The Story of Sevdalinke, Part II: The Musical Evolution

“What is sevdah?” an old man asks a boy.

“Sevdah is when my father is singing and crying at the same time.” 

The centuries-old Bosnian genre emerged when the Ottomans arrived from Constantinople and began to mix with the Slavic-speakers. The word itself escapes exact translation. Bosnians say it means “love” or “yearning for love, or home, or something lost.” In Turkish “sevda”, without the h, means “love,” though this is only part of the story. According to some, the word came to Turkish from the Arabic “أسود” (säwdâ), or black gall, identified by ancient doctors as one of the four basic elements of the human body and the source of melancholy.

Singers are said to fall “into sevdah,” taking the audience with them as they cast a spell with tales of forbidden love, forced marriage and exile. Heavy with nostalgia, the songs pull listeners back into a quieter past, before the serial wars of the 20th century, and chart a way of life that was already disappearing when Socialist leader Josip Broz Tito pushed Yugoslavia into the modern world. More than a musical genre, sevdalinke are fragments of Balkan philosophy that form a mosaic of a people.

Back in the capital, I walk the dun-colored flagstones in the Turkish quarter, past one and two story whitewashed stucco shops, still Ottoman in character, despite the occasional neon graffiti celebrating a love affair or the local soccer team, FK Sarajevo. Locals drink directly from the two spigots in the wall around the 16th century Gazi Huzrev-beg mosque, or fill plastic bottles before disappearing into the crowd. Headscarved women, some with babies on their arms, stand nearby with outstretched hands, and I offer a few coins before continuing on my way. Incense, cigarette, wood and coal smoke add to the atmosphere, enjoyed by throngs who socialize in the cafés and without, bundled up in winter coats and sharp leather jackets as they sip coffee and bask in the sun.

Though the music I hear is western pop, and the driving beats of Balkan turbofolk, both recent and older sevdah recordings can be found among the rows of CDs in front of the music shops. I turn down Halači Street and walk to the Art House Sevdah, a privately-run museum in an 18th century stone warehouse devoted to the music’s history and its legendary 20th century exponents. In the courtyard, I ask the director of external relations, Armis Mašic, what it is all about.

“Sevdah is not just sadness and sorrow, it is also the joy you feel when you love someone,” he says over a Turkish coffee. “Sevdah is the interpretation of life.”

The story of sevdah is the story of the Western Balkans from the 15th century to the present. Formed in the crucible of conquest, the music combined words and melodies of native Slavic songs with the Eastern approaches of the Turks. Later empires and immigrants brought new instruments and musical traditions, adding layers to the cultural palimpsest. Sephardic Jews arrived in the region after being expelled from Spain in 1492, and the Roma added their unique style of performing amid the growing Western influence that culminated with Bosnia’s integration into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878 and Yugoslavia in the 20th century. At the dawn of the last century, the songbook contained over nine hundred sevdalinkes.

“This area had one common tradition for ages,” musician Damir Imamović tells me in a crowded Sarajevo cafe. “The pre-Ottoman, during Ottoman times especially, after Ottoman times, for most of its history it was always part of a common cultural, linguistic, administrative political space. Songs travelled, musicians travelled, everything was exchanged.”

Damir Imamovic.
Damir Imamovic.

Classic sevdalinke are characteristically brief, four to eight verses long, words and lines repeated with intense feeling­­­­­­­, giving them at least a superficial similarity to the Delta blues. And, like the blues, a union of West African and Western European musical traditions, sevdalinke merge different musical styles. Melodies sung among the invading Slavic tribes that settled in Bosnia in the sixth and seventh centuries likely formed the basis for the original songs, though most are a mélange of the classical Turkish melodic structure and a range of local influences. The Bosnian lyrics, peppered with Turkish loan words, are often sung in lines of 10 syllables, though 8 syllables and other variations are also commonplace. The Eastern quality is accented through the use of melisma, when a performer jumps between several notes while singing a single syllable of text. The technique is common in the Middle East, and employed in other parts of southern Europe close to the Islamic world among singers of Portuguese Fado and Spanish Flamenco.

