Amira Medunjanin, the Balkan Billie Holiday
Author: Ed Vulliamy
Uploaded: Sunday, 10 February, 2013
Tribute to the greatest contemporary Bosnian singer, on the occasion of a recent tour to Britain
Towards the end of an electrifying performance last year among the Corinthian columns of St George's Hall in Liverpool, Amira Medunjanin – one of the great voices of her generation, and almost certainly the finest from eastern Europe – asks the band to unplug their instruments and the mixing desk to switch off her microphone. She proceeds to sing (and the musicians to play) unamplified, with searing emotional depth but not a hint of sentimentality.
In the audience, Medisa Carvill's eyes fill, partly from the beauty of the song and partly, perhaps, for its evocation of home – Bosnia – where in the 90s the singer had endured the siege of Sarajevo ‘sleeping on coal in a cellar’, and where the war – the concentration camps, specifically – had taken the lives of Medisa's husband, uncle, neighbours and closest friends from the village of Kozarac. Other faces are similarly transfixed.
At the back of the hall is Liverpudlian Simon Glinn, the concert's promoter, and by day the executive director of the Philharmonic Hall. For him the evening is something of an ambition achieved, one he has cherished ever since the war in Bosnia. Indeed, the event is charged with connections to those days of blood and tribulation and music, and as such it is a night more of survival and defiance than mourning.
Amira brings to mind Edith Piaf; she is the Balkan Billie Holiday. There are moments that echo even Callas. The voice is silken but determined; it is cast in deep and occult shadow, but is often playful and erotic; it yearns and laughs, it glides and slides across and around oriental chromatics, though she would count the Velvet Underground and Nick Cave among her primary influences. As the great Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksander Hemon puts it: ‘Amira's singing brings tears to one's eyes and unmitigated joy to one's heart.’
If her music has a genre, which is debatable, it would be sevdah, which derives from the Arabic word meaning black bile – the substance of melancholy – a music that spread from Bosnia's rivers and mountains across the Balkans, not least with Gypsies who sang and performed it. But Amira takes sevdah somewhere it has never been before: through a modern war into encounters with jazz, even excursions into psychedelia.
During the siege of Sarajevo (1992-96), Bekim Medunjanin, now Amira's husband, was among the organisers of an effervescent but subterranean music scene – underground in every sense, as young people braved sniper and shellfire to walk miles and gather in cellars to listen to bands, drink what they could brew, distil or scrounge, and smoke what was left, whether legal or illicit. Bekim would also organise and conduct music classes for orphans of the savagery. This extraordinary demimonde beneath the siege, a largely untold story, was the fruit of local young Sarajevan creativity. It was able to flourish in large part thanks to the most eccentric of aid organisations, the Serious Road Trip. The trip was an initiative by British, Irish and New Zealand activists and trade unionists who would navigate a way through Serbian checkpoints into besieged Sarajevo in trucks painted with pictures of the Smurfs and characters from the Beano. They brought insulin and some serious aid, but with it music – CDs, equipment for concerts – as well as stuff to smoke.
The Serious Road Trip was greeted with contempt and disdain by the official UN aid operation in smart white SUVs and armoured vehicles. But ask any young Sarajevan who they most yearned to see, and they tended to agree with Bekim: ‘I was young, caught up in a siege, in a war. I ate little and weighed only 45 kilos. But I wasn't hungry for food. I was hungrier for something to counter the shelling, the sniper fire, news every day that this or that friend was dead, wounded or in a concentration camp. I was hungry for music, artistic events, rock'n'roll – things that would keep me alive and keep me going. When we started to organise the gigs, we never worried: 'are people going to come through shelling and snipers, without a curfew pass?' – we knew they would.’
A friend of Bekim's, central to this world, was a bass player and Sarajevo's most esteemed artist before the war, Nebojša Shoba Seric. Having been offered an opportunity to avoid military service and focus his talent on the war effort, he instead chose to fight on a terrifying frontline. He now recalls: ‘The very first pieces of art I created at the beginning of the war were scattered, shredded pieces of chaos and sharp hot metal… For the first time in my life I was making something honest and straight. The madness of daily life was intense.
