It’s summer in Sarajevo, and a drunk is sitting on the steps of the Sebilj fountain in the Baščaršija, the old bazaar quarter. He’s shirtless, showing off numerous tattoos of woman’s faces. He sits with a beer bottle in one hand, stubbing out burning cigarettes on the naked flesh of his arm and singing old songs.
All of a sudden, rising to some great emotional crescendo, the old drunk shuts his eyes tightly and smashes his beer bottle on the stone steps, the shards of glass cutting his hand. He smears the oozing blood onto his jeans and open shirt.
Witnessing this display, I knew I was seeing the peculiar Balkan mental state generated by emotionally charged sevdalinka, or sevdah, songs.
Western pop music is full of love songs, but broken hearts are taken more seriously here in the Balkans. Hence the music of sevdah: slow-paced Bosnian love songs that blend Eastern scales and melodies with Slavic soul. It has been the soundtrack of Sarajevo from Ottoman times to today; velvet-voiced, tragic songs of star-crossed lovers and love frustrated by unyielding traditional mores, of bećar (gallants) singing mournfully under the latticed windows of their ensconced lovers, discreetly veiled after the Muslim fashion.
Today, sevdalinkas are being given a new lease of life by a handful of Bosnian artists seeking to emancipate the songs from their traditional tavern settings and outdated themes. They are presenting sevdalinkas as serious music to be enjoyed not over a bottle of cheap rakija in the back of a bar, but savored soberly in a concert hall. Artists like Damir Imamović, Božo Vrećo, and and Amira Medjunjanin have given sevdalinkas—which were largely written off twenty years ago—a new relevance.
The word sevdah comes from the Arabic word sawda, meaning “black gall.” Ancient Arabic and Greek doctors thought that emotion was governed by four humors; black gall was the one responsible for melancholy moods. Sawda became sevda in Turkish and took on the meaning of a painful sort of love. The Bosnians added an “h,” and so sewda became sewdah.
Called the blues of Bosnia, sevdalinkas are often compared to American gospel and Portuguese fado. In Ottoman times, the songs were accompanied by the Turkish saz, a long-necked, lute-like instrument. Beginning with the Austrian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, the accordion became popular and prevailed during the 20th century.
Closely identified with Bosniak (or Bosnian Muslim) culture, and some say rooted in the sound of the ezan, or the Muslim call to prayer, these songs spread across the Balkans, adopted by Serbian kafana singers and Roma crooners such as Esma Redžepova.
Younger, urban Bosnians preferred Yugoslavian rock and punk
Traditionally, sevdalinkas were an informal affair. Family and friends would gather and someone would play an instrument—a clarinet, a guitar, an accordion—as they sang the old songs, eliciting merak (pleasure) for the soul. Sevdalinkas were not just songs about frustrated love; they were also songs about everyday life.
But in the years immediately preceding the Bosnian War, which erupted between 1992 and 1995, sevdalinka had entered a period of decline. Younger, urban Bosnians preferred Yugoslavian rock and punk, and the traditional songs were seen as decidedly unhip and old-school. Among the more rural youth, turbo-folk—a kind of high-octane, pop-folk mélange, blending cheesy synth with a folkish, melismatic vocal style and token accordion riffs—pushed sevdalinkas to the wayside.
But the war changed all that. Just as it sparked a revival of religious sentiment, it also breathed new life into the genre. Young people—many of whom were refugees in Slovenia, Germany, and Scandinavia—started embracing the old songs to assert an identity under threat. Pretty soon these soulful, traditional lyrics, mostly set in a distant, sepia-tinted Ottoman-era Sarajevo or Mostar, became the party songs of choice for a generation. As traditional as sevdalinkas appeared to be, they were in essence urban, multicultural songs, the expression of an “ideal Bosnia” that was being attacked from all sides.
This was also a time when Western world-music aficionados were getting interested in Balkan music and Yugo-nostalgic Balkan parties were springing up, not only in Slovenia, but among the diaspora in the cities of the West. Suddenly groups like Dertum, which played up-tempo sevdalinkas in alternative music clubs, realized that the sevdalinka and old folk songs from ex-Yugoslavia could be the path to success.
Once the war was over, sevdah music was well-placed to become the symbol of a country fighting to survive. In 1998, Mostar Sevdah Reunion was formed, a musical ensemble much loved in world-music circles.
According to Damir Imamović, an up-and-coming star of the new sevdah scene and grandson of famous sevdah crooner Zaim Imamović, Mostar Sevdah Reunion profited from fortunate circumstances. “They had a really good international support in terms of management,” says Imamović. “They were really close to Womex festival [the World Music Expo], they were really close to this international music business. And this model of Buena Vista Social Club—this idea of older musicians getting together—was already popular.”
This group helped to popularize sevdah traditions of the past. Now, new sevdalinka artists are twisting the subtext of these old songs, applying sevdalinkas—which traditionally grew out of a deeply patriarchal society—to modern life and modern mores, often adopting feminist and LGBT perspectives, which are still hard to fathom for some people in Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans.
