When Amira sings sevdah, time stops. Elizabeth Kinder travels to exotic wartorn Heathrow Airport to meet Bosnia’s great voice. Photos by Judith Burrows.
“Amira is one of the world’s truly great artists. When she sings she has that rare ability to make it seem as though time has stopped. Her songs tell specific stories but she conveys emotion that makes them transcendental. You feel a universal spirituality simultaneously co-existing with a particular narrative.” So says David Jones, the seasoned music promoter behind creative production company Serious. A man of experience, Jones knows what he’s talking about, and having seen and heard it all before, he’s not given to hyperbole.
Nor is Ed Vulliamy, the celebrated journalist, when he writes in The Observer that Amira brings to mind Callas and Piaf and refers to her as the Balkan Billie Holiday, particularly as her first album Rosa (Snail 2005) delivered the traditional Bosnian sevdah that is her oeuvre with a distinctly blues twist. Though thinking about Billie Holiday ‘funny’ does not immediately spring to mind, while it does with her Balkan counterpart. Not only is it difficult to imagine Holiday being as up for a laugh as Amira is, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone so charming and open and warm and generous as she, or with such huge lashings of talent and humility in equal measure.
On stage she is utterly compelling: magnetic and mesmerising. Vulliamy writes how the great Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksander Hermon notes that “Amira’s singing brings tears to one’s eyes and unmitigated joy to one’s heart.” And this is the key to sevdah, and why she’s currently its greatest exponent. At its heart lies the paradox of profound joy in melancholy. In this it is like the cante jondo in flamenco, with which it shares Sephardic Jewish, North African and Arabic musical elements. The term ‘sevdah’ has its roots in the Arabic meaning ‘black bile’, a poetic metaphor for melancholia and is related to a word encapsulating both melancholy and unrequited love. And like flamenco, sevdah has its origins in gypsy music.
Off-stage, however, Amira would be hard to spot in a crowd of more than three people. We meet for the purposes of this piece at Heathrow Airport, the day after her spellbinding performance at Womex. Yet had we not previously met in Sarajevo – where for an incredible few days she was our guide and source of many wonderful encounters (fR 283/4) – if she walked by today in her Levi 501s and stylish wool coat I would have had her down as an attractive Eastern European housewife out on a rare trip abroad.
This says as much about Amira’s unshowy, understated down-to-earth personality as it does about my rubbish powers of deduction. She is travelling alone which she likes: “Sometimes it can get tough travelling with other musicians.” She pulls upright the two small hand luggage cases she’s been dragging behind her and pushes the long handles down. One of the cases, she tells me, is full of merchandising and stuff from Womex. I suspect that if I was meeting an American singer of her brilliance then first, she would not be dragging any luggage around, however little, and second, I’d now be waiting for the OK from two PRs and three personal assistants to guide me through menacing personal security outside the first class lounge. I would not be, as I am, jumping off my stool in Café Rouge for a warm hug and a “Hello!”
It’s a real joy to meet up with her again. We’ve a lot to catch up on since those few days in 2007. For a start, Amira has released another three albums and participated in a two year long musical project that culminated in an amazing show in Trafalgar Square to a physical audience of ten thousand and millions more on TV for the BT River Of Music – the cultural Olympiad that took place the weekend before the opening ceremony in 2012.
The project, which was instigated by Serious, began with Amira working with children from Balkan refugee families in London. With singer Tea Hodsic, Amira got the kids to form a choir and focused on traditional Balkan repertoire for a full-to-capacity performance at the Arts Depot. For the gig in Trafalgar Square, for which the underlying theme of the event was cross-cultural, Amira put together a ten piece band of musicians from across the former conflict zones in the Balkans (including Greece and Turkey) and as David Jones puts it, “Built something very strong, bringing together so many cultures with equality and power for a big audience.” It felt, he says, “like a real expression of the region on an epic scale, which only a great singer could pull off.” And she got the kids’ choir onstage for a song too.
This cross-cultural theme chimed with the driving force in Amira’s life, which is to foster unity in the former Yugoslavia, in particular to remind people in her beloved home city that before 1992 Orthodox Christian Serbs, Croatian Catholics and Bosnian Muslims had happily rubbed shoulders together in the vibrant cultural melting-pot that was, and still is, Sarajevo.
