Bosnia’s finest sevdalinke singer Amira Medunjanin is in London to give two special performances, one being an exclusive preview of her new album, Amulette. In a charming interview, W!LD RooSTeR spoke with Amira about that third studio album and how she explores the language of sevdalinke.
So, Amira, welcome back to London. “Thank you, the pleasure is all mine,’ she said. “It’s brilliant here. I am in love with London. It was love at first sight really. This is one of the very few places outside of Bosnia where I feel at home. I would say I am on my, now traditional, visit to London.
“I am very glad to be a part of these important events. I performed last year at St Ethelburga’s church and instantly felt connected to that special place and the people that work there.
Amira explained more about the concerts that have brought her back: “St Ethelburga’s are organising this event at St Paul’s Cathedral on 6 June to celebrate their work and they kindly invited me to join them. Later on 8 June, Bojan Z and I will give a concert at St Ethelburga’s.
That would actually be a sneak preview to my new album due to be released this summer. Then I am off to Sarajevo to promote my new album and give a concert at the Bosnian Cutural Center on 5 July. The actual tour starts at the end of September with a series of Scandinavian concerts.
Amira can strike chords of emotion in people across borders and cultural divides. Her voice evokes shared memories and a mutual respect for music and life in the oral tradition of the Balkans. “I have been received beautifully all across the region and I am very grateful for that,’ she said from a rainy London. “The latest live performances I had in Belgrade and Ljubljana were very emotional.”
“I really get the most I can from recording and performing live. They are two different sensations yet both are overwhelming. Right now I am suffering from post-natal depression after giving life to the new album! It is hard, but nice.”
Late last year, Amira sat down with the Belgrade-born award-winning jazz pianist Bojan Zulfikarpašić (Bojan Z) to write her third studio album, Amulet. To be previewed in London this week, Amira‘s powerful and emotive vocalisations are sure to blend poetically with Bojan’s detailed piano accompaniment.
Those already familiar with Amira’s jaw-dropping debut Rosa and its remarkable follow-up Zumra will be anticipating another album of finely honed but uniquely drawn variations of traditional songs from Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia.
On release in 2004, Rosa was widely acknowledged as an astonishing achievement, recognised for its fragile beauty and intense sentiment. Amira’s rich and emotive voice is deeply captivating and demands attention. All life stops to take a breath, allowing her space to submerge the listener in her intense tales.
Featuring a selection of traditional songs from Bosnia, Rosa also opened the eyes of the world to a singing tradition that had remained undiscovered to most outside the region. “Rosa was a great experience in many ways. It made me really proud, to be honest.
“I simply chose some of the songs I loved the most. Each one of them had a special meaning for me: some reminded me of dear people, some reminded me of important moments in my life. Rosa was my debut but I had devoted my entire life to the exploration and research of our rich musical heritage. Additionally, I was so happy and relieved to see that my country was mentioned in different topics than war and other non-complimentary ones.”
Rather than locking on to that successful formula and delivering a carbon-copy follow-up, Amira took the opportunity to explore the genre she loves so dearly. She chose to work with accordionist Merima Kljuco to record Zumra, an album with a stronger, darker tone to its collection of confident and bold reinterpretations.
“I would say (the intense tone) has to do with the extensive preparations for the recording of Zumra, really. I have studied each song with Merima, trying to get to the true meaning of the lyrics, sort of decoding all those hidden messages.
“It was an original new look at those songs, mainly from the arrangements that are coming from classical contemporary accordion and the vocals that are leaning on traditional expression. We really wanted to show the true meaning of each song, paying attention to the lyrics and enhancing the sensibility of the melody.”
By working with collaborators to explore alternative ways of expressing the classic sevdalinke songs, Amira has shone light on different facets of the genre, breaking new ground with Zumra. This next album is set to tread its own path through fresh snow.
“Rosa was homage to tradition, whereas Zumra was something different,’ explained Amira. “I saw Zumra as an experiment and a challenge. I really wanted to show how free and beautiful the musical form sevdah is. As dark and heavy as Zumra was, I would say that this new album is light and bright.
