rezarta has a great, distinctive voice.  In FiK55, Rezarta showed that she wasn't just all about the big ballads and mid-tempo numbers.  "Pse Prite Gjatë" had a catchy chorus with a Latin/reggaeton-style beat, and she showed off yet again why she is one of my favourite FiK artists.  I liked her Spanish-influenced black dress too. 

One of the best things about FiK is the orchestral accompaniment, although there are many in the internet fan community who are of a different view from me and would like to get rid of the orchestra if the contest is to modernise.  I think the orchestral arrangements can often turn a song into something pretty special, as was the case with my favourite song in FiK55 - more about that later. FiK is modernising in other ways year after year - we don't get close-ups of the conductors any more and I miss my annual close-ups of Gridi Kraja!

We did get plenty of close-ups of this year's group of lovely backing singers (below), a well-turned-out, classy and talented ensemble who provided strong vocal backup for all of this year's contestants.


FiK is of course the home of the "drunk uncle" song.  I don't really know how to explain this, except to say that it's usually a rock-type song performed by someone who, let's just say, isn't in the first flush of youth :) There's always at least a couple of them every year - and FiK55 was no exception. In the final Ringo Starr lookalike Xuxi had replaced his Yankees baseball cap with this, um, fetching piece of headgear.  

Bizarrely, I have found myself listening to the funky-drunky-uncle foot-tapper "Metropol" quite a lot since the contest.  I'm getting very worried about myself!!

Before we go any further, it's time for a commercial break.  If this marathon song contest is driving you to drink, let's open up a bottle of a new brand of sparkling wine. With a menacing voiceover, Cobo Winery presents....Shendeverë!

Weddings must be a big thing in Albania.  Firstly we had these Il Volo lookalikes modelling smart suits on repeat to a soundtrack of Maroon 5's "Sugar".  Now whenever I hear "don't wanna be needing your love/just wanna be deep in your love" I automatically think of this....

Think of weddings and you automatically think of Geraldina Sposa, no?  All together....boom boom boom - you're simply the best!

On the other hand, you might fancy a cable-car ride up a mountain on the Dajti Ekspres with a bunch of hipsters.  Which is a really depressing thought, the idea that the hipster trend has even reached Albania :(

Other honourable mentions in FiK55 go to the New Generation beauty school, Vodafone, and that rather unsettling watch ad with that well-known Albanian actor Gerard Butler (!)

All hardcore FiK fans understand that the ads play as important a part as the songs every year (and then of course in Latvia, the ad break takes on a whole new meaning thanks to you-know-who).

But back to the songs.  After the first semi-final, "Shiu" by Yll Limani was an overwhelming favourite, although I wasn't so keen on this Albanian take on Ed Sheeran's "Photograph".  So that made him Ed Shëëran I guess :) After semi-final 2, it was another young male singer who had the momentum.  Dilan Reka's "Mos Harro" was a big fan favourite and I really liked it too. 

As it turned out, Yll and Dilan would share 3rd place in the competition.  It is often the case in FiK that artists will change their outfits, hairstyles etc between the semi-final and final.  With regards to Dilan, he inexplicably went from this in night 1.... this in the final.  What's with the comedy rapper look?  That back-to-front baseball cap and ridiculous glasses, good grief, just no,  That's not a good look. 

As it turned out, neither Yll or Dilan would be the most successful male singer in FiK 55.  

Genc Salihu already had a high profile as he's been one of the coaches on "The Voice of Albania". His song "Këtu" was certainly not to everyone's taste: it was a slow, moody, abstract, intense number as far removed from anything else which you're likely to hear in national finals season.  It came second. Now imagine how the fandom would have reacted if that song had won!  I'm not really a fan of the song but am glad that a contest like FiK still exists, so that we can hear many examples (whether good, bad or indifferent) of music which we just wouldn't get to hear anywhere else.  That was why I fell in love with the Eurovision Song Contest in the first place.

So, what was my favourite song in FiK55?  Well, regular readers of this blog will already know that "Sot" by Lynx ended up topping my chart of my favourite songs from 2016.  There are very few songs which I love on first hearing (which inevitably skews my attitude to many of the songs in national finals season) but I completely lost my heart to this song when I heard it for the first time and have listened to it every single day since then.  Yes, we are now into March 2017 and I still have "Sot" on repeat.  The mixture of rock band and orchestra is sublime, the orchestral arrangement is terrific and every listen finds me discovering something in the instrumentation which I never noticed before.  Oh, and this just gives me a reason for a couple of gratuitous Renato Rexha screenshots!

That was my winner, but what about the winner?

When the FiK 55 line-up was announced, one name jumped out and many of us were very excited about the return of Lindita Halimi to the competition.  After her explosive debut in FiK 53 with "S'të fal", she went on to enter "American Idol" where she made the top 50 in that contest, a great achievement for this very talented Kosovo-born singer.  So I eagerly awaited what Lindita would bring to FiK 55, hoping for something equally as great as "S'të fal".  However, I did initially feel disappointed as a) it was a ballad and b) "Botë" wasn't really developed enough as a song, as the last half of it just seemed to be Lindita showing off her vocals, exceptional though they are, but it needed more.  However her emotional and powerful performance was more than enough to make her the overwhelming winner in the jury vote, and even if she only came 3rd behind Yll and Dilan in the televote, the combined total was enough for her to win FiK55. 

10 weeks have passed since FiK55.  A number of songs have been chosen for Eurovision, either through national finals or internal selection.  Amongst them, there are many ballads/mid-tempo songs, most of which are forgettable and unremarkable.  Suddenly, "Botë" is not so underwhelming after all.  I want Lindita to do very well in Eurovision because she is such a nice person as well as a very talented singer.  At the time of writing, we still haven't heard the revamped English-language version of "Botë" - which will be titled "World".  If this song has escaped the traditional curse of the Albanian revamp, then it could become something special in Kyiv,  Good luck Lindita!

No comments: