Photo: Snail Records

Dragi Šestić: «We need UNESCO’s recognition of the sevdalinka as Heritage of Humanity»

The producer and leader of Mostar Sevdah Reunion is one of the main figures if we want to understand the process of internationalization of the sevdalinka. With the memory of the sadly deceased Sreta, and the definitive consolidation of Antonija Batinić as the band’s vocalist, we chat with him about his latest work, Lady Sings the Balkan Blues (Snail Records, 2022), about the role of women in Sevdah, and about the present and future of the genre

«I would like to see more women composers, arrangers, producers and band leaders, as well as playing instruments in Sevdah projects»

«It takes decades of work to become one of the giants, it won’t happen with a few songs»

«I think that Antonija Batinić is ‘The Lady’ who can sing Sevdah and mark the World Music scene with her vocal abilities»

By César Campoy.

– You bet once again on a new voice: Antonija Batinić. Tell me about her. How did her incorporation into this project come about? What qualities would you highlight about her? Personally, I think it has a very important range of registers.

– I met Antonija in Mostar at the end of summer 2017. I was at one cultural event in Pavarotti Music Center and she was a part of that event. She came on the stage to sing our famous sevdalinka Emina with the young guitar player Nedim Oručević. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears how great she was. Both of them were the followers of Mostar Rock School. At that time she was only 26. Immediately, after the show I approached her and asked her to join us and to make a few rehearsals with her. After the first rehearsal we knew that she is the right singer for MSR. She is a real singer. She can sing almost everything: great vocal abilities, phrasing, emotions, technique… I listened to her singing repertoire from Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse, Adele…Ex-Yu pop, rock, traditional! I think her first performance with the band was in the autumn 2017 and since that time she is the steady member of the band. Around that time we released the album with Milutin Sretenović Sreta (The Balkan AutumnSnail Records, 2018-) and we had to wait for the new project with Antonija (also we needed a time that she gets really involved into the band). We released a single Srdo moja in the spring of 2018 as the sort of her promotion and the beginning of the new project. But, as we all know, Corona came and life has stopped.

– What is your assessment of the role that women are playing in sevdalinka today? We are on the way to find a new Nada Mamula, Zehra Deović or Beba Selimović?

– Unfortunately, woman are mostly in a role of the singers. I would like to see more attempts by women in creative field (composers, arrangers, producers and band leaders) as well as playing instruments in Sevdah projects. Nada Mamula, Zehra Deovic, Beba Selimovic and Silvana Armenulic (I have specially to mention her!) and many others from the «old school sevdah» are the real giants of our traditional music. They left to us a huge musical heritage. We are all inspired and using their recordings for our projects. There are enough talents to continue their roles, but it takes decades of work to become one of them. It won’t happen with a few songs.

– What led you to come up with the project Lady Sings The Balkan Blues?

– First of all it was the voice of Antonija. As I mentioned above, we were planning to record the album with her but Covid stopped all our activities. Also the sudden dead of our dear Sreta, at the beginning of the tour last summer in 2021, was a huge shock to all of us. We stopped with all activities 

We went at the beginning of December in the studio in Mostar to record homage song for Sreta, Kad muzika stane, and we stayed four more days to record “basic” tracks for the album Lady Sings The Balkan Blues. Before going to studio I was on the phone talking to Antonija. We were discussing the repertoire. I had the idea of more wider repertoire. Not just sevdalinkas but also Macedonian songs, “Starogradske”, some Ex-Yu evergreens… Then Antonija suggested at the beginning Teško meni u Saraj’vu samoj. I was thinking: ”Are you sure young lady?”. That is very difficult sevdalinka. I didn’t know that she was into that so much but apparently she was last few years doing some research on sevdalinkas. Then she said:”I would like to sings Da sam ptica and Omer-beže too!”

I was so happy, because we could make a real Sevdah album. I like to switch between Sevdah conceptual albums and other Balkan combinations. If you follow us, you can see that almost every second album is not Sevdah album. We recorded the albums with Šaban Bajramović, Ljljana Buttler and Milutin Sretenović Sreta… non Sevdah albums!

