“Sevdah”, writes Garth Cartwright intelligently, “bears comparison to Portuguese fado and Spanish flamenco; all three are vocal arts rooted in Arabic courtly love songs from a millennium ago”. The wave of the Ottoman Empire washed north into Europe and then ran back again, dissolving in 1923 against the rock of Atatürk, and sevdah is part of the detritus that remained. The comparison to fado is especially useful because the mood of sevdah has something in common with saudade, the complicated emotion of longing that permeates Portuguese music. The sadness of those “courtly love songs” had its roots in the physical segregation of the sexes, the separation of the lover from the loved that was part of Ottoman society.
Amira Medunjanin’s website describes it like this: “It is not easy to find a single word in English that can stand for the Bosnian concept of sevdah, although yearning perhaps comes closest”. Performances of sevdah were repressed by Communists who governed the area for the middle decades of the 20th century. The sevdah songs, or sevdalinke were too reminiscent of the Ottoman past, a reminder of a regime that was not theirs, and a native mentality that they wanted to replace. Now, post-Communism, groups of Bosnian musicians are working to restore the sevdalinke to prominence—fighting, as some of them see it, against the democratic popularity of turbo-folk pop.
A sevdah singer traditionally performs alone, often accompanying herself on an instrument. In the early days of the music, this meant a stringed instrument, such as a saz. After that, the strings was replaced by an accordion. (It is difficult to imagine now the one-time widespread popularity of the accordion.) The partnership of Amira and Merima Ključo splits the role in two. Amira is the singer. Ključo is a professional accordionist, a soloist and concert performer. She is not strictly a sevdah musician, and her style on Zumra is folk-experimental. The accordion comes into the album with a ripple of dark-hued grinding blats, meat sizzling on a barbecue. There’s a lot of tone in her playing, a lot of dark penetrated with moments of light, a lot of creeping effects, moments where the accordion sneaks into the speakers with a low toehold of drone and then sprouts into a run of notes. She lives in a kind of twitchy darkness. When the accordion hyperventilates its way into “Kuje …” it’s as if a black fog has contracted a headache.
This makes her an interesting foil to Amira, whose voice has a different texture, all length and float, as if melancholy has elevated her to a higher plane, a world with no speed bumps and roadways made of water. The accordion acts as the voice’s friend and confidant, beguiling it into speech, and stroking it with sympathetic wriggles after it has told everyone about its patriotism, love and dolor. “Oh, yes, yes, yeah”, says the instrument. “I’ve had troubles like that too. Tell me more.” So the voice does. It rises into a lament. It sails off richly. It throws up its sails. The accordion settles down to listen. They get on very well.