Click here to access a Spotify playlist of Sevdah music compiled by the author
What I remember most is how yellow his skin was. He looked bilious to me, sickly. The wrinkles on his forehead were sharper because of the yellowish hue, and the way he sat in his wheelchair, hiding his amputated leg with a jacket, he seemed like he needed to get back to bed, not go on a holiday to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Like a typical wog family, we were all at the airport. My parents, my uncles and aunts, my cousins and their children—there were embarrassingly too many of us there just to farewell our grandparents. In my grandfather, I recall sensing a hurry to say goodbye. His hugs felt rushed, his body detached. Maybe, I guessed then, he didn’t want to miss his flight.
It all made sense a few weeks later. The yellow skin. The hurry to depart. He was gravely ill and was confined to his bed, we were told, pretty much from the moment he arrived. He knew, we’d often say later, that’s why he left Australia, he wanted to die in his homeland.
On 19 June 2004, I came home after studying for a university exam at a friend’s house. Just before I pulled in around the bend of our street in St Albans, I could see there were too many cars parked outside our house. The otherwise wide, spacious suburban street felt crowded. There was not the usual residential expanse before me. My mother welcomed me at the back door of the house. That was the door I always used to come through so I wouldn’t disturb my grandparents, who lived with us and occupied the master bedroom near the front entrance.
The news was in her downcast, swollen eyes. She didn’t need to open her mouth, and she didn’t instantly. She said it indirectly, mumbling his name under her breath as I took off my shoes. I knew it was difficult for her to deliver this news to me. My grandfather and I were close, pretty much inseparable from the moment I was brought into this world, and she tried with motherly selflessness to deliver the news of his death to me in the most painless way. I don’t remember if I hugged her or saw anyone for that matter, I just remember rushing into my room.
Years later, when it became easier to speak of the dead in our house, I asked my grandmother how he passed away. I wanted to know the details of his last breath and what it was like to be present beside a loved one with whom you’ve shared a life for more than 50 years. ‘He was in his bed the whole time,’ she said casually. Obviously, I thought. But what he was doing? I asked. ‘He just lay there,’ she said, ‘listening to a cassette of Safet Isović.’
At first, I couldn’t reconcile with this image. Safet Isović? The famous Sevdah singer of Bosnia and Herzegovina whom my grandfather venerated, his voice was there during his last moments? My grandfather had always enjoyed music, but asking for it on his deathbed was an altogether different kind of reverence. It was a poetic way to go, but why did he want to depart this world listening to sad, old love songs?
With time, as I imagined my grandfather lying there dying, listening to Safet Isović, the image became so vivid and detailed that it began to feel like a personal memory. I was intrigued by this, my imagination of that moment took on a visual power of recollection, making me feel at times that I had been there. I could see him from the door, reclining on his bed, a pillow behind his back, a blanket over his amputated leg. He could never reconcile with being a legless man, and I don’t think even in his final moments he wanted to see the emptiness that existed below his left thigh. The curtains of the balcony doors would’ve been drawn aside, so he could have a clear view of the green fields of our village. And then, the crackling, distorted sound of a Safet Isović cassette. Imagining this part always took on a slowness for me because I wondered about my grandfather’s expression, and if perhaps he sang along to the songs ‘Bosno Moja’ and ‘Djul Zulejha’.
When my grandmother told me this story, I knew little what the term Sevdah meant. I wasn’t ignorant of its existence, I knew it was a collective term describing the old folk songs called Sevdalinke, but I failed to appreciate their importance to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s identity.