And the title is some kind of statement for Antonija. I think that she is “The Lady” who can sing Sevdah and mark the World Music scene with her vocal abilities. Balkan Blues? I mean, more than 20 years we are promoting Sevdah and trying to put it on the international music map. And we are always trying to explain what is the Sevdah and somehow it always ending up to the cliché phrase: ”It is a Balkan Blues!” So, suddenly they started talking about Balkan Blues and I just wanted to underline for the future that Sevdah is a real Balkan Blues.

Photo: Snail Records

– What is the goal of this record? 

– As usual, to promote Sevdah. To keep the flame of Sevdah. To put the light on Antonija. To inspire young musicians to play Sevdah.

– And, what do you think it brings to the current Sevdah scene?

– I never think about these questions or answers. First of all I do this because of my personal joy and pleasure. The message is simple: love Sevdah because Sevdah is love.

– The arrangements and the spirit of MSR have been evolving towards more sophisticated airs. Especially since Tales From A Forgotten City (Snail Records, 2013). On this record it is evident, for example, in songs like Kada moja mladost prođe. Where is the MSR style evolving? I imagine that will be one of your main concerns. After more than twenty years, the exigency is maximum.

– Hahaha! Yes. Nice remark. As the producer and audio engineer, I just love to hear nice acoustic recordings. I love to listen to the good recordings, mixdowns, productions… I love the sound of acoustic instruments, good arrangements… But the most important for me is the atmosphere that you get while producing the music. Our language is not understandable to the international audience, so we try to create the atmosphere with the arrangements and production to reach the hearts of our listeners. I still remember when we released, on the album Café Sevdah (Snail Records, 2007), the song Kraj pendžera Jusuf stari (more than 13 minutes), or, on Tales From A Forgotten City, Što te nema? (almost 10 minutes, even with the video clip). Everybody was telling that I am crazy, that is too long for listening, etc… but, who cares? If you don’t like, skip it to the next one. I can say that we got most of the compliments for those songs.

– There are performers like Marko, Gabrijel or Radoja, who have been with MSR for years, but there are others like Mišo, Senad or Sandi, who have been with the project almost from the beginning. How is that work together after more than twenty years? How is your routine?

– All of these wouldn’t be possible without my boys. They are such a great musicians and great artists. Incredibly talented. I go to the studio, mostly with one sheet of paper, the list of possible songs, maybe few notes on the atmosphere (where to go with each song, what instruments to use…) and we start with the real workshop on the arrangement. Many times has happened that I choose the songs that nobody heard or played ever.

We spend mostly a couple of hours per song, and when the arrangement is more or less ready we go to record. Mišo is mostly busy with the harmonization of the music. Sometimes I record all kind of solo’s and I make decisions later in a mixdown. I would say that our average for the recording of the album is 5 days. We always complain that we don’t have enough time (read money) to spend more days in the studio, but, who knows, maybe this formula is working best for us. Maybe that is the reason that we always sound fresh, unpredictable, original.. I would say that we have jazzy way of recording: you have the structure and just play it. We will figure it out during the playing.

That’s working for us and also for me. I am not interested to just press the button ‘RECORD‘ and do nothing. I love to get involved in the arrangements, in discussions with the musicians. We are all creating something. We are painting the picture of the album. You start with the line, but you don’t know where you going to end.

– You have once again had Boris or Ivan, who already participated in The Balkan Autumn. Will they become part of the MSR family?

Boris Vuga has performed with us a couple of times, but his participation depends of the budget of the concerts. We don’t get so much money to bring extra member(s). If you have to bring extra person, it means extra fee, ticket for the flight, accommodation, food…Its adding up on the totals costs unfortunately. Till now, Ivan Susac was just helping us on a few tracks. He is very busy musician and it is difficult to plan him for the gigs. But, who knows, if we get more on the road soon perhaps we can bring them. They would be great addition to our sound no doubt about that.

Photo: Snail Records

– We are talking about The Balkan Autumn, I would like us to have a memory for Milutin, who also has a presence on this album with that emotional Kad muzika stane, a song by Rusmir Pobrić. Tell me about that sonorous tribute, please.

