Amira Medunjanin: “I am not in favour of separating music in genres, apart from music itself nothing else really matters”
Turned into one of the indisputable divas of traditional Balkan music adapted to the new times, the Sarajevo singer looks to what is known as kafana music to claim the figure of two of the most iconic voices of Yugoslavia folk. For Him and Her (Croatia Records), therefore, it is dedicated to the incomparable Toma Zdravković and Silvana Armenulić, whose capital art is only comparable to their eventful existence. To build this tribute, Amira Medunjanin has walked again, side by side, with her inseparable Bojan Zulfikarpašić, and has been reunited with old friends such as accordionist Mustafa Šantić. Recorded in Boston, Mostar and Belgrade, this album also features top-notch musicians such as Pantelis Stoikos, Predrag Vasić, Ismail Lumanovski, Vladimir Ćuković and Shyrkhan Agabeyli
“I had to go back where all things started. Somehow, I could not finish this homage to Toma and Silvana, without brining Mostar into the whole story”
“I do only hope that this album would be just a reminder of their greatness and that young generation will appreciate their art as many of us do”
“I know every word, every single note from their original recordings. So, for me, it was very difficult to make a concept that will not harm a beauty of original”
By César Campoy.
-How was this project born? Where does the idea come from?
-Well, it is a long story, I would say. Seventeen years ago, when I was recording the first album [Rosa (Snail Records, 2004)], idea was to pay homage to traditional music of Balkans, primarily to Sevdalinkas. At that time, no serious considerations about professional music career ever came to my mind. However, few years later I had to make a decision in life. In fact, it was not a rational decision. But it was the only correct decision that I could make at that time. So, that was a beginning of my life in music. Since then I have recorded several albums and with the Ascending album [with TrondheimSolistene (Croatia Records, 2018)], one chapter was closed. During the past few years I had a serious thought to record the album in order to pay respect to Toma Zdravković and Silvana Armenulić. However, I was busy with different projects and did not have time to do it. In the second quarter of last year, I had more time to think about it and to prepare for the work in studio. To be honest, their music is always with me. I am listening their songs since 1977 and would be wrong not to say that they have become part of my life. I have a huge respect for their art, and album For Him and Her is an attempt to show what they really mean to me. It is difficult to sing their songs, but I was acting solely as a narrator. The real true power of their music you can feel when listening authentic material. I do only hope that this album would be just a reminder of their greatness and that young generation will listen and appreciate their art as many of us do.
-Has it been very difficult to be able to choose only twelve songs from the magnificent discography of such great artists?
-I said earlier, that I am into their music for very long time. Actually, first song that I tried to sing was Šta će mi život (author: Toma Zdravković). Silvana’s voice, light and celestial, made me happy every single time. Also, she recorded some of the most beautiful traditional songs and her influence and impact on traditional music is overwhelming. I have to stress that most of these songs were recorded before I was born. And the reason for the selection of songs was a simple one. As a great admirer of their work and passionate listener, I was personally connected to the songs long time ago. For each musical piece, I know and remember where I heard it for the first time, how I sensed it and how I live with it for all my life. So, that was the only criteria for these songs. But, this is only my impression. I believe that other people have some other favourite songs and that is the beauty of their music. I think that, if you want to know who they were, what music they were performing and what their music stands for, listen to just one song and that would be enough to find out all that you need to know about their art.
-In addition to their undeniable artistic ability, there is something that also unites Toma and Silvana: their way of living life. How do you think that way of life influenced the way they expressed their art?
-There are books written about their life and many anecdotes that people remember about these two legends. Agility, creativity and intensity in their artistic life have influenced many musicians over the past decades. I believe that they had specific energy that was glowing wherever they go. It really does not matter whether they performed in kafana or concert halls, the ambition was to share their way of life with other people and their beliefs that music is only that matters.
-Toma died when he was just over 52, but he had time to live and feel the music longer than Silvana. What do you think Armenulić’s professional future would have been if she hadn’t died in 1976? Where was her career going?
-It is a difficult question. During the 60ies and beginning of 70ies of the last century Silvana was of the most popular female singers and adored by many people. Probably her carrier would expand beyond the borders of former country [Yugoslavia]. She worked a lot. She was touring around the country and she was not selective about the venues where she performed. I guess her idea was to perform in as many places as possible. To share the music with others was primarily on her agenda during her amazing life.
