How is a discernibly queer performer, who sings not pop but traditional, serious sevdah music, incredibly popular all over Bosnia?Sevdah, Bosnia’s traditional music which sings of loss, sadness, and heartache, has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity since the civil war of the 1990s. With figures such as Amira Medunjanin and Damir Imamović taking sevdah to the world stage, the genre has moved out of bars and kafanas and earned the status of a high art form. Recently, a new face of sevdah has been rapidly gaining popularity all over the Balkans – the band Halka, and their dazzling frontman Božo Vrećo. Dubbed a ‘new European musical phenomenon’ by one Slovenian newspaper, Halka has been touring the region to amazing success, sold out performances, and glowing reviews. Most of the media attention is focused on Vrećo and his beautiful tenor, suited perfectly to sevdah’s long, drawn out melismas. Vrećo put out his own solo album last year, which features 17 acapella versions of sevdalinke, including two that he penned himself.
And then there’s Vrećo’s daringly queer aesthetic. He often appears in dark eye makeup and winged eyeliner, sometimes beardless and boyish in a tailored suit, sometimes glamorous in a backless gown and curled locks, sometimes in a black, dervish-like kaftan and topknot. His garments swirl around him as he dances to his band’s enchanting music. His personal interviews and posts on social media reveal a similar aesthetic – he appears bearded, with coquettish black curls and flowing black robes, or posts photographs of his hair in curlers, bearded and smiling. The New York Times recently branded Vreco a ‘cross-dresser’ – not only an outdated and transphobic term, but inaccurate, given that Vreco does not dress ‘as a woman’ but as himself. He sings, unusually, sevdalinke which are written for the voices of both men and women, from the perspectives of both genders. All in all, Vrećo is breaking boundaries when it comes to the genre.
At first this seems somewhat puzzling. An undeniably beautiful, talented singer who plays with gender not only onstage but offstage as well, who is discernibly queer, who sings not pop but traditional, serious sevdah music – is incredibly popular all over Bosnia?
On first reading, it seems that Vrećo’s queerness conflicts not only with the traditional music genre but with the values of a supposedly conservative society disinclined towards LGBT rights (more on that later). Indeed, just last year religious leaders in the region blamed Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win for the devastating floods across the Balkans. And yet Vrećo’s very queer performances and unapologetic personal gender presentation in interviews and the like have not inspired a massive societal or religious backlash. It was even difficult to find the level of anonymous internet abuse by commenters that I’d expected. Instead, Vrećo and Halka are popular not just in Sarajevo but all over Bosnia, including Republika Srpska, where they’ve filled concert halls with eager listeners. They play sold out shows all over the former Yugoslavia, from Ljubljana to Podgorica, and are lauded by the local media. Vrećo has been praised as an excellent ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina at concerts outside of the country. Perhaps it is all less shocking than it appears. Indeed, Milorad Kapetanović points out that the ‘tradition’ of sevdah itself is more of a retroactive myth which has served the creation of a Bosnia[n/k] identity after the war. Musical heritage, he argues, is not a stable canon but a changing collection of historical goods which are used by the present to invent and define the past.
Sevdah, then, is not an unchanging and unchangeable genre, but a fluid space with meanings that have been reinscribed to serve contemporary purposes. Sevdah itself has room for Vrećo’s interpretation of it. And Bosnian society? Vrećo’s popularity forces a reinterpretation of its supposedly negative attitude towards queerness, as well as of the popular view that queerness itself is foreign to Bosnia.
To qualify what I mean by ‘queer’ – I am not ascribing to Vrećo any particular identity category, nor would I guess at his sexual orientation or gender identity. What I call his ‘queerness’ is simply the way in which Vrećo presents his gender in his public performances, in his music itself, in his media interviews, and more private venues such as social media. His gender presentation – on and offstage – defies heteronormativity and a fixed system of two genders. Maljkovic describes queer as ‘the identity which negates identity’ in that it is not meant to be a fixed identity marker but a broad signifier of all things which challenge heteronormativity. Indeed, he asserts that queer itself poses a challenge to the ‘essentialized’ identities under the LGBT umbrella, as well as the idea that such identities are stable over time and place.