The concert in Trafalgar Square was, she said, “Like magic. The first time we met, ten of us each representing a different Balkan country was absolutely fabulous.” Without acknowledging the draw that she would have been in getting everyone together, she explains: “We created special arrangements of traditional songs for that occasion and in some cases we made new compositions for the existing lyrics. We really got along very well.” Given the enormity of their achievement they all felt it a shame to confine it to just one gig. It was Amira who “turned the whole world upside down to organise another performance for the group in Sarajevo. We had a concert in this beautiful hall, which holds a thousand people. It was a full house. They even brought additional chairs to fit more people in. It was absolutely beautiful. My idea is to have a concert in each of the countries, so I hope to go to Sofia, to Zagreb, to Istanbul, to Athens, to Tirana to share that message of unity,” she smiles.
She is keen to stress that her motivation has nothing to do with nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia, but springs from a desire “to make the point that the Balkans is much more than the problems you read about in the papers; to say to everyone, ‘look, this is the joint tradition that we have. It’s beautiful. We have more in common than that which divides us.’”
Amira explains that “Sevdalinka as a song type really belongs to Bosnia; it’s the authentic musical form of Bosnia Herzegovina, but when you think about sevdah as an emotional state or a specific state of mind or as a way of expressing your feelings through music or song, then it can be found in all these other traditional musics – in Serbian traditional music, in Montenegran, in Macedonian, there is sevdah: that’s the beauty of it.”
She says “There are so many similarities between these traditions you can hardly see a difference. Sometimes it’s hard to say where the songs are from when you just hear the music itself, the instrumental part. Then the lyrics, the stories told can give you information about the origin of the song, but the general feeling is really very mutual for all these traditions.”
Whilst Amira Medunjanin enjoyed singing as a child and sevdah was regularly played on the radio and on TV, it was the aftermath of war that crystallised her musical ambition. Wanting to move on but looking around at the mess of politics and the legacy of hate the war had left she found that for her, music was the best way to “remind us of who we really are”.
When Amira first threw herself into researching her musical tradition, sevdah was considered the preserve of old people, who jealously guarded its ‘proper performance’ and harked back to a golden age in the ’60s and ’70s which popularised it. It was not thought of as cool by the majority of her generation or the one coming up behind her. They were embracing local indie rock, manufactured pop and especially turbo folk with an avid fervour.
Now, she says, there are a lot of young new bands in Sarajevo coming up who are focusing on sevdah and that there is a renaissance in the tradition. This is in no small part due to her. Since she first started discovering old songs through her parents and grandparents and others of their generation, unearthing old song books, or going through the fantastic archive recordings at Radio Sarajevo and finding songs that “have been neglected, or had some injustice done to them”, she always considers how they might be made to sound contemporary whilst respecting and staying true to the form.
In 2003 the results of her studies had remained largely unheard and unrecorded. But in that year she discovered that the band Mostar Sevdah Reunion were thinking along the same lines. So she asked them if she might sing a sevdalinka for them. They were sceptical. How could a young woman possibly convey the necessary depth, or know how to meet the demands of sevdah? But they gave her a chance. And were so blown away by the authenticity and immediacy in her singing that they immediately asked her to perform on their album A Secret Gate (2003 Snail Records).
Snail Records put out Amira’s first solo album Rosa in 2005. With its blues tinges it appealed to a wider audience than that of traditional sevdah aficionados and Amira began to attract a following matching the acclaim given to her voice. By 2013 this had grown so much that the Balkans’ biggest pop star, Dino Merlin, invited her to sing at a 70,000-seater stadium gig. “He wanted me to sing one song to the kids who come to listen to him to try and put them off listening to turbo folk. He’s not turbo folk, he’s pop music. He’s alright. I sang a traditional a cappella song in front of 70,000 people. And they all sang along. 70,000 people as one voice. I was really blown away.”
Turbo folk is an issue amongst musicians in Sarajevo who reject it as simplistic, shallow and empty and despise its divisive and often nationalistic content. It’s churned out to make money for those in the business. “It’s a phenomenon,” says Amira. “The girls on the street try to imitate the turbo folk singers that have barely any clothing on them – and so much plastic surgery. It’s like mass hypnosis. A hundred thousand people will fill a stadium for a turbo folk concert. It’s really scary to me. Why is this happening? What does it say about us? Are we really that shallow?”
