Sevdalinka – Past, Present, and Future
Sevdalinka came to the Balkans with the arrival of the Ottomans in the 14th century. “Sevda” in Turkish means love, but its Arabic origin of “säwdâ” means black gall, an element in the human body which is responsible for feeling melancholic. The exact meaning of the word is lost in translation, but the most common belief is that sevdah means “love” or “yearning for love, home, or something lost” (Kueppers, 2014). Wherever the word comes from, sevdalinka has come to represent an ancient, mystifying form of a love song. These songs are characterized by slow tempos and emotional melodies with very emotionally valent lyrics and artist expressions. One explanation of what sevdalinka is comes in the form of a short story. “What is sevdah?” an old man asks a boy. “Sevdah is when my father is singing and crying at the same time” (Kueppers, 2014). The origins and original composers of many sevdalinkas are unknown, and part of the beauty of the genre comes in the form of each artist doing their own version of the song. More traditional sevdalinka artists include Himzo Polovina, Zaim Imamović, and Nada Mamula. Himzo Polovina’s “Emina” is filled with traditional Ottoman characteristics and the classic musical elements specific to sevdalinka. The video of Himzo Polovina singing “Emina” shows him wearing a fez, a headdress typical of the Ottoman Empire, and the characteristic elements of sevdalinka – the slow tempo, emotionally charged lyrics, storytelling singing voice, and artistic vocal trills (Arhivski Centar BHRT, 2018). The song describes a man seeing a beautiful woman, Emina, and getting rejected by her. A more modern cover of the song has been done by Amira Medunjanin, a woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina who has been challenging the strict gender norms of traditional sevdalinka. Other modern challengers of sevdalinka include Damir Imamović, Zaim Imamović’s grandson, and Božo Vrećo. Both Imamović and Vrećo have been known to take traditional sevdalinka songs originally sung by a man to a woman or a woman to a man and change this dynamic. Another modern take on sevdalinka has come from Mostar Sevdah Reunion, a group comprised of several musicians who put contemporary twists on sevdalinkas. The group dynamic of this band completely challenges the traditional idea that a sevdalinka must be sung from one person to another, and the contemporary additions add modern flavor that appeals to a more youthful and modern crowd. Despite being greatly attributed to Bosnia and Herzegovina, sevdalinka has reached other former Yugoslav countries and found itself seeping into more “mainstream” media, being sung by Yugoslavian pop artists such as Zdravko Čolić and Toše Proeski. Clearly, there is something enchanting and captivating about sevdalinkas that draw musicians from all sorts of musical backgrounds to continue singing these songs and attract listeners both young and old.
After remaining stagnant as a genre for centuries and not going through much musical change, if any at all, sevdalinka has recently gone through a great shift in the traditional gender and sexuality norms typical of the genre. One example of this shift in gender and sexuality within sevdalinka and the wide-reaching results is Damir Imamović, the grandson of a famous traditional sevdalinka artist. Iva Nenić, an ethnomusicologist from Belgrade, describes how Imamović has changed the traditional themes of sevdalinka and brought to light new, contemporary meanings to the songs. Nenić says, “What Damir does is choose sevdalinka songs that are less known, and then his reading or interpretation actually brings some alternative meanings that today could be seen as relating to contemporary political issues” (Rigney, 2016). A great example of this is Imamović’s rendition of “Dva se Draga,” a song traditionally sung about the love between a man and a woman. But many Serbians who belong to the LGBT community view this song as one about two people of the same gender in love. This is a clear deviation from the traditional values of Balkan culture where same sex love has not been widely accepted. Imamović has also changed the traditional ways in which sevdalinkas are performed – his music greatly resembles a classical style with an ensemble of stringed instruments being performed in a concert hall. While modernizing the way sevdalinkas are performed, he has at the same time tried to preserve and deepen the historical roots and traditions of the songs themselves. Imamović has dug deep into the Turkish and eastern roots of the genre which is exemplified by performing with Turkish grandmaster Derya Türkan, a kemenche, or sort of three-stringed fiddle instrument, expert. He has also traveled and performed sevdalinkas in countries such as India and Iran, further spreading the genre. Imamović himself has pointed out that there have always been critics of sevdalinkas and that many traditional people believe that “any lyrical form is traditionally connected to a female sphere” (Sanderson, 2016). But just as his grandfather before him, Damir Imamović is not afraid to shatter this presumption and states that feelings are feelings, whether they come from a man or a woman. Following in Imamović’s footsteps in changing the traditional notions of sevdalinkas in different ways is the powerhouse female vocalist Amira Medunjanin.
