The Story of Sevdalinke, Part III: The Music Today

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The Story of Sevdalinke, Part III: The Music Today
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The Story of Sevdalinke, Part III: The Music Today
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The Story of Sevdalinke, Part III: The Music Today
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The Story of Sevdalinke, Part III: The Music Today
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When the shooting stopped in Bosnia, roughly 100,000 lay dead, many more were wounded, and one million refugees had fled. A fragile peace took hold following the 1995 Dayton Accords, with the country split along ethnic lines into separate Serb, Croat and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) entities. In the intervening years, journalists have described the country, and its dysfunctional politics, as “broken,” “shattered,” “fragmented” and “scarred.” They have run out of adjectives now, and the divided house has become home for the three fractious groups that had once been the most numerous nationalities in the entire Yugoslavia.

It is a poor country, with youth unemployment above 60 percent, and the enforced multi-ethnic harmony of the Tito years is a distant memory in the largely mono-ethnic enclaves. Even so, Sarajevo still lives up to its reputation as a relaxed city; crowded cafés and bustling streets project an air of open-mindedness, masking the deeper tensions that existed well before Ivo Andrić, the Bosnian-born Nobel laureate, wrote his prescient short story A Letter from 1920, describing in Lenore Grenoble’s translation how “…there are few countries with such firm belief, elevated strength of character, so much tenderness and loving passion, such depth of feeling, of loyalty and unshakeable devotion, or with such a thirst for justice. But in secret depths underneath all this hide burning hatreds, entire hurricanes of tethered and compressed hatreds maturing and awaiting their hour.”

Istanbul still meets Vienna in the center of Sarajevo, and houses of worship from Europe’s major religions stand within a single square kilometer, a rich history that draws tourists who also soak up the “post-war” vibe, kept alive by the ruined buildings, the coffee pots and cups fashioned from artillery shells, the bullet casings converted to pens. Hollywood stars are occasional visitors, and I was not at all surprised to see a photograph of Angelina Jolie trying on a necklace hanging in the window of a jewelry store in the Ottoman quarter.

This post-war chic has less appeal for the survivors, and many of Bosnia’s war children have grown into adulthood abroad, or still dream of leaving. Some, however, stayed behind, becoming a part of a new generation of sevdah singers to bring the music onto the world stage. It is their music, and their country, now.

I walk down Zelenih Beretki Street, named for Bosnia’s elite wartime green beret unit, past youth hostels and high-end cafés, the solid wall of the Dinaric Alps’ steep foothills visible through the alleys across from the river on my right. The bright sun illuminates my destination — the stylish Hotel Europe, a small piece of Vienna opened in 1882 and lavishly reconstructed after the war, its exterior partially encased in glass. The sleek facade is a sharp contrast to the grand first floor café, manned by a rearguard of Austro-Hungarian waiters in black suits and bow ties that appear to have been stranded when the empire collapsed.

There, I meet Amira Medunjanin, the prima donna of Bosnia’s sevdah revival. She looks the part in opaque sunglasses and red lipstick, her face framed by a charcoal scarf and short, spiked hair a deeper black. Though Bosnia’s sevdah singers no longer attain the iconic status they held in Tito’s time, Amira is nonetheless a star, and, unlike the somewhat questionable output of the computerized Balkan pop machine, her work has achieved inter-generational appeal. Over the past decade, she has recorded five albums and headlined in Sarajevo’s annual jazz and sevdah festivals. Patrons whisper and point as we sit down under the chandeliers at a table by a wall of dark wood paneling and high windows.

Before fame, before the war, before everything, she was girl growing up in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, listening to her mother sing sevdah along to the radio at the tail end of the Tito era.

“Almost every house, in the street, in the summertime especially, they would have their doors open so you could hear the radio music coming from their houses. At the time when I was born it was the most popular music really, the most appreciated music.”