– The sudden dead of our dear Sreta, at the beginning of the tour last summer in 2021, was a huge shock to all of us. We stopped with all activities. Then, in October same year, I found the video recording of Sreta that inspired me to make some sort of our last good bye to our dear friend. That video recording was taken by the composer Rusmir Pobrić on his phone. He gave to Sreta that song and idea was to release the single. Sreta was so enthusiastic about that song, so I promised him that we will record it. But that never happened. Sreta left us. So, we decided to record that song and to try to make the duet of Sreta and Antonija. We had to clean audio recording and to isolate the voice of Sreta. It was a lot of editing and at the end we succeeded to release the single Kad Muzika Stane. That song is also on the album Lady Sings The Balkan Blues as the bonus track, because conceptually, it is not sevdalinka. Apart of that, that was technically difficult to do, emotionally was even more difficult. There were a lot of tears during the recording. We still, at that time, couldn’t  believe the fact that he is not with us, that we are never going to see him again. During recording you could hear his voice. We are listening to recordings, he is with us in the studio. You are searching for him between the musicians to see his response on songs but you can’t find his eyes or see him smiling at you. It was heartbreaking recording for all of us. But we had to say good bye to our dear Sreta.

– What would you highlight about the figure of Milutin? What did you learn from him?

– He was really great man, great singer. Totally unique. I couldn’t believe it that he didn’t make the carrier in Ex-Yu. He could sing everything. He was the “old school” kafana singer. That means that you must sing everything: from Malagueña Salerosa, Bésame mucho, Allelujah, What a Wonderful World, Yesterday, Italian canzonas, French chansons, Russian songs, Gypsy Kings… to our kafana’s standards: Toma Zdravković, [Predrag Živković] Tozovac… evergreens, sevdalinkas… His voice was so specific. We had many plans.

And his character was really beautiful. Such a kind man with a positive energy. Nothing was difficult for him. Ready to help you whenever you ask him. Very honest man and on top of everything a huge professional.

When he became the main singer of Mostar Sevdah Reunion he had to study and learn all sevdalinkas from our repertoire. Some of them he never heard before. He was ready in a few days!

We really miss him so much. Dear, dear Sreta. And he was the first one who said to me about Antonija, when he heard her first time: ”This kid is just unbelievable! Take her and make the album with her!”. He was a huge fan of her. I still have a few duets of them from the concerts. I have to release them soon on You Tube.

– By the way, Orhan Maslo returns to MSR after many years, because he participated, if I’m not mistaken, in The Mother of Gypsy Soul (Snail Records, 2002). How did that reunion come about?

Oha (nickname) is our old friend. He is the establisher of Mostar Rock School and the manager of the studio in Music Center Pavarotti. During recording in the studio we see each other every day. It was a natural moment that I asked him to help us with some percussions. We needed them for a few songs and he was kind to support us. Also, Antonija was in his school few years ago.

– We were talking, before, about the female role in the current Sevdah. Historically, women have been very important in the history of the sevdalinka, don’t you think?

– Absolutely! I mean, if you read about the history of sevdalinka, sometimes you can find that sevdalinka was, at the beginning, female love song performed in the gardens of noble Muslim houses behind the high walls. Love longing songs of the girls, etc… And we have “female” and “male” sevdalinka songs anyway.

– However, throughout history there were not many instrumentalists. Maybe Radojka Živković was an exception. Why do you think there haven’t been more women instrumentalists?

– She was great and unique instrumentalist, and she marked her time for sure. She is Serbian, but she could play extremely well Sevdah too. Yes, we have that problem with the females instrumentalists, but I think it is more question of the culture. I mean in those days, I would say even now, girls were getting more classical musical education. Accordion as a typical sevdalinka instrument is more linked to the folk music. It was never on the repertoire of the musical schools. And we have one very important factor in Balkan culture: it is kafana! Most of the musicians were getting knowledge, experience and lessons in regular kafanas by their older colleagues. And that means you have to pay a pretty heavy price: you have to play for hours, you play all kind of songs, you get sometimes intimidated by the audience: our famous baksis (tip) if you play ordered music), etc…

You can’t become a great Balkan musicians just playing at home specific tunes. You need to get out of your safe home surrounding and be dropped in the sea with the real sharks of music. Than you learn how to really play. It is tough. And it is not fair to the female musicians because, I can imagine how, it is going to be difficult for young female musician to adapt to this kind of performances. Probably that is the reason that we don’t have enough female instrumentalists. It is not easy for them to accept this kind of life and “kafana education”. I hope this will change in the future because we are missing some great talents for sure. Ladies have to come up with their music! At this moment while I am writing the answers on this question, one idea cross my mind. It would be great to form the female Sevdah band! Who knows: maybe new project is just born.