Western music is full of tender and heartbreaking love songs. I’ve listened to perhaps most of them, the sadder the better, from the grief-stricken voice of Nick Drake to the amorous, poetic storytelling of Leonard Cohen, but there’s a gravity to love and heartbreak in Sevdah that exists on another plain of poignancy. While the core themes of Sevdah—love, unrequited love, tragedy and sorrow—are universal, the way in which they are performed and sung is astoundingly individual to Bosnia and Herzegovina and its collective, cultural South Slavic identity. The author Muhsin Rizvić, in a 1963 paper called ‘Ogled o Sevdalinci’ (An essay on the Sevdalinka), wrote:
The Sevdalinka is not just a song about love, it is a song about sevdah. Its specifics and essence are immanent therein. It is a song of Slavic-Oriental emotional impregnation and merging: Oriental, because of the intensity of the passion, the power of and the potential for sensuality contained in it, and Slavic because of the dreamy, inconsolable and painful sensibility, the breadth of its spirituality.
While I knew much of this, it would take me a few more years to begin this musical journey of my own. To know how Sevdah rouses the Slavic soul, and more importantly why it does. Sevdah denotes the broader notion of Bosnian songs called Sevdalinke. Considered the traditional music of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sevdalinke have a slow-paced rhythm in moderate tempo that is guided by intense, emotional melodies and singing. They date back to the fifteenth century and were originally solo songs, without accompaniments and drawn from old South Slavic oral poetry (called Sevdalinke from the nineteenth century onwards) whose authors are unknown but passed down through generations, describing mostly love’s yearnings with some songs being depictions of significant events in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history. The first reliable information about them comes from the second half of the sixteenth century, and it refers to the poetic attempt of a young man from Klis named Adil, performed at the Split market. There is a recorded reference of him in the testimony of his contemporary, a writer of chronicles, the Duke of Split.
During the later part of the Ottoman period (fifteenth to nineteenth centuries), Sevdalinke were accompanied by the Turkish saz, a long-necked, lute-like instrument. The Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1878 introduced another instrument to these traditional oral songs: the accordion. This became more popular and prevailed during the twentieth century across all of the South Slavic traditional music.
Sevdalinke, while predominantly ‘Bosnian Muslim, urban folkloric love songs’ steeped in Oriental character and depiction, are non-religious, and are alive across the Balkans, and have been adopted by kafana singers and Romani crooners since the 1930s across the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia.
What has always baffled me with Sevdah is its sombre, sorrowful tone. As a result of its heartbreaking themes, the melodies leave you with a dejected, melancholy feeling. You are left lamenting something, without being clear of what you’re pining for, in much the same way one is moved by powerful verses of poetry. A German Slavist, Gerhard Gesemann, who led a German recording expedition to Sarajevo in the 1930s, noted in his essay ‘On the Bosnian Sevdalinka’:
During our recording, we enjoyed the singing of labourers, members of the educated class, Muslims and Christians. But the sweetest was the singing of the young Muslim girls, of no more than ten or thirteen years of age … Their singing told us that there was no greater misery than Sevdah …
This association with misery, sorrow and melancholy probably explains why in my younger days I considered Sevdah to be music for adults, that it’s something you eventually acquired a taste for in time. But even then, maybe unknowingly, I knew that the music asked a lot of you before you entered its domain.
This notion prevails even among those who sing Sevdah. Have they experienced enough to sing it? And have I experienced enough to feel it? Amira Medjunanin, a leading figure in today’s Sevdah music scene, addresses this so-called obligation in ‘We were all close to going crazy’, an article published by the Guardian in 2007: ‘I get angry when some of the Sevdah conservatives say I haven’t experienced life properly to sing Sevdah. Believe me, I’ve experienced a lot.’
Experience and knowledge, I learnt later, have nothing to do with Sevdah. When I began to listen to the music, I recalled watching my grandfather silently hum along to the songs, mainly in the living room in St. Albans, where he always sat with a radio and his cassette tapes of Safet Isović, Zaim Imamović, Himzo Polovina or Meho Puzić—the old, classical Sevdah singers of his generation who popularised the music.
But even before our move to Australia, I recalled many nights in Germany, where we were refugees, watching my parents and their friends sing these songs at gatherings while my cousin played the accordion next to them. In Australia, along with the more mainstream turbo folk songs; I’d watch my uncle and cousins hug and sing along to songs such as ‘Moj Zumbule’ at barbecues. I didn’t participate in these celebrations willingly. I’d be forced into them, in the same way I was forced to skull glasses of rakija, but I always felt separated from their united spirit. I didn’t know the lyrics, nor did I know the feeling and thus never felt I was part of the harmony the music tended to release and conjure in Bosnians.