-What are the most impressive characteristics of the way of performing of these two singers?
-If you listen carefully to any of these songs, you can hear and feel that both of them gave their soul and heart in their interpretation. It is quite fascinating what they were doing in music studios. That kind of intensity and power in voice, but at the same time with such subtlety, softness and warmth I have rarely heard in my life. Toma, as a singer/songwriter, mainly performed compositions that he personally wrote, but he was also interpreting songs of some other authors. The latter songs show his absolute gift and overwhelming passion in music. On the other hand, Silvana’s voice to a listener was enchanting and to be honest many people immediately start crying. I guess same thing is happening to me very often. But, I have to say something else which is quite important. What we know about them and from stories of their associates and friends, both of them were noble human beings. When listening their music I think that all of us could feel that immediately.
-Bojan Zulfikarpašić and you have been a consistent team for a long time. In fact, the arrangements for this album are yours. How have you worked to shape that adaptation so that it can end up being yours?
-Thank you for this question. And I will try to give you an explanation. As I said, each song on the album I know by heart for a very long time. I know every word, every single note from their original recordings. So, for me, it was very difficult to make a concept that will not harm a beauty of original, but to create a sound that would simply reflect and root my feelings about two of them. I’ve been thinking a lot about it for past few years. It is a great responsibility and I was afraid that the results would be not in favour of their music. In September last year when I started preparing for the studio, I have said to myself, that I will not be touring and performing in 2020. My intention was just to release the album and basically stay at home. When we started recording in Big BlueSound studio in December, I had everything prepared in terms of what sound I would like to have, inducing musicians that will be working with me. In the original recordings, probably you can hear the various orchestras. It was quite common in those days that the voice was accompanied with the multiple instruments. And there are all kinds of instruments represented, because you had a various ensembles that were working as host orchestras on various TV and Radio stations all around the former country. On the other side, my idea was to show what impact their music had on my life. And every instrument had a role in telling the story of Toma and Silvana. You see I wanted to have a sound that you could hear a beauty in each fragment of compositions, just the way I felt them. I do hope that people will find this attempt to revive their music acceptable. But, I have to say again that this is how I see it. Nothing more.
-There are adaptations that are easier to assimilate such as those of Kad se voli, što se rastaje or Rane moje, and others that are more complicated such as Svirajte mi, tiho, tiše. Did this latest adaptation ask you for more depth?
-There are 12 songs on the album For Him and Her. The first song is a prologue and Umoran sam od zivota is given as a closure of the story. The lyrics of these two songs have unbelievable power and I could say that they are true representatives of Toma‘s life in kafana. But, then again this is what I think. You have to know that I have never seen him perform in kafana or elsewhere. It is only the way I envisaged these legendary songs.
-The fact that this album was recorded in Boston, Mostar and Belgrade, was it due to the mobility problems with COVID-19?
-No. Not really. As I said, the preparations started beginning of the last year. I have foreseen that the December would be the best time for recording session. And I have chosen the Big BlueSound studio, which is located outside Boston. So, we could basically enjoy a peaceful time in countryside. I am not a person that spends a lot of time in a studio. Everybody knows that. But, this time I wanted to make sure that I am 100% on the right track. So, we were recording it for 4 days and then we went to Coda studio in Belgrade to record additional violins. We were lucky that we could do it, because at that time COVID-19 epidemic in China already started, but no travel restrictions were imposed. At the end of January, I was traveling to Mostar for a day, where we recorded accordion in Mostar Rock School studio.
-Let’s talk a little about the team. Shyrkhan Agabeyli (or Han Beyli) is a young bass player who, I imagine, you met in Boston. Is that so? Why did you want to work with him and what has he contributed to the album?
-You see, the artists that were participating on this album never worked together before. This time I wanted to make a specific atmosphere in studio, where we all could generate ideas from our collaboration. All of them are coming from different music worlds and they were recording kafana songs that they have never played before. That kind of approach, I thought would be fruitful for the sound that I had envisaged. For many years I was striving to attract listeners and to show them the beauty of traditional music from this part of the world. I guess the whole concept could not be possible without collaboration with free and imaginative artists. And, You are correct. Three years ago, Shyrkhan was playing with his friends from Berklee College on a gig in Wakefield, near Boston, where I met him. The band was performing jazz standards and they were pretty good I have to say. At one point, Shyrkhan had a solo act, playing and singing the old song Ederlezi. It was fantastic. So, when I was planning the entire project, I thought that he could bring energy that could enrich the sound picture. His way of playing bass is quite subtle. I have to stress that he immediately understood what I was striving for.