She is fully aware of how her countrymen are perceived, partly because she used to work for the European Commission office, a job she only gave up some time between the release of Rosa and Zumra, the album that followed in 2009. “I met people from all over the world and they generally perceived us as problematic people with a bad history and fighting each other every fifteen years. They only know about the bad things, about the dire economic situation and the political corruption. But we are not the only country like that. I thought maybe if people outside that part of the world understand who we truly are, it would be better for us: people would start visiting us more often, it wouldn’t be a twilight zone any more.”
And so to the horror of her parents, Amira gave up her well-paid job in an environment of 55 percent unemployment and dedicated herself to her music.
Zumra (Gramophone 2009/Harmonia Mundi 2010) saw Amira move away from the blues and experiment with the use of classical accordeon in sevdah. And not wanting to repeat herself, her following album Amulette (Harmonia Mundi 2012) featured the celebrated Serbian avant-garde jazz pianist Bojan Zulficarpasic (Bojan Z), whose playing, she says, “boggles your mind! You have to think about the songs, the music – and the energy that’s happening involves you completely. It’s intellectually quite demanding. I love it.”
For his part, Bojan, whose solo work has gained him acclaim the world over (including from our Editor, a long time fan), says that “Working with Amira is a rewarding experience. She has such a magical voice, she both inhabits and puts a sparkling crown on all these beautiful traditional songs that all of us from the Balkans have somewhere in our cell memory. She is a rare phenomenon. Totally self-taught, Amira has deep understanding and love for the different music genres and she strives to give new life to the musical heritage of south Slavic Europe. For me, as a contemporary musician, it is simply a pleasure being a part of this music making and sharing.”
The two met at a festival in Sarajevo where the theme was to bring musicians from different genres together on stage for the first time, with “no rehearsal, nothing”. He was the ‘artist in honour’ and Amira was invited to sing a duet with him. They clicked, quickly agreeing to tour and record together. The pair then invited Nenad Vasolich to join them on double bass. Currently living in Vienna, Vasolich is originally from Nis in south Serbia, where, Amira explains “Black sevdah exists. It’s really heavy stuff, beautiful.”
Amulette was not the first album to use piano in sevdah, Amira had done that with Kim Burton performing on Rosa. Kim recalls: “We recorded a track that was in a kind of harmonic language Amira hadn’t sung with before, but she latched on straight away. She had so much trust in the song, in herself, and in me, that we drew ourselves into one another’s worlds. It was a beautiful thing. When she sang it wasn’t as though she was a different person – she was so much the same person – more that all of that person was concentrated to a single purpose, the line of the song. She stopped time, stopped our breaths. People talk about the purity of her voice, how it’s crystalline. There is purity, but it’s the purity of an acetylene flame. Fiercely concentrated, dazzling, transformative – and dangerous. And she’s one of the funniest women I know.”
Amulette did not chalk up a first in mixing jazz and sevdah either. Damir Imamovic was doing just that back in 2007. But by mixing Bojan Z’s unique style with traditional music, they have created a timeless sound. Sometimes minimal, sometimes complex, sometimes challenging and always extraordinary, it’s totally different from everything she’s done so far.
As I write she is mixing and mastering her next, as yet un-named album, again with Bojan Z and Nenad Vasilic. The songs on it are almost all traditional from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. She’s excited by it. Croatian traditional music, she says, is very rich with many different traditions which are totally different to Bosnian music, though there are certain types of song where the feeling of sevdah is inescapable.
Again incorporating new instruments into the form, her line-up includes oud and kanun – a 78-string cross between a harp and a lute producing amazing harmonies. Due for release at the beginning of March on Aquarius Records, concerts are planned in Zagreb to promote it, and then in Belgium and Italy.
Talk about her record company in Zagreb leads Amira onto the difficulties facing her in Bosnia. “We simply don’t have the means. Our national museum is closed down. Can you imagine? So everything else is closed down, plus piracy is everywhere. We have three presidents, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim that have to be in power and it’s still the same: always this fighting over who gets what. Three presidents! It’s embarrassing! There is only one guy I would vote for the office, Zelijko Komsic. He sort of represents Catholics, Croats, but really he represents all of us Bosnians, that’s why they want to destroy him politically.”