Sadly, it was in private that I realised Sevdah wasn’t about acquiring taste. Yes, having some experience of tragic loves makes it more personal, intimate, but this wasn’t the only requisite. It is music that is felt, at its most intense, when you know and feel comfortable with your identity as a child of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and being of South Slavic origin.
At that time, I did not. I was always chasing the music of the zeitgeist, not of tradition. I was arming myself with things of the Western present and past, not of the past of my upbringing because I feared it was nationalistic, or too patriotic for my cross-cultural individuality.
In private I began to understand the meaning of Sevdah in relation to my Bosnian identity. Sevdah, I learnt that it doesn’t give context only to the performance of Sevdalinke but also to the heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkan region. Sevdah denotes the broader notion of the emotion of the people, society and culture. It simultaneously expresses the pride of the Slavic soul and its survival of centuries of war, invasion and oppression. It is a lyrical, poetic medium that links me directly to the singular traditions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I began to be swayed by the songs. The power and emotional turmoil of ‘Rane Moje’, which speaks of love wounds being told to a mother, brought me to tears. The song ‘Kada Sretnes Hanku’, which describes the mystical beauty of a woman called Hanka, took my sadness on a journey through the mahalas of old Bosnian towns. ‘Hasanagin Sevdah (Sto Te Nema)’ by Himzo Polovina mesmerised me with its angelic voice, slow tempo and poetic recital intermissions that are full of longing for a lost lover. ‘Lijepi Meho’ by Damir Imamović made me shiver with its poignant desire to love freely.
Every song, whether from the old generation of singers that my grandfather listened to or the new Sevdah revivalists of today, forced me inwards, into consciousness, to discover perhaps why my Slavic soul is so roused by this music.
As my interest in Sevdah intensified, so did my interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I began to see how the lyrical compositions, the sorrowful tales of unrequited love in the songs, were part of the collective folklore and identity of the region. Could I be Bosnian without enjoying Sevdah? Of course I could, but how deep did I want to go to understand where I’m from?
Sevdah is derived from the Turkish, denoting amorous yearning and the ecstasy of love. But its Turkish origin is adapted from the ancient Arabic word sawda, which encompasses melancholy and black bile. This etymology is important, as it helps us understand why Sevdah is so downhearted in sound.
Sawda is traced back to the eminent Greek physician Galen of Pergamum (AD 129–200), who introduced the notion of the four basic temperaments of blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile). Sometime in the ninth century, his key work was translated into Arabic by Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan al-A’sam al-Dimashqi, who used the Arabic word sawda to denote Galen’s black bile, that is, melancholy.
Thus Sevdah ensues from love’s yearnings because it is connected with black bile. Literary historian and theoretician Dragiša Živković’s Yugoslav Literary Encyclopaedia from 1971 carries a brief but remarkably historic description of this connection:
The Sevdalinka is characterised by sensuality and specific oriental love longing and desire which are expressed with the word ‘Sevdah’ (love ecstasy) after which the song was named, and even more—with the Turkish-Arabic expression ‘karasevdah’ (black sevdah, dark sevdah, great love melancholy), which generally describes a deep, sensual-melancholic and sad sense of life.
This dominance of sorrow is something I became engrossed by. If Sevdah is so sad, do I come from a place that is inherently sorrowful? I kept asking myself.
People from Bosnia and Herzegovina have always been cheerful, joyous people to me with a great poetic, emotional sensibility. My parents’ household is always characterised by optimistic warmth, cooking and laughter. But there’s always been a tendency to describe South Slavic people as more ‘emotionally intense’, with melancholia considered a sort of national, identifiable trait. Božo Vrećo, another rising Sevdah singer, who brings his own individual streak to the music with a gender-fluid sensibility, spoke about this peculiarity in a 2015 TV interview with the Pink BH network:
The Balkans are a sad place. But because of the way it is, it has one of the most beautiful traditional music in the world. It seems to me that this sadness and sorrow connects us as people more than love. And if we look at Sevdah, sorrow is what prevails.
