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What is Sevdah?

click here to see our list of Beloved Artists of Sevdah

Sevdah is the traditional music genre of urban town centers of old Bosnia and Herzegovina where merchants from many cultures (Bosnians and Turks mainly, but also Armenians, Roma, Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Sephardic Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and others) mingled to create a vibrant city life. The land of current day Bosnia and Herzegovina has been home to Latins, Illyrians, Thracians, and Slavs; was occupied by the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires; and ruled under Tito's Communism. This tapestry gave birth to and sustains this emotionally complex expression, equally rich in poetry and melody, which evokes strong emotions in listeners among all those cultures and religions.

The word "sevdah" is of Arabic origin meaning "love" in its many shades from maternal to longing to erotic. Furthermore, it refers to black bile, one of the four humors, or vital fluids, of ancient and medieval medicines. Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood are nothing less than life's essence, the source of emotion.

No wonder, then, that Bosnians hold sevdah so dearly. It is often described as the very soul and ambience of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When Bosnians speak of sevdah, their eyes soften and memories flood their hearts. Often you will see a hand tenderly placed on their heart as they speak of sevdah's meaning in their own lives. When listening, reactions range from deep melancholy to euphoria. On the sadder side, it is often referred to as the Bosnian blues. A subset of sevdah, karasevdah, offers even darker feelings. However, the tender nature of some sevdalinke has been known to calm listeners in therapeutic situations, the melodies being so sweet and mellifluous.

In attempting to describe the musical form of sevdah, ethnomusicologists refer to a number of elements: the influence of Ottoman music beginning in the 16th century with the arrival of the Turks, the importance of the singers' personal interpretation and disposition, as well as common musical features such a Bosnian maqam (Arabic melodic mode), melodic ornamentation, metric devices, Sephardic influences from Spanish Jews and Slavic influences. However, most acknowledge sevdah defies classification. In the Anthology of Bosnian-Herzegovinan Sevdalinka, a CD set published in 2005 by the Folk Music Department of former Radio Sarajevo, ethnomusicologist Tamara Karaæa Beljak sums it up well: "This may be the reason why a formal ethnomusicological analysis cannot lead us to complete perception, and examples recorded through transcription on music sheets say almost nothing without listening. Sevdalinka can exist as a tune and auditory phenomenon, but becomes what it actually is only when sung by an actual singer."

The texts of sevdalinke are equally diverse. Songs speak of unrequited love, yearning, separation from loved ones and distance from homeland. Yet there are light hearted flirtatious songs, too. Rich cultural references abound, as do historical personages and places as in "Kliknu vila sa vrha porima" which describes the troops of Aga Smail Cengic as a snake surrounding Mostar. Poetic imagery paints beautiful scenes of nature, town streets, traditional homes and gardens. The sources of song texts are varied. Songs are passed down through generations, the original author being lost over time. Poems are set to music such as the beloved "Emina" by poet Aleksa Šantic (1868-1924), "Kraj vrbasa sjedi momce" by Jozo Penava (1931- ), "Akšam geldi" by Mostar's pride Osman Ðikic (1879-1912) and "Kraj tanana šadrvana" by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). New sevdalinke are being composed even today.

Sevdah music was traditionally found in wealthy Ottoman homes for small gatherings of friends and family, by men and women in their separate quarters and gardens. Additionally, sevdalinke were also heard in taverns, coffee houses, picnics (teferic), gatherings of friends (sijelo) and exchanged between courting sweethearts through garden gates. In the 20th century with the advent of recording, radio and television, sevdah reached a significantly broader audience and, some feel, lost an intimate beauty afforded only in smaller settings. Sevdah became popular throughout, and among immigrants from, all of former Yugoslavia.

Instrumentation also underwent a transformation. Traditionally sevdalinke were accompanied by saz (a long necked lute originally from Iran introduced in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Turks), however accordions, tamburitza (a mandolin-like school of instruments) and large orchestras became the norm in concerts and recordings from the 20th century.

With all this change, one element remains unchanged, the quality of the sevdah singer as the most critical element. The finest sing with emotion, restrained passion, depth and integrity. The style has been compared to Portuguese fado, American blues and Greek rembetika. Singers can touch a note so delicately as to break your heart or send their voices through the roof with emotion and power. Among the most beloved luminaries are Himzo Polovina, Nada Mamula, Zaim Imamovic, Safet Isovic (his rendition of "Kasno prodjoh kraj Morica-hana" is one of the finest examples of the poravna form), Emina Zecaj, Hamdija Šahinpašic, Zehra Deovic, Beba Selimovic and Hanka Paldum.

