Born and raised in Sarajevo, Amira Medunjanin is the “great lady”, despite her young age, of Bosnian sevdah, a musical idiom thematically related to fado, morna and rebetiko. Self-taught, possessing a “warm” voice likened by some to that of Billie Holiday, she approaches sevdah with a “fresh” look and often a jazzy mood. With 5 albums to her credit, she, almost constantly, tours Europe, where her concerts are eagerly anticipated and successful. Inspired by her latest work, the brilliant Silk & Stone (2014), I contacted her, hoping that we will soon have the opportunity to enjoy her live in Greece, which, as she confessed to me, has never visited- not even as a tourist.
What brought you close to the musical idiom of sevdah?
The fact that I have been born in Sarajevo, the “cradle” of sevdah, really contributed a lot. Ever since I was a little girl, it was, basically, impossible to remain “immune” to this music, I could listen to it everywhere.
Which element of it fascinated you the most? Or were you simply living it?
First of all, as a child I was impressed by the fact that the singers were performing such difficult and demanding songs so easily. Listening to these singers, this particular musical idiom sounded easy. When I gave it a try, though, it was really very difficult. What fascinated me afterwards was the lyrics. And the fact that, as I discovered in my teenage years and later on life, these lyrics describe true stories of real people who lived here, fascinated me even more. The accompanying melody and the instruments follow.
Do you find analogies between sevdah and other musical idioms, such as blues, fado, morna- even rebetiko, if you are familiar with it?
I’m very familiar with it, really, it’s a kind of music I’ve been listening to all my life. I’ve always been interested in traditional music of all countries, because, in my opinion, it’s the best image of the people living in each country. So, when you compare Bosnian sevdah with Portuguese fados, even with Greek rebetiko, you find many similarities, which lie in the fact that the songs are sung from heart, the emotions they give off are common to all the these traditions, that you have mentioned. Passion, love, jealousy, sadness are universal emotions, so this is the “thread”, which connects these traditions. And something else, very important, is that that the singer has to be really dedicated to what he or she does, to “live” the story at that moment.
Would you, then, say that sevdah is, essentially, about desire, longing, sadness, melancholy?
Those are the main subjects, which you can trace in sevdah. There are other stories, too, though- joyful ones. When something important happens to someone and this story is powerful and remembered by people, it may remain as an oral tradition. The most beautiful stories, though, are the ones describing desire, unrequited love- especially that.
And this fact makes the songs of this particular idiom maintain their contemporaneity.
Exactly. But, even if you see how people live these days, it’s crazy, isn’t it? They live fast, running for survival. And, at some point, they forget their real values- love, for instance. And, when something bad happens to them, if they were in love and this love is not requited, they feel exactly like some others, 500 years ago. So, that’s why they’re moved by such stories. Few remember the happy songs, most remember the sad ones.
I assume that this explains the appeal of your songs not only in the Balkans, but also elsewhere- it’s the mood that “passes” from you to the audience through the concerts, which connects you.
The fascinating thing with this music is that the language barrier at some point ceases to exist. I always present an introduction to the songs, though, without translating them from top to bottom. I honestly believe that translation sometimes isn’t necessary, because this music is so powerful, that reaches out to people. And, if the singer truly believes what he or she sings and somehow transports this energy, that, in turn, will find its way to the audience, affecting the listeners as much as it affects me. So, when I feel goosebumps on my back, I receive something similar from the audience. Once, I was giving a concert in India, one of the most amazing I’ve ever given, because I felt a tremendous connection with the audience. They asked me what the songs were about- so moved they were. As a result, the concert lasted three hours, instead of one and a half! Half of it was dedicated to the conversation and the rest to singing.
Were you, actually, taught to sing, or did it simply happen naturally and develop through your concerts?
Basically, I don’t have any musical education whatsoever. I never went to the university, I don’t even read a musical note. I don’t know how to do it. Sometimes I miss it, other times I don’t. It was to meant to be, obviously. You can’t say that you are taught to sing. It’s something given by God, you know. And I welcome it with both hands, very warmly. I assume it’s something I was born with. It’s a mission, some kind of task, that I embraced with all my heart.
