Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Heart

Sevdalinka [seʋdǎliːŋka]: Sevdah music

‘Sevdah’< ‘Savda’ – Turkish<’Sawda’ – Arabic

While the Turkish word is associated with melancholy and the Arabic word is thought to mean “black bile” [Ages ago doctors used this bile to denote one of the four humors (bodily fluids) alleged to control human feelings and emotions] In the Ottoman period, sevda did not just refer to this bile but to a state of being in love and the forlorn longing associated with love-sickness. It is this association that came to be adopted  in BiH. Sevdah: a longing, a miserable love. Even though the word was first mentioned 500 plus years ago and  was present in other regions, it found its way to BiH and became something of their own. Sevdalinka, the genre of music that brings the concept of sevdah to life, is very unique to Bosnia-Herzegovina and is woven into the very heart of their culture. This term is actually younger than the music form it represents and is very much a unique connection of eastern and western influence. The majority of the songs’ content are love songs, but there are some that contain historical events. Within each song there are emotions of sorrow and melancholy. Usually the song will convey the emotions of the person it is about and of the time period in which it was written. It is traditionally sung in peaceful garden-like environments.

Sevdalinka originally was sung solo and without instruments. However, over time various instruments have been added. The accordion came to BiH during the Austro-Hungarian empire and more or less has become the most commonly used instrument in the country concerning traditional music. Other various instruments that have been used for sevdalinka include the guitar and mandolin. Common music groups include a 5 musician group: clarinet, guitar, bass, drums, accordion; and a small orchestra using string instruments and sometimes a choir. There are of course other variations and for present day there are even bands/groups that perform sevdah with their own twist. One such performer, Damir Imamović happens to be the grandson of a very famous singer of sevdalinka  during the time of Yugoslavia. I discovered him (Damir) by accident when I was looking  online for language learning tips. I found a video in which a polyglot along with Damir explained how she was using music to learn the language. I decided to look up the musician to hear his songs since I had been making a playlist already and was curious. When I found his website, I played some songs on his playlist and then noticed that he had performed at OKC Abrašević, the organization where I  have been a volunteer in the city, Mostar. And then also discovered just how well-known he was in BiH and how famous his grandfather had been. Later on, I saw him perform at Abrašević. He sings and plays guitar, sometimes alone, sometimes with a few co-musicians and sometimes with another sevdah singer/performer. He’s even made a neat short documentary about sevdah, (check it out here, they have subtitles:


“Bez sevdaha, sevdalinka ne može ni postojati”   Without sevdah, sevdalinka cannot exist.

Sevdah comes from the word sevdalinka, but has its own meaning. Despite the definitions mentioned above, it is quite an abstract concept that I personally feel I have not yet grasped and/or cannot define with words.

My weak attempt would be …an emotion all its own, a combination of emotions resulting from the music of sevdalinka, a mixture of sorrow and longing and satisfaction and enjoyment. I love that the word has another local language word in it, dah which means breath. This music does sometimes take some people’s breath away.

Sevdalinka music has been sometimes compared to the Blues. It may be true that there are traces of sorrow and sadness found within the Blues and Sevdalinka, but they are not the same.(Side Note: Someone from here told me how this genre is unique to Bosnia-Herzegovina as Country music is to the American South.)

I have personally had the opportunity to hear a couple Sevdalinka singers/performers live and would say that I never experienced that feeling of “Sevdah” while listening. It is a beautiful genre of music, but it is likely that I find myself disconnected because I do not have a deep relationship with BiH nor have any relevant life experiences found in the songs that I might identify with. I am merely an observer, on the outside looking in. I remember a performance of the singer I mentioned above, Damir and how it was a  small seated audience and a tiny stage block where Damir and another singer (can’t remember her name) were under some spotlights as they performed. I was not blown away or amazed by the performance, mostly because I think I expected to be wowed by this music genre, especially when heard live. Sevdalinka is intended to be sung among small groups and usually in a home. Many households here in BiH grew up with this music and therefore are very familiar with the numerous Sevdalinka songs and their lyrics. A good friend of mine from Mostar is one such person who is passing Sevdalinka music onto her son, teaching and singing with him, usually around bedtime. She herself has given various small performances and has a beautiful voice.  Just recently, she celebrated her birthday with a handful of her friends (including me) in her living room and sang Sevdalinka. She reduced the lighting to just one lamp and sang with a musician who usually accompanies her and plays guitar when she performs. We each had our tea or coffee and there were juices and various cakes and some cherries on the table. She took requests from her audience and encouraged us to sing along. I didn’t know any of the lyrics and only recognized maybe 3 songs the whole night. It was a much more enjoyable and relaxing atmosphere, listening to it in a home environment (only downside to the home is the few interruptions by the kids) Here are a couple video clips from that evening. And check out another post where I have some of my favorite songs of Sevdalinka.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s