Instrumentalists are equally beloved and accomplished. The finest traditional saz players include: Muhamed Mesanovic-Hamic, Avdo Vrabac, Hašim Muharemovic, Avdo Lemeš, Selim Salihovic, Kadir Kurtagic, and Igbal Ljuca who worked with his wife Behka. The kings of modern accordion are Ismet Alajbegovic Šerbo and Omer Pobric.

There are many other artists who touched hearts with their interpretations. Click here for a list of nearly 100 artists generously compiled by Dr. Semir Vranic. Anyone interested in sevdah must visit Dr. Vranic's remarkable website, written in Bosnian and English, for a wealth of information including bibliography (see "literature"). Visit http://www.sevdalinke.com/ and blog http://sevdalinke.blogspot.com. We are indebted to Dr. Vranic for sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of sevdah.

Sevdah is enjoying a revival not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in the many diaspora communities throughout the world. Creative artists like those in Mostar Sevdah Reunion, Amira Medunjanin and Damir Imamovic have put their own modern spin on sevdah and play a leading roll in its revival particularly with the younger generation. Mr. Omer Pobric, founder and director of Institut Sevdaha, is tirelessly creating recordings, books and performances throughout the world to keep the sevdah flame burning. Fine choirs like Sarajevo's Pontanima Choir, Preporod Oktet and Prijatelji Choir perform choral arrangements of sevdalinke by composers like the accomplished Rešad Arnautovic.

There are numerous resources available on the Internet and libraries. YouTube has many video clips of sevdah artists. Dr. Semir Vranic in Sarajevo shares his encyclopedic knowledge of sevdah and sevdalinke at his website http://www.sevdalinke.com/ and blog http://sevdalinke.blogspot.com and has generously offered a list of references for this SNA website.

See Links page for more Sevdah-related Internet resources.


Beloved Artists of Sevdah

The following is an on-going resource of information about artists. It is far from complete. We invite readers to send us any information you have about these and other artists.

Hasiba Agic - Born in Zenica and lived in Sarajevo since 1980, Ms. Agic sings in the award winning film Grbavica directed by Jasmila Zbanic.  Ms. Agic is one of the many fine singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Orhan Ahmagic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a very fine accordion player and sevdalinka singer from Sarajevo. His preferred songs were "U Travnik su došli pehlivani" and "Zaplakala šecer Ðula."

Silvana Armenulic (1939-1976) Born Zilha Bajraktarevic in Doboj, she took the stage name Silvana after moving to Beograd to pursue her career. She was one of the most popular folk singers of former Yugoslavia and also acted on television. Her life was tragically cut short in an automobile accident with her pregnant sister Mirjana Bajraktarevic and prominent Serbian singer Miodrag Jašarevic.

Ibro Ašceric - A very fine sevdalinka singer in the same generation as Zaim Imamovic.

Ljubica Berak (1948-) Ms. Berak is among the many fine singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Munevera Berberovic -

Nedjeljko Bilkic (1944-)

Muaz Borogovac and the saz family BOROGOVAC (including Muhamed Borogovac) are from Živinice (near Tuzla).

Braca Karabegovic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a famous company of very fine sevdalinka singers from Banja Luka between the two world wars and after World War II.

Aliija Brkic – A fine singer from Tuzla, Ms. Brkic is one of the singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Avdo Buzar (1925-) An accordion player and fine singer from Sarajevo's kafana and akšamluci.

Vlastimir Pavlovic Carevac (1895-1964) Orchestra director whose ensembles appear on sevdah recordings.

Ksenija Cicvaric (1929-1997) Born in Podgorica (Titograd), Ksenija moved to Belgrade where she sang sevdalinke and the songs of Montenegro with Radio Belgrade.

Muhamed Cejvan – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a singer from Banja Luka, he was among the first Bosnian singers who recorded a single in the late 1920's.

Kadira Cano – (19xx-) A fine singer from Sandžak.

Zekija Cuturic (1939-)

Zehra Deovic (1938-) A popular singer born in Foèa, Ms. Deovic worked for Radio Sarajevo from 1960.

Zora Dubljevic -

Zekerijah Ðezic (1937-2002) A fine singer from Janja near Bijeljina (Northeastern Bosnia)

Mustaf Ezic (1935-2000) A great sevdalinka artist born in Bosanska Krupa, died in Belgrade, his versions of the famous Bosnian ballad "Braca Morici" and "Oj, Halile gojeni Halile" (1974) are among the most prominent sevdalinka pearls.

Ante Filipovic - Ranked among the best accordionists.