Amira will vote for him partly because “He was there during the war. I remember him in my back garden protecting my family’s house. Our garden was the front line. There were trenches in my garden that he helped to dig through the night, when war broke out in April ’92. There was a trench with our Bosnian army in it, then there was no man’s land for 100 metres only and then another trench with the Serbian army in it. But Komsic is a Catholic Croat and he was defending me, a Bosnian Muslim. I’ll never forget that. That says to me what kind of man he is.”
Amira’s life overturned during one night that April. A few days before her 20th birthday she went out to see a band from Belgrade play a gig in the centre of Sarajevo. On her way into town nothing suggested the horror that would so swiftly ensue. But she recalls: “On the way back home, it was about 1 o’clock in the morning, there were barricades blocking the road and soldiers asking me for my ID. I thought it was some military rehearsal or practice. I didn’t have any ID on me: nobody had ever asked for it before. I asked ‘what’s happening?’ And the guy standing there in front of me with a kalashnikov said ‘Don’t worry everything is fine.’ It was the first time in my life I saw a rifle.”
She didn’t have a mobile, but managed to call her mother from a phone box. Everything was not fine. Her mum was in tears. “There is a problem around the house. The roads are all blocked off. How will you get back?” Amira managed to get back on foot the following morning. She returned home that day to move with her family into their basement. They hid there for the next four years.
“At first, when we still had electricity we had news coverage, saying we have an ‘extraordinary situation’. Then: ‘Bosnia is trying to get independence.’ Croatia got independence in ’91. I cannot remember the whole fall of Yugoslavia, I have a black hole in my memory. All of a sudden we were at war, overnight, just like that, totally mad. We thought, ‘OK, it’s going to last two months, three months like in Croatia.’ We thought ‘people cannot allow the horror that happened in Vukovar to happen here, we are mixed, totally mixed in Bosnia.’”
The Serbs soon took control of Sarajevo’s power and water supplies. Amira says matter-of-factly that living without water was the biggest problem. She had to walk four kilometres under sniper fire – “you don’t know what’s happening, all of a sudden there are bullets all over you” – to a well in town and bring back water in canisters. “So at least you could wash yourself, eat, cook…”
Snipers were shooting directly into their front door so they couldn’t go through it into the house. In emergencies, searching for supplies, they would sneak through a side window: “One day my father got fed up and said ‘I don’t want to go through the window. This is my own house. I’m going to go in through the main entrance.’ And so he walked to the front of our house. Our neighbour was 20 metres away. He called to my father ‘Go away, I will have to shoot you!’ My father swore back at him. The neighbour said ‘I have to shoot you. I’ve got orders.’ Our neighbour! We were living next-door, we had had dinner in each other’s houses. My father ignored him and he went inside the house. But he came out through the window.”
Their house was almost completely destroyed. She says: “It looked like a Swiss cheese with the bullet holes. Two mortar shells landed on the roof. It’s funny, when I was growing up my father was building that house: every single penny was invested in it. When I was a kid I wanted to have Levi 501 jeans, but they were really expensive for us. Every month he needed something for the house. So every time I asked for Levi 501s I was told ‘next month, I promise.’ So when they were shelling and the house was almost gone, we were sitting in the basement and I said ‘You remember when I asked you to buy me Levi 501s and you didn’t, you wanted to get a new roof? Well look at your roof now!’ And we laughed like crazy for hours. He said, ‘You see, if I had bought you those jeans maybe there wouldn’t be a war!’”
Amira now has no memory of spring or summer during the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. She says she only remembers it being four years of winter. But while she wishes she could just delete all the bad things from her mind, she’s grateful for the good things. “Singing in the basement, making very dark jokes. A Monty Python humour. Sharing one egg, in six pieces. If you got one egg, it was so exciting and we would joke about it, joke about being full. How friendly we were. That’s the beautiful side of it. It’s a very good school. No money in the world can pay for what you learn like that. It really taught me to be a normal person, not to care about idiotic stuff. There is very little that every human being needs.”
Apart from water and food what is that? I ask her.
