Zanin Berbić: “A lot of Bosnian people don’t get to understand Sevdah until their mature”
The child prodigy of sevdalinka is, nowadays, one of the most outstanding young researchers and performers of the genre.
After two decades immersed in the Sevdah universe, the ethnomusicologist is ready for the release of an album and a book.
Por César Campoy.
-Your Soundcloud channel has many of your performances, but you haven’t released an official album yet. Which is the reason?
-Indeed, I’ve been singing for almost 20 years and still haven’t released an album. There’s a ton of reasons… The first one is of material nature, since for the last 10 years I’ve been schooled away from home, which required financial support from my family. And a lot of other circumstances… Regardless, that hasn’t stopped me from creating dozens of recordings available on the internet. The Soundcloud channel you’ve mentioned is actually owned by my friend, a big connoisseur of sevdanlinka, dr. Semir Vranić who publishes my recordings.
-With the recent release of the video clip of the song Čador penje beže Ljuboviću, can we expect an official recording of Zanin Berbić to be released soon?
-Most definitely. The music video for Čador penje beže Ljuboviću is actually a result of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since I’m spending this time in my hometown, I used the opportunity for creating something like this video… Although, the Covid-19 pandemic has stopped the big release of my album called Sevdalinka uz saz u Bosni i Hercegovini. It’s a double CD with 23 sevdalinka songs I’ve interpreted accompanied by saz. Along the CD is a book I’ve put together with ethnomusicological transcriptions of those songs. The publisher is a Sarajevo company ŠDC owned by Esad Šuman. Therefore, the release of that album depends on the Covid-19 pandemic situation.
-Your activity is constant. Do you have more plans for the future?
-What I had recently released on the internet and what’s also a product of the time spent in isolation is the video for the song U tuđoj zemlji, whose lyrics author is Rade Jovanović, and the songwriter Omer Pobrić. The video was realised in collaboration with my colleagues Alma Subašić and Damir Galijašević and is dedicated to all Bosnians that are leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina or have left it during the war in the 90s. As far as my musical plans go, beside the already mentioned double CD, I also plan to film a music video in Hercegovina… but I don’t want to mention all the details now. When it comes to my academic work, I will soon finish a Master’s degree at the Sarajevo Music Academy, the Ethnomusicology department where I also got my Bachelor’s. The theme of my scientific research is about dr. Himzo Polovina and his work in the area of folk music.
-When you hear the word “Sevdah”, what feelings come to your mind?
-Sevdah as the state of the soul and sevdalinka as a traditional song I take in very emotionally, as I am attached to those terms since early childhood. I was considered a “miracle of a child” in my close surroundings, as I was categorically refusing to sing anything that wasn’t sevdalinka. They would say: “This kid only sings sevdalinkas!” That’s something I haven’t changed since. However, as the time went by, as I matured and studied that song more, I’ve come to realize that for Bosnia and its people it represents much more than just a song. It is a product of the spirit of Bosnian people and a proof that we, as people, used to be so much more moral before than we are now and much more aligned with the universe. A lot can be learned about Bosnia and its people through sevdalinka.
-How would you explain Sevdah to someone who knows nothing about it, its meaning and how to live it?
-It is difficult to explain it in a few words, just as it is difficult to understand it. The standard definition of Sevdah as a specific state of the soul and the definition of sevdalinka as a Bosnian urban traditional song won’t mean much to someone until they get to hear it for the first time. A longer process is needed to understand these terms. Even a lot of Bosnian people don’t get to understand Sevdah until their mature, older years and start to truly enjoy it. If I had a few minutes to explain to a stranger what Sevdah is, I wouldn’t do it with words, but instead would play them a recording of the most representative song… There is a lot of such recordings, but for example, I would choose the song Mošćanice vodo plemenita, interpreted by Zehra Deović and accompanied by the accordian duet of Ismet Alajbegović Šerbo and Jovica Petković.
-Is there a limit on experimentation and modernization of the genre?
-I wouldn’t easily go into judging that mainly because the limits of art are unknown to us people, just like there are no limits to knowledge. What I do stick to in my work is moderation, not going into any type of extreme nor in singing nor in playing and arrangements. “Less is more!“, said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
-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…
-I primarily stick to Bosnia; songs whose origin is Bosnian and that were recorded on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, some songs from my repertoire come from Sandžak, Montenegro and Serbia. That is mainly due to the reason that the political borders don’t always match the cultural borders. Some songs have been sung from both sides of political borders of nowadays’ Balkan countries. As you’ve said, the term “sevdalinka” used to also mark a larger repertoire than what is currently on the territory of Bosnia. But, the term is still mainly attached to a Bosnian song. Also, we shouldn’t forget that the term itself is of recent date, popularized from the 19th century.
-How do you think you have contributed to the history of the genre?
-As I’ve said earlier, I’ve been singing for almost 20 years, but I still consider myself at the beginning… Therefore, I still have a lot to do before I would dare to think about my contribution. However, if the destiny were to decide that this moment is the time for me to end my life novel, I would consider myself to have done a lot of nice things, perhaps not revolutionary, but nice and useful. By that, I mainly think of about 200 recordings I have created to this day.