“The album presents traditional music from the region through cooperation of Bosnian and international artists. The artists involved are Bojan Z on piano (also the arranger and producer), Nenad Vasilic on double bass, Bachar Khalife percussion, Kim Burton on accordion, Vlatko Stefanovski on guitar and Walter Quintus as sound engineer and co-producer.
“I first performed with Bojan Z in April 2009. We continued with a series of duo concerts. Each time we played together I discovered something new in Bojan’s approach to those songs. I am very grateful each time I get a chance to learn something new from the musicians that I am working with.”
Increasing popularity brings commitments to tour and promote an album, taking Amira beyond the borders of her Bosnian home. For someone so entrenched in the ways of her land, that carries its own burden. “When I am away from home, I miss the culture, the people and the food,’ Amira said. “Plus I miss that easiness in daily life. You know, when you call a friend for a coffee or a chat, and she or he is there for you within minutes. I miss that when I am away.”
With rapidly developing communications tool, I wondered how much Amira had embraced technology for life on the road. Do gadgets and fancy phones bring us closer together or can they in fact isolate us more?
“That is a good question,’ she said. “in general it does isolate us more. That is probably due to this fast living and constant running for survival. People seem to have less time for friends, loved ones and that is a sad fact. I always prefer direct contact with close friends whenever possible. Although, I really appreciate technology. I never leave Sarajevo without my MacBook.”
One place technology is unavoidable is the recording studio, where a warmer, more human touch can be buried under digital kit. Finding the right balance can be key to achieving a rich sound.
“I would say, prefer to use more traditional processes at a studio with atmosphere but with a necessary touch of technology,’ Amira agreed. “I must say I am very fortunate to be working with Walter Quintus, who is an absolute genius when it comes to recording, and the sound in general. His choices of recording studios are remarkable.”
The sevdah culture and its sevdalinke song style bears comparison to the Spanish duende and Portuguese fado and saudade singing traditions. Their tales of love, longing, death and desire tell of lonely hearts yearning for relief, of painful memories and missed opportunities. These are stories of nostalgia in the great oral traditions, kept alive by baton-bearers such as Amira.
“Yes I see those similarities,’ Amira told W!LD RooSTeR. “When it comes to writing, the topics are almost the same. Sevdah, like fado or saudade, is mainly talking about the deepest human emotions, such as love, desire, despair, longing, jealousy etc. When it comes to singing, it really has to come from the heart; one has to completely understand the hidden messages that each song is sending, to decode them in a way and deliver them to the audience.
Amira grew up in Sarajevo surrounded by the traditional music that was enjoying a renaissance in the newly-independent state. Amira’s commitment to Bosnia’s rich oral tradition has driven her to discover new dimensions to the classic song stylings, picking up her love for the music in the best possible school – her family home.
“Yes, that happened at home with my mother’, Amira said. “She was the one who taught me the first lyrics and showed me how to vocalise properly. I was seven years old when I had my first ‘concert’ and she was my only audience, sitting there in front of me. I was so eager to impress her. My mum was and still is someone who guides me in understanding and learning the universal messages that each song is sending through its lyrics and melody.”
Thanks to her mother’s influence, Amira grew up surrounded by sevdah greats such as Himzo Polovina, Silvana Armenulic, Zaim Imamovicand Nada Mamula. She also developed a passion for singers such as Amalia Rodrigues, Billie Holiday and Nick Cave who are known for their own unique stylings and interpretations of songs. Of the current batch of sevdalinke performers, who would get Amira’s seal of approval? “ I would say Damir Imamovic and there is this new young fellow Vanja Muhovic and his band Divanhana,’ she told me.
When she appeared on the scene in Sarajevo, the power, subtelty and beauty in Amira’s recordings and live shows astounded those in the know. She attracted attention. The range presented in her two studio albums and one live release has since show that this is an artist worthy of comparisons with the greats.
Respected music journalist and author Garth Cartwright (Princes Amongst Men) was recently prompted to crown Amira as ‘Bosnia’s Billie Holiday’ – quite a weighty responsibility to carry on your shoulders. “She was a great singer and I love her,’ said Amira. “I can only hope that one day I can come close to what she was and still is.”
Tickets to see Amira at the St Ethelburga’s church event are on sale here.
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