What is the artistic response to uncertainty? Musicians from across the United Kingdom have been asking this question since the Brexit vote, as have those from the United States since the 2016 Presidential election. To find answers, one strategy is to look at the creative community's response from places that have suffered greatly. In many of those spaces local artists have come forward with expressions of sorrow and loss yet also offered a path toward resilience and revival. Often that path looks both backward and forward.
With the recent release of Amira Medunjanin's Damar, I have found myself exploring the path of Bosnian resilience as expressed by the sevdah musical tradition. It's difficult if not outright impossible to explain a genre of music using words alone. For sevdah, I read words about a 500-year-old tradition, about songs learned from parents and grandparents, about shared experiences of longing and yearning and melancholy. The words that struck me most were in this statement: “Bosnians use these songs to cope, to heal, much in the way American singers use the blues.” And it was with that emotional mindset that I turned fully to the music.
One of the first tunes to catch my ear was “Kad ja pođoh na Bentbašu” (“When I went to Bentbaša,” a neighborhood of Sarajevo). This is an old song, dating perhaps to the 16th Century, with roots in Sephardic liturgical music. This has been recorded by many Bosnian musicians including Safet Isović, Nedzad Salković, and Meho Puzić. Amira Medunjanin said of this song: “It's the ideal of the city, I never dared touch it until recently. It felt too sacred.” Her touch here works very well, giving the sense of a somber return to an extraordinarily special place. That sense comes through even without understanding the words. Learning that this song is a story of unrequited love helps understand why this homecoming does not contain the joy that might be promised.
Another standout is “Moj dilbere” (“My darling”), a song that goes back to the Ottoman Empire. It too has been recorded often by artists such as Mostar Sevdah Reunion and the Seattle-based Bosnian ensemble Kultur Shock. It was also recorded by Smithsonian Folkways in Yugoslavia in 1951 credited simply to girl with accordion accompaniment. Medunjanin sings enticingly, accompanied by dual acoustic guitars performing something akin to a snake charmer tune, which verges on the hypnotic.
Damar opens with a new song penned by the young Sarajevo sevdah singer and composer Damir Imamoviæ. "Pjevat ćemo šta nam srce zna" ("We'll sing what our hearts know") has Medunjanin's beautiful voice supported by two acoustic guitars, double bass, and hand percussion. The guitars are not playing chords, but rather each supports the vocals with its own countermelody. The bass, while definitely helping to define the groove, is also quite free. These work together to form an experience of four separate voices all singing collectively what their hearts know individually.
When faced with uncertainty, when in need for a path of resilience and revival, turning toward Bosnia has great merit. Musicians and listeners alike can absorb the emotions of the sevdah traditions, taking in the feelings of yearning and hope, of longing and healing. While translations can be researched, these songs can be riveting and captivating without understanding all the words; the sentiments from Damar are made readily available by Amira Medunjanin and her quintet. These sounds can be mesmerizing on their own, but I believe they can also help us all in our quest to resuscitate, to reawaken our passions, to create better places and better spaces. - Greg Harness