Aug 28, 2012

Sevdalinke - Bosnian love songs

The most typical form of urban music in Bosnia is the sevdalinka or love-song. (The name is derived from the Turkish word sevda - love - but in the Bosnian sense it has come to mean a yearning, hopeless, and painful love, doomed, never to be consummated). The broad, ornamented melodies often use oriental scales and chromatic inflections, with a free and flexible rhythm and sweeping arches of melody.
The lyrics speak of star-crossed lovers, faith or betrayal and breathe an atmosphere of regret and resignation. There are tales, possibly somewhat exaggerated, of listeners who were so moved by a particularly impassioned performance that they left the room and shot themselves out of grief.
The origins of sevdalinke lie in the interaction of the musical forms that the Turkish invaders brought with them with the ballads and lyric songs of the Slavs that they found there. Many of the Bosnians accepted Islam much more readily than did the other inhabitants of southeastern Europe, possibly because they had been Bogomils, a Christian sect proclaimed as heretical and attacked by both Eastern and Western churches.
As a result the towns of Bosnia became centres of Islamic culture, and it is believed that some oriental religious melodies known as ilahije were adopted by the townspeople and fitted with new lyrics to become sevdalinke. This does not mean that all sevdalinke were introduced from the East. Many sevdalinke show typically Slav melodic formulae and cadential patterns, and the melody of the celebrated "Kad ja pođoh na Benbašu" has been proclaimed the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo.

Hanka Paldum
Each of the towns of Bosnia or Herzegovina has its own sevdalinka tradition, and their subjects relate to their home-town's particular quirks of history or geography. Zvornik, for example, on the River Drina between Bosnia and Serbia, was was known as the Gate of Bosnia and was, in the time of Turkish rule, the point from which armies were despatched to put down revolts and uprisings in Serbia. Consequendy, many of the sevdalinke from Zvomik deal with loss and with lovers who are never to meet again. One famous song says: "The Drina flows from hill to hill, not with rain or while snow, but with the tears of the maidens from Zvornik".
In contrast, Sarajevo, the capital of the province, was the home of rich land owners and merchants who carefully guarded the honour and marriage prospects of their daughters by keeping them hidden away from undesirable suitors. So many Sarajevske sevdalinke speak of thwarted love. The story goes that young women, forbidden to meet or even see their lovers, would sing of their love through the barred windows of their walled gardens to the young men strolling in the dusk through the narrow lanes of the city. The following is a typical lyric:
A red rose has blossomed
In the lane, there is but one left.
Through that lane my sweetheart passes
And with his horse he tramples the flowers.
Let him, O let him trample them
If he but pass this way more often.
Traditionally sevdalinke were performed to the accompaniment of the saz, a stringed instrument of Iranian origin with a pear-shaped body and long neck. Ideally the singer would also be his own accompanist (women rarely if ever were acquainted with instrumental technique, save for the tambourine-like daire, although they were and are frequently valued as singers). The sound of the saz is  quiet and contemplative and fits the mood of sevdalinke perfectly, but it is a dying art and in Bosnia before the war there were perhaps only thirty sazlije, mostly of the older generation. Among the most notable of the singers were Hasim Muhamerović, Kadir Kurtagić, Emina Ahmedhodžić and Muhamed Mešanović- Hamić, some of whom were also sazlije.

                                                             Nedžad Salković
Far more common these days is the performance of the same songs to the backing of a typical folk orchestra of accordion, violin, clarinet and guitar, with harmonies influenced by (but not identical to) Western models, and less rhythmic subtlety, but retaining the supple and mournful beauty typical of these songs. The old sazlije look down on this style, but there is no doubt that performers such as Safet lsović, Hanka Paldum, Nedžad Salković, Zaim Imamović,  the late Himzo Polovina and others are part of the long and sophisticated tradition.