About Sevdah and Sevdalinka
What is Sevdalinka?
Sevdalinka is Bosnian traditional song, meaning that it:
- Uniquely originates from the region of Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Is written by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Is musically structured as a song
First known mentions of Sevdalinkas date back approximately 500 years ago, while this tradition was hugely developed during the Ottoman rule of Bosnia.
It is important to note that the term ‘Sevdalinka’ is younger than the musical form it represents.
In its original form Sevdalinka was a solo song, without accompaniment.
With arrival of Ottomans, solo Saz (Turkish lute) accompaniment of a solo voice became popular form of interpretation.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire arrived to Bosnia, they brought along the accordion, which then became Bosnian national instrument and a de-facto accompanying instrument for most Sevdalinkas.
Some modern interpretations of Sevdalinkas are performed using various accompaniments:
- Mandolin orchestras
- A five piece band including: clarinet, guitar, bass, accordion and drums
- Small classical orchestra including a string section and an optional choir
Interpretation, performance, meaning and emotion
Unlike most musical types, in Sevdalinkas the singer leads the song, while the accompaniment follows the singer.
In many Sevdalinkas the concept of musical measure is secondary to the singer’s emotional free form interpretation of the lyrics.
Sevdalinkas are a unique blend of Eastern and Western influences which sound significantly different from all neighbouring folk heritages.
Many songs depict a unique form of melancholic feeling with slow, rubato tempo, while many are uplifting and of a happier tone.
Most Sevdalinkas are love songs, depicting specific stories between a girl and a boy, while some are historical depictions of a significant event in Bosnian history.
In this way, many Sevdalinkas are a unique remnant of Bosnian history and culture and are immensely significant to Bosnia and Bosnian people.
During the rule of Ottoman Empire over Bosnia the heritage of Sevdalinkas in Bosnia grew to some 4000 known Sevdalinka texts of today!
This immense heritage began to be culturally destroyed over the 19th and 20th century with arrival of Austro-Hugarians to Bosnia and through various wars that ripped through the country since (see ‘Cultural Genocide in Bosnia‘).
The oral tradition of teaching Sevdalinkas in Bosnia today is virtually non-existent, while the song has been hijacked by various other forms of music in the era of ‘world music’ movements, where one could argue that ‘anything goes’ musically speaking.
Only a handful of true Sevdalinka recording artists live today.
Only a small number of quality interpretors ever recorded Sevdalinkas, so the tangible set of worth while Sevdalinka works are few and far between.
What is Sevdah?
Sevdah is a term which denotes the broader notion of Bosnian heritage, not just the music, but also the traditional outfits, interior motifs, the emotion of Bosnian people, Bosnian atmosphere and Bosnian traditions, of which there are many.
The origin of the word Sevdah is the Arabic word ‘säwdâ’ loosely translated as ‘black gall’ , a substance associated with the feeling of melancholy in Arabic and Turkish cultures.
Many Sevdalinkas deal with the subject matter of emotion of sadness and melancholy when a girl leaves a boy or vice versa.
Sevdah as the way of life
Texts of many Sevdalinkas depict the life of Bosnian people during the times at which those songs have been conceived.
The word Sevdah can be said to not only depict an emotion of a certain person at a given time (i.e. ‘he has fallen into Sevdah’ meaning that someone feels melancholic), but also to represent a lifestyle which is depicted by texts of Sevdalinkas.
Sevdalinkas have been created by people of Bosnia while practising their traditions, which make up Sevdah.
One needs to be ‘in Sevdah’ in order to perform Sevdalinkas in the best way possible.
In other words, they will not sound good in a salon with lots of background noise and chatter.
They were designed to be performed in a tranquil back garden or a traditionally decorated large living room, while consuming some mezze and coffee in the way only Bosnian people know it.
Each Sevdalinka needs to be ‘digested’ as well as sung and performed. Without it, it is not the song it ought to be.
Sevdah gives the context for Sevdalinka performance and without Sevdah, Sevdalinka would not and cannot exist.
Even though Bosnia has been through all the turmoil in the last two centuries (see ‘Cultural Genocide in Bosnia‘), Bosnian people still preserve the sense of Sevdah in smaller pockets around Bosnia.
Traditional outfits are hard to find, and virtually impossible to be seen worn in the public by anyone.
Bosnian interiors still survive in many Bosnian houses of today, but the real traditional interiors and architecture can only be observed within protected cultural heritage sites around Bosnia, acting as museums of Sevdah.
There are some signs that certain researchers and to lesser extent performers too are trying to get back to the roots of Sevdah and Sevdalinka for the sake of preserving this important cultural heritage.
It can be argued that textual and other forms of preservation of cultural heritage are paradoxical as the heritage which is not practised by the people could be said not to be the living heritage.