Predrag Gojkovic-Cune – A popular Serbian singer of sevdalinke.

Amila Golub – The younger generation, Amila was born in the town of Livno in Herzegovina.

Velinka Grgurevic (1926-) – Serbian singer of sevdalinke, born in Zenica, she favored the poravna style.

Dr. Mehmed Gribajcevic (1945-) A very fine saz player (Sarajevo School of Saz), he has been very active working with Emina Zecaj over the past 20 years.

Bahrija Hadžialic – A very fine singer from Sarajevo.

Vesna Hadžic (1961-) – One of the many fine singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Vejsil Hadžibegic - Among the older generation of sevdah artists, he was also a singer in the Sarajevo Opera before World War II. His favorite song was "Pošetala Ana Pehlivana." He also performed the virtuosic "poravna" sevdalinke.

Rizo Hamidovic – A singer from Sandžak.

Amir Haskic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a saz player and singer from Sarajevo who appeared together with Muhamed Mešanovic-Hamic on the CD "Muslim Music from Europe & Asia, Music of the Balkan Muslims," published by Fremeaux & Associates, France, 1998 (originally recorded between 1955-1970).

Damir Imamovic – The grandson of Zaim Imamovic, Damir's more modern interpretations of sevdalinke are effective at bringing the genre to the younger generation.

Zaim Imamovic (1920-1994) Born in Mrkonjic Grad, raised in Travnik, as an adult Mr. Imamovic lived in Sarajevo where he began working at Radio Sarajevo in 1945. He was also an accordionist early in his career, but gave it up in favor of his beautiful voice. He recorded an extremely moving song from his hospital bed, "Hajd'mo draga lugu zelenome" found in a wonderful book and cd: "Zaim Imamovic, Pjesma srca moga, 100 Najljepših pjesama" (Sarajevo, 2004, Buybook).

Safet Isovic (1936-2007) – Born in Bileca, Safet is considered by many to be the finest sevdah singer of all time. His powerful voice and style have been emulated by many. He has recorded and traveled extensively, and received countless awards in his long and distinguished career.

 Flory Jagoda -  (19215-)  – Born in Sarajevo, Ms. Jagoda is of Sephardic descent and though not specifically a sevdah singer, her stature as an artist and careful preservation of Sephardic song in Bosnia deserve mention here.

Radmila Jagodic -

Vukašin Vule Jevtic (1913–1981) – Born in Serbia, was one of the greatest Serbian singers. He also sang some Bosnian songs including "Bosiok se s' rosom zamjerio," "Za goricom selo pomaleno," "Djevojka sokolu zulum ucinila," "Kasno prodjoh gorom Romanijom," "Emina," and "Šta bi bilo s' djuzel djula."

Buca Jovanovic - Ranked among the best accordionists.

Lela Karlovic – Among the older generation of artists, Lela a was professional sevdalinka singer at the National Theatre after World War II. Her favorite song was "Lastavice, lasto".

Rasema Katana – A very fine singer from Banja Luka who died many years ago. Her haunting recording of "Ako zelis milovanja" is from the Vlado Miloševic Collection and was recorded for Banja Luka Radio. Her sister Sadeta Katana, also a traditional sevdalinka singer, is still alive and lives in Banja Luka. She was also one of the informants to Dr. Munib Maglajlic.

Jozo Kristic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a very fine poravna singer.

Husein Kurtagic (1938 - 2008) Born in the village of Bihov, near Trebinje, into a large, but poor family, Mr. Kurtagic lived to become one of the most prolific arrangers and composers of folk and popular music. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Sevdah House which opened in Sarajevo in 2009.

Kadiraga Kurtagic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a very fine saz player and singer from Sarajevo. His variant of "Pošetao Mujo mlad" is included in Ankica Petrovic's very fine and sophisticated CD "Bosnia: Echoes from an endangered world" published by Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, 1993.

Avdo Lemeš (1946-) – Saz player and singer.

Behka (1925-1995) and Igbal Ljuca (1928-2001) – Born in Sarajevo, this husband and wife were a treasure of the older sevdah style. Their heartfelt singing, saz and daire (tambourine) reflected the emotion of bygone traditions.

Dragomir Majkic (1933–) Born in Bosnia, he sang both Bosnian and Serbian songs. His style was under the strong influence of Vule Jevtic.

