Bosnian traditional music: Sevdah

Hello music and language lovers,

I am so happy that I have received some messages from people learning Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and were interested in the traditional music of my country. I will share with you a well-loved sevdalinka, a song type belonging to the sevdah musical genre. While sevdalinke exist in many places in Bosnia and Herzegovina, most of them were probably composed in Sarajevo, the capital and the cultural centre of the country. It is a very melancholic genre of music, filled with heartbreak and longing. The word sevdah comes from the Arabic word sawda, which means black..

Damir Imamović is a sevdah singer and scholar, and a grandson of a legendary sevdah singer Zaim Imamović. He is one of the singers reviving sevdah and giving it a new twist along with other singers and bands such as the eccentric Božo Vrećo, Amira Medunjanin and Divanhana. Explaining the meaning of sevdah and its history, Imamovic writes on his blog:

The word “sevdah” refers to the color black. This basic meaning was first expanded to include black bile, then romantic desire and, finally, love itself and the song that characteristically accompanies it. There exist anthropological parallels between the understanding of amorous desire in the Arab world and the way Europeans comprehended the body and its function. In both of these worldviews, bile played an important role in the imaginary mechanism that defines human behavior. The sevdalinka, a song that arises from the state of “sevdah”, is the epitome of a cultural product that both describes a practice and evokes it. It originated in Bosnia, and we can date its appearance to the time when the song was accepted into everyday public life, in taverns, at parties, and recorded on the phonograph. It was the period of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The sevdalinka first emerged in the female sphere, but soon became not only an element of public entertainment, but also a domain of both profit and fame. The success of sevdalinkas spread throughout the Balkans. They were sung everywhere, not only in Muslim communities. Apart from the saz, an Arabic guitar which follows the singing of the person in love, small orchestras started to accompany singers of both sexes. Between the two World Wars, sevdalinka was already an important part of popular culture, which viewed “oriental sentiment” as a commodity. After World War II, its trajectory developed even further.

In Bosnia, we have an expression "pasti u sevdah" which literally translates to "fall into sevdah" and it means to experience the feelings of sevdah, the sweet agony that lovers may feel, the possibility of being healthy but sick and dying at the same time, the torment of loving but not being loved, to sink so deeply into this state of agony provoked by the pains of love. I would describe this genre as the melancholy that comes from the many paradoxes of love.

This metaphor is also extended as "pasti u sevdah kao šljiva u govno" (fall into sevdah like a plum falling into shit), which can also be understood as really feeling or getting into the song you're listening or really being mesmerized by something you're doing or is being done to you. In 2003, Serbian band Riblja Čorba also used this expression in their 2003 song "Mobilni", which was about a man receiving a call from a woman who wanted him to come over, but he was worried about his sexual performance and the possibility of him failing at performing. When she called him, he "pao u sevdah k'o šljiva u govno", meaning that he entered a pleasant emotional state.  This expression was used well before this song came out, but it's an example of its use in regional popular culture.

My favourite sevdalinka:

Emina, written by Aleksa Šantić in 1902, still beloved and sung by many prominent singers in the region. It is a song about longing and lust, about a man who sees a beautiful girl Emina watering her roses and causing a hurricane in his heart, without her even acknowledging his existence. I especially love the version by Amira Medunjanin, one of my favourite sevdah singers now. The song was written by a Bosnian Serb and the character in the song uses vocabulary traditionally associated with a Muslim speaker. This song to me is a testament of coexistence and tolerance before it was suggested as a solution to the conflict by the international community following the war in the 1990s.

English translation follows.

Sinoć kad se vraćah iz topla hamama,
Prođoh pokraj bašče staroga imama.
Kad tamo u bašči, u hladu jasmina
S ibrikom u ruci stajaše Emina.

Ja kakva je pusta! Tako mi imana,
Stid je ne bi bilo da je kod sultana.
Pa još kada šeće i plećima kreće,
Ni hodžin mi zapis više pomoć' neće!

Ja joj nazvah selam. Al' moga mi dina,
Ne šće ni da čuje lijepa Emina,
Već u srebrn ibrik zahvatila vode,
Pa niz bašču đule zaljevati ode.

S grana vjetar puhnu, pa niz pleći puste
Rasplete joj njene pletenice guste.
Zamirisa kosa, k'o zumbuli plavi,
A meni se krenu bururet u glavi!

Malo ne posrnuh, mojega mi dina,
Al' meni ne dođe lijepa Emina.
Samo me je jednom pogledala mrko,
Niti haje, alčak, što za njome crko'!

Umro stari pjesnik, umrla Emina
Ostala je pusta, bašča od jasmina.
Salomljen je ibrik, uvelo je cvijeće
Pjesma o Emini, nikad umrijet neće.


Last night, returning from the warm hamam,
I passed by the garden of the old imam,
And there, in the garden, in the shade of a jasmine,
with a pitcher in her hand stood Emina.
I offered her salaam, but by my faith,
Beautiful Emina wouldn’t even hear it.
Instead, scooping water in her silver pitcher,
Around the garden she went to water the roses.
A wind blew from the branches down her lovely shoulders
Unraveling those thick braids of hers.
Her hair gave off a scent of blue hyacinths,
Making me giddy and confused!
I nearly stumbled, I swear by my faith,
But beautiful Emina didn’t come to me.
She only gave me a frowning look,
Not caring, the naughty one, that I’m crazy for her!
And the way she walks and her shoulders move . . .
Not even a hodja’s amulet could help me!
What beauty! By my Muslim faith I could swear,
She wouldn’t be ashamed if she were at the sultan’s!
The old poet has died, Emina has died
The empty garden of jasmine was left behind
The pitcher is broken
The flowers have withered
The song about Emina, will never die.
A vocabulary note: hamam is the Turkish bath house, traditionally visited on Friday. It was introduced in Bosnia and Herzegovina along with other Turkish cultural and religions aspects during the Ottoman colonization of the region.
An imam is a Muslim leader who leads prayer in the mosque, among other things. In the above translation, this translator translated the word "din" as "Muslim faith". It's clear to a native speaker from the context that the male character and the girl are both Muslim, so there is no need to emphasize what kind of faith is he swearing to

Here is a version of Emina sung by Amira Medunjanin:

Also sung by Divanhana:

Some other sevdalinke I really love and most of them are by renditions by contemporary singers and bands:

Bozo Vreco and the Royal Street Orchestra.
Damir Imamovic - Hajrija
Predrag Gojkovic - Kafu mi draga ispeci
Bozo Vreco - Lejlija
Amira Medunjanin - Kradem ti se u veceri 

Amira Medunjanin - Ah sto cemo ljubav kriti
Mostar Sevdah Reunion - Kradem ti se u veceri
Divanhana - Mostarski ducani

There are so many things to say about sevdah - but I will let this be a very short introduction to it and I will revisit it more in the future!

Much love and God bless.

Watering the Garden- Daniel Ridgway-Knight