I haven’t listened to a lot of sevdah, but I am familiar with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, probably the best-known sevdah group outside of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Amira Medunjanin sang on their 2003 album A Secret Gate before going on to her solo career starting with Rosa in 2005. Since then she has achieved acclaim in the U.K. and across Europe for her innovative and personal take on the highly emotive music that is sevdah, often called “the blues of the Balkans.”
“Songs of secret love and sublimated melancholy” is the way sevdah is described in the promotional material for Damar, her latest release. That’s a pretty good description for the blues, too, which probably accounts for the comparisons. Musically, they’re nothing alike, but the artistic impulses that drive both musical forms are similar. Portuguese fado, too. Sing a sad song to make yourself feel better.
This album’s intimate production heightens the impression that Amira is pouring out her heart’s deepest sorrows to you alone. Unlike some recordings in this tradition that is many hundreds of years old, she places these songs, both traditional and new compositions in the tradition, in unique and innovative settings. She’s backed by a quintet that includes the great Serbian pianist Bojan Z and guitarist Boško Jović. Their playing and that of the double bassist and others in the ensemble draw on jazz and frequently flamenco, quite a departure for a traditional Balkan music.
The opening track for example, “Pjevat ćemo šta nam srce zna,” (Sing, whichever song is in your heart) begins with a series of deep bass drum notes, evoking both a heartbeat and distant guns. Once the song begins in earnest, its two acoustic guitars play flamenco themes behind Amira’s lovely, intimate vocals. Hers is one of the great voices, warm and silky and highly expressive. Some have said it bridges east and west, which is a pretty good description.
One of my favorites is the Serbian folk song “Oj Golube, moj golube,” which is a typical sevdah-style lament that here is transformed into a near-jazz performance, Bojan’s stark, jazz-influenced piano accompaniment perfectly complementing Amina’s emotive, melismatic singing. “Vjetar ružu poljuljkuje,” (A rose in the breeze) on the other hand, suggests the heat of tango in the dual-guitar arrangement, and “More izgrejala sjajna mesečina” (A bright moonlight), with probably the most jazz-influenced arrangement, has hints of Japanese music. And the beautiful title track “Damar,” has her singing in a slightly lower key than usual, for an especially intimate effect. The final track, billed as a bonus, “Ah, što ćemo ljubav kriti,” features just a guitar playing a Mediterranean-style accompaniment, and a slight bit of reverb is added to her vocals. This song is heartbreaking, even if you don’t know that the title translates as “Why do we have to hide our love.”
“I don’t have a recipe for it. I just feel it,” she says of her method of choosing a song’s arrangement with her collaborators.
That’s probably the best way to approach this music as a listener, too. Just feel it.
This album is just out as of mid-November 2016, and Medunjanin has been on her first tour of the U.S. and Canada, so neither her website nor her Facebook page yet has any information about it, but I’m sure that will change soon.
(World Village, 2016)