Medunjanin, now 42, had a special affinity for the old songs from the legendary singers – Nada Mamula and Himzo Polovina were favorites — and picked up the lyrics quickly, even as a child, though she never gave any thought to singing professionally. She studied economics and accounting instead, along with English and Russian, at the University of Sarajevo, eyeing a solid career in the bureaucracy of socialist Yugoslavia. Her college years were interrupted when war broke into the city in 1992, pushing aside thoughts of grades and sensible degrees with the new reality of violence, black markets, smugglers, U.N. peacekeepers and international aid. Foreign languages, particularly English, were at a premium, providing a lifeline for young people like Medunjanin who leveraged their skills into hard currency jobs with the charitable organizations that set up shop in the city. She hustled her way through the war as a translator for the U.N. and other organizations, took a job as an accountant in a duty free shop, anything to provide money and food for her family and friends.

Medunjanin was among the many amateur war time musicians, and she still recalls singing the old sevdah songs beneath Sarajevo, though it had nothing to do with performing, and everything to do with maintaining her humanity and trying to forget the snipers above, the market bombing that could have killed her, the corpses. Underground, there was music and laughter among the ruins, hope of better days to come.

“During the war, everything was very intense. Everything around you is very intense, your emotions become very open and you cannot hide them in certain situations. Sometimes you have nothing to do, you spend your time with your friends and family in a basement, covering yourself from shells. Complete dark, with some candles if you can find them, if you have them. Just to cheer ourselves up a bit I was singing with friends. One of my friends had a guitar and we would gather together for little concert performances. It was just, as they say, this kind of music is really created, I believe, to make you a better person if you understand it properly, and to help you ease the pain.”

Amira Medunjanin. (Photo credit: Alfred Kueppers)
Amira Medunjanin. (Photo credit: Alfred Kueppers)

Thus the siege years. Afterwards, a sort of normalcy set in. Working with foreigners during the conflict had brought her British-accented English close to perfection, leading to a full-time job as a translator with the European Commission. She met Bekim Medunjanin, who had been active in the wartime music scene and they married in 2001.

Elsewhere, in Mostar, another survivor and sevdah enthusiast, Dragi Šestić, was putting together Mostar Sevdah Reunion, an assembly of leading players from before the war intent on updating the region’s music with a more contemporary sound. Bosnia was still a hot media topic in those early post-war years, and there was a large public of potential listeners who had closely followed news of the break-up of Yugoslavia. The group’s first album, released in 1999, was well-received on the world music scene, and many Bosnian musicians took notice. Medunjanin was among the group’s early fans, admiring how Šestić successfully broke unwritten rules relating to performance style and instrumental accompaniment, proving in the process that there was an audience for modern interpretations of the songs.

Encouraged by her husband, she decided to re-interpret the iconic Radio Sarajevo sound and contacted Šestić, who invited her to appear on Mostar Sevdah Reunion’s 2003 album, A Secret Gate. The exposure inspired her to continue, and she issued her debut album, Rosa, in 2005. She refers to this first album now as an “homage to tradition,” and has since developed a style that mixes jazz and pop influences into sevdah standards. Her voice ranges from husky erotic whispers to clear high notes, accompanied by piano, double bass, drums, guitar and accordion. In recent years she has toured widely across the Balkans and the rest of Europe, where a mix of Yugoslav exiles and world music fans come to hear her perform. The refugees sometimes sing along, and the foreigners cry without understanding a word.

While Western critics have gushed over “the Balkan Billie Holiday,” conservative Bosnians have been slow to embrace Medunjanin and the new generation of performers, including Damir Imamović, who has recorded a handful of albums with his trio and provided guest vocals for Bosnian-language rapper Frenkie. “I don’t know what it is,” a singer in his late fifties told me, “But it is not sevdah.”

In part because of the strong feelings sevdah engenders in her native city, Medunjanin declined invitations to perform at home until she appeared at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival in 2008, where she was a huge success, later releasing the performance as a live album.

“People in Sarajevo, there are traditionalists that are not happy with what I am doing, or what Damir is doing, you know? There will always be those people there, but I am not doing it for the sake of being remembered as someone who creates trouble to traditionalists. I am doing it for a completely different purpose.”

Medunjanin is a self-appointed ambassador, promoting what she terms a “sweeter side” of the Balkans to the wider world. She is an innovator, not a curator, bringing sevdah to new listeners and showing the old the way forward, whether or not they are ready to follow.

