Sevdah in Sarajevo

The first audio recordings of sevdah were made at the beginning of the 20th century. However, sevdah, as a musical-poetic genre, was in existence much earlier and is inextricably linked to the traditional song – sevdalinka – which is believed to have reached its peak during the 16th century.

Sevdah is tied to the coming of the Ottomans and the founding of the first urban settlements – mahalas (quarters), where houses having distinct sections for men and women were built and high walls were erected to separate private life from public life.  This atmosphere of separation gave rise to love songs which expressed longing and most often it was young girls who sang about their beloveds. 

Black bile

The word sevdalinka comes from the root of the Arabic word, “sevda”, which may be translated literally as “black bile”, which the ancient Greeks considered the fluid in the body which caused melancholic dispositions. This was how, in this part of the world, sevdah came to be synonymous with quiet suffering and taking pleasure in one’s lovesickness.

Sevdalinka entered the public sphere with the establishment of coffee bars in towns, where sevdah was sung to the accompaniment of the saz, a stringed instrument from Iran (a large tambur). The sazlija, the man who sang sevdah, would wear traditional dress with the essential red fez on his head and sit at the front part of a sećije (sofa) with the other guests. He would play and “knock” on the saz and sometimes such socializing would last until dawn.

With the coming of the Austro-Hungarians, there were changes in all aspects of life in BiH, even with traditional music, sevdah began to use the accordion and many new stylistic themes appeared in the genre.

Up until the end of WW2, sevdalinka was largely performed in coffee bars. There were close to 70 of these establishments in Sarajevo and it was in the most well-known ones, such as Volga, Šadrvan or Olympia, where the greatest stars of that time, Boro Janjić and Sofka Nikolić, gave performances.

Golden era of sevdah

With the end of the war, sevdah “moved” from the coffee bars to the radio. Just four days after Sarajevo was liberated on April 10, 1945, Radio Sarajevo got to work, marking the beginning of the “golden era of sevdah”. During those early post-war years there were live performances, so famous singers, like Zaim Imamović and the accordion player, Ismet Alajbegović Šerbo, would often spend the night at the radio studio, sleeping under the piano, so that they wouldn’t miss the morning program.

The radio sevdah team was soon joined by Nada Mamula, Himzo Polovina and the tambur player, Jozo Penava. Later on, other great sevdah singers, such as Safet Isović, Meho Puzić, Beba Selimović, Zora Dubljević, Zehra Deović... perfected their “craft” on radio.

By the end of the 1970s there was a gradual “decline” in interest in traditional music, which was caused by the appearance of record companies and new musical trends.

However, sevdah did not fall into oblivion. A decade ago, a new generation of musicians came along and brought new musical genres and traditions to sevdah. Certainly, the most prominent representatives of the new sevdah scene are Damir Imamović and Amira Medunjanin.

Sevdah Art House (Halači 5) opened in Baščaršija in 2008, providing a place where one can view a permanent exhibit on sevdalinka music and it masters. The Sevdah Art House is open every day (except Mondays) from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.