The Story of Sevdalinke, Part I: The Saz

Standing at the sliding metal gate that shields his courtyard from the neighborhood, Ćamil Metiljević waves me inside. We shake hands and cross the hard stamped earth, heading straight back toward the woodpile, still more than six feet high at winter’s end, and turn right to enter the workshop. I ask him to write his name in my notebook, but he hands the black book to my translator who transcribes it for me.

Five beautiful lute-like instruments hang from the far wall, long thin necks of plum wood descending to a white oval face of spruce that covers a large light brown bowl of mulberry. In Bosnia, they are still called by their old Persian name, saz, though it was the Ottoman Turks who brought them to Europe more than five centuries ago in the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, who took Constantinople in 1453 before sending his armies north to control much of the Balkans in the next decade. Though they came as conquerors, the Turkish armies also brought an entire culture with them, and music was one of the major imports. The saz was originally an instrument of the ruling class, played in the courtyards of the nobility in Ottoman administrative centers such as Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Travnik, spreading out into the general population over the centuries. Metiljević, sixty-two, is the only man left in Sarajevo who still makes them, and I have driven out to the suburb of Hrasnica to see him.

He has large, strong hands and a sturdy build, wisps of black hair streaked with grey falling down out of his purple cap and onto his unshaven face. Though he lives close to the Bosnian capital, there is something of the country about his dirt-covered hiking boots, green pants, grey sweater and jacket over a button-down red shirt. His deep voice resounds when he speaks, and he punctuates his sentences with gestures, pointing to the sky and instructing:

“A saz must look like a rain drop.”

The luthier takes his favorite from the wall and caresses the bowl with his free hand to emphasize how the narrow top curves outward and descends to a smoothly rounded bottom.

Other than the radio and CD player on the shelf behind me, there are few signs of what we might call the modern world in his studio, which contains two sofas for guests, his red chair, a low coffee table, a cabinet filled with tools and old instruments, a wood-burning stove and a woodworking table with a vice at the far end. A hollowed out block of pale mulberry wood sits on the floor below the woodworking table, soon to become the resonator bowl of his next creation. The wood must dry for a year before Metiljević can use it. In order to remove the moisture, he carves a solid block until it is roughly the shape of a saz and fills it with wood ash to slowly draw out the remaining water. I follow him back outside to the woodpile where he displays three crudely cut pieces, filled with gray ash. He empties them every few weeks until the wood is ready.

Once it is dry, it takes only twenty days for Metiljević to assemble the instrument, chiseling away at the mulberry until it is 5 millimeters thick, then attaching the neck and face, sourcing everything locally save the steel wire for the strings, imported from Germany. He is self-taught, having mastered his craft over the past three decades after hearing the contemporary Turkish version of the saz and becoming enthralled by the big sound of its deep resonator. Now, he makes four or five every year, selling the larger pieces for more than $300.

“As I am old now, I don’t have anything to do in the winter,” he says. “If it is a long winter, I can even make six.”

His wife, silent in a colorful headscarf and glasses, slips in with a tray holding a copper pot of Turkish-style coffee, a large tumbler of sugar and three small porcelain cups. She places them on the table and exits without a word, the rich smell of coffee mixing with the woodsmoke from the stove and my translator’s cigarette.

There is little demand for the instruments nowadays, Metiljević explains, as interest in traditional music recedes against the tide of Western commercial pop, synthesizers and electric guitars. Still, he is well known in Sarajevo, and has been featured several times on local television. Nostalgic émigrés who fled the fighting in the 1990s that split Yugoslavia apart occasionally contact him to purchase a piece of home, and a few younger musicians drawn to the old sounds also place orders.

Bosnia is at peace, the war seems distant under the bright sun in this hamlet near the airport, twenty minutes from the city. Dogs lie idly on the sidewalk in thick winter coats, barely acknowledging passing cars as gray smoke rises from the chimneys of the two and three story houses, partially obscuring the dark foothills of the Dinaric Alps that surround the slim Sarajevo Valley.

The drive out tells another story, past the eternal flame lit to mark the victory over the fascists in World War II, the high-rise buildings from the ‘60s and ‘70s, still marked from the shells fired into the valley by the artillery cannons and tanks parked in the mountains during the war. Other landmarks, such as the brutalist Radio/TV Bosnia and Herzegovina headquarters, have been renovated, leaving them scarred with lighter colored cement patches that trace the war damage.

Metiljević stuck it out during the fighting from 1992 to 1995, one kilometer from the front line separating the Bosnian Army from the Serb and Yugoslav troops that controlled the high ground. Of vital importance to Sarajevo, the area often came under heavy fire since it formed part of the supply line leading to the tunnel under the airport that brought food, weapons, medicine and other essentials and provided an escape for the badly wounded and anyone else looking to get out. It was a key lifeline during the siege of the city, which lasted more than three and a half years. Like most of the people I met in Bosnia who lived through it, he doesn’t like to talk about the war.

When I ask Metiljević whether he sings traditional Bosnian songs, he says that he does not, preferring to accompany local and professional vocalists. Then, his left hand moving rapidly up and down the long neck, his right hand plucking at the eight strings, a musician emerges in front of me.

The room is transformed by the powerful sounds, echoing other instruments: the Persian setar, the Turkish bağlama. It carries us away from this Balkan village to the plains of Anatolia, the Tigris River and the Gates of Nineveh. The music overwhelms him and he begins to sing the words to an old sevdah song, or sevdalinke, his voice high pitched and wailing as he cries the so-called “Balkan blues”.

The piece tells the story of a beautiful girl who rejected marriage offers from wealthy beys and aghas, following her heart to wed a young artisan. In the end, she dwells not in a fancy city house with a courtyard of gardens and a fountain, but a simple home by “high cliffs and a cave.” After singing the final words he strums the saz with a flourish.

“People must play music and sing and there will not be war,” Metiljević says into the silence.

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.