Amira Medunjanin is a Bosnian and Herzegovinian woman who came to the sevdalinka scene in 2003 after recording a song with the aforementioned Mostar Sevdah Reunion. Medunjanin is compared to Edith Piaf and dubbed the “Balkan Billie Holiday” in a 2013 article by Ed Vulliamy. She is a striking image when on stage with her short, jet-black hair accompanied either by a matching jet-black suit or striking red ballgown. She is the epitome of class and elegance and has sold out concert halls all around the world, from the United Kingdom to Australia. What makes Medunjanin so extraordinary isn’t her daring look or angelic voice, but the path that she has taken sevdalinka down – she has brought jazz and blues elements into sevdalinka while still preserving the traditional melancholic nature of the genre (Molocha, 2016). It’s interesting to note that her first album, Rosa, is self-described as traditional sevdalinka music, simple and unadorned. Medunjanin herself stated that even though her first album greatly appealed to traditional sevdalinka listeners, she felt that “the national music had to reinvent itself” (Vulliamy, 2013). This is when she started to collaborate with jazz pianists, bassists, and percussionists to record some of her most well-known albums Amira and Amulette. Medunjanin has performed her concerts completely unplugged, no instrument or voice amplification, and truly exemplified the emotionally valent nature of sevdalinka with her own twist. Further musical experimentation led Medunjanin to work with Merima Ključo, a female Bosnian accordionist, and the result has been called a psychedelic listening experience. Medunjanin has also changed the traditional dynamic of sevdalinkas being sung by a man to a woman or by a woman to a man by taking on both gender roles in her songs. One of her most famous covers is that of “Emina,” which was previously discussed in relation to Himzo Polovina. Medunjanin does not change the gender/case of the personal pronouns she uses; she is singing as if she was a man to the woman, just as Himzo Polovina did. The video of her performing “Emina” is also different than other sevdalinka performances in that it is completely a capella, there are no instruments whatsoever, just Medunjanin’s captivating voice (Jelena Osijek HR, 2014). Of the 183 comments on this YouTube video, almost every single one is uplifting and positive. Viewers claimed to have been brought to tears, remembrance of the Old Yugoslavia, and their grandparents singing this song. Unquestionably, Amira Medunjanin has changed, and is still changing, the traditional form of sevdalinka by incorporating jazz, blues, and accordion elements all into one song, all while mesmerizing old and young listeners alike. Just like Amira Medunjanin, there is yet another superstar sevdalinka artist breaking all of the rules of the traditional genre.
Perhaps the most well-known example of the ever-changing gender and sexuality changes in sevdalinka is Božo Vrećo, another Bosnian and Herzegovinian artist. Vrećo challenges Balkan ideas of gender and sexuality not just as an artist, but also as a person. He is so well-known throughout the Balkans not just because of his queer aesthetic and musical talent, but because he stays true to himself even in his personal life; Vrećo calls the ‘male-female duality’ in his performances natural and authentic, not just a persona he puts on while performing. Vrećo goes by male pronouns, but describes himself by saying, “I am male and female at the same time” (Russell, 2019). This is a bold statement from someone hailing from a traditionally homophobic society, and Vrećo has even been the recipient of hateful comments from Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic authorities from the Balkan region. Non-heterosexuals were seen as enemies and traitors during the wars of the 1990’s, and these “queers” were seen as a threat to national strength. The LGBT community in the Balkans has never been the forefront of resistance movements in the Balkans and has traditionally distanced itself from nationalist ideals and anti-nationalist movements (Hadziristic, 2015). But Vrećo shatters all of the typical nationalist ideals of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity present in the Balkans through his music. Vrećo says that “the music is without any gender,” and this is exemplified through the songs he chooses to sing, the clothes he wears, and his music videos.
