Politics Of Dance – Unum Festival Expands Albania’s Cultural Offer

Albania probably isn’t on your holiday destination bucket list but Unum, the festival that attracts dance music fans from around the globe, may well be the catalyst for a change in perception, something that the Albanian government are keen to encourage. We met Grego O’Halloran, one of the faces behind the festival to discover how a career promoting in Ibiza led to the opportunity to put Albania on the music tourism map.

Liverpool-born Grego O’Halloran first visited Ibiza in 1999, and eventually ended up staying. What may have started as a lifestyle choice soon became a choice to build a life there, raising 3 children whilst managing a career in club and party promotion; as others came and went, he stayed for longer, then he stayed permanently, in his own words “I figured it’s better to struggle over here and raise my kids here, then struggle probably in the UK.” Over the years he’s worked for most of the recognisable brands and artists serving his apprenticeship from poster and flyer duties with Clockwork Orange and developing a reputation, O’Halloran continues: “I kind of did absolutely everything, everything that goes into promoting a party the old school way. I guess the main difference was a lot of people do that in the city they’re from or the city they study in; I just happened to be doing it in Ibiza, so obviously you end up doing it for the biggest clubs in the world, the biggest promoters in the world, I still pinch myself and it’s still strange really. But I know people who started off as poster boys and two years later they were running some of the biggest events in Amnesia or in Space or whatever. So, it’s a little bit of time, a little bit of sacrificing and being in the right place at the right time and doing all those things.”

 Time, sacrifice, right place, right time, hard work and as O’Halloran puts it, the ability “to be able to not piss too many people off” over a decade and a half can build an impressive array of contacts, especially when coupled with work in marketing, media, PR and ticketing; contacts and friendships that can pay dividends when opportunities arise, which leads to an explanation of his involvement in Unum:

“It’s actually to try and create a scene, and where and the festival came from is literally just an extension of contacts from Ibiza. Another partner, Musa, who remained in a business I worked for, Secret Society, he invited me to come and be part of a festival over there [in Albania]. They needed someone with international knowledge of PR, press marketing and ticketing. Someone who could be a bit more of an international face, because the people behind it are from Kosovo, from Albania, from the Balkans and, because I trust Musa, I didn’t really think twice, it was like ‘right, that sounds absolutely amazing.’ And the main reason, other than getting involved and working with people I like working with, was because of how much of a challenge it was going to be. Really, if I’m being honest, it was it was the fact that this is something completely new. You get in on the ground floor, the whole scene is embryonic, It’s Croatia 20 years ago, Ibiza 40 years ago, and there’s a chance to create the scene, not just go there, do an event and leave.

“I’m a real fierce dance music culturalist, if that’s the right phrase, I’m passionate. Essentially, it’s given me everything important in my life; living in in Ibiza, even my family, everything’s come through dance music culture, which sounds kind of strange, but it’s true. All my friends are working the scene in some way or another, and it’s really important to me. I’m not saying that I’m going to go and spread the word and preach to these people in the Balkans about how amazing it is, but I know that what dance music culture has given to me and I know that especially where Albania and the Balkans are at this stage in their development, having had wars [30] years ago, coming through that and being independent, wanting to be in the EU and so on. I know that these are the types of things that can underpin and cement a little bit of their own cultural identity, because those things are there and have been part of their culture as well. It’s not like it’s never happened in Albania but there just isn’t a club scene in the same way that there is in London or New York.

With partners that are firmly entrenched in the Balkan club scene, enjoying freedoms that the likes of London and Berlin haven’t seen for decades, the flexibility to develop a festival on their own terms was an obvious attraction and Albania, with its choice of stunning coastal sites, ideally situated between Greece and Croatia yet undiscovered by many, was the chosen destination. Of course, to some, the name Albania conjures negative views, but O’Halloran’s views are borne of real experience and an understanding of its past, its present and its future aspirations of EU membership and the political improvements that entails. It has a government that are keen on transition and they were keen to support Unum, understanding the tourism benefits that it can bring; he explains:

“The partners in Kosovo spoke to the [tourism] ministry and the ministry was obviously very keen. The Ministry and the government have been behind almost everything that we do, whatever we needed, permits, clearance, there’s a truck stuck at the border without the right paperwork…’right, we’ll get it through;’ that was the sound system in the first year, we’ve really used that relationship because we also know that in return, if you put a festival on with 70 or 80 DJs,  some of the best DJs in particular scenes, sought after artists, if you do that in an uncharted area where people want to have an adventure, the tickets are cheap and the accommodations cheap and everything else, and you say it’s going to be a nonstop party for five days…” A point well made, in incentive to visit and perhaps see a little more of the country.

