'We were all close to going crazy'
Author: Garth Cartwright
Uploaded: Thursday, 24 May, 2007
Profile of Bosnian singer Amira, who will visit the UK for the first time in June, giving concerts in London and Manchester with the Gypsy group Taraf de Haïdouks. Her debut album 'Rosa', which included some innovative reinterpretations of traditional sevdah music, has been widely praised.
'I was on the other side of the street when the mortars hit there,’ says Amira Medunjanin, pointing at a busy fruit and vegetable market in downtown Sarajevo. ‘The detonation knocked me into the fish shop. There was no glass in any of the shop windows by 1994, so I wasn't hurt. But the carnage was so awful: blood, pieces of bodies, packing people into car boots to rush them to hospital. Sixty-seven killed. I don't go to this market any more. The memories are too awful.’
Amira hurries on, not wishing to dwell upon ghosts of war. In the May sunshine, Sarajevo appears relaxed, prosperous, its youthful populace promenading along pedestrian boulevards. Yet four long years of shelling and sniping have left pockmarked buildings, a generation of orphans and limbless young men begging alongside dishevelled old women.
All who survive a war remain scarred, each in their own way. For Amira, who was studying economics when Yugoslavia brutally disintegrated, war pushed her into song. And not just any song, but sevdah, the ancient lyric ballad of Bosnia. Sevdah - the word is Turkish and suggests desire, yearning, thwarted love - has existed for hundreds of years in this region, often composed of just a voice and a saz (a Turkish lute). Yet it took Bosnia's suffering to focus the world's attention on this small nation's music. Sevdah bears comparison to Portuguese fado and Spanish flamenco; all three are vocal arts rooted in Arabic courtly love songs from a millennium ago. Amira, who comes to the UK for the first time this week and whose debut album, Rosa, is a recording of startling beauty, looks set to do for sevdah what rising Portuguese star Mariza has done for fado.
Reviews have labelled Amira ‘Bosnia's Billie Holiday’, and the comparison holds a certain truth. Billie and Amira are both vocal revolutionaries - Holiday reinvented jazz singing, while Medunjanin is turning sevdah inside-out, enraging an older generation who contest her experimental jazz leanings.
‘Billie Holiday?’ Amira ponders this. ‘I love the way she sings, though I would never, ever dare to try and sing like her. Jazz is fabulous music, but sevdah is all I wish to sing. My mother's my greatest influence. She's never sung professionally, but she loves to sing and taught me as a child. Beyond her, the old sevdah singers who sang simply for the love of singing. And singers who know how to tell a story - Nick Cave, Shane McGowan.’
Amira has worked as a translator and accountant for the European commission in Sarajevo since 1996. Her English is perfect, and she holds wildly romantic notions about the UK, notions she can soon put to the test.
Her concert at London's Barbican is part of the centre's 1,000 Year Journey festival of Gypsy music. How does it feel to be an honorary Gypsy? ‘Great! All Balkan music is influenced by the Gypsies. Also, we both sing from the heart and know about having a tough life. They're strong people, and I like to think that what I have lived through has made me strong, too.’
It's more than fitting to have a Bosnian representative at a Gypsy festival. Amira's mentor is Dragi Š estić, the Mostar producer who has rescued lost giants of both Yugoslav Gypsy and sevdah music, while Sarajevo's most famous son is film director Emir Kusturica, whose 1989 film Time of the Gypsies sparked the continuing international enthusiasm for Balkan Romany culture. Amira heaps praise on Š estić as the individual who salvaged sevdah from the wreckage of war. Yet mention Kusturica and she grimaces. Kusturica, it should be noted, fled Sarajevo when war broke out and, now settled in Belgrade, has very publicly converted from Islam to Serb Orthodox. Meanwhile, his talent appears to have imploded. ‘He was a legend, but he's changed completely,’ Amira says.
Did the war leave its mark on Amira? Her legacy, she says, is, ‘appreciating the value of small things. These days I can get almost anything, but don't have that desire for material things. Family and friendship and health and freedom, that's important. My worst war experience was when a huge shell hit a supermarket next to the school my brother attended. He didn't come home, and I went looking for him, crazy with fear. The agony of believing he was dead ... I found him playing with friends - I'll never forget the fear and the relief. You quickly adapt to everything else. No water? No problem. No electricity? Who cares! No lipstick? Irrelevant. We were all close to going crazy, so we developed a really extreme form of humour. And singing helped. I'd gather with my friends and sing by candlelight. I get angry when some of the sevdah conservatives say I haven't experienced life properly to sing sevdah. Believe me, I've experienced a lot!’
In Tito's Yugoslavia, sevdah was a dying art form. It was curbed by the communists, due to its Ottoman associations, and overtaken in popularity by turbo-folk, the synthesised pop-folk confection whose ruling icon is Ceca, the widow of Serbian warlord Arkan. Today, this has changed: turbo-folk is tainted by its association with Milošević's regime, while Amira and pioneering Bosnian group Mostar Sevdah Reunion have reinvented sevdah as contemporary - a soul music from Europe's ragged fringe.
‘Bosnia has a thousand-year history, but because of the war we're now a young country, so still finding our identity, and sevdah is part of that. Sevdah has such beautiful lyrics, lyrics full of double meanings because women didn't used to be able to sing directly of eroticism.’ Speaking of female singers, how does Amira feel about Serbian singer Marija Š erifović's recent Eurovision victory?
‘She's got a great voice. It's a good pop song,’ she says. ‘Her mother Verica Š erifović was a famous Gypsy singer before the war. Let's hope this brings a better future to Serbia and that things will improve’
Amira plays the Barbican, London (020-7638 8891) with Taraf de Haïdouks on 1 June, and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161-907 5555) on 2 June. Rosa is out now on Snail. This report appeared in The Guardian (London), G2, 24 May 2007