Nada Mamula (1927-2001) – One of the most accomplished and beloved sevdah singers, a Serbian born in Belgrad, Nada began her career on Radio Beograd after a successful audition in 1946. When she moved with her husband to Sarajevo in 1951, she auditioned for Radio Sarajevo and began her long distinguished career as one of its most recognized singers. Sadly, she died alone, in Belgrad, ill and rejected.  Her recordings were not played in Bosnia because she was Serb and her not in Serbia because the songs were Bosnian.

Šerif Manko (1932-) – A traditional singer of Sandžak songs, currently living in the United States. Mr. Manko was born in Cajnice, eastern Bosnia. As a Radio Sarajevo singer for many years, he preferred songs from Sandžak. According to Dr. Semir Vranic, Manko’s favorite song was "Da je meni leci,umrijeti", a traditional song from Sandžak, or to be more precise from Pljevlja (originally sung by Hamdija Šahinpašic).

Smail Mehuric (1924-1992) – From Lukavac, Mr. Mehuric is the father of singer Zekija Suman, and was a great saz player and singer.  Zekija left a very fine note in Šukrija Trako's book "Saz u Bosni", released by Omer Pobric in 2003.

Muhamed Mešanovic-Hamic (1931-1978) – Born in Sarajevo, Mr. Mešanovic-Hamic was one of the finest singers and saz players of sevdah. Among his many fine recordings is "Sinoc sam ti, Safo, dvoru dolazio."

Camil Metiljevic – From Hrasnica near Sarajevo, a very fine singer and saz player. He was active working with Emina Zecaj until 1990. Metiljevic is also important because he builds saz instruments in his own workshop in Hrasnica.

Andelija Milic (1920-2000) – A Serbian singer of sevdalinke, her high soprano voice illustrates yet another interpretation of these beloved songs.

Vlado Miloševic (1901-1990) – A renowned Bosnian composer, ethnomusicologist and collector of traditional songs mainly from the Banja Luka region. He published his very valuable collection of Bosnian songs in four volumes named "Bosnian Folk Songs" (1954-1964) as well as two very good studies on sevdalinka ("Sevdalinka", Banja Luka 1964; "Ravna pjesma", Banja Luka, 1984) and also published many articles on sevdalinka during his quite long lifespan. For several years he edited the local radio program in Banja Luka dealing with the traditional music from the Banja Luka region.

Mostar Sevdah Reunion – Created during the 1990's war, this group of talented musicians brought a youthful spin to sevdah. MSR recorded and toured the world with guest artists like Liljana Butler and Šaban Bajramovic. They are featured in the documentary "Bridge of Bosnian Blues" by Mira Erdevicki released on 2004.

Dr. Hašim Muharemovic (1937-2012) – Born in Srebrenik, one of the most distinguished singers and saz players. Among his many fine recordings is "Sinoc sam ti, Safo, dvoru dolazio," which he composed.

Zumra Mulalic (19xx-1993) – A Radio Sarajevo singer for several decades, her husband Milorad Torodovic (still alive in 2008, more than 80 years old) was a very good accordion player and played in the Radio Sarajevo Ensemble.

Halid Music – A saz player from Ðurdevik, near Tuzla, Mr. Music also sings and plays a more rural style on the Bosnian instrument šargija.

Refija Muslic – (19xx-) Ms. Muslic is one of the fine singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Merima Njegomir (1953-) – A Serbian singer of sevdalinke with a very strong direct style.

Danica Obrenic (1920-2006) – A Serbian singer of sevdalinke, her high almost operatic style illustrates another interpretation of sevdahlinke.

Sena Ordagic – A singer originally from Bosnia who lived in Belgrade for many years.

Rejhana Osmanèevic – A fine sevdah singer.

Hanka Paldum (1953-) – Born in Cajnice, Hanka is one of the most popular and successful interpreters of sevdah and modern Bosnian pop, as welll. Her official website is:  http://www.hanka-paldum.com/home.php 

Vida Pavlovic (approx 1945-2005) – Of Roma descent, she began her singing career in Sarajevo in the 1960's.

Mile Petrovic (1925-197?) – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, very fine singer with a tender voice. His favorite song was "Oj djevojko pod brdom."

Sejo Pitic (1944-) – A sevdah singer with a light soaring voice.

Pljevaljski tamburaši – Fine tambura group from Pljevlja, Sandžak.

Omer Pobric (1945-2010) – Born in Tešanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Accordionist, composer, poet, author, founder and director of Institut Sevdaha Fondacija "Omer Pobric" in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Mr. Pobric led a distinguished career as one of former Yugoslavia's top musicians, recorded and traveled extensively, and received countless awards. He is worked tirelessly to create, collect, preserve and promote sevdah and Bosnian culture. He was the inspiration for the Sevdah North America and other similar organizations throughout the world. 