-Artists like Predrag Vasić, Vladimir Ćuković or Ismail Lumanovski (appears on Live at Arena) have been collaborating with you in recent years. What do you like about them?
-As you said, Ismail Lumanovski played on my concert in Arena-Pula. He is virtuoso on clarinet, whose contribution on this album is really great. He had solo parts on few songs, where you could hear his talent and for sure his emotions and how he was contemplating music of Toma and Silvana. In his career he had few projects related to kafana music and he is member of a New York Gipsy All Stars Band. As for Vladimir Ćuković, I met him in Novi Sad couple of years ago. He is concertmaster and member of Vojvodina Symphonic Orchestra from Novi Sad. We played in National Theatre in Novi Sad, and that concert was one of the best concerts with orchestras ever. His archaic way of playing violin on this album perfectly suits the entire idea. I was happy that he could join us, and our collaboration will continue for sure.
You know, I tried to find the best studio for recording these songs. I had various ideas. Few studios have specific sound and silence that I prefer. But, somehow I thought that the result would not be what I was striving for. The Big BlueSound is a new residential studio in Boston, and its recently completed in the house of Predrag Vasić, who is a friend of mine. As a musician he was a member of a popular band Crno Vino, from Sarajevo, couple of decades ago, and when he moved to States, he decided to change his professional carrier, but he is still into the music. We never played together, except one or two songs on concert, where he was just a guest. In his music life he played so many gigs that I will never reach, and when we were working on adaptations, Predrag played the guitar the way that will match the atmosphere of Their music. Anyway, when I heard couple of tracks recorded in that studio two years ago, I knew that I would work there, eventually. So, the recording session that we did in December last year was absolutely what I was looking for.
Than we moved to Coda, where we recorded violins and guitars. Marijo Pajić, also Berklee graduate as Han Beyli, and owner of the studio, is another brilliant producer from Belgrade and his contribution is immense. The violins recorded there remind me of Skadarlija sound and I think that we got it the best we could. Finally, the journey ended in Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar, where few enthusiasts launched Rock Scholl a few years ago. To be honest, I knew that I had to go back where all things started. Somehow, I could not finish this homage to Toma and Silvana, without brining Mostar into the whole story.
-With Pantelis Stoikos you had coincided in some festivals. Have you ever played or worked together?
–Pantelis is one of the most creative trumpeters in Balkans and I had an opportunity to watch and listen his music on festivals, but we never worked together, apart from a concert in Italy, where we played as trio together with Bojan Zulfikarpašić. We had an extensive playlist and since we had no rehearsals before, we thought that the best would be to play by heart. And it was fantastic concert. His role on this album was to play a trumpet on a track Čekaj me. Even tough, this song was not written by Toma, it still remains as one of the most beautiful songs that he ever recorded.
-The happy surprise has a name: Mustafa Šantić. He was one of your first teachers, and with him you shared your first official recording: that Mujo djogu po mejdanu voda included in the A Secret Gate album of Mostar Sevdah Reunion, almost 20 years ago.
-It is interesting to say that the artists that were working on this album are coming from different music genres (classical, jazz, pop, rock and traditional). I thought that this diversity would enrich the adaptations. And when we are talking about Šantić, I guess that there are many fantastic artists in the World Music genre, but he is one of a kind. I had to go back to Mostar and ask him to join us on this project. The story about Toma and Silvana could not be accomplished without his weeping accordion.
-There are many people who still think of kafana music as a distorted or undervalued genre. Do you think this perception is changing?
