“The emotions during the singing and listening of sevdalinkas are going so deep that nothing can touch them”
A pioneer in the recovery of the 21st Century Balkan sounds.
Visionary, rediscoverer and master producer.
By César Campoy.
-When you hear the word “Sevdah”, what feelings come to your mind?
-Considering the fact that I’ve been living abroad for the last 20 years, the word Sevdah reminds me on my home, my town, my land, my family, my friends…
-How would you explain Sevdah to someone who knows nothing about it, its meaning and how to live it?
-I’d like to answer by explaining the difference between “Sevdalinka” and the “Sevdah” first. Sevdalinka is a traditional music form from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sevdah is a state of both the mind and soul, awakened by listening to sevdalinkas. I would say that Sevdah is the mood that music is able to put us in. It is similar, perhaps, to your Spanish flamenco, and the feel of “duende”, which your great Federico García Lorca described once: “All that has dark sound has duende” or “That mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain”. So, we have some similar songs, and we call them “Kara-Sevdah” (Kara is a Turkish word for “black” or “dark”). It means that the emotions during the singing and listening of sevdalinkas are going so deep that nothing can touch them.
-Is there a limit on experimentation and modernization of the genre?
-Like in any form of art, the same could apply to music. There are no borders or limits; in the end, everything is a question of the interpreter or creator of the art. Sevdalinka/Sevdah is so rich in its own form (lyrics, melody, harmony, beat..), it provides us with a lot of opportunities to explore it.
-And what are, for you, the geographical boundaries of Sevdah when you are seeking inspiration or references? Throughout history, there have been songs, considered sevdalinkas, upon tunes from Sephardic tradition, Serbian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Greek…
-All that Balkan area was under the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years. So, for sure, the whole area was influenced by the Oriental music. It got mixed with the local sounds in the process, and thus connecting all those areas where that influence is to be found. Yet all have their own original components, and in that way they are all different from each other. The Bosnian sevdalinka is the autochthon music form from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thank to the music industry in former Yugoslavia, Sevdalinka became very popular and accepted in other former republics of Yugoslavia as well; the musicians were starting to explore it on their own. Of course, we can all hear the difference between our musical forms (Macedonian, Serbian, Montenegrin, etc…). I think this is a question for a ethnomusicologist, rather than myself, and I am sure that some of them wouldn’t agree with my view on this subject.
-What has the Sevdah given you, vitally and professionally?
-I became a music producer, sound engineer and later on a record label owner, all thank to Sevdah. So it is the essence of both my musical life and my life as such. From time to time I enjoy working in other musical genres as well, yet producing the albums of Sevdah is just something that I have to do. To work with Sevdah is the greatest challenge. My mind, my body and my soul are asking for that… It is always in my mind.
-And how do you think you have contributed to the history of the genre?
-I can’t answer that yet. The time will tell. I can only say that I was very lucky when I started with Mostar Sevdah Reunion. At that time, in 1998/1999, Sevdah was very neglected as a music genre in Bosnia. It was “old people’s music”. On the World Music scene nobody was talking of Sevdah at all. So, when we released our first album it was a big surprise, and a great success both on the local and international scene. With our arrangements we’ve injected a new life into old songs. We’ve put the Sevdah on the World Music map. We were the pioneers of a new, 21st Century Sevdah. The most important thing was that, somehow, we have inspired many young musicians to turn to Sevdah. They’re trying to follow our path; of course, everybody in its own way. But we made it popular again, so it’s alive again, more than ever, even!
-Do you agree with the tag “New Sevdah”, or do you think it is nothing more than a logical evolution?
-It is just the evolution of the genre. The first Sevdah was just a capella singing, later came the saz. With the Bosnian annexation of 1878, by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, other instruments were introduced: violins, guitars, and, especially the accordion. So it was just about the evolution. Every era has its own characteristics… I think nowadays Sevdah is more diverse than ever.
-Do the oldest generations understand the modernization of Sevdah?
-They are afraid for sure. And I don’t blame them. It is normal process for everybody. It was same with every musical genre at the end. Of course, I am not against the old style of Sevdah. It is still the biggest and only inspiration to me! But we can’t repeat what those guys have done in last 50-60 years. We had to find our way.
-It seems that the genre has been doing very well in the recent years. Where can we find the future of Sevdah?
-As I said before, Sevdah is more alive than ever. It’s blooming in every sense. Youngsters are coming in and it’s getting more popular every day.
-Throughout history, when has it been the best time for Sevdah?
-Every era has its ups and downs and each was important for the development of the Sevdah. I feel a connection to the period of our great poets of Mostar, Aleksa Šantić (1868-1924) and Osman Đikić (1879-1912). That was the time when they wrote some of the greatest lyrics of Sevdah, as well as a period when the secrets of sevdalinkas were leaving the high walls of the houses of the rich Muslim families and were coming into the daylight. During the Austro-Hungarian rule, many songs became the so-called standards; shoulder to shoulder with the Austrian Waltz, and they were performed in the newly opened restaurants, bars or hotels. That was the beginning of the popularity of Sevdah. Those songs were not performed any more in the secret gardens or backyards of Muslims nobility: they became the songs for all citizens. And of course, I have to mention the Mostar’s own, dr. Himzo Polovina (1927-1986), probably the greatest singer of Sevdah of all time and the greatest inspiration in our work. He was a man who discovered, preserved and brought to the daylight many, many forgotten sevdalinkas. His contribution to the Sevdah is immeasurable.
-And the worst time (by decline, musical arrangements, instrumentation with no sense…)?
-I think the end of 80’s was the worse time for Sevdah. Suddenly synthesizers or cheap rhythm machines became some kind of fashion in the arrangements. Also, it was the era when was born “turbo-folk” (musical genre that started mixing the cheap pop sound with the cheap folk music and horrible lyrics), it was the nightmare creation for anybody who cared about some esthetics in the sound… War came in 90’s… so somehow Sevdah was neglected; they thought it is the music of the old people…
-Some say that the Sevdah, at times, has been close to Establishment; even speaking of gender as an artistic creation related to upper-middle class. Has Sevdah an ideology? Is it a genre, definitely, that belongs to the people?
-Sevdah started in the gardens and the high-walled backyards of the Muslim aristocratic homes, and it was kept there for a long period. When the Austro-Hungarians occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, they brought the “civilization” with themselves: the hotels, fancy restaurants and bars with the live music were being opened quickly. So, they needed live music, and many orchestras were created during that time. The repertoire was mostly Waltzes. And then, some day somebody probably played some sevdalinka tune and it went down great obviously. With time, the people were requesting more of those songs, so slowly the music was no longer exclusive or belonging to a certain group of people; it truly became the popular music, folk music…
-Will there come a time when the big audience (international) will understand that the term “Balkan Music” goes beyond turbo-folk and fanfare?
-I hope it will. It’s giving me a headache explaining it every time to many managers, festivals, theaters, or audience that if it says “the Balkan music” that it doesn’t necessarily mean brass bands with that “oompa-oompa” brass sound . It really takes time. We have been now on the road for 15 years and still have to explain sometimes that there are so many beautiful music styles in the Balkans, and that it must be one of the richest areas on the planet when it comes down to the music. It’s a very small territory but the variety of styles is almost endless.