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Bosnian Singer Amira Medunjanin Sings In Centuries-Old Tradition of Sevdah

At the end of a bruising election season and before the inevitable holiday family fights about the outcome, it seems appropriate to revel in some dark, sinuous music about universal themes of sadness and human longing.

To that end, spend Sunday evening wallowing beautifully at The Sheldon Concert Hall with Amira Medunjanin, a Bosnian singer in the age-old tradition of sevdah. A major force in the folk form's resurging interest, the singer is on her first U.S. tour, in support of her latest album, Damar.

“For us back home, it’s not just a musical style but a way of life,” Medunjanin says by phone from a rooftop in San Francisco, a few tour stops ahead of St. Louis. “It’s like some sort of a history note, a very personal history note. My mother taught me all the songs; her mother taught her the songs.”

As a child, Medunjanin heard the songs everywhere, but she didn’t understand the metaphor-heavy lyrics by unknown authors from centuries past until her mother explained them.

“The way they are written is like a beautiful pearl necklace,” she says. “Each word is like a little pearl.”

She’s grown deeply fascinated in researching the songs' provenance. The earliest recording she’s found is from 1913. Another was recorded in Chicago in 1942 by a singer from the former Yugoslavia.

The word sevdah has Turkish and Arabic roots and refers to the intense, forlorn feelings of unrequited love. The music is slow and uses minor keys, but it’s far more slinky than creepy. Listening to it feels decadent and theatrical—downbeat jazz for the glamorously brokenhearted.

“It’s a musical tradition of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Medunjanin says. “As far as we know, it is a musical tradition that is, like, five centuries old.” Traditions and influence from the Ottoman Empire, Bosnian Sephardim fleeing Spain and Balkan people all show up.

It significantly predates the Bosnian troubles of the '90s, but that was a formative time for Medunjanin and her journey into artistry. At first, she was reluctant to perform the songs publicly because it felt too intimate. But eight years ago, she gave in to what she says was her destiny and became a performer.

Despite her work's somber themes, Medunjanin is friendly and personable. She says she’s enjoying her first visit to the U.S.—she even had the chance to meet one of her musical idols.

“My biggest obsession is Nick Cave. I just adore him, from the very beginning, The Birthday Party,” she says. “I like his darkness. People say, ‘How can you listen to him? He’s so dark.’ I listen to him, my darkness and his darkness meet, and that meeting creates the light for me.”

See Amira Medunjanin perform at The Sheldon Concert Hall on Sunday, November 20, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35–$50 and available online or by calling 314-533-9900.