“Apart from water and food? You need your loved ones, your family, that’s it and… oh god…” She pauses, tearful, then takes a deep breath. “My biggest concern all those years was my brother. He was thirteen when the war started. I was constantly worried about him, and my parents of course. But something really weird happens in your head, you say ‘Protect the kids.’ If people lived 50, 60 or 70 years, you start to think it’s OK, they get… can you believe it?… it’s OK they get… killed. It’s horrible, but when you hear the news – that neighbour, he got killed, in a way you think OK, the quota for that day is filled. So there will be no more kids killed that day. It’s so frightening, but that’s how we thought at that time. If there’s a certain power ‘up there’ deciding how many people will go – if it’s five and if it’s older people, it’s OK as long as young ones are spared.”
Towards the end of the siege Amira and her brother made a dangerous escape over the mountain, partly on foot and through paying to get onto the back of a truck. She felt that to stay a moment longer would mean losing her mind. They made it to Split. It was a shock for them to see the sea, to see that much water. Having started smoking during the war (“idiotic,” she says, given that cigarettes were worth their weight in gold) the first thing she did was to buy a pack, sit at a café by the water and order “a litre of coffee. Cappuccino! Coffee you could only dream about. I sat there for three hours. It helped me a lot. If I hadn’t, I would now be completely insane.”
She got a job in Split, working for the British Royal Engineers at the North Port, checking all the nuts and bolts on the pontoon bridge parts being sent into Bosnia to rebuild the broken infrastructure. She would take fresh scampi back to her parents once a fortnight in a military Chinook helicopter (which has left the smell of kerosene in her head), but left her job before a year was out, unable to stay so far away from them. She helped rebuild the house, though she has not been back to the basement and says: “When people say it’s beautiful to have a romantic dinner with candles, don’t mention candles to me please! I want neon, like they have in hospitals, that bright white light! No candles, not for this woman!”
The war left an unexpected legacy: “When it started I was a kid. It started in April and my 20th birthday was on April 23rd. The best years were just robbed. That’s why my mother says to me nowadays: ‘Oh god! That war! You’re still acting like you’re nineteen!’ even though I’m 42 now almost. She jokes about it. I say I feel like I’m nineteen. Time for me stopped then. Great! I’m forever young, forever nineteen!” Perhaps this is a clue to Amira’s boundless energy and her surprising (given the circumstances) optimism about finding and bringing out the good in everyone.
She says: “A lot of people are full of hate, unfortunately. It’s understandable that they hate. They lost family members. It’s normal, it’s human. They are another reason why we’re all doing this. To try and heal people.”
“No matter what happens I simply cannot hate, that’s not how my parents brought me up. I lost my family as well; many members of my close family were killed in the war. But what’s the point in spending the rest of my life hating? I don’t want to do that to myself. It’s stupid. But I do understand completely how people hate the Serbians. I just don’t know how I would survive that mentally.”
It was a gig in the Serbian capital not so long after the siege that Amira says showed her that she was on the right track. “When I did my first concert in Belgrade I was overwhelmed. The whole hall – we were all crying, the audience and myself, it was sevdah in all of us, not just Bosnian sevdalinka. That’s when I realised we are still the same people. It was really special. It was important to send that message to people outside of our region as well. To tell people the war is over, we want to continue with our lives.”
It is a matter of sorrow to her that although geographically Bosnia is in the heart of Europe, the country does not meet all the demands for EU membership and she is worried that forthcoming elections will make the situation worse. She is desperate for the “politicians to come to some sense and realise that we don’t have much time on this earth and we have to start living a normal life. We’re just tired, all of us, tired of bad things. Life is gone in a split of second – gone.”
And she doesn’t want to waste a second of it any more worrying about idiot politicians. She says: “I want to bring good to people: simple as that and if that’s through music, if that helps, then that’s what I’ll do.” And aside from learning Japanese and travelling the world in a camper van, it’s Amira’s greatest desire simply to be able to do what she does now “until the very end”.
She says: “I’m very lucky to find musicians who share the same ideas, who are not there to fill stadiums – to fill pockets with money is not important. If you have people in Belgrade who come to see me and we share emotion, that’s important. If we go to Zagreb, and I feel the same as the audience, that’s an achievement. That’s the idea. Just to be normal again, not crazy.”
So how many pairs of 501s does she have now?
“Two!” she laughs. “I love jeans, I’m very comfortable in them. I bought these ones in Zagreb, but I wish I didn’t need a passport to go there.”