While queer performances are not new in the Balkans, Vrećo’s queer is boundary-breaking precisely because of the continuity between his public and ostensibly private personas. Unlike musicians who embody queerness onstage only to loudly disavow them offstage and brand them an act (see Oliver Mandic), Vrećo insists on the authenticity of his onstage presence and the blending of his private self and artistic persona. In his own words, his ‘male-female duality’ is natural and authentic. He very often emphasizes the ‘honesty’ of his performances and suggests that his audiences respond to this and come to concerts without prejudices and limitations. Indeed, it is evident that Vrećo does not perform in drag, unlike, for example, Conchita Wurst, who has another identity when she is not onstage. Vrećo does not have a stage name. Performing or not, his gender presentation is in no way campy, nor does it resemble drag’s exaggerated femininity – what Mitrović calls “over-identification with patriarchal ideals of femininity.” To reiterate, the makeup or dresses he wears are not worn in order to pass as a woman, but simply as himself. He embodies not an anodyne androgyny (which I read as the ability to pass as both female and male, and is most often exemplified by thin, white, conventionally attractive bodies in a high fashion setting) but a jubilant genderqueerness.
Indeed, to have a queer figure in the rather serious and heavy landscape of sevdah is a powerful thing, given that it is a sphere somewhat separated from that of pop, turbofolk, or hip-hop, where onstage identities are permissibly over-exaggerated. It seems fitting, in fact, that sevdah’s songs of tragedy, doomed love, longing, and death should find their interpretation by someone whose identity places him outside of the norms of permissibility.
As has been demonstrated, the stakes of outness for those living outside spaces of tolerance – be that Eastern Europe or rural America – can be high, and advocating for outness can be ‘damaging and counterproductive’. In the case of popular musicians, while their sexual orientation need not be public knowledge, it can indeed send a potent message if a well-known figure is publically out. And yet, I think that Vrećo’s unwillingness, as yet, to publically proclaim his gender/sexual identity is a perhaps a stronger tool in fostering tolerance and understanding.
Vrećo has not been asked probing question about his identity or preferences by the media, and has not made any proclamations to this effect, apart from stating that he would not change his sex. Rather, he has talked about how sevdah allows him to live as both a man and a woman, and how he sings and writes sevdalinke that are in male and female voices because they are true to both ‘parts of him’. He has hinted that his next solo album will consist of sevdalinke that come from ‘female’ characters and points of view. He blushingly admits that he falls in love with the male protangoist of his favourite sevdalinka. He has expressed a fluid, bi-gendered identity, saying that he overcomes male-female binaries and differences because he believes that we all embody both genders but are kept from living them out because of shame and discrimination. For him, it is sevdah itself that allows him the space and the freedom to be both a man and a woman.
Intentionally or not, Vrećo eschews the entire question of ‘outness’ by relying on sevdah as the outlet for his gender expression. He simply is as he is, and he has been overwhelmingly accepted likely due to his huge talent. By expressing himself without placing himself in an identity category, Vrećo actually proves what many bigots (and perhaps swaths of the general population) would deny: that there is a Bosnian queerness.
Of course, there is more to Bosnia than its image as a backward place, or one where some kind of essential ‘macho’ culture dominates (as per the New York Times). Queerness did not begin in Bosnia when socialism failed, the war ended, and Western NGOs proliferated, nor did queer activism. Kapetanović has written an excellent piece on queer[/ed] music during Yugoslav times, and how it was received. There are ‘pro-gay tracks from ex-Yugoslavia’ and even old sevdalinke about tragically fated lesbian lovers. It would appear that most of the articulated anti-LGBT sentiment in Bosnia has grown in response to the visibility and activism of LGBT people in recent years. What was once mostly unspoken has become more vocal, and has incited more extreme responses.
