The Story of Sevdalinke, Part II: The Musical Evolution

Ethnomusicologist Tamara Karača Beljak greets me in her office, crowded with instruments and CDs. She is an energetic, compact woman, short brown hair and glasses, who has studied sevdalinke for more than 30 years, travelling the back roads during the last years of the old Yugoslavia to record the country’s folk music. Her answer is equivocal:

“It is a question of what is older, the chicken or the egg? That same song is sung in a Turkish language version called an ilahija, or dervish house song; in the town it is sung as sevdalinke,” she says. “Sephardic people in Bosnia-Herzegovina sing the song in Ladino language…the Sephardic song tradition is very similar to sevdalinke, and sometimes, when a certain melody is performed in the Bosnian language or Ladino, we can’t tell the difference.”

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Central Europe’s reach extended deeper into the Balkans. Catholic and Orthodox gained confidence, asserting themselves by building churches and schools over the objections of conservative elements in the Muslim community. The European influence spread to sevdah as well, with the violin and the clarinet encroaching on what had been the exclusive domain of the saz and other Ottoman instruments. These innovations helped the music grow beyond its roots in the Turkish community – the word sevdah itself appeared for the first time in the 19th century, replacing turčijas, or, music of the Turks.

A new era arrived with the Austro-Hungarians, who took over the city in 1878 and subsequently annexed the territory. By 1905, Bosnia had made it into Baedeker’s guide to Austria-Hungary (“Troops on the march always keep to the right side of the road, so in whatever part of Empire you meet them, keep to the left(!)”). It chronicled the sweeping changes underway as Central European capitalism replaced the feudalism of the Ottomans:

“Much has been done to develop the country since the Austrian occupation. All the important places are now united by roads, and there are already more than 600 M. of railway (narrow gauge; 55 lbs of luggage free)…The Language of Bosnia is the Servian-Croatian (sic), which belongs to the S.E. group of Slavonic dialects, but is much mixed with Turkish words. For all ordinary purposes, however, German suffices, as it is spoken by Austrian officials, the inn-keepers and a number of the traders.”

Austro-Hungarian city planners rushed in to impose their order on Sarajevo. They regulated the banks of the Miljacka River and the streets of the sprawling Ottoman old town, paved roads, introduced the Balkan’s first electric tram, and built playful art nouveau buildings. Factories hummed across the territory as steel, chemical and textile plants took up operations and exports soared.

Attitudes towards the new overlords were mixed. In her encyclopedic travel narrative, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s Serb interlocutor Constantine captures Sarajevans’ unease with the clean lines and efficiency of the new city, a feeling that persisted long after the Austro-Hungarians departed:

“All, I tell you,” said Constantine, “that is Austrian in Sarajevo is false to us. Look at this embankment we are walking upon. It is very nice and straight, but it is nothing like the embankment we Yugoslavs, Christian or Moslem, would make for a river. We are very fond of nature as she is, and we do not want to hold up a ruler and tell her that she must look like that and not stick forward her bosom or back her bottom.”

Sarajevo Old Town.
Sarajevo Old Town.

Sevdah adapted to the new order. The accordion and guitar pushed the saz further to the margins, and the old style began to disappear as formal planning reached the musical realm. Composed sevdahs for hotel orchestras and local choirs replaced the improvised technique of the Ottoman courtyards. As Bosnia evolved from a frontier outpost into a cosmopolitan crossroads, the territory’s other ethnic groups adopted the music as their own. Serb composer Aleksa Šantić penned “Emina”, a song declaring his forbidden love for a Muslim girl, believed to be his neighbor, and, reflecting the rising influence of the German language, translated Heinrich Heine’s poem “Der Asra” into Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian and composed a song for the text in the sevdah style.

Gender roles evolved as well, as some women removed their veils and entered the public sphere. Barred from playing the saz and other instruments during Ottoman times, a female tradition had evolved of singing sevdalinke to the accompaniment of household objects such as porcelain cups, spoons and pans. In a sign of emancipation, they put down the cutlery and began not only to play the accordion and guitar, but also to perform publicly. Cities grew, and sevdah blossomed in the hotels, cafés and pubs of the Austro-Hungarians, where high volumes and large orchestras meant that instruments now dominated over the singer’s voice.

The armies of 1914 swept aside the Austro-Hungarian’s brief rule. Sarajevo was at the center of it, as Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg throne, fulfilled Bismark’s 19th century prophecy that “some damned foolish thing” in the Balkans would set off the next major conflict. Mechanized warfare, machine guns; a hint of darker days to come. Historian Noel Malcolm notes that Austro-Hungary held up to 5,500 Bosnian suspects, mainly Serbs, in internment camps, where as many as 2,200 died. The dual monarchy’s conquest of Serbia was fleeting: the routed Serbs fled to exile in Greece in 1915, then marched all the way back three years later, helping to write the epitaph of the Hapsburgs: 1526-1918.

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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

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