How did Tina Turner become an unlikely icon in Albania?

27 Maj 2023, 09:29Culture Chelsi West Ohueri

“Tina Turner, the ‘Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll’, has died peacefully today at the age of 83 after a long illness in her home in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland,” her publicist said in a statement on Wednesday.

The news of the American-born soul legend’s passing led to an outpouring of tributes from across the world with countless music fans, singers, athletes and politicians taking to social media to celebrate her life and many achievements.

With her powerful ballads and catchy dance hits playing non-stop on the radio and her music videos dominating TV screens, I too found myself thinking of all the times Turner and her music had touched my life. And my memories of her immediately took me to what may seem like an unlikely place – the Albanian port city of Durrës.

As a sociocultural anthropologist who studies race and belonging, I have long been doing research in Albania and Eastern Europe on questions relating to identity formation, cultural practices and globalisation.

In 2018, during a visit to Durrës, I came across a life-sized bronze statue of Turner on a cafe-lined square not far from the beach. Standing next to statues of Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Bob Dylan, the figure of Turner holding a microphone in a mini-dress and high heels was a clear sign of her global influence.

Having visited the country regularly since 2006 and even living there for periods of time, I was not surprised to see Turner honoured in this way in an Albanian city.

During my time there, I would often hear American rock music in cafés, bars and lounges. On windy roads from north to south I would sit next to bus and van drivers who continuously played rock music – and often Turner’s music – on their radios, singing along to all the lyrics. “We Albanians love rock ‘n’ roll,” people would exclaim. “For us, this music is the best!”

I remember once sitting in a café near my apartment in central Albania as the owner played songs from Turner’s Private Dancer album. I started singing along and when our eyes met, he gave a thumbs-up and said, “Kjo është më e mira [She is the best]!”

Turner never performed a single concert in Albania, but she is an icon of freedom and power in the eyes of many Albanians.

There are several reasons behind the extensive appreciation of Turner in Albania and other parts of Eastern Europe.

For nearly 47 years, Albania experienced what many have argued was the most restrictive communist regime in Eastern Europe. The country’s dictator, Enver Hoxha, ruled the country with an iron fist and worked to cut all contact between Albanians and the Western world. Movement outside the country was very restricted, and internal movement was also tightly controlled. The state-run radio and television stations broadcast little other than state propaganda. Access to music and media from other countries was severely limited, and while some residents made covert attempts to access Western popular culture, many did not because the consequences of breaking the law were severe.

Hoxha died in 1985. In the years following his death, communism in Albania, like elsewhere in Eastern Europe, slowly began to unravel, and the country started to open itself up to the West. The early 1990s, the era in which Albanians started to have regular exposure to Western music, coincided with the height of Tina Turner’s long and illustrious career.

As the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Turner came to represent in Eastern Europe the freedoms of the West in a period marked by optimism and anticipation for a better future. Albania was the last country to officially topple its communist regime in 1991, and many of these efforts were led by young people eager to connect with and participate in the global community. Despite the regime’s fall, movement out of Albania was not necessarily easy, and many people faced challenges as they tried to navigate new terrains. But the circulation of music was one outlet that allowed Albanians to travel and imagine in new ways.

Turner’s personal story of perseverance and strength, surviving years of domestic abuse to become a superstar, also resonated with the people of Eastern Europe, who suffered several deadly conflicts and waves of displacement in the decades after the fall of state socialism. Turner’s life story and music gave millions across the region hope.

On a 2021 episode of Australia’s The Voice, for example, British-Albanian singer Rita Ora was moved to tears after a contestant’s performance of Turner’s cover of Proud Mary. Ora spoke about her childhood struggles growing up in the United Kingdom and feeling so different from those around her. She said Turner was her inspiration and idol during this difficult time.

Despite never making it to Albania to see her statue, Turner visited Eastern Europe several times during her long career. She gave a concert in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1975. She also performed in Bulgaria and Poland in the 1980s. Her performance in Poland in 1981 was especially well received because it provided a brief escape from suffocating political and economic crises.

Turner’s statue in Durrës was reportedly removed during a reconstruction project in 2022 and is still waiting to be relocated. Despite the temporary removal of the statue – which had become a tourist attraction in its own right as many tourists visited the Durrës promenade to take photos with her – Turner’s legacy lives on in Albania.

Popular Albanian music artists like Era Rusi have released covers of Turner’s songs, such as The Best. Even younger generations of Albanians, who are not familiar with the role she played in lifting people’s spirits in the 1980s and 90s, appear to be equally fond of the American singer. In 2019, a contestant performed Turner’s Proud Mary on Albania’s The Voice Kids to an enthusiastic audience. And people across the country have been listening and dancing to Turner’s music at weddings and family gatherings. Her music videos too are still being streamed regularly by many in the region.

Turner was a legend – a giant. How did a Black, American woman born in the 1930s US South go on to amass this type of fame in Eastern Europe? Her popularity speaks to her talent and the force of her voice. But it also speaks to her tenacity, her passion and the appeal of her message of strength, freedom and perseverance.

This week, Turner’s fans are mourning her death, but no doubt, despite her physical absence, her legacy will live on in Albania and across the world. (Al Jazeera)

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