Music as Medicine: Sevdalinka Songs Help Bosnian Immigrants and Refugees Remember and Heal

By Jelena Kopanja, FI2W contributor – Second of two installments.
Mary Sherhart sings sevdalinkas at a Bosnian celebration in New York. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

Mary Sherhart sings sevdalinkas at a Bosnian celebration in New York. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

The name of Bosnia and Herzegovina –a small, heart-shaped country in the Balkans– is rarely associated with love.

The country made headlines in the mid ’90s as a place where ethnic hatred resulted in the death of 100,000 of its people and the exodus of many more. In addition to the photo albums and coffee grinders refugees packed in their suitcases as they fled, they also brought with them parts of their culture including sevdalinka, a traditional Bosnian song of love and longing for all that was left behind.

Now as Bosnian communities strengthen their roots in the United States, England and elsewhere, younger generations are growing up having little contact with their parents’ homeland. For these children, sevdalinka is perhaps a way to maintain a link. Mary Sherhart, director of Sevdah North America –a cultural organization dedicated to the study and preservation of this music– has seen the powerful connections sevdalinka can make.

“The little girls especially are enamored with it,” she said. “When those kids go home and hang out with their parents –in particular with their grandparents– the grandparents start singing, it gets them thinking about their youth. It is so healthy for these elders who feel particularly traumatized and isolated, as they often do not speak English.”

Listen to “Tamburalo Momce u Tamburu” (Youth was playing tamburitza) by Mary Sherhart, John Morovich and Balkan Cabaret:


From the CD “Somewhere Far Away” (2006)

Mirza Basic, a former member of performance group London Sevdah, has played these songs for his son ever since he was in his mother’s womb. “He now knows when sevdah is on,” Basic said.

Refik Ahmetovic enjoys a performance during a Bosnian celebration in New York. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

Refik Ahmetovic enjoys a sevdalinka at a Bosnian celebration in New York. (Photo: Jelena Kopanja)

Omer Pobric, director of the Institute for Sevdah in Visoko, near Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, envisions translating sevdalinkas into several foreign languages, including English, German, Spanish and Chinese. “Many of our children grow up far away,” he said. “They are born abroad, they forget our language and it is my wish that sevdalinka, even if sung in what is now their mother tongue, reminds them of their home country.”

Sevdalinka is sometimes compared to Portuguese fado, for its reliance on the singer’s ability to divulge his innermost secrets to the audience. A good sevdalinka singer has to disclose to the audience “everything about yourself, your country, your identity, your origins,” said Basic.

Origin and identity are complex concepts in Bosnia. Sevdalinka’s roots are in the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and many of its motifs and its language are influenced by Islamic traditions. But the song was not immune to influences from Christian Serbs and Croats, Sephardic Jews and even Roma.

“We are fusion and confusion,” said Srdjan Kolarevic, a musician in Washington, D.C. “That’s our beauty and our curse.”

Watch an example of traditional sevdalinka:

Himzo Polovina, “Emina”

Like many things in Bosnia, sevdalinka is also susceptible to divisive politics that extend into Bosnian immigrant and refugee communities around the world. “I see sevdah being used politically,” said Sherhart. “It is probably inevitable and it is a shame. But the war is so recent, it is still going on in so many ways.”

Omer Pobric fears that sevdalinka is endangered by those who do not wish Bosnian Muslims well. “In these regions, the existence of Muslims (Bosniaks) is seen as a problem. And sevdah and sevdalinka are identified with Bosniaks,” he wrote in an email. Pobric mentions that many songs have been appropriated by Serbs from Serbia who sing them as their own. Others, however, have criticized Pobric for claiming sevdalinka has exclusively Muslim heritage.

“There are heavy overtones and undertones in a lot of sevdah songs of Muslim and Islamic culture, but a large portion of the sevdalinke catalogue consists of quite eclectic sounds and wording. It is very difficult, in my opinion, to call sevdah a Muslim music,” said Basic.

“People are confused,” Basic said. “They think that the fez [a hat that forms part of a traditional costume worn at some sevdah performances] is a Muslim outfit. So Muslims may refuse to wear it, so as not to insult non-Muslims; the non-Muslims may not want to wear it because they think it is Muslim. But the history tells us that it is business attire, an ethnically neutral outfit. There is a lot of this kind of ignorance.”

In the diaspora, Sherhart believes, “the children growing up far from Bosnia will be emotionally much healthier if families move on in their lives. It is next to impossible to expect that so soon — and probably unrealistic.” But she is hopeful.

Enjoying the music, a step towards reconciliation?

Evening of Sevdah, held last November in Seattle, brought together musicians from all over the former Yugoslavia. “It was a microcosm of how beloved sevdah was, and how artists and music should be above politics. The audience welcomed all the musicians — as though the audience was relieved to go back to that time when they could just enjoy music,” Sherhart said of the event. “I believe those are very small steps but important ones.”

Miki Koljenovic, a singer from New York who often entertains at weddings, has at least a couple of sevdalinkas in his repertoire. “I sing for people from all over former Yugoslavia. They all love sevdalinka.” But asked if he had witnessed many multi-ethnic weddings in his 20-year career as a singer in the diaspora, he replied, “I am not a politician. I am a musician. I do not get into that.”

There are those who do not want to listen to sevdalinkas. “I have had problems with people from Banja Luka listening to me play sevdah,” said Basic. Banja Luka is predominantly Serb and belongs to Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two governing entities created by the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in 1995.

“But we had a bunch of Serbian people from Novi Sad, Belgrade coming to hear us in Oxford,” said Basic. “Who is sevdah uniting there? I don’t know. They were incredibly happy. We were very happy to see them. We didn’t feel any national divisions among us.”

“If someone does not want to hear it, they won’t hear it even if they are your neighbors. But if they want to hear it, they’ll hear it from across the world.”

For the first time, in March last year, scholars convened in Sarajevo to discuss the status of sevdalinka in Bosnia’s cultural heritage. “Sevdalinka is a national good, and a national brand,” said politician Irfan Ajanovic, as reported in a Croatian newspaper.

In an e-mail, Pobric agreed. “If we cannot agree on politics –some want this, some want that–, if we cannot agree on faith –some are believers, some atheists, some agnostic–, then we can at least agree on beauty. Sevdah is beauty and sevdah could be the connecting tissue for the whole of Bosnia. We all love sevdah.”

Also read: Part I – Sevdalinka, a Melancholy Soundtrack for Bosnian Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S.

Jelena Kopanja is a New York-based writer. She is currently completing her master’s degree in Journalism and Latin American & Caribbean Studies at New York University. For more of her articles, please visit
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AboutJelena Kopanja
Jelena Kopanja is former Feet in 2 Worlds contributor. She is a graduate of New York University’s Global and Joint Studies Program, with concentrations in Journalism and Latin American Studies. She was born in Bosnia, from where she brought her love of good coffee and baklava. Prior to her graduate work, she was involved in immigrant communities as an ESL volunteer instructor and an interpreter for Spanish and Bosnian.