By Simon Vukel, Albanian Festival Chair/
This Saturday evening, at Lehman Performing Arts Center in the Bronx, over 3,000 people will gather for the annual Albanian Festival. When this festival was started 25 years ago, Albania was still a mystery to many in the world. Closed off for decades by the long communist nightmare, many Albanians in the United States were banned from even visiting Albania, and longed for their homeland, as well as their kin who lived there.
In those early Festival years, thousands gathered in this concert hall, both in celebration of our common culture but also in unnamed protest for our brothers and sisters still being persecuted in Albania, Kosova, Montenegro, Macedonia, and throughout the Balkans. This Festival stage was witness to the beautiful costumes and dances and music of our ancestors, the ancient instruments and traditions coming alive – it was as if Albania – over 3,000 miles away – was here, in New York, both on the stage and in the audience. We’d hear both popular songs and patriotic songs, honoring our love for freedom, for our people, and for our families. And so the Festival was – and still is – a truly special and remarkable moment in our people’s history and evolution in the United States. The other 364 days of the year we can go about our lives, but on Festival Day, we pay tribute to what makes us unique, what brings us together, and what we all believe is worth preserving for generations to come.
Each year we are asked – “is the Festival successful?” And the answer is a resounding “yes”. There are the obvious measures of success – sold-out shows with thousands in attendance, media coverage in major publications like the New York Times and the New York Daily News, and performers willing to leave work and school behind from all across North America, and even at times from Europe, to come to New York and perform for the Albanian community here. Moreover an organizing committee that is entirely volunteer, motivated by their desire to preserve our culture. But there are other measures as well which may not be as obvious, but they are critical to why we organize this Festival together each year. They are our mission. Let me explain:
When you watch the Festival performances, you will see hundreds of performers, many of whom were born in the United States, taking the stage to pay tribute to their ancestry. When we witness that young person get on stage and celebrate the art and music and history that makes us who we are – Albanian — then the Festival has succeeded. Mission accomplished. And the good news is that with over 25 years of Festivals, literally many thousands of young people have performed on our stage, and many have gone on to careers in both the Albanian and American arts, music, and media. And many more are doctors and lawyers and businesspeople and other professionals succeeding at the American dream, but knowledgeable and proud of their Albanian heritage.
It’s true that in 2015, times have changed since that first Festival. Albania and Kosova are free. (We will not stop of course until all of ethnic Albania is free!). On any given night in New York, one can find Albanian performers in venues or restaurants, singing our beautiful songs. And of course our large Albanian weddings—with music and dancing, and more music and dancing – are fun and go a long way to saving our traditions. But there is only one venue – the annual Albanian Festival in New York – which is purely and solely dedicated to preserving Albanian culture as it was, so that years from now our descendants can look back and understand from where they come. Much as the Arbresh of Italy still speak Albanian, the Albanian Festival is committed to ensuring our rare and unique culture is preserved forever.
And what is our culture? Though it has many common threads and one common language, it is also a myriad of varied traditions. And so the Albanian Festival strives to preserve all the dialects and regionalities of our people. At the Festival, you will hear songs from the north, songs from the middle, and songs from the south. Gheg and Tosk. All are celebrated here!
And importantly, true to our Albanian traditions of tolerance and openness, while the Festival is organized by the Mother Teresa Center of Our Lady of Shkodra Church, the Festival is non-religious. All are welcome, both on the stage, and in the audience.
The success of the Festival is because of so many people – a list too long to go into detail here. But special recognition is due to the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, now known as the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, which helped found the Festival 25 years ago, and all the sponsors since, whose generosity has ensured that the Festival takes place each year. We also thank and pay tribute to all the volunteers and performers who work hard to make the Festival happen, and the support of the Albanian community, including Albanian civic groups and media, who make the Festival known to all. And we must not forget all the parents who bring their kids to dance or singing practice, all in the hope of ensuring that their kid never forgets the Albanian language or where they come from. It is said that education starts in the home, and so a special thank you for all the sacrifices made to ensure the Festival is the best it can be.
And finally, a big thank you to you, the Festival attendee. We are all so proud to be Albanian, and we are proud to bring this Festival to you each year. We hope you join us on Saturday night, and here’s to 25 and even 250 more festivals in our future.
By Simon Vukel, Albanian Festival Chair/