‘A few days spent at the front line, then a few days spent in my studio barely 100 metres from the front line. The hunt for food and water was a brave and insane activity, but so many things were amplified and the best parties of my life happened during the siege. Every party happened in darkness, with bad homemade booze, lots of laughing and love. Every one was maybe the last. We didn't have anything to lose. Basements and shelters were turned into rehearsal studios, more and more young people played music, sometimes just to make noise so the sounds of explosions wouldn't be so loud.’
One of the Road Trip's organisers was Glinn, then a music producer who ran the Jazz World stage at Glastonbury. Now he arrived into a world of slaughter and cultural foment, to help organise social action through music, rock concerts and events under a banner calling itself Community Music Sarajevo. ‘If one was to paste a philosophy on to that madness, which was both brave and lucky,’ says Glinn, ‘I'd say just that this was about solidarity, multiculturalism and, well, the fundamental principles of good rock'n'roll. We wanted to wrestle music away from the nationalistic interests, and people who were using it for nationalistic purposes.’
Glinn befriended a law professor called Zdravko Grebo who had become director of an underground radio station, Zid (Wall). Grebo explains: ‘The point was to get on air but resist broadcasting militaristic songs. Our message was: remember who you are – you are urban people, workers, cultured people. We thought the situation called for Pink Floyd, Hendrix and good country music, rather than militaristic marches.’ It was with Radio Zid that Glinn worked to promote the only music festival of its kind to be held during a modern war: Rock Under Siege. ‘Sarajevo was full of bands that all wanted to be Rage Against the Machine,’ says Glinn, ‘because they were raging against the machine – there was a real fear and anger against the continual barrage of nationalism in ethnically dirty, multicultural Sarajevo. And of course they created this scene – the undergound gigs and eventually Rock Under Siege.
‘After a while we were living there, supporting the underground gigs, but that was not why we were there. What we were about were the reasons for doing music – the transformative reasons – what they called psycho-social work and I call community music.’ Bekim, recalls Glinn, ‘was the energy in all this, the inspiration, the trustworthy conscience – making things happen’.
Glinn was introduced to him, recalls Bekim, ‘in this yellow Land Rover we called the yellow submarine – and my first thought was: My God, he's so tall – the idea of a tall Englishman was strange to me. Soon I saw clearly that Simon got it – the value of working with these children who'd been stranded by war in the suburbs of Sarajevo, had no parents or didn't know whether their parents were alive.’
Amira, then a teenager, was a regular at the underground concerts. She recalls sleeping in the coal cellar and and trying as best she could to feed her family. She had lost members of her extended family to the Bosnian Serb snipers and gunners. ‘We could pretend for just a few hours that we had a life as young people, that we could do something else, against that madness above us.’
When Bosnia's war ended in 1995, Amira got a job as an interpreter with the European Commission. One day in 1997, a local man came into her office to be interviewed. ‘I didn't know who it was, [had] never run into him,’ she says. ‘He got the job, we went out to lunch and it was just ‘click’. We just started talking about music and I realised I'd been at all the concerts he'd organised during the war, and the Rock Under Siege festival.’ The interviewee was Bekim. ‘He told me about the work with the children too, in the orphanages, and that's when I fell in love with him.’
‘I'd never thought of becoming a singer. He said, “You've been given this voice – but it can't belong only to you, you have to share it.” Suddenly all my inhibitions disappeared. Bekim was the energy, he was the inspiration, he opened my eyes. Two weeks later, he asked me to marry him. I knew I would in the end, but I told him to wait two years.’
Bekim came to work in Liverpool during the late 1990s while training to be a customs officer in Bosnia (a job he held only fleetingly). ‘I felt an immediate affinity to the place,’ he says, ‘when I went out one night in that famous street near the station – Lime Street. People could get incredibly drunk and no one cared – I felt very at home.’ Before the war, Bosnia's most famous band by far was Mostar Sevdah Reunion, masters of the genre, who had opened a window to the world for music from what was then Yugoslavia. In 2002, 28-year-old Amira, who had recorded only a few demos, asked for an accompaniment to a sevdalinka (sevdah song) from the foremost musicians of the band. Warily, they loaned their accordionist and were amazed by what they heard. ‘Where are you from? Where have you been all this time?’