Himzo Polovina (1927-1986) – Born in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Bosnian icon, Dr. Polovina is considered by many to be the finest interpreter of sevdah of all time. He was a respected singer, author, composer, interpreter and collector, as well as a psychiatrist whose use of music therapy in treatment was far ahead of its time.

Meho Puzic (1937-2007) – An accomplished sevdah singer, his recording of "Budila majka Mehmeda" is among the classics.

Hamid Ragipovic-Besko – A fine singer from Sandžak, his interpretation is highly ornamented. His recording of "Kolika je jahorina planina" shows great joy.

Bajro Redžic (1944-2004) – From Cazin, Bajro was a particularly great accordion player and singer with encyclopedic knowledge of sevdah and sevdalinka. A real treasure who knew rare and forgotten songs of which no one was aware.

Selim Salihovic (1910-1988) – A traditional saz player and singer from Janja, near Bijeljina, Mr. Salihovic was a true traditional sevdalinka player. Several authors (particularly Prof. Munib Maglajlic) wrote scientific papers, based on Salihovic's singing and approach. He accompanied both Emina Zecaj and Dr. Himzo Polovina on their saz performances in the early 1970's.

Nedžad Salkovic (1940-) – A singer of sevdah, with a light sensitive voice, he is one of the finest current singers.

Beba Selimovic (1935-) – Born in Trebinje. Beba is among the sevdah royalty beloved by all who love sevdah. 

Safet Sikira (1935-2006) – A kafana (tavern) accordion player and singer from Doboj, his favorite song was "Kulu gradim, a kamena nemam."

Rajko Simeunovic – Saz player who appeared on television several times in 1991-92. There is no CD or other recording, as far as Dr. Semir Vranic knows.

Ivanka Stefanovic – A Serbian singer of sevdalinke.

Alma Subašic (1994- ) – Born in Konjic, Alma was a beloved child singing star and continues to be one of the finest young sevdah singers.  Learn about her at: http://www.almasubasic.com/

Saveta Sudar (1925–) – Born in Pakrac, Croatia, she sang both Bosnian and Serbian songs. She preferred the Bosnian poravna style ("Pšenice, sitno sjeme," "Ravno polje žao mi je na te").

Zekija Suman (1953-) – One of the many fine singers who worked with the late Omer Pobric of the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Hamdija Šahinpašic (1914-2003) – Born in Pljevlja, in the Sandžak region, Mr. Šahinpašic was an inspiration to many of the sevdah singers who followed him. He was a true great. His songs were written down by the great Montenegran ethnomusicologist Miodrag A. Vasiljevic (1903-1963) in 1951 and published in Moscow as a bilingual edition in 1967 by the Russian Academy of Sciences ("Jugoslovenske narodne pesme iz Sandžka. Po pevanju Hamdije Šahinpašica iz Pljevalja"). The second edition of the book was published in Sarajevo in 2002. Mr. Šahinpašic collaborated with many ethnomusicologists, researchers, and producers including Ankica Petrovic, Munib Maglajlic, Mehmed Bajraktarevic, Tamara Karaca, Maja Baralic, and Haris Prolic (who made a film about Hamdija entitled "Song Remains the Same" in 2005).

Sulejman Šaric – A saz player from Tuzla.

Vuka Šeherovic – A popular singer in Belgrad with many recordings to her credit in the post World War II period. 

Subhija  Šehovic – Born in Bijeljina, a popular singer in Sarajevo today.

Ismet Alajbegovic Šerbo (19xx-1987) – Legendary accordionist, arranger and composer, he began working at Radio Sarajevo in 1945. His virtuosic playing is considered to most closely capture the traditional style of saz.

Mubera Tafro – A fine singer from Sarajevo.

Salem Trebo (1941-) – One of the sevdah singers popular today.

Aldijana Tuzlak – A young singer from Sarajevo.

Mehaga Varešanovic – Among the older generation of sevdah artists, a violin player and sevdalinka singer from Sarajevo.

Avdo Vrabac (1952-1996) – A very fine saz player from Tuzla.

Emina Zecaj (1935- ) Born in Sarajevo, Ms. Zecaj was "discovered" by Bosnian ethnomusicologist Cvjetko Rihtman, PhD., and became one of the most important artists in the collection and performance of the pure traditional style. She has collected over 600 songs and made over 400 archival recordings with Radio Sarajevo/Radio Bosne i Hercegovine (now Radio BH1). She broke through the gender barrier as a female performing with saz, once the sole domain of men.

Zekija Zeco (19xx-1998)