-Do you agree with the tag “New Sevdah”, or do you think it is nothing more than a logical evolution?
-A few years ago in the student magazine of the Sarajevo Music Academy, my article Sevdalinka između kozervatizma i eksperimentalizma (Sevdalinka between the conservatism and experimentalism) was published. I’ve brought out some of my opinions on that subject in there. I think it is too early and very ambitious to come up with a final conclusion about the term “New Sevdah”. Everything needs a larger timeframe to objectively and more surely be given a conclusion. Whether there exists a common ground between all the musical stylistic individualities of our young performers, it requires one serious, scientific research.
-Do the oldest generations understand the modernization of Sevdah?
-Hardly. Older generations usually struggle to follow this fast pace at which the science, technology and art are going. Radical changes used to take decades or even centuries to happen, while those changes in the 21st century happen in a few years or less. Also it’s in the nature of a human to feel nostalgic about their youth. The classic way of performing sevdalinka is more prefered among the older generations because that’s how it was sung and played in their youth. Out of the same reasons people usually miss the old socio-political system that they spent their youth in.
-It seems that the genre has been doing very well in the recent years. Where can we find the future of Sevdah?
-Yes. A large amount of people sing, play or listen to Sevdah in the nowadays’ Bosnia and other countries. To me, that’s a proof of the universality of this type of singing and an affirmation of its artistic values. Because every true art is timeless. Sometimes more or less popular, but indestructible. As far as its future is concerned, I see it in balance between its classic stylistic values that need to be constant, and with a subtle adaptation to the current social situation through different types of arrangements. I wouldn’t change up the melody of the singing. I would leave its evolution to the individuality of each singer, since there are no two identical singers on this planet. Every singer, with more or less quality, is in fact unique and irreplaceable. Therefore, it is up to my generation to fight for achieving such balance so that this greatly valuable part of Bosnian cultural heritage is saved for next generations. I’m mainly not up for some extreme changes in tradition and that type of thinking nowadays is taking off a lot. Lot of young people these days are questioning everything, even the elementary facts that aren’t questionable. Of course, whether that will take off into an apocalypse or some kind of revolution in thinking that we can’t imagine yet, time will tell.
-Throughout history, which was the best time for Sevdah?
-As for the productivity aspect, it certainly was the time when those songs were being created among the people. Historically, roughly, that was the time during the Ottoman Empire ruling in Bosnia (1463 – 1878). The lack of media of today and the illiteracy left a fruitful ground for the process of narration and poetic creation within our people that brought to life the most valuable examples of this type of singing. But when it comes to reproduction, I think I won’t be mistaken if I say that it was the time from 1945 to 1990 when the well-known doyens of Sevdah were affirmed. I think the nicest examples of this singing were recorded on tape right in this period.
-And the worst time (by decline, musical arrangements, instrumentation with no sense…)?
-Of course it is impossible to talk about precise years regarding both your previous and this question. But I think roughly that would be the time since 1990 and even lasting up to today.
-Some say that the Sevdah, at times, has been close to Establishment; even speaking of genre as an artistic creation related to upper-middle class. Has Sevdah an ideology? Is it a genre, definitely, that belongs to the people?
-Since sevdalinka is an urban Bosnian song, it is most certain that the islamic higher middle class from the Ottoman period in Bosnia had a role in its creation. One could assume that the members of that class were those talented individuals who sang about certain events and experiences into harmonious melo-poetic wholes that, through the process of narrative-poetic shaping, have passed it on to our days as the way we know it. But the fact is that this singing very quickly entered all social and class groups, crossing ethnic and religious barriers. If we could talk about the “ideology” of this singing, I think it would be only in the context of Bosnia, that is, those values that represent Bosnia from the earliest times, which are multiethnicity and respect for the other and the different. I think that sevdalinka is one of the greatest proofs of this and such “Bosnianness”. Sevdalinka certainly doesn’t have the same role in the Bosnian society as it did at the time of its creation, at about hundred years ago. In the meantime, the humanity experienced megalomaniacal changes that brought the environments in which such song came to be. Although it is still popular and often sung nowadays, with the expansion of new music and different genres, it still retracted into a kind of a “museological” sphere.
-Will there come a time when the big audience (international) will understand that the term “Balkan Music” goes beyond turbo-folk and fanfare?
-That depends on the Bosnian community and the system of our country. Will we leave Sevdalinka to the ruthlessness of the showbiz world or will we “brand” it as a work of art that proves with its value our deserved place in the family of the European culture, which is often disputed!? Of course, our musicians that are doing very well in the music world, are doing a great job in this field. However, I believe that our system must work on that, not just individuals.
-Top 5: Sevdalinkas (songs).
-A very tough choice since there is a lot of beautiful songs. But here are some that I consider to stand out with their literary and musical value: Na Obhođi prema Bakijama (Mošćanice vodo plemenita), Dvije su se vode zavadile – Dvi’ planine vi’ Travnika grada, Kad morija Mostar morijaše, Magla pala do pola Saraj’va and Vila viče sa vrh Trebevića.