The result was Amira's first album, Rosa. ‘It means dew, not Rose,’ she says. The album is traditional sevdah at its best – simple and minimalist, as Bekim writes in the cover notes – a sound of raw beauty, some of it recorded in compete darkness so that ‘Amira could not hide her emotion’, says her husband.
‘Rosa was a homage to tradition,’ says Amira, ‘my tribute to sevdah in its original and organic form. But I was not doing this to play at the usual sevdah places, to the usual audiences. The national music had to reinvent itself.’ Her second album, Amira, was recorded live and shaped in part by the jazz pianist Kim Burton, who had been around Sarajevo during the war – ‘to see what the colours of Kim's playing would bring to our national music’. Jazz, Amira found, ‘is music you can do anything with, and it can do anything with you’. So already the fusion had begun, ‘by coincidence, really. Though what happened next was not at all coincidence.’ If Amira was an excursion into jazz, there remained something left unsaid that arose from the pain of war in a city proud but still deeply, perhaps irrevocably, wounded. And so followed the extraordinary Zumra. It is the musical record of that war, expressed through the apparently traditional form of voice accompanied by accordion.
‘I hated the accordion, to be honest, and I never liked its influence on Bosnian music,’ says Amira. ‘But I met the accordionist Merima Kljuco by accident and knew we had to make this album the way we did.’
The chromatics of the accordion veer from Arabic into psychedelia; Amira's voice is as haunted as it is haunting. The result is sevdah as though mixed through Jimi Hendrix's guitar on Machine Gun.
What on earth could follow? ‘Something small but very precious,’ she says. Amulette is an adventure back into jazz – soulful, velveteen, but full of quirks and experiments by three musicians of calibre: the outrageously talented Bojan Z, a leading pianist who moved from Serbia to Paris before the war; Nenad Vasilic from southern Serbia on double bass; and the Lebanese percussionist Bachar Khalife.
The driving force was the chemistry between Amira and Bojan Z. ‘It's incredibly hard to sing with Bojan – there's so much pure experimentation,’ she says. ‘But he was so open to ideas that the album became a real meeting between the sevdah sound and jazz.’
In 2003 Simon Glinn was appointed executive director of the Liverpool Philharmonic, where he supplemented the repertoire of the city's now highly acclaimed orchestra with regular festivals. But deep down he wanted more than almost anything to bring the girl he met in Sarajevo to sing in Liverpool. In this city, says Glinn, ‘most of us were refugees at some point in the family history’.
‘This is sevdah, this is what we know,’ Amira tells her Merseyside audience, about a fifth of whom are Bosnian, the rest concerned or curious locals. From her duffel coat she has changed into a ballgown that would grace a Verdi opera – this is now Amira as diva.
The Bosnians listen – including Medisa, the survivor from Kozarac. There are still 1,000 people missing in the mass graves around Medisa's village, and friends of hers from Kozarac are here tonight; also friends from Sarajevo, and behind them, a Liverpool family, one of whom says of the songs: ‘I don't understand a word but they give me goosebumps.’
There's a song about a woman who, when told by her lover that he has chosen another, rejoices at her freedom; it's sung with theatrically defiant mischief. Another is a love song from Serbia, White Roses, delivered with fists clenched to the side, and lachrymose melancholy. During instrumental passages, Bojan Z and Vasilic stretch their instruments in every way imaginable and beyond, the sound often like something electronically generated.
There is both power and stillness in the music, and an extraordinary drawing in of the audience, so that the great hall shrinks to the size of a living room, the columns acquire the intimacy of a hearth. Towards the end comes the moment when Amira sings unamplified: ‘This is how they used to do it,’ she says. It's a song much adapted from Rosa: Bogata sam, imam svega (I have riches, I have everything), in which the heroine does not have the man she loves: ‘Oh beloved, grant me a kiss, grant me your lips.’
What next? ‘All I know is that I don't want to do what is expected of me,’ says Amira. ‘I'm not here to make money or be a star. All I know is that I don't want to do what is expected of me. I just want to take sevdah to as many people as possible and feed it with as many kinds of music I can.’
This article appeared in The Observer (London), 20 January 2013