At the forefront of new sevdah is the aforementioned Damir Imamović. Born in 1978 in Sarajevo, he began his career as a sevdah artist after working with a member of the band Dertum on a monograph about his grandfather. The book introduced Imamović to the world of sevdalinkas. Soon he started developing his own repertoire while performing in Bosnia and abroad. Imamović recalls the surprise that friends and colleagues expressed upon his announcing that he was embarking on a sevdah career.
“I remember vividly, when I started playing in 2005, when we announced the sevdah concert, people were like, ‘What the fuck? Sevdah concert? You are a really young guy. Why would you do sevdah?’”
In 2006, he put together the Damir Imamović Trio with Vanja Radoja on violin and Edvin Hadžić on double bass. Since 2012, Imamović has been performing with the Damir Imamović Sevdah Takht, together with Ivan Mihajlović on electric bass and Nenad Kovačić on percussion. This year, Imamović came out with his third album, Dvojka.
Belgrade ethnomusicologist Iva Nenić says that Imamović is quite a radical performer, though the subtleties of his innovations will probably escape someone who is not from the Balkans.
“Sevdalinka is usually perceived as an art form that is deeply patriarchal,” says Nenić. “The lyrics are about love or unhappiness regarding love. It has certain, let’s say, romantic, tragic contents. What Damir does is choose sevdalinka songs that are less known, and then his reading or interpretation actually brings some alternative meanings that today could be seen as relating to contemporary political issues. For example, there is a song, “Dva se Draga,” about a couple in love. But when he sings it, many people who belong to LGBT community in Serbia and in Bosnia see this song as a statement about love of people of the same gender.”
Imamović recalls that when he first approached organizers about putting on a sevdalinka concert, they had something entirely different in mind than what he was planning.
“I was really stubborn to make it chamber music,” he says. Traditionally, the music was played informally in bars and taverns. “I fought fights with local organizers to have a seated audience, who would be more patient and listen to songs and pay attention to the music. If you would say that you play sevdah in 2005 and 2006, people would say, ‘Oh great, we’ll find a brewery that will be our sponsor. We’ll have beer. You will have a standing audience, and it will be a party.’ And of course, you would play six sevdah songs and the rest would be lame, folksy tunes, ooompa-ooompa-ooompa.”
But today, Imamović says, audiences accept more formal settings and take the music seriously. He mentions the recent success of singer Amira Medjunjanin, who plays to rapt audiences. Imamović also mentions Božo Vrećo, another rising star on the sevdah scene. A Bosnian Serb singer from the town of Foča, he is less traditional even than his innovative friend and colleague Imamović. Vrećo is a gay man who often dresses in women’s clothing, something that is still almost unheard of in a culture that stresses traditional gender roles.
Professor Rašim Djurić, a frequent contributor to Bosnia’s leading Muslim journal, Preporod, and an expert on sevdah music, is an enthusiastic supporter of both Božo Vrećo and Damir Imamović.
“Božo Vrećo is a person who incorporates the persona of a girl or a sophisticated women together with a man,” says Djurić. “That is really unique, I have to say. I heard him only some days ago on YouTube. It’s really sophisticated. What I find particularly striking is that he can sing without musical accompaniment. A natural talent and a great soul.”
And Divanhana, a new group of young sevdah artists from Sarajevo, who formed in 2011, are reasserting sevdalinkas in a different way, trying to appeal to the next generation with upbeat songs.
“People really think of sevdah music as slow, melancholic music,” says pianist Neven Tunjić. “Like fado music. But sevdah is not all about that. There’s a lot of fast tunes. Fast rhythms.”
Last March, I had a chance to see Divanhana play at Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats party in Berlin. Soko is famous in the Balkan scene for his extremely up-tempo and highly danceable Balkan mixes. I was eager to see how the audience would react to some down-home sevdah, a music that has the reputation for being more melancholic. I was surprised to experience one of the wildest nights I can remember in the club.
“It was crazy,” says Tunjić, “because we actually don’t play in clubs that much. We usually play in concert halls, like theaters. These crazy clubs and DJ sounds are not that common for us. But the people just enjoyed that we had these really fast tunes. The reaction was great.”
But are sevdalinkas really party music? Isn’t sevdah about melancholy, not high-energy anthems? “It has to be said, sevdalinka is difficult,” says Djurić. “It’s a song of lamentation. It is full of pain. And a young man or woman of today can’t relate to it. In today’s world of instant gratification no one can relate to this longing after love.”
Somewhere around midnight on my last day in Sarajevo, I wandered past bleak, spectral war ruins, through the Baščaršija, listening to the rattle of the late-night trams clanging around corners. Loud folk music floated over the roofs of the quarter, and I followed the sound to some old war veterans sitting in a café, drinking coffee and singing sevdah songs in the moonlight, the soundtrack of Sarajevo for now.
Top image: Damir Imamović performing at World Music Expo 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by: Elekes Andor