02/17/2017, THE SPECTRUM THEATRE , Washington, DC

23218 450032 20cover
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Damar – a pulse, a life force, a beating heart

Singer, humanitarian, and global ambassador for the culture and music of her native Bosnia & Herzegovina and the wider Balkan region, Amira Medunjanin has been described as “...one of the great voices of her generation, and almost certainly the ...

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Ron Kadish
812-339-1195 x 202

Anthems of Yearning: Five Centuries of Bosnian Tradition Coalesce into Elegant Songs on Amira Medunjanin’s Damar

Songs of yearning are intimate, and must be felt intimately. Bosnian singer Amira Medunjanin knows this: She learned Bosnia’s evocative songs of secret love and sublimated melancholy, sevdalinke, at home from her mother. She and her fellow Bosnians use these songs to cope, to heal, much in the way American singers use the blues.

Which is why she only sings what moves her. “They have to move me, and touch me in a certain way,” muses Medunjanin. “It’s a physiological response.” It’s the heart of sevdah.

Medunjanin strives to give outward expression to this potent inner state, sharing sevdah’s pulse on Damar (World Village/PIAS; release: November 18, 2016 ), an album two years in the making. Featuring several newly composed songs that extend the five-hundred-year old tradition, Damar speaks to our shared experiences of longing, sorrow, and hope, as well as to Sarajevo’s striking resilience and sevdah’s recent revival, a renaissance inspired in part by Medunjanin’s profound ability to interpret even the simplest folk song.

With a quintet that suggests everything from flamenco to contemporary jazz--a flourish of guitar here, a provocative piano solo there--Medunjanin transforms tradition into a powerful emotional statement, one that suggests her homeland but is not limited to it. “It all combined when I listened to these songs as a whole. The only thing that came to my mind was, this is really beautiful,” she reflects. “It was what was in our hearts and we gave it all, we expressed it. They are dear songs, like anthems of my homeland.”

Medunjanin and her ensemble will be touring the US & Canada this autumn.

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Experimentation comes naturally to Medunjanin, whose spirit has been compared  to Billie Holliday’s by the BBC. Once she feels that certain connection to a song she seeks the right place in the voice for it. “My voice is in the service of the song. This song dictates where and how it should be expressed,” she says.

Sometimes that requires her to depart from sevdah’s delicate lyricism, as it did on “Damar,” composed by guitarist Boško Jović, whose work graces many of the album’s tracks. “I tried to sing that in my more usual key, the one I prefer. It didn’t sound right,” explains Medunjanin. “I felt like I was destroying the emotional essence of the track.” She dipped into her huskier, lower register, and the song trembles with feeling. 

The intuitive, exploratory nature of Medunjanin’s relationship with tradition extends into her arrangement style, which might incorporate everything from Mediterranean elements to hints of Japanese music (“More izgrejala sjajna mesečina”). “I don’t have a recipe for it. I just feel it. I’m fortunate to play with musicians who understand me. We read between the lines,” she notes. “When Bojan [Z, Medunjanin’s long-time pianist collaborator and Damar’s co-producer] plays a well-known melody in the usual way, I often hear a new melody in my head. Then I sing it to him, and he says, ‘Yes, that’s the one we need!’”

This renders folks songs and sevdalinke in all their intimate glory, as if they had been written yesterday. “Oj golube moj golube” distills a Serbian folk song into a crystalline conversation between voice and piano. “Vjetar ruzu poljuljkuje,” a song penned by a Bosnian emigre to Chicago in the 1940s, suggests the heat of tango, the bittersweetness of fado in its tale of romance.

Medunjanin never strays far from her roots, from the songs that have been a solace to Bosnians for dozens of generations, since the Ottomans ruled the region. “It’s a healing tradition. If you ask anyone in Bosnia, what would they listen to when they are hurting or struggle, they’d name the bluest of the blue sevdah songs. The facilitate people’s lives,” Medunjanin recounts. “When I was a kid, I’d sing them at home. I saw them as my friends, instead of imaginary friends that children have.”

These faithful friends have been with Medunjanin her entire life, but she has only felt ready to sing and record some of them now, like “Kad ja pođoh na Bentbašu,” an old Sarajevo song based on a Sephardic liturgical melody. “It’s the ideal of the city,” she says. “I never dared touch it until recently. It felt too sacred.” With support from Jović and Ante Gelo, she spun “beautiful coloristic guitars around it and gave a different flavor to it. It enhanced the roots of the melody itself.”

The roots of the melodies and the city that nourished them remain strong. Young Bosnians are following in the footsteps of their forebearers, finding comfort in sevdah and adding new pieces and novel perspectives to the style. “Right now, something is happening,” enthuses Medunjanin. “We have a new wave, a sevdah renaissance. I hope I have helped encourage that, as that was always my aim. My prime goal was to spread the word about this music throughout the world. I wanted our music, our songs to be recognized as a positive symbol for my culture. There is so much in Bosnia that’s worthy of attention. I approach it with respect.”

Dispatch Details

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(703) 276-6701
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Venue City, State:
Arlington, VA 22209
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1611 North Kent Street, Arlington
Concert Start Time:
7:30 PM