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Sharing a musical reflection of Bosnian history culture through sevdah

Bosnian singer Amira Medunjanin never considered becoming a professional singer, having never formally studied music.However, she says music was always there in her life, something to turn to through ups and downs. Medunjanin will be performing selections from her album Damar at Christ Church Cathedral Nov. 12.

Often referred to as a kind of “Bosnian Blues”, the musical style sevdah is very emotional, talks of love and yearning, and carries with it a long history of Bosnian culture.

“Music was always there, as my little world of comfort,” says Medunjanin. “Whenever I felt blue, in trouble, or going through any sort of emotional crass, I would hide away in that world and I felt better.”
Following the path

For Medunjanin, making the switch to music full-time was a shift in identity: from someone working in the European Commission to becoming a full-time musician.

“At some point, I felt it too overwhelming. It was like becoming two different people, which is really difficult to handle,” recalls Medunjanin. “So I said goodbye to the job I had, and dedicated myself to music completely.”

Taught at a young age by her mother, the music had always been an important part of her life. However, it had seemed too intimate to share with many people. Eventually though, she began to realize the inevitable path of sharing her musical voice.

“I strongly believe in destiny. There are certainly things that are somewhere, written for you in your life,” says Medunjanin. “This was obviously my destiny.”
Sevdah: history echoing through music

Once Medunjanin realized her musical path, it still took some time to know and understand the kind of music she wanted to perform – as it was important not only to her, but to her cultural history that it is done carefully and knowledgeably.

“With the traditional music of my country, it’s a very tangible, sacred thing – like a tradition that is embedded in our genes, and everybody knows it,” says Medunjanin. “To mess with it is almost a sin. So I just waited for the right moment to follow the path I wanted to go down.”

The musical style that Medunjanin employs is called sevdah. The name, she says, is tied to two words: the Turkish word sevda, meaning a forlorn yearning of love, and the Arabic word سودازده (säwdâ), referring to “black bile,” one of the four bodily fluids once said to control emotion by ancient Greek and Arabic doctors.

Säwdâ was supposedly tied closest to the level of someone’s melancholy, a characteristic not uncommon in a sevdah: the musical style is often referred to as the “Bosnian Blues”.

“The feeling of sevda is basically something that represents the state of mind after listening to sevdahlinke (songs in the style of sevdah),” says Medunjanin. “It mainly talks about human emotions. It’s quite general, but applicable even now, though many songs were written five centuries ago.”

For Medunjanin the evolution of the word sevdah reflects the shifting path of the style itself, and of the often tumultuous history of Bosnia in general.

“They’re beautifully written, but it can be difficult to translate, since many words are terms that remain from Ottoman times, or from the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” says Medunjanin. “Throughout history it seems that we’ve always been under someone’s boot, but I always try to look at the positive of becoming a melting pot of different cultures.”

Medunjanin says in her dealings and talks with people in the European Commission, many didn’t know much more about Bosnia than the recent war and genocide from which the country and its people were recovering.

She notes this was an important part of discovering the path of sharing her culture through music.

“When I worked for the [European] Commission, I would meet people from all over Europe. We would discuss certain things about my country, and I would realize that they didn’t know much about my country,” says Medunjanin. “I felt sort of obliged to let them know that we are a people with a 1000 year history, with gorgeous music they should know about. I said to myself that this was the best way to show to people who we truly are.”