Creating connections through music

Amongst the songs glorifying sensuality and greed produced in Pristina, Kosovo, one music label is going against the flow: Shtёpia Records.

Amongst the songs glorifying sensuality and greed produced in Pristina, Kosovo, one music label is going against the flow: Shtёpia Records, whose logo references the parable of the houses built on rock and sand in Matthew 7:24-27. “’Shtёpia’ means ‘house’ in Albanian. We’re pointing both to the spiritual message and the fact that we record in our own home, ” explains Aaron Smith, who co-founded Shtёpia Records in 2017 with his wife Pepa.

Aaron and Pepa lead OM’s team in Pristina and are full-time musicians who help birth music from within Kosovo’s small evangelical church scene — from writing worship songs in community to the studio production process to making that music freely available within churches so that adults and children can worship Jesus in their own language and culture. And through the reach of social media, the songs are spreading outside of Kosovo into the Albanian diaspora in Europe and beyond.

The special touch of music in a heart language

“Music creates a bridge between people and is such an easy way to start a conversation, especially if it’s beautiful. Somehow, people receive a message more readily from a song than from speech,” reflects Pepa. “Music is a very wonderful tool God has given us,  a way to connect with Him. In a Muslim-majority country like this,  for some people that may be a new idea.”

When the couple started working, there were relatively few original songs in the Albanian language, so that many Kosovar churches relied on translated songs from English or other languages.  Ethnomusicologists Heart Sounds International, now Inspiro Arts Alliance, worked with Aaron and Pepa to put on creative workshops in 2018 and 2019, twice in Kosovo and once in Albania. The couple have since run further workshops, with over 40 participants writing, singing and playing, generating dozens of worship songs in Albanian and helping build friendships between local believers in different churches.

A unique creative process

“The beautiful thing Heart Sounds taught us,” explains Aaron, “is how to create in community.” At the workshops, Aaron and Pepa gather several groups of four or five individuals who’ve been meditating on different topics and Bible passages. Not everyone needs to be an incredible musician or singer; maybe someone knows the Bible well or can write lyrics, or just has inspiring ideas. Anyone interested in the creative process can participate; their recent workshop included visual artists working on the same themes, encouraging others to experiment, expressing worship through visual art.

“We believe everyone can be creative, and create with us, even if they had never been considered ‘artists’ before, by themselves or others. They’re working together as the body of Christ, “ says Pepa. With a broad smile she adds, “God really delights in that.”

Disciples as learners

Pepa’s own story explains her passion for encouraging others. During the Kosovo conflict, she and her mother (then a nominal Muslim) were refugees in Germany when her mother started dreaming of Jesus. Returning to Kosovo, she became a believer and took Pepa (at the time eight years old) to church meetings. By age 10, Pepa was a believer herself and had studied piano for two years in music school — with extra training from the church worship leader — and was playing in the worship group. In 2007, aged 12, she was invited by the church leaders to lead worship after the existing worship leader moved to Albania. “Being trusted by adults at an early age to handle responsibility helped me to grow personally in maturity,” Pepa recalls. “I was always nurtured in developing my gifts.” She and Aaron believe disciples will always be learners, with a humble attitude.

Messages of hope for the hopeless

In one of Europe’s poorest nations, can songs bring hope to people ground down by deprivation and deep disappointment? Pepa explains that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 was seen as a new dawn. Kosovars were finally free to govern themselves — after years of being governed by Serbia, or following the conflict of 1999, domination by the international community. But endemic corruption and ‘bad’ politicians have since shattered people’s dreams, and Pepa sees the innate resilience of her fellow Kosovars being replaced by a profound hopelessness, affecting every generation.

Shtёpia Records songs' positive themes chime with people discouraged by the overt sensuality of secular pop music. “One of our songs is called “Shpresё ne Ty” (Hope in You), about finding hope and comfort in God amid our suffering and sadness, and this has proved a great conversation starter,” says Pepa. Ardita, a workshop participant, was chatting about music with her beauty therapist, who complained about the terrible sensuality of music, nothing good to help the soul. Ardita showed the girl videos of the songs she’d helped create, and they caused a sensation — no one in the salon knew ‘spiritual’ songs existed. Another song called “Shpresё” (Hope) is popular on social media for OM team-mate and rapper ‘C-Style’.

The powerful reach of social media

Promotion of songs across social media platforms is a key task for Aaron after recording, production and videography is complete. Analytics suggest that Shtёpia Record’s songs are heard not only by Albanian-speakers across the Balkans, but in the large Albanian diaspora in western Europe and the USA. All the songs (including lyrics and chord charts) can be downloaded via their own website, YouTube, Spotify — any music streaming platform. Every resource is free for everybody, with no permission needed from Shtёpia Records.

Although they lose control once a song is on the internet, Aaron comments that it’s an interesting phenomenon. “It feels like we ‘let it go free’. We let God use it however He wants to.” TikTok is an example — whilst Aaron and Pepa have never put their songs on the app, they can be used in TikTok videos because of its links to various streaming services. Streams of Shtёpia Record’s songs have mushroomed into the millions, and Aaron discovered that many people use their songs (such as “Shpresё ne Ty”), perhaps unaware they’re Christian.

Working within government restrictions

Islamic radicals are a small minority of the population but they are very active on social media platforms. Islamic State became very influential during the Syrian conflict, attracting disaffected young Kosovars to Syria, even whole families. This has had a big impact on the way religions can practise in Kosovo. For example, the Kosovo authorities, fearing terrorism and wishing to be seen as strictly secular, clamped down hard on street outreach such as Muslims handing out Qur’ans in Pristina’s main pedestrian area, and open-air preaching by Christians and other faith groups. There is freedom of religion and no state persecution, but it is illegal to proselytize under 18s. Shtёpia Record’s music ministry for children – Juhuu Kidz, designed for ages 2-10 – has proved a valuable resource for Christian ministries and families, and a very effective outreach tool for the small evangelical community in Kosovo.

Songs children love

There are few out-of-school activities — especially in rural areas — so dozens of children from non-believing or Muslim backgrounds attend church-led kids’ clubs on Fridays or Saturdays. Written invites make it clear that children will be coming to an evangelical church event, and they will hear about God and Jesus. Summer camps are also very popular and leaders report how youngsters adore Juhuu Kidz songs because they’re in Albanian, easy and fun to sing and have a clear message. Pepa and Aaron have been blessed by videos and messages from camps thanking them for the songs. A children’s song for Christmas has also been created in community. “We’re not aware of any other original Christmas music for kids in Albanian, which is crazy to think about,” says Pepa. “It feels like we’re part of some pioneering work!”

Thoughts for the future

The couple are praying about developing relationships with non-believers in the secular music industry, hoping the professionalism of their recorded songs will earn them an audience. “We’re also thinking about the media, and educational resources for kids – there’s so little for kids even in the secular sphere,” notes Pepa.

Aaron and Pepa also envision working with churches around the country, seeing their needs and how they can help, walking alongside worship leaders and involving more people in workshops; “We’re convinced that spiritual formation and discipleship happen in community, lived out in daily life,” says Aaron.

“The classical way of ‘doing missions’ doesn’t always fit with how an ‘artist’ does it,” concludes Pepa. ”But we know God’s called us to this, although we don’t yet know the results of what we’re sowing – but it’s not just about what the music achieves, but the process of creating it in community, with all these different local Christians who have changed and grown through that process, and have been strengthened in their own witness to others about the Lord”.

Pray with us for more original Albanian songs to be made. Pray that people will come to know Jesus through music and media and for local believers to be united through worship and creativity. 

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