Bosnia has never had a pride parade, and after violent attacks on a Queer Festival in 2008, the visibility of the LGBT community diminished. Last year a violent attack on the Merlinka Festival by assailants shouting homophobic comments was condemned by Human Rights Watch, but not by the country’s authorities. The number of ‘out’ public personalities is effectively nil. A 2013 survey revealed that 60 percent of Bosnians thought that changing one’s gender was ‘disgusting’, while 57 percent thought that homosexuality was an illness that ought to be treated or cured. A recent report by ILGA and the Sarajevo Open Centre evidenced that levels of violence are probably higher than the official statistics suggest because they are rarely reported to the police, but also that ‘outness’ implies significant risks and that it is not common for LGBT people to be ‘out’ at work or outside of their immediate personal relationships. Although laws against discrimination and hate crimes are strengthening, there is a large gap in implementation. In effect, discrimination is deeply embedded in society and institutions, including the education system, which means that “being ‘out’ in BiH implies several risks at the personal and social level.” Indeed, activists, who are most likely to have their sexual orientation publicly known, are most at risk of physical or media attacks.
Homophobia is entrenched by comments from Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic authorities. These authorities tend to be in line with nationalist sentiment, which identifies gayness as something foreign to Bosnia, something which was unknown before recently. In 2011, a Muslim magazine described graduates of Gender Studies at the University of Sarajevo as having received their ‘Master’s degrees in faggotry’ and being experts in debauchery and perversity. The slippage between concepts of gender, feminism, and homosexuality is a testament to the deep ignorance about these issues and the way in which they are conflated as something objectionable. Gayness is seen as something deviant and imported from the West, a view which is only strengthened by the fact that LGBT rights organizations receive Western funding. Contrast this to how people from all ethnicities in Bosnia are eager to claim Vrećo as their own, and as an excellent representative of his country abroad. In my view, it is that Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.
Of course, no story about Bosnia can be complete without addressing the schisms left by the civil war twenty years ago. For us, the story of sevdalinke and queerness are inextricable from this context.
While Bosnia and Yugoslavia never experienced a Stonewall-style emancipatory movement for LGBT rights, the 80s brought the first waves of openly gay activism. Sadly, the story isn’t merely one of the Balkans playing catch-up with Western progress – for Bosnia, it’s a story about how a country with a relatively high level of gender equality, which instituted equal pay for equal work before 1950 (decades before women’s liberation in North America), regressed into traditional gender roles and patriarchal structures. Socialism had its own complex relationship with homosexuality, but what influenced gender relations in Bosnia most was the civil war. There is a large literature on the re-traditionalization of gender roles during war, whereby hyper-militarized masculinity identifies non-heterosexuals (or men who fail to live up to macho standards of masculinity) as internal enemies and race traitors. As the internal ‘other’, queers are not seen as true patriotic citizens but as threats to the strength of the nation. Even among resistance movements during the war, there was little space for ‘other identities,’ with emerging LGBT rights groups subsumed into anti-militarist and feminist movements. This anti-nationalist framework echoes in the work of today’s LGBT activists, who are more likely to “position themselves away from nationalist discourses and argue that it is their right as citizens of the Bosnian state to be protected, not members of one of the ethnic groups, or nations.”
Indeed, nationalism is a concept bolstered by heternormativity and, in the Balkans, necessarily accompanied by a fervent machismo. When we talk about nationalism in Bosnia, we talk about the competing nationalisms of its three ‘constituent peoples’ and about the inter-ethnic boundary lines instituted by the Dayton Peace Accords which have arguable frozen the conflict in place. In this context, one of the other startling things about Vrećo is that he hails from Foča but lives in Sarajevo, plays full houses in Banja Luka and in Tuzla, and crosses boundaries (gender, cultural, and inter-ethnic) seemingly without a problem. The fact that Vrećo self-identifies as ‘Bosnian’ is revolutionary in itself, given that declaring yourself Bosnian in the national census (as opposed to Serb, Bosniak, Croat) places you in the category of ‘other’. Vrećo sings into being a Bosnia that is both historical and current, a Bosnia that does not consist of entities whose borders were frozen by war, a Bosnia with mountains and rivers and beautiful girls from Banja Luka. He sings Bosnian songs – not Bosniak songs, not Serb songs, not Croatian songs – at a moment where the existence of Bosnia as anything more than an institutional fantasy is itself uncertain. In some sense this continues the revival of sevdah as a new marker of postwar Bosnian identity, but also a greater challenge to the genre, as he forces it not only to tolerate but to adore his gender-bending performances and songs.
