Singing sevdah

Christmas in Sarajevo with K’s mother was particularly special and memorable. Firstly, she made a special cheese pie (sirnica) for our breakfast. Then, in the evening, I got my clarinet out and started playing some of the sevdah (traditional Bosnian songs) that I remembered. K’s mother and auntie were there, along with K and Kemo (his cousin) and it was an instant party. Everyone sang, and I mined my memory for different songs. K and his mother would also sing some to me, line by line, so that I could play them.

Then more relatives arrived. I assumed it was a planned gathering, but K told me later that his mother had got on the phone and called all her siblings, saying, “Come over, come over, Dzil is playing clarinet, we are singing sevdah.” Soon a crowd had gathered, and the songs and wine flowed fast.

 K also whispered to me that this is not something that they normally do, and it is very special for them to sing these old songs together, very positive. He said that it needed a catalyst, like me being there with my clarinet, to make it possible for everyone to relax together in this way. He also said they were very impressed by the way I could pick the songs up while they sang them! Good to know those years of solfege training prepare you so well for something like this!

Everyone sang, even Kemo who was only 11 years old when he left Bosnia for Norway. I asked him where he had learned the songs, wondering if his parents had sung them, if he remembered them from his childhood years in Bosnia, or if he had learned them later. (It is an ongoing curiousity for me, what happens to the musical culture of people who are displaced from their homelands). He said that he learned them mostly with his friends, other Bosnians living in Norway, during and after the war. When they got together at parties they would often sing the sevdah songs, so this is how he knows them.

There were frequent tears this night, as many of the songs are sad and very emotional. The first song that I played, right at the start  of the evening, was one that I had been told was partiuclarly special for people. However, later in the evening, K translated the words for me, and I was alarmed at how stark and unflinching the song is about the horrors of war and the possibility of young soldiers not returning. I had offered this as a song to play?? Such a responsibility I had assumed, so blithely!

2 comments so far

  1. razzbuffnik on

    What a great story. I envy you being able to play an instrument and it sounds like all your years of practice are paying off.

    You’re also lucky to get to know the locals a bit better. Many people only ever meet the staff of the various services that they use when the travel.

    Good luck to you and I hope your trip just keeps on getting better!

  2. Christmas spirit « music work on

    […] Last year I didn’t really celebrate Christmas. I enjoyed that too – it was nice not to have all the shopping to do, to be able to avoid the bombardment of messages through all forms of media. I was in Sarajevo, where people wished me sretan bozic because they could see I was foreign (and therefore probably celebrating Christmas rather than Bajrom, which they had all just finished celebrating. But interestingly, tellingly, I still found myself singing. On the eve of Christmas Day, after spending much of that snowy day wandering around the ancient centre of Sarajevo, I got home to my friend’s mother’s house where I was staying, and relatives came around and we ended up singing Bosnian sevdah the whole evening. (You can read about that night here). […]


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