Sevdah Means Love: the Bay Area Bosnian Community
Editor’s note: Beyond the Borders: Bosnian Sevdah & Dance was held on November 9, 2014, at the Croatian American Cultural Center. It was attended by young and old, with families sitting at large round tables enjoying traditional foods and drink. They spent the afternoon visiting with one another, dancing to live music and enjoying their own community’s musicians, singers, dancers and guest artists. A Living Cultures grantee, the event was produced by the Center and members of Bosnian-American community. The Center serves as a hospitable gathering space for many communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. More information about the Center can be found at http://www.slavonicweb.org.
Sevdalinke or Sevdah is the beloved musical form originating from Bosnia and Herzegovina, areas of the former Yugoslavia. The civil war of the 1990’s broke the country into smaller independent countries, reflecting the many ethnicities of the area (Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, and Roma peoples) who had shared borders in the past. It was during this period of turmoil that many in the West became cognizant, perhaps for the first time, of the atrocities that would be coined as "ethnic cleansing." The area of Sarajevo, once known as a tolerant and secular region, became a mass killing grounds for the largely Muslim Bosnians (Bosnians are also Christian). The secular façade of the former Yugoslavia would be forever changed with the stories of Bosnian men being lined up and shot into mass graves. It was this tragedy that fomented President Clinton to grant refugee status to a large number of war survivors to immigrate to the United States. While the presence of Bosnians was established in the Midwest in the late 19th century, the California community arrived less than 25 years ago.
John Daley, executive director of the Croatian American Cultural Center in San Francisco, has been a catalyst for organizing several Sevdah music and dance events over the years. He recalls that the war from 1992-1995 activated the stateside Croatian community to provide assistance to the Bosnians as they waited for resettlement abroad. Once they arrived in San Francisco, other established communities, primarily from the Balkans, offered employment to the Bosnians whenever possible. To flash forward through the intervening twenty-plus years of adjustment to their new American life, does not give proper due to the enormity of the tragedies experienced by this community. But if tragedy can be supplanted by an even stronger statement of survival, then the practice of one’s traditional songs and dances can be argued to be a statement of strength. Choosing to participate actively in Bosnian cultural practices can even be a part of the healing. This was what the day of Bosnian Sevdah and Dance seemed to broadcast loud and clear.
"It means love." "It is about longing." "Sevdah is in our character"
Recognized as a Bosnian form, Sevdah is also sung by neighboring cultural groups. Its musical origins are steeped in the scales and meters of Persian and Turkish music. The root of the word comes from Arabic and means "love." Sevdah themes can range from tales of unrequited love, to romantic love, or express nostalgia for people or places. The lyrics can be highly metaphorical. It was likened to the Blues form, where songs are improvised and ornamented with each rendition. Glancing at the song titles' English translations from the program notes provides a window into the subjects: "My Heart Becomes Sick," "Fata Embroiders on Her Embroidery Loop," "Why Are We Hiding Our Love?," or "My Blossom, Who is Harvesting You?"
Learned by way of oral tradition, some songs have become classics, acting as repositories of shared history with regional musical nuances. A traditional way in which these songs would be shared is within a home or village setting. As the form embedded itself into more popular expressions, Sevdah found its way to television programs, entries into song competitions, and recordings. What once was a voice accompanied by a stringed lute or Turkish saz, became amplified over time and was replaced by accordions, synthesizers, and clarinets, as the band that performed at the center of this evening demonstrated. While melodies and lyrics remain, still ornamented and informed by each singer’s interpretation, reverb and loud amplification are elements that the form's predecessors could not have anticipated.
Generations of Performers
The program on this mild Sunday afternoon included the youth dance company KUD Mladost Bosne, performing complicated footwork to rhythmic structures that are characteristic of the region’s dances. Wearing Ottoman-style costumes, the dress is a reminder of the influence of Turkish rule in the region which has been adapted into Bosnian cultural life. The youth participated in the communal social dances that drew people to large enthusiastic circles on the dance floor. They practice each Sunday at their community center often accompanied by live music.
The three Bay Area-based culture-bearers sang in sets alternating sets of three songs each. Each one has had a singing career in the former Yugoslavia, enjoying recognition and for some a career. Hajrudin Hajric, originally from Sarajevo, is one such person whose passion for music was distinguished by numerous medals awarded to him in singing competitions. Rasima Alisic Klisturic started singing at the age of 16 and was a popular artist having performed with many luminaries in the former Yugoslavia, as well as recording 17 single records and two full length LPs. "She sings Sevdalinke perfectly in a high and pure voice," the program notes explain. Muhammed Kocan began his singing at the age of seven and described his home as filled with the beautiful voice of his mother who instilled in him an enduring love of sevdah. A native of Croatia, he appeared with many renowned artists and has also been a screen actor. A charismatic figure, he is one of the active organizers of cultural events. He serves on the board of directors for Sevdah North America, a non-profit based in Seattle.
A special treat for the community this year was the appearance of Selmah Kapidzic, who at 12 years old is noted to be the youngest North American exponent of sevdah. Her musical delivery has been described to come from "an old soul." Selmah sang alone and was accompanied by her father Adnan Kapidzic, adding acoustic guitar to the soundscape. Mr. Kapidzic is also active with the Sevdah North America organization.
John Daley explains that the vitality of the event was gratifying to witness. "The music brings people together. Many years ago, I wanted to include this important community in our Center’s activities, so I invited them to use the space. I love this music," he continues, although his roots are Croatian-American and from Mississippi. "I invited them and said let’s have a party and feature the old songs; the hometown songs. We had several nights like that. I could feel the people sensing that they had survived and were living. These became parties of freedom."