Indeed, that Vrećo is doubly othered within Bosnia, both queer and ‘Bosnian’, and yet finds such startling success and support hints at two things. First, it’s possible that Bosnia is not as closed a space or society as it may seem, and its own cultural traditions have the room and possibility to accept someone like Vrećo. Second, it may be that Vrećo’s queer is one that, by centering a Bosnian identity rather than a Western sexuality, poses a bigger challenge to homophobic views, and a better hope of a tolerant and inclusive future. Through loving Vrećo and sevdah, Bosnians might also come to see their own culture as a place where queerness can be born and flourish.
Sources apart from those embedded in links –
Mitrović, Marijana. “The “Unbearable Lightness” (of the Subversion) of Nationalism: Bodies on Estrada in Postsocialist Serbia.” Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnography SANU (Гласник Етнографског института САНУ), LIX (2), 2011, pp. 137-148.
Cooper, Alex. “Living with Prajd: LGBTQ Activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” 8 May 2014. http://councilforeuropeanstudies.org/critcom/living-with-prajd-lgbtq-activism-in-bosnia-and-herzegovina/.
Blagojević& Dimitrijevic, eds. Medju Nama. Belgrade: Heartefact, 2014.
Gaillard ,Chloé. “FIGHTING FOR VISIBILITY: A BOSNIAN COMING OUT STORY.” LGBT.ba. 24 February 2015. <http://lgbt.ba/fighting-for-visibility-a-bosnian-coming-out-story/
 Kapetanović, Milorad.”A sto cemo ljubav kriti: Jugoslovensko muzicko naslijedje i postjugoslovenski kvir..” Medju Nama, eds Blagojević& Dimitrijevic. Belgrade: Heartefact, 2014.
 Kapetanović, in email to author.
 Malkjovic, Dusan. “’To Radi u Teoriji, Ali Ne u Praksi – Identitetski (LGBT) Aktivizam Protiv Kvir Aktivizma.” Medju Nama, eds Blagojević& Dimitrijevic. Belgrade: Heartefact, 2014.
 Mitrović, Marijana. “The “Unbearable Lightness” (of the Subversion) of Nationalism: Bodies on Estrada in Postsocialist Serbia.” Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnography SANU (Гласник Етнографског института САНУ), LIX (2), 2011, pp. 137-148.
 Gaillard ,Chloé. “FIGHTING FOR VISIBILITY: A BOSNIAN COMING OUT STORY.” LGBT.ba. 24 February 2015. <http://lgbt.ba/fighting-for-visibility-a-bosnian-coming-out-story/>.
 In Bosnian (Serbian/Croatian), the semantic lack of a way to say that one is gay (without using a derogatory word) means that most often, English words are used to denote these identities or concepts – gej, prajd, strejt, kvir – which some may take as evidence that these identities somehow do not ‘belong’ in these spaces and that they are newly popular or invented. Another way of thinking about this is that the language is so strong and adaptable that it can adopt English words into its grammar and make them nouns, verbs, adjectives of its own.
 see Gočanin, Sonja. “Poceci LGBT organizovanja u Srbiji – Pismo iz Slovenije koje je pokrenulo istoriju.” Medju Nama, eds Blagojević& Dimitrijevic. Belgrade: Heartefact, 2014.
 Ibid, pg 339.
 Cooper, Alex. “Living with Prajd: LGBTQ Activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” 8 May 2014. http://councilforeuropeanstudies.org/critcom/living-with-prajd-lgbtq-activism-in-bosnia-and-herzegovina/.
All photos from Božo Vrećo’s Facebook page.