O’Holloran is realistic about the prospects of 5 days of raving ending in a week long tour of Albania’s extensive array of World Heritage sites, but international media interest in their events has prompted pre-event press trips to ensure coverage of the area’s wider appeal. He gives a prime example; “Vogue Italy came to the first edition. Why would Vogue Italy want to come and do that? It’s because there are famous fashion designers from Albania, there are pop stars like Dua LIPA and Rita Ora from Kosovo. So, there’s a whole thing happening there where it’s more than more than the sum of the parts, I think we’re just trying to join the dots, put Albania on the map a and just say, look, here’s what’s going on. And what’s been nice is in the last year, you’ll see other media start to mention the festival in the same way that Exit is, the flagship for Serbia. I know it’s very different and the size of Exit is huge, but already we’re already seeing the signs. The Washington Post, they did an article about us being first festival back after the pandemic, and the government couldn’t believe that they were in the Washington Post, this festival and made it all the way there. And it was just great, it was great.”

Of course, operating in an untapped market can bring challenges when it comes to finding suppliers, but there can be perceived advantages in the absence of any regulatory framework, which is something that the Unum team were keen to address, as O’Halloran states ““That’s definitely the case when it comes to things like sustainability and how we interact with the locals, employment programs, because what we do is put in place processes which we hope will become the precedent of how it works in future. So that, for example, when, when someone local in three years’ time says, I want to build my own festival, it could be a wine festival, could be whatever festival, they can look at us as an example, as a beacon. Some of those things like sustainability, waste management, how you employ people, customer service, health and safety, that knowledge will be there now”

We return to an earlier point, the 2021 edition being the first post-pandemic festival, and how that was achieved; once again, O’Halloran’s extensive work portfolio comes into play: “Last summer I got involved in a company, Swallow Events, we were the first events company to offer rapid testing for events. Backed by that and speaking to the Albanian government, we were able to say ‘we can do this, we can confirm security, we can confirm everyone’s going to be okay’. That really put us in a position where the government said, okay, you can do the festival. This was in December 2020 last year when it was peak Covid time, and we were like, right, we’re, we’re good to go, we’re going to do it. So from January to June, we promoted the festival, there was no ‘we’ll wait and see you get a refund’ and that just created this wave of positivity in people who were like, ‘I’m coming to this’.”

It seems that many overseas attendees made it their mission to attend, circumventing their own national travel restrictions with circuitous routes or applying to be one of the festival’s many volunteers, making what O’Halloran describes as unbelievable efforts to be there. He continues: “Everyone who was there had gone through something to get there. It wasn’t just like, I’m going down the road in Manchester to go to Parklife, they had a mission to get there, though security and border control and getting out and worrying if it’s going to happen, to go to somewhere they don’t really know very well at all. The first couple of days you just like you could really feel something…again, it’s a bit soppy to say it, but that’s what I live for, to see people at an event enjoying themselves as much as they possibly can, especially in a time like that, when it was a real treat. It was a real release of pressure and stress and anxiety, a lot of people were going through really bad situations and probably lost people or lost job… So for everyone to come together in that way, it was just great.”

As well as playing its part in promoting Albania as a destination, the Unum booking policy includes artists from the Balkans: “There was a scene that was on the on the cusp, perhaps a little push over the edge, and they needed a platform. What’s been amazing is that we’ve been able to actually bring through in the last two or three years, a lot of these artists, I’m involved with helping some of them on other gigs, and we manage a couple of them. They’ve started doing back to backs and producing with some of the bigger artists who came, because obviously one thing with artists is that even if you’re at the top of the tree, you hear something and you like something musically or artistically, you don’t really care who it is. You ask, ‘who’s this? What’s this? What’s going on here?’ And a lot of those big-name artists have done collaborations now with the local ones and it’s fused together really amazingly.”

We round off a rich conversation with our usual two questions, the artist that gets you out of the production office and out front, and the organiser’s choice of footwear. The first answer comes easy, Shimza, perhaps not  just for the content but the anticipation of programming a set timed perfectly for a sunset over the beach stage. We then turn to footwear, with O’Halloran seemingly falling into the same trap as our previous club-turned-festival promoters at JBM: “Oh, this is such an interesting question, because last year I on the first day I wore a pair of Nike Air Max that I always wear and, but they’re quite narrow. My feet, by the end of the first day, which is a long day, was 16 hours on my feet because I’m everywhere. I’m on the door, we don’t have buggies, we don’t have walkie talkies even, we just use phone, and yeah, by the end, my feet were really battered and bruised. So now I’ve gone for comfortable running shoes is kind of what I go for. Obviously we’ve also had a few problems with rain at the festival, the first year it rained quite a lot, second year there was a little bit of rain so I’ve always got a pair of boots somewhere; not wellies, but just a pair of sturdier boots I can put on if I need to.”

Every festival organiser is aware of the positive impacts that their events can have, especially on local economies, but the effect of Unum on Albania seems to extend beyond the economic towards playing a part in political adjustment and changes in overseas perceptions, as well as creating a blueprint for new events in the region. Unum: One out of many.