– Many sevdalinkas tell us about a patriarchal society and even portrayed oppression against women, but others were very liberal and spoke about free love and emancipation…. about the need for freedom. Without a doubt, despite what some may think, this is a genre that is very advanced in its time in terms of lyrics and message, don’t you think?

– For sure! I mean sometimes I get surprised with the lyrics and the messages. Hidden erotic is very often, like famous Mostarski dućani or Razbolje se lijepa Hajrija.

– Some songs have been repeatedly recorded by MSR. How do you deal with fixing a song you’ve already worked on, to give it a new direction?

– That is the trickiest thing of all to do! Many songs we recorded, but songs come to life just at the concerts and then are happening some adaptations on the arrangements too. Sometimes, because of need of the concept we had to record already recorded songs new versions. But then everything depend of the concept of the new recording how we going to arrange the same old song. So, suddenly old song become the new song for us.

Photo: Snail Records

– The last time we spoke, you told me that Sevdah was more alive than ever. Personally, I think that now is even more so. Do you agree? Can we talk about a new golden age of Sevdah?

– I am glad that I can agree with you. Sevdah is blooming and it will bloom even more. I think that more and more artist will come to experiment with Sevdah, and they will bring it to all kinds of directions. They just have to try and go on with the own ideas. Youth is the future. It is important that in Bosnia and Herzegovina we still have a traditional performers and others who are willing to experiment with Sevdah. Both are very important. We need to keep tradition but also we need to explore it to other levels.

– I know you are a modest person, but how important MSR has been in rejuvenating and spreading the art of sevdalinka. Don’t you think?

– I just hope that we will get some credits for that one day. I am not sure that we get enough credits in our homeland. Nobody believes me that we never get the sponsor or any help to record our albums or to go on tours, etc… But at the end of a day that doesn’t matter. It is difficult to talk about accomplishments, but this story has to end with the UNESCO’s recognition of sevdalinka as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I hope that our Ministry of Culture or whoever has the power on the state level is going to fill that application. We need some of our professionals like musicologists, ethnomusicologist, composers, etc… to activate themselves and put Sevdah/sevdalinka where belongs. 

– Fortunately, every day there are more artists who dare to compose new sevdalinkas, sevdalinkas of the 21st century. Perhaps the most active in this regard is Damir Imamović. Is it possible to consolidate a generation that, in addition to interpreting, also creates quality original sevdalinkas, on a daily basis?

– It is a difficult task. How to define good sevdalinka? I got so many nice songs in my inbox by different authors, mostly without music. But, it is almost impossible to write something new. I mean, not impossible to write and compose, but how to make that one sevdalinka to live. To live with the people. To be the people’s song. The moment when song become more popular than the writer or composer, that is good sevdalinka. We have hundreds of hidden sevdalinkas, they need a life, exposure… I don’t know. It is difficult question how to crate quality sevdalinka. For sure we would need a festival, competition. But very serious competition with the serious award. Only that can bring some quality. We are in the area where everything is walking on the tinny edge of the kitsch/bad taste and sophisticated art.

– When you tour the world, do you still have the need to explain that Balkan music is so varied, or is it already clear to the public, managers and festivals?

– Unfortunately, yes, but less and less. Now will be easier: Lady Sings The Balkan Blues. Hahahaha!

– Finally, please tell me about your projects and MSR projects.

– I am in the role of the mentor at MOST music for some new Balkan talents like Agona Shporta (Kosovo), Kalata and Baklava bands (both Macedonia), Rona Nishliu (Kosovo/Albania)… I am trying to help them to put themselves on the World Music map. They are really talented new artists and I am very proud to be the part of their development.

Regarding MSR, we are right now just busy with the promotion of the new album, and festival season. There a few projects in my mind for the band. One is very, very complicated. It is for a decade in my head. I hope I can do it one day. For that project I really need a big studio time to produce. But, let’s focus on the Lady Sings The Balkan Blues now.

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