The lyrics reflect the civilization of the Ottomans, replete with mosques and white stone hans for traders that still exist today, surrounded by enclosed houses for the wealthy, with a central courtyard and a separate harem for the wives and children. It was a significant departure from the Catholic mining and trading settlements established under the earlier regimes, as well as the isolated farming communities and feudal estates of medieval Bosnia.

The soundscape of this new urban world also marked a sharp break from the past. Music performed in the contained space of the Ottoman courtyards, accompanied by a male saz player, was quieter and more contemplative than the high decibel tradition of the Bosnian highlanders. New frequencies entered the sonic consciousness: the ezan call to prayer that resounded from the minarets five times per day, the ilahijas religious chants of the Sufi dervish houses, and the music of the mehterân military bands.

Over time, sevdalinkes moved out of the courtyards and into the streets. Young men wooed girls who sat at the window ledges or stood in the doorways at an appointed time on Friday afternoons when it was permissible to flirt, albeit at some distance. An excerpt of the song “Kad ja pođjoh na Benbašu” (When I went to Benbašu), translated below by ethnomusicologist Ankica Petrović, captures such scenes. The neighborhood still exists today, abutting the shallow, swiftly flowing Miljacka River that bisects Sarajevo, and the song has become the city’s unofficial anthem:

Because of sorrow and longing, I went

and looked everywhere

To try to see my darling.

All the girls from Benbaša

Stood in the door (of the courtyard)

Only my dear darling

Was at the window with the iron grill

I told her good evening,

Good evening, girl,

She told me to come in the evening

Come in the evening, darling.

But whose song is it? Sephardic choir singers would not recognize the lyrics, though they sing Spanish songs to this melody in the Ladino communities of Europe, North America and Israel. In past centuries, Sarajevo hosted a thriving community made up of the descendants of these original exiles from the Inquisition, who performed a sacred version of “Benbašu” called “El Dio Alto (Oh Lord on High)” and a secular variation, “Mi kerido, mi amado (My dear, my beloved)”. Close to 10 percent of the population was Jewish prior to 1941, and there were two major Sephardic synagogues along with numerous neighborhood prayer houses, as detailed in historian Harriet Pass Freidenreich’s The Jews of Yugoslavia.

Shunned across much of Christian Europe, the Sephardic Jews were welcomed by the Ottomans due to their skill in trade, finance, metalworking and other professions. After settling in Thessaloniki and Istanbul, they expanded along the trade route between the Ottoman capital and the Adriatic, establishing a community in Sarajevo in the 16th century. Crowded into a stone han near the central market, they burst out into the surrounding neighborhood over the centuries, a closed Spanish-speaking society that co-existed alongside the Slavic majority, until 1941 when it disappeared in the fascist death camps.

Traces remain. In an antique shop, crammed with bric-a-brac from Yugoslavia’s 20th century wars, a persistent salesman pushes black and white photos of Old Sarajevo, a red Swastika armband and a suspiciously pristine German-language poster on brown paper warning against patronizing Jewish-owned businesses. He notes my interest and hopes for a sale, insisting, somewhat half-heartedly, that the poster is an original. I decline the offer and walk out towards the compact, thick-walled synagogue in what was once the Jewish quarter. It is a museum now, and the choir is silent.

To solve the mystery of the song’s roots, I take a rickety tram out to the old Austro-Hungarian neighborhood and walk up the potholed asphalt road to the Academy of Music, a grand 19th century building in slow, picturesque decline: dull stone exposed beneath chipped brown plaster, gothic arches above windows designed to keep out the cold with two sets of frames and a red-tiled roof topped with a tin spire supporting a three-stringed metal lyre. In the hallway, glass frames a jagged hole, a war memento on the spot where a shell penetrated the brick wall during the siege.

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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 alfred.kueppers@gmail.com.