Sevdah began to have a sort of therapeutic effect on me, and the more I listened to it, the more I understood that regardless of what theories, histories and ideologies are propounded about the Balkans and how ‘deep’ and ‘emotional’ its people are, I am one of them. And this music is part of me as much as the blues are part of African Americans and flamenco part of the Spanish.
But I also wanted to grasp whether Sevdah had similarities in other cultures. Sevdah, while unique to Bosnia and Herzegovina, has its roots in Oriental sensibilities. Its intensity in melody and repertoire can be found in Portuguese fado, which like Sevdah are vocal arts rooted in ancient Arabic courtly love songs. Fado, in similar ways, evokes a melancholy feeling in listeners, but the difference is that fado is traced back to the port of Lisbon, and is rooted in songs of the sea, departure and loss.
In feeling, the most similar notion I can compare Sevdah to is toska. This is a Russian word that Vladimir Nabokov once described as having no English equivalent to render all the shades of its meaning. Toska is symptomatic of Russian culture and honesty. It’s a word that’s elusive, with a particular kind of significance. It has been described as ‘a sensation of great spiritual anguish’ and a ‘dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for’. It’s a linguistic thorn to many Western thinkers, but toska makes perfect sense to me. I can hear, in its definition, the same feeling of anguish and longing I experience when I listen to Sevdah.
Irish writer Colum McCann, in the foreword of the Best European Fiction (2011), writes that ‘the writer’s proper destiny is to know where they come from, confront their conscience, draw the borderline, then step beyond it’. This references for me the inner cry of today’s writers to be seen as borderless. Especially those considered displaced, or migrant, there’s a tendency in us to uncover all the depths of our history in order to grasp a clearer picture of our hybrid identities.
Discovering and feeling Sevdah has, in some way or another, allowed me emotionally to cross over into the territory of my genetic makeup, and to experience a connection with my background before Australia helped shape me into the person I am today.
Broadly speaking, we are what we listen to. Music is infectious beyond the emotional intensity we experience—it also informs much of what we’re like as cultures and individuals. Like many others, I have been influenced by my idols and those influential in music. Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison are the ones I’d put on a pedestal. They have played an enormous role in shaping my ideas and interests, but Sevdah—while a latecomer—has added something else to my identity: a peculiar kind of intellectual deepness, bordering on mysticism and spirituality that I haven’t gained from anything else so far. Sevdah has awoken my subterranean self that’s meant to understand the Slavic lineage it comes from.
In December 2018, I relocated to Sarajevo to concentrate on writing. I often walk past Ali Pasha’s mosque on my nightly strolls through the city. Built in 1560, the mosque is constructed in classical Ottoman architecture and is a beautiful sight at night. In the complex beside it is a cemetery. Here lies the great Safet Isović, who was buried here in 2007.
I listen more often than not to the new wave of Sevdah musicians who are giving this music a place on the world stage, where I believe it belongs. They include Damir Imamović, Halka, Božo Vrećo, Amira Medjunanin and Divanhana, but I’ve never passed the mosque without feeling some sense of gratitude. Safet Isović is considered by many to be the greatest of all Sevdah singers. He was also the only Yugoslav musician to have performed at the Sydney Opera House, and this in 1972 during the heyday of Yugoslavia. My appreciation, however, has nothing to do with his deserved accolades, but rather because the voice of this man who is buried there, by virtue of having been present during the final moments of my grandfather’s death, unearthed the Slavic soul that’s always been within me.
Ennis Cehic is a Bosnian-Australian writer from Melbourne. His writing has been published in literary publications including Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and Going Down Swinging. He is currently writing his debut short-story collection.