Sevdalinka, a Melancholy Soundtrack for Bosnian Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S.

By Jelena Kopanja, FI2W contributor – First of two installments.

NEW YORK – When Mary Sherhart first sang the traditional Bosnian songs known as sevdalinkas at a concert in 2004, a woman stood up and started weeping. Her bare arms, emblazoned with scars from the war that ravaged Bosnia in the early nineties, rose toward the ceiling.

Mary Sherhart, the president of Sevdah North America. (Photo:

Sevdalinka is “a bridge to home,” says singer Mary Sherhart. (Photo:

At that moment, Sherhart knew that to be a “responsible artist” she would need to learn more about this song and its people, as the music extracted from her audiences the most private of emotions.

The emotion was evident on the faces of those who came to listen to Sherhart and Sakib Jakupovic, a Bosnian musician, this past April in Queens, NY at the tenth-anniversary celebration of the Bosnian-American Association. At midnight, grateful guests lined up to personally thank Sherhart for coming. Many of them were older Bosnian men and women, self-conscious about their broken English, but nevertheless eager to express their gratitude.

Sevdalinka is a song of love in all its manifestations, but for Bosnians living outside their country, one feeling predominates — nostalgia.

“Sevdah takes a new meaning in the diaspora,” said Sherhart, who is the president of Sevdah North America, an organization dedicated to the preservation and study of this music. “It is a bridge to the time when they were happier, a bridge to home, a bridge to their children for whom those ties are not as strong.”

Listen toSnijeg Pade na Behar na Voce” (Snow has fallen on blossoms, on fruit) by Mary Sherhart and Omer Pobric:


From the CD Srce Puno Bosne, Amerika i sevdah, Mary i Omer

(2005, Institut Sevdaha)

For Mirza Basic, an accordion player and a sevdalinka aficionado now living in London, the nostalgia of sevdah is more concrete than an ambiguous notion of longing.

“I really miss having cevapi barbecue (a Bosnian meat specialty), on the banks of the river Vrbas in my hometown,” said Basic, a former member of the performance group London Sevdah. “Sevdah is the one thing that can make me as close as possible –emotionally and mentally– to that.”

The Bosnian diaspora has grown in the aftermath of the four-year war that began in 1992 with Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia. The ethnic strife that followed was a surprise for most. A multi-ethnic country consisting of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats (as well as a small percentage of others, including Roma and Jews), Bosnia’s traditions, its language and the marriages of its people were mixed in what seemed a harmonious coexistence. Ethnic cleansing that marked the war led to the death of 100,000 Bosnians and the exodus of many more, 350,000 of whom now live in the United States.

The emotional core of the sevdalinkasevdah– comes from the Turkish word sevda, which means love, and the Arabic word sawda, which translates as black bile. According to the ancient Greeks’ medical theory of four humors, it was this substance that, in excess, was responsible for melancholy.

In 1917, Yugoslav anthropologist and philosopher Vladimir Dvornikovic described the peculiar state of his people that was reflected in their music.

“Even without sorrow, sorrow is always present, even without lament, the elegiac note may still be heard –he said–. Whether Orthodox or Muslim or Catholic, it is always and everywhere the same, monotonous and desperate in its tedium, always the same