Sevdah: love and longing

Bosniak lyrical poetry

What is Sevdah?

Sevdah, which comes from the Arabic sawdā, or black bile (more accurately, melancholy), is a genre of lyrical love songs, or sevdalinka, sung with or without accompanying music that is part of the Bosniak cultural heritage. Sevdah at its core is a joining of Slavic and Ottoman cultures that equally contribute to the beauty and value of each individual sevdalinka, a reflection of the general culture and history of Bosnia.

The sevdah tradition emerged during the Ottoman period as a mainly urban musical tradition, sung by both men and women about a variety of themes, but most often about love. Joyful love, painful love, happy meetings between lovers and devastating farewells are all sung about.

These often heart-wrenching lyrics were paired with music because of the Islamic beliefs in the region that music is a beautiful companion to your thoughts. Pairing music with sevdalinka would help these lyrical pieces transcend the categories of just poetry or music into something greater.

The sevdah genre is a reflection of the influence that the Ottoman empire and Islamicization had on the Balkan region, including general aesthetics, architecture of housing and city planning, ideas about nature, and manners and interactions between genders.

Sevdalinkas weren’t examples of high culture or complex literary compositions, but portrayals of everyday life within the scope of Bosnian society: a combination of Islamic ethic and moral codes and South Slavic cultural traditions.

Architecture influences Sevdah

During the period of Ottoman influence in Bosnia, a certain type of architecture became popular for residential buildings. In urban areas, homes began to be built in the Turkish style, which included men’s and women’s courtyards. The men’s courtyards were filled with tools and other items important to manual labor and upkeep of the property. On the other hand, the women’s courtyards were cobbled and filled with flowers, fruit trees, a kitchen, and other beautiful things and were usually the most beautiful part of the home.

These lush courtyards and the women within them became the subject of endless sevdalinkas and the singing of them became ways to court the women in their hidden gardens.

Sevdah in Courtship

Sevdah as a form of courtship was one of the most popular uses of the genre: in composing and performing. During the process of courtship, it was common for couples to sit and secretly exchange beautiful verses to one another, matching the other’s verse and rhyme perfectly, but they were careful to avoid audiences. As the popularity of sevdah grew, it became a common medium to express love and longing to or about one’s lover, and expressed very open and vulnerable sensual and sometimes sexual emotion.

Te posij dragi, jadove, / Ako ti nikne šenica, / ŠŠenuću, dragi, za tobom, / Ako ti nikne miloduh, / Miluj me, dragi, tvoja sam.

Darling, sow your grief, / If wheat springs up, / Darling, I will go crazy for you, / and if hyssop springs up, / Caress me darling, I am yours.

Gender and Sevdah

Though both men and women composed and sang sevdalinkas, the environment in which they were written and sung varied greatly for each gender. For men, sevdalinkas were composed in large gatherings, with family and friends, and the expressions of desire were often more explicit. Women composed sevdalinkas only in the company of other women or when they were entirely alone. Social norms required women to be more demure in their lyrics, but they still sang detailed descriptions of their objects of affection.

Sevdah Today

After the second World War, the radio became the ideal medium for sevdalinkas and gave rise to some of the most well-known singers of sevdah. Radio Sarajevo was key to popularizing modern sevdah and catapulting many names into fame, including Zaim Imamović, Nada Mamula, Himzo Polovina, Safet Isović, and Zehra Deović,namong many others.

The decline of radio in the 1980s brought a change in the demographic of sevdalinka singers, which often meant lesser quality performances, and turbo folk began to replace sevdah as the most popular genre of Balkan folk music. By the 1990s, sevdah was left in the past.

By the late 2000s, however, a sevdah revival had begun, with Amira Medunjanin and Damir Imamović once again popularizing the genre in the Balkans, which would pave the way for more modern interpretations of sevdah from groups like Divanhana. Due to its boom in popularity during the communist SFRJ, sevdah is also a key part of Yugonostalgia for many listeners.

References:

Efendic, Nirha. (2015). The Sevdalinka as Bosnian Intangible Cultural Heritage: Themes, Motifs, and Poetical Features. Narodna umjetnost. 52. 79–119. 10.15176/vol52no105.

Esad Bajtal. “Sevdalinka”. Bosna Franciscana 38:91–106. https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=11842

Hajdarpašić, Edin. “Out of the Ruins of the Ottoman Empire: Reflections on the Ottoman Legacy in South-Eastern Europe.” Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 44, no. 5, 2008, pp. 715–734. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40262612. Accessed 26 Mar. 2021.

Imamović, Damir. Sevdah. Zenica, 2017.

Petrović, Davor. “Čovek peva posle rata: dva koncerta sevdalinke u Beogradskom Sava centru kao Jugonostalgični rituali pomirenja”. Antropologija 1:111–119. https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=801553