Hardship was a familiar song for Gert Kumi. The rasping, discordant tune spilled daily from the lips of his people. From 1944 to 1991 Albanians bowed under the weight of oppression. Communism muted the peaceful, spirited refrains of liberty and justice. When religion was declared unconstitutional in 1967, Albania became the first and only Atheist country. But Gert shared something else with his people: the will to overcome.
In a small house in Albania’s capital, Tirana, Gert lived with a huddle of immediate and extended family; nine in all. At age two he was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia. For several years daily blood transfusions were his only savior. By age five, doctors said he would not live. The following year, surgeons removed his disproportionately large spleen, saving his life and making his illness manageable. But Gert was still frail and restricted from many normal childhood activities. Among his favorite was making music.
As a boy, Gert liked to whistle the soundtrack of his favorite Indian hero movie, but his mother often shushed him. She feared his whistling would get them in trouble with the government. Listening to music and watching movies that were not Albanian were crimes worthy of severe punishment. Yet Gert could not be contained. Fascinated with his older sister’s violin, Gert says he “would go into her room, lock the door, and start making incredible noises on her instrument. She would run to my mom and complain about me.”
At just 8-years-old, Gert’s musical aptitude proved undeniable. His school held a nationwide music audition, in which a relative at the school entered him, without his parent’s knowledge. It didn’t matter that Gert didn’t have an instrument. He hummed, whistled, and clapped through the audition, surpassing 200 music students for first place entrance into the best music school in Albania. “That’s how I started playing violin,” says Gert. And he knew he would never stop.
By age 12, Gert won four consecutive national music competitions and played the most difficult violin concertos. He was 14 when he toured Europe as the concertmaster of his school chamber orchestra. “It fed my ego to have so much attention all over Europe,” says Gert. His talent privileged him as one of the few Albanians allowed to leave the country. “Our passports belonged to the government because they were afraid of defectors,” says Gert. Only country representatives traveled abroad, including government officials and the best athletes and musicians.
As a boy, Gert liked to whistle the soundtrack of his favorite Indian hero movie, but his mother often shushed him. Listening to music and watching movies that were not Albanian were crimes worthy of severe punishment.
After several more trips under the supervision of Albanian security officers, Gert recognized the freedoms other countries enjoyed. Something within him began to shift. “Albania was poor, with a poor infrastructure,” Gert says. “It was isolated with a very oppressive regime. That was enough difficulty to move.” He entertained thoughts of defecting, but the punishment was too severe. Families of defectors often served 10 to 20 years in a labor camp.
In 1989 after a trip to Austria, Gert felt a deeper, soulish craving. “I discovered a hunger in me to learn more about God,” he says. The only religion Gert knew was the remnant of his parent’s Muslim traditions. “I didn’t know how to fill the hunger, so I got the Quran and read it hoping for answers.” Every night he and his sister recited Arabic prayers before bed. “I had no clue what I was praying, but I felt very religious,” says Gert. When he fell asleep before finishing his prayers, guilt nudged him awake the next morning to finish. When the Quran did not satisfy his strange hunger, he devoured every religious document available to him. But the questions, the curiosity, and the craving remained.
The year 1991 was important for Albania, politically and religiously. The fall of communism brought every kind of religious organization through its newly opened doors. “I remember walking home from school one day,” says Gert. “In the city center was this huge banner.” He stopped mid-stride at its message: God Loves Albania. This was big news to Gert. He says, “I grew up hearing God was dead. Religion was forbidden in Albania, so no one dared to do or say anything religious in public.”
That summer, Christian missionaries held an evangelistic crusade in Tirana. And on a rainy afternoon in a soccer stadium, Gert heard the Gospel for the first time. He recalls, “It started raining and people started leaving. A guy with us prayed, ‘Lord I want you to stop this rain so the people will stay and hear your message.’” Two minutes later the rain stopped. “That meant something to me,” says Gert. He went home excited to read his very own Albanian translation of the New Testament. He didn’t know what he had been searching for until he found it in the Gospels. Several days later, without discussion or doubt, he accepted its message, and Christ as his Savior.
Over the next three years Gert felt a new stirring. He joined Tirana’s first ever evangelical church and became a member of the worship team. “The Lord started to change my heart about using my music for his glory,” says Gert. In 1998 he saw himself in a vision playing in front of medium-sized crowds where people experienced physical and emotional restoration. For a musician used to Europe’s prestigious concert halls and the adoration of the media and large crowds, this was stunning and humbling. He says, “I didn’t know what to do with the vision, so I said, ‘OK Lord, you’re going to have to show me.’”
Twelve years, a full scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music, and many divine encounters later, Gert is living the vision. He has played in some of the most esteemed venues around the world, as well as classical music festivals, local churches, and private worship gatherings. Through his performances, God has orchestrated his own restorative symphonies.
In 2002, Gert visited Albanian acquaintances in Colorado Springs when they invited over friends from their church for a home worship session. “They turned to me and said, ‘Play!’,” says Gert, “’Play what?’ I asked. ‘Lead us in worship!’.” Gert played for the next hour and a half, during which he was drawn to play for one woman, in particular, whom he’d never met. “She came to me afterward and said she was from Denver and the Lord told her to come to the meeting.” The woman suffered from severe, chronic arthritis and reported relief from the pain while Gert played. Not knowing how to process this information, Gert stepped back and thanked her for sharing her story.
Gert had a similar encounter three years later. While living in Staten Island, New York, Gert played his violin for a mid-week worship mingle called “Lunch with the Lord.” Every Wednesday at noon, people drifted in and out as their lunch hours permitted. “The prayer coordinator at the church had just been diagnosed with shingles,” says Gert. Her doctor gave her medication along with a six month healing prognosis. In her desperation she came to “Lunch with the Lord,” where Gert was directed, by the music minister, to play over her. Shortly afterward the woman reported her doctor gave her a clean bill of health. “She attributed the healing to the worship session and gave a public testimony,” says Gert. “It was the first time the healing had been verified by a doctor.”
Gert says he has seen the Lord use his music in other meaningful ways, not just when he plays in a worship context. He believes the Lord uses the sounds of his violin to reach deep into the hearts and minds of his listeners. And the many stories of relief and restoration as a result of his playing have testified to this. “I believe my violin is an instrument of praise and worship,” says Gert.
From a sickly oppressed boy to a man of God, Gert is humbled and grateful for the work the Lord has done in his own life. “Here I am,” he says, “this guy in the most isolated and oppressed communist country on the face of the earth. Yet God brought down an entire system so that I could know him and dedicate my violin to him. Isn’t that amazing?”
Gert believes he has seen only a fraction of what God has in store for him. He lives every day to see lives transformed through his story and to share his new song: a sweet melody of redemption.