-I guess that perception was correct to certain point, if we are talking about kafana music in 21st century. However, the music that we talk about was written long time ago. At that time, in 70ies and 60ies of the last century, kafana was a place to be. In those days, if you wanted to listen new wave of folk music and the best singers and musicians you could find them in kafanas. They had a quite diverse repertoire. They played traditional, newly composed folk songs, chansons and many others. Unfortunately, that generation of artists is long gone. There are some establishments in this region where you could find remainders of past times, but there not so many. When talking about perception, I believe that time will only tell about the impact of kafana music. Trends in music are not so important. You see, I am not in favour of separating music in different genres. To me, there is only music that I am in favour of, and apart from music itself nothing else really matters.
-One of the strengths of this genre is its dramatic essence. What attracts you most about kafana music?
-Well, that experience I never had unfortunately. I was just a kid when the legends Toma and Silvana performed in kafanas. But, I believe that Petar Peca Popović, famous publicist and journalist from Belgrade, wrote some brilliant thoughts of their music in liner notes, which I quote here: “…Kafana, mehana, bircuz, konoba, gostiona, taverna, or birtija – these near-synonyms have always represented that place where the best days are experienced at night. The only address where only the now exists and where there are no worries about tomorrow. Without the kafana, many lives would have taken entirely different paths. And not only the lives of musicians and bohemians… Here, two different musics reign. One is playing; the other, echoing. One is the sound of the singing voice; the other, the crashing of broken glass. Both indispensable; both passionate. There are people who consider the kafana and its music to be a special sort of sacred place. Much of what is missing from holy books can be found in the songs sung in kafanas. Most of all, this is about the meaning of life. For the history of kafana songs, for the myths about the creators and the original interpreters of the music, sometimes what we need is new promoters who know that they are preserving its authenticity, but at the same time, adapting the arrangements and production for a new generation. Kafana music sought, found, and preserved its inspiration in urban themes, life, love, and stories about famous protagonists of urban destinies regardless of their social status. Kafana songs, their content, language, melodies, rhythm, and the circumstances in which they are performed always bear the characteristics of the people among which they originated. Along with the arsenal of folk instruments that accompany the singing, the best guests are recognized by the hot-bloodedness of their reaction to the song.
The kafana was and is a kind of oasis where the cult of the high priest of the microphone still exists. It is where a different type of popularity is developed, and where the soul of the guest is particularly valued. Besides becoming a popular singer, over time you become a confessor, accomplice, and friend of gentlemen, gamblers, criminals, easy women, con men, scalpers, and angels of the night. Everyone in the ambiance of that music finds their own personal solace and hope, believes that their troubles will diminish, and hopes that they will find the right path if they sing at least the refrain of some of those songs. The kafana is a gym for the soul. It is there that the truest stories are told, unbelievers are glorified, some loves are forgotten, some are continued, and some are born. It is there that intimacy is treated by sobbing without shame, by laughing from the heart, and by singing from the soul. At times it is good to have a kafana soul in order to understand many seemingly incomprehensible things, and one needs to live the life of a night owl and bohemian to at least begin to comprehend the philosophy of the common man… It is there that dreams are innocent again…”.
I am someone who is coming from the next generation. I did not see them or hear their music in the original setting. But, as many other kids who were growing up at that time, we find their music close to the heart. Basically, we lived by their music and we will continue to do so.
-There is a fine line between some sevdalinkas and the kafana song. There are artists like Nedeljko Bilkić or Sejo Pitić who moved between both universes. What do you think unites and separates sevdalinka from kafana song?
-Newly composed folk music (Novokomponovana narodna muzika) was a term for a music genre that was established in 60ies of the last century. The term was used to stress the difference in relation to roots music, traditional music. As you mentioned these two artists in your question, there are also many other singers who recorded traditional and newly composed songs. There are many songs that were composed in those days that became folk classics and in any case, contribution of authors and performers should not be underestimated. Traditional music inspired many authors to create music, and this is not only the case with kafana songs. The only thing important is what impact the music had on people, and whether the music will be remembered and cherished for generations to come.
–Rosa (Snail Records, 2004)
–Zumra / With Merima Ključo (Gramofon, 2008)
–Amira Live (Gramofon, 2009)
–Amulette (Harmonia Mundi-World Village, 2011)
–Silk & Stone (Aquarius Records, 2014)
–Damar (Aquarius Records, 2016)
–Ascending / With TrondheimSolistene (Croatia Records, 2018)
–Live at Arena (Croatia Records, 2019)
–For Him and Her (Croatia Records, 2020)