The dictionary explanation of Sevdah is: that it’s a type of folk music played in Bosnia; about longing, love and pain; sung in a tuneful and melancholic voice; usually on the Saz (a long wooded string instrument originally from Persia), the accordion, and in more recent times, the guitar. The word comes from the Arabic sauda, which means Black. In Ottoman Turkish, sevda refers to a state of intense and forlorn longing associated with unrequited love. In Persian, sevdazada means being melancholic and enamored.
But if you ask a Bosnian what Sevdah is, he will come up with several interesting answers.
Sevdah is Black Bile, because it causes melancholy of the soul.
Sevdah is pining for the one you love.
Sevdah is a feeling that passes through you and enriches you.
Sevdah is when someone sings and cries at the same time!
Sevdah is when you listen to something and go ‘Aah!’
The song that expresses the feeling of Sevdah is known as Sevdalinka. Most of the authors of the old Sevdalinka songs are unknown. And their intricate tunes carry influences from Turkish, Sephardic, Roma Gypsy, and Persian music.
Sevdah was popular throughout ex-Yugoslavia, which I learnt when I lived there. Whether Croat, Bosnian or Serb, after a few drinks everyone would start singing the same songs. But despite the passion, singing Sevdah songs in tune was beyond the skill of most aspirants. It was when I got exposed to the music of the past legends of Sevdah, like Himzo Polovina, Safet Isovic and Zaim Imamovic, that I realised the intricate depth of its beauty.
One can still walk into several café bars in Sarajevo and find someone performing Sevdalika songs. And though it’s more the older generation that frequents these places, newer bands have introduced Sevdah amongst a younger audience. The renowned Mostar Sevdah Reunion band was amongst the first to introduce Sevdah music on the world music stage – you can listen to their music in the documentary clip below, from the series Salaam Balkan, which I did in 2007. Today, Damir Imamovic from Sarajevo continues to expand the tradition. In the last section of the documentary, you can listen to his soulful music also.
Video: A musical diary of Bosnia and Croatia
Sevdah is a living tradition, which is why it hasn’t been properly documented and researched outside of Bosnia. Some people have called it the Bosnian Blues and I compare it to our Sufi Kafis and Ghazals. It’s at the heart of several newer musical styles to come out of the Balkans. And in Sarajevo, the melancholy of lost cultural glory has become an added incentive to sing the blues through Sevdah.
Perhaps it’s in the longing that the beloved shall be found.
The film 'Stories of Sevdah - the Balkan Blues' is a view into a world of beauty and harrowing darkness addressing cultural identity and barbarism.