Sevdah heritage is at least 500 years old and covers some 4000 known texts in existence today.
Sevdalinka repertoires performed by modern artists (i.e. within the last 50 years or so) have largely been narrowed down to a small set of some 50 songs.
Variations on the theme within each Sevdalinka are also plentiful.
From variations in vocal interpretation to variety of backing arrangements, Sevdalinka has obtained many new musical forms in recent years.
However, which of these forms are true to the essence of Sevdalinka as a song and what ought to be ‘appropriate’ is a matter of great debate these days.
I will try and make my arguments for and against each approach, with reference to interpretations which I have heard and seen so far.
Traditional approach – solo singing with no accompaniment
Pure Sevdalinka in its original form was a song performed by a solo singer, who was storytelling through his or her singing.
This is the simplest form of presenting Sevdalinka to audience and is very effective as there are no musical backing distractions from the story and the message within the song.
The melody played a massive part in this form of interpretation along with perhaps minimal elements of vocal variations or freestyle.
Many interpreters find this form of singing very difficult as it totally exposes their vocal and interpretation abilities (or inabilities as its sometimes the case).
Many interpreters perceive this form as boring and prefer to be accompanied by elaborate backings in order to cover up their vocal weaknesses.
Sargija and Saz accompaniments
Sargija existed in Bosnia before Saz and would have been the most original form of accompaniment for sevdalinka vocal performances.
Nowadays it is not uncommon to find Saz players who are still capable of playing Saz and singing along their accompaniment, so proving backing for another solo singer.
Saz was probably preferred to Sargija over time as it has a more resonant sound and gives off a more classy feel, somewhat like a Harpsichord is well suited to classical music due to its harmonic richness.
Saz also looks more grandiose than Sargija, giving the accompanist a more prominent image than when he played Sargija.
Saz and Sargija are predominantly harmonic instruments, but it is possible to play melodies on them too, which would have given rise to parallel playing of melodies along with the singing, but also to playing of the so called vorspiel before each song or each verse within the songs.
The role of a vorspiel is to break up the monotony, give the singer time to rest between each verse and maybe allow the audience to have some mezze or take a sip of their coffee while listening.
It is important to outline at this point that Sevdalinka performances would have been delivered within someone’s house or a small Royal premise, and the audience numbers would probably be no larger than 20 in size, giving a very close and intimate impression on both audience and the performer.
It would not be unusual for the audience to participate in the singing also, giving the performances participatory and contributory dimension.
This participation would have lead towards emergence of (subtle) lyric variations, which we can observe in many Sevdalinkas of today.
Those variations may have been based on the local geography of Bosnia, people or customs, which local people would have been keen to put into a more permanent form.
With arrival of Austo-Hungarian Empire, Bosnia got a new ‘national instrument’ – accordion.
This meant that Sevdalinka now obtained a potential accompanying instrument which could be used as a full solo instrument, giving it a more prominent impact on the musical form of typical Sevdalinka.
With accordion Sevdalinka accompanist gained a much more important role within the typical melody and accompaniment Sevdalinka duet and became, in some cases, the main focus of attention.
At this point solo accordion performances of various ‘kolo’ compositions gained more traction and focus shifted towards a more dance oriented heritage in Bosnia as opposed to more typical and traditional Sevdalinka storytelling through a song.
With accordion the melody and use of ornaments within Sevdalinka melodies became more prominent as (mainly) Serbian accordionists, lead by Jovica Petkovic, developed a virtuoso style of playing accordion (probably inspired by their masterful playing of Serbian kolo).
Through this ‘stamping’ of Sevdalinkas with kolo-like interpretations, Serbian accordionists arguably took far too much focus away from singing and shifted it towards accordion playing, causing the lyrics and song to be drowned within endless thrills and ornaments of accordion playing.
Tamburica orchestra accompaniment
Tamburica is an instrument similar to mandolin in size and sound.
It is an instrument commonly played in Croatia, Hungary and North Serbia, but often can be heard in the context of providing musical accompaniment for some of the popular Sevdalinka interpretations from the 20th century.
Tamburica orchestras have a very mellow and not overpowering sound to them, which compliments solo singing, especially solo female singing.
Tamburica orchestras are not frequent in Bosnia, so this type of accompaniment is somewhat a foreign interpretation of Sevdalinkas similar to the use of clarinet to play some of the Sevdalinka tunes which can often be heard in Serbia.
Even though not native to Bosnia (which is the same that can be said of accordion until the 19th century), tamburica orchestras provide somehow appropriate Sevdalinka musical accompaniments in many cases.
Serbian arrangements of Sevdalinkas did not only come in the form of very elabourate accordion accompaniments which over-powered the singer in many cases, but they also came in form of use of classical ensembles to accompany certain interpretations.
This gave Sevdalinka a very ‘royal’ sound and made some Sevdalinkas really stand out from the rest of the songs at the time highlighting them as excellent examples of incredibly high quality, timeless melodies which lend themselves to very organic harmonic treatment.
Classical ensemble arrangements would often include accordion as an added melody instrument, but often used in a less elabourate manner than when only accordion and voice are used.
This type of arrangement highlighted the operatic nature of highly melismatic Sevdalinka melodies, especially within the very tenuated songs.
It helped propel some performers into real royalties of the entertainment scene in the 20th century and provided for very long term, highly valuable materials which sound very good even today.
Modern accompaniment variations
It is not strange to find Sevdalinka arrangements done in various modern arrangements with varying accompaniments today.
Jazz bands have been used for accompanying certain Sevdalinka interpretations.
Jazz quartets have started to incorporate heavy Sevdalinka arrangements into their repertoires, while even heavy metal albums have been influenced heavily by Sevdalinkas.
Unfortunately some of the ‘bedroom producing’ youth of the day are also trying to incorporate Sevdalinka elements into their techno tracks, leading to great elements of confusion and dilution of value of the heritage.
Arguably even worse form of devaluing Sevdalinka through mixing it with other styles of music comes from interpreters who purposely ‘foreignise’ Sevdalinkas into non-related musical styles such as flamenco, making a musical parallel between the two, a parallel which makes no sense at all.
Many heavily synthesised verzions of Sevdalinka arrangements can also be found today and are, by and large, examples of trying to move Sevdalinka into the very dangerous and destructive, quasi musical, post modern style of music known as Turbo Folk.
Published on 27th June 2010