“If the song, as that, survives, that’s proof it was good. OK? And then at some point it will be upgraded by some other new, younger generations of performers…Traditionalists, I respect them, fine, that’s their own opinion, but the moment I feel like I shouldn’t be doing it any more, I will quit immediately. The moment I feel I have nothing more to say, I have no more ideas, I will say, ‘OK, that’s it, I am not continuing doing this,’ I will go back to my office and work from eight o’clock. But I have the feeling that there is so much more to be done.”

There are subtle political gestures as well: her recent albums, Amulette and Silk and Stone, reach out across the Balkans, with songs from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. She denies that this is an effort to re-create the old Yugoslavia, but, like many in Bosnia, Medunjanin recalls Tito’s federation fondly. They are a mixture of happy childhood memories and the contrast between the peace and tranquility of those years and the war that followed.

“I cannot lie, somewhere deeply hidden in my heart I still feel that all this area is my country. I just cannot take that out, it’s not that easy. I don’t feel like a stranger when I go to Croatia, I don’t feel like a stranger when I go to Serbia, when I go to Montenegro. I still feel like I’m home.”

Despite Yugoslavia’s now obvious flaws, its inability to heal ethnic divisions after World War II, the massive foreign debt, Tito’s country did serve as a model for many developing nations, achieving a higher standard of living than neighboring Romania and the Soviet Republics to the east. The old Partisan leader was a subtle peacetime strategist, playing the superpowers off against each other, attracting foreign investment and allowing his citizens to earn hard currency abroad. The glow of nostalgia is brightened by the harsh realities of today’s Bosnia, where manufacturing has not recovered from the war, and those who can find a job earn some of the lowest wages in Europe.

Roughly 300,000 refugees from the wars of the 1990s still live outside the borders of the former Yugoslavia, many of them Bosnians. One, Saša Stanišić, describes the fondness, tinged with irony, with which the older generation remembers the long-serving leader in his German-language novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone:

After his first death, Tito moved into our hearts with a small suitcase of speeches and essays and built an ostentatious villa out of ideas. Grandpa Slavko described the villa as follows: the walls are made of economic projects, the roof tiles are messages of peace, and through the red windows one can see a garden with poppies, blooming slogans about the future and a stream from which you can scoop unlimited amounts of credit. 

History has not ended in the Balkans. Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, followed by Croatia in the summer of 2013. Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and the other pieces of the old jigsaw puzzle are waiting in line. Someday, all of the borders in the territory will fall once again, and most of its inhabitants will speak a common language that they will not call Serbo-Croatian.

Sevdah again reflects the new realities. Medunjanin and Imamović frequently perform in Belgrade; what was unthinkable in the 1990s is now an ordinary gig. Audiences are ready to embrace the region’s diversity as the intense nationalism of recent decades cools. Medunjanin also continues to raise her profile abroad, using music to alter the dark and violent image of the Balkans recorded in newspapers and film. At the London Olympics she coordinated a project to bring musicians from 10 Balkan countries together for a performance on Trafalgar Square. A second concert followed in Sarajevo and now the group plans to perform in nine other Balkan capitals.

Though such projects bring it closer to the European mainstream and the amalgamating effects of its mass consumer culture, the Western Balkan remains a land apart on Europe’s brittle edge, the mystery not yet lost.

Medunjanin has received ovations in the distant capitals of London, Brussels and Oslo, but a piece of her is still back there, in the basements of Sarajevo, where the sevdalinke echoed from the walls and cast their eternal spell.

“I never actually had a moment of musical education in my life,” she confesses. “It’s just something given to me.”

The pale blue smoke from her long, thin Davidoff cigarette rises from the ashtray, veiling the air between us.

Alfred Kueppers

Alfred Kueppers is a former staff reporter with The Wall Street Journal Europe and the Reuters News Agency. He has more than a decade of experience as a foreign correspondent, working in Germany, Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. He is now a public information officer with an international government organization in Vienna focused on human rights, security and democratic governance. He can be reached at alfred.kueppers@gmail.com.

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