Vrećo is most recognizable by his queer aesthetic – he can be seen performing in a suit and tie with a full face of makeup and beard one night and in a dress showing off his countless tattoos, cleanly shaven the next. Despite being called a crossdresser, Vrećo says this is an inaccurate description as he dresses as himself, not as a man or a woman (Hadziristic, 2015). Vrećo himself states that his personal identity is still considered “taboo” and “unfamiliar” to Balkan society (Turck, 2018). He sings sevdalinkas from the viewpoint of both men and women, and his music videos feature him singing these “love songs” to men and women. In his music video for “Dragi,” Vrećo is dressed in a flowy dress with makeup and his hair done and is longingly singing to a man, whom he first admires from a distance and later gets close enough to physically touch him and shows signs of affection (Božo Vrećo, 2018). While previously mentioned artists such as Damir Imamović and Amira Medunjanin often times sing as the other gender or about the same gender, Vrećo goes a step further by physically portraying these opposite gender norms in his music videos. Interpretation is greatly left to the listeners and viewers of his songs and music videos to determine who they feel Vrećo is portraying. Another great example of Vrećo’s fluid gender image is shown in his music video for the song “Ko li noćas miluje ti kosu” featuring Vasil Hadžimanov on piano. The music video once again shows Vrećo dressed in a flowy dress, but this time it can be interpreted that the song is directed towards a woman, but traditionally sung by a man (Božo Vrećo, 2017). Vrećo once again shows his ability to sever all possible gender norms in his music. The comments section on Vrećo’s YouTube videos show an overall positive response to his brand, with viewers commenting that his songs are timeless and evoke emotions within themselves they did not know were possible. An occasional negative comment can be seen under Vrećo’s videos that states he is just a confused artist looking for attention, but these sorts of comments are few and far between. But the overwhelming positivity shown towards Vrećo and his unusual personality and appearance is a sign towards gradual progress in the Balkans where members of the LGBT community are becoming more accepted, and while this acceptance might be met with resistance from traditional and religious groups of people, artists such as Vrećo are pushing for this change through the universal language of music.
It is obvious that the genre of sevdalinka has gone through a major change in the last couple of decades through not only the instrumentation but also the gender norms characteristic of the genre, but the core element of emotionally salient lyrics and meanings behind the songs has not changed. With roots dating back to the Ottoman Empire, sevdalinkas were traditionally love songs sung by a man to a woman and vice versa, as evidenced by early 20th century artists such as Himzo Polovina and Nada Mamula. This dynamic experienced a shift in its traditional gender norms when artists like Damir Imamović, Amira Medunjanin, and Božo Vrećo hit the scene. The songs could now be sung by a man to a man, woman to woman, or be left up to listener interpretation. The physical appearance shifted from men wearing fezzes to men wearing dresses and women wearing suits and sporting pixie cuts. But throughout the modern history of sevdalinka, one thing has remained constant – the emotionally charged lyrics and attitudes behind the songs. Sevdalinkas have always been known to stir up all sorts of emotions in its listeners, from sadness and melancholy to rage and longing. These emotions are still felt by present day listeners, evidenced by the hundreds of comments left on YouTube music videos of Imamović, Medunjanin, and Vrećo claiming that tears were shed and hearts broken. Despite pushback from more traditional groups of people, sevdalinka has come to be loved by young and old listeners in the Balkans as well as listeners of all ages around the world. Sevdalinka has experienced just the beginning of change and exposure, and it will continue to use its traditional emotional melodies and lyrics to captivate even more audiences, and hopefully bring awareness and change to the outdated Balkan views on gender and sexuality.
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