Your voice has been likened to those of Billie Holiday and Cesária Évora. Are such claims valid?
To be honest, I’m not happy with any sort of comparisons. At some point, this sounds like a kind of competition, and there shouldn’t be such a thing in music, in art. On the other hand, nobody can come close the voices that you mentioned, Billie Holiday or the great Cesária Évora. They’re special- and every human being is so special, whatever he or she does. So, comparisons are not dear to me, in general. What I understand, though, when taking the parallels which the journalist Garth Cartwright drew into consideration, is that he was placing an emphasis on the fact that Billie Holiday “played” with jazz in the same way that I “play” with the musical tradition of former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. In this sense, I agree. Nevertheless, I would prefer that he hadn’t made this comparison.
I was listening to your latest CD Silk & Stone (2014) this morning. What an absorbing work! Why did you choose this title?
Every album that I create is like a small songbook, which carries a unique message. My previous one was called Amulette, that means “lucky charm”. For me, the collection of songs in that album is a lucky charm, something which brings me luck and protects me. In my latest album, the emphasis is placed on women, because the majority of the songs describes love stories narrated by a woman. And especially women in the Balkans are, indeed, made of silk and stone. You have to be something gentle and beautiful all the time and, simultaneously, tough, because the woman is the “pillar” of a family. And she has be strong, to support it. So, Silk & Stone is, basically, dedicated to all women, as well as to all people, but, when you think about the situations we have experienced in the last centuries in the Balkans, life hasn’t always been good to us all the time.
Neither it is. Things may simply be better in some respects.
When you look at history, there has always been some kind of turbulence. And, at the same time, the people endured, kept their spirits up. So, a woman has to be strong, to go through all these.
Although I haven’t lived there, I instinctively feel that Sarajevo is one of the most special cities in Europe- and my favorite.
Your instinct is right, indeed. Sarajevo is, and has always been, like that. The fact that it has this particular geographical position gives it its special “flavor”. And, if you look back in history and to everything that has happened, you can feel this meltdown of cultures, which is amazing. It’s a multicultural city. For this, it has to be beautiful! Imagine the beautiful cultures that co-exist in this small place. It has always been called “Jerusalem”. The people here are special, too. And I’m lucky and proud to have been born in this city. All the friends who come here for the first time always want to return.
That was the case with me, too, though it took me a few years to do so. You have, nevertheless, been through a lot, during the recent past, at least. How did those events affect you personally? Were you living in Sarajevo during the war, or did you flee the city?
I was living in Sarajevo during the whole time. Although I don’t talk about it, when I look back, that period is a fantastic “school”, despite the fact that such a thing sounds morbid. You can’t have such a school under normal circumstances. Very “expensive” school, but a very good one for me, because it produced a very strong person and there is nothing in my life that I cannot get over; no problem, for which I cannot find a solution. I’ve become very optimistic. I live everyday as if it was my last, I live it to the fullest and appreciate every second with my family, every second with my friends and loved ones. Those years taught me to appreciate the real things, the real values in life. Not material possessions. So, I think to myself: what is it exactly that you need? Not much, really. In difficult times, I learnt that the only thing I need is good health. And I have a good family and friends. For the rest, I will work.
And you surely are a hard-working person, almost constantly on tour throughout Europe.
I love it, you can’t imagine how much I enjoy it!
Have you ever given a concert in Greece?
Really not. Can you imagine that I haven’t visited it even as a tourist? I’ve never been to Greece in my life.
You are welcome, whenever you feel like it!
I would like to warmly thank Amira Medunjanin for our conversation, as well as for the photographic material provided. Her personal website is: http://www.amiramedunjanin.ba/
An excellent “taste” of her latest album Silk & Stone, can be enjoyed by clicking the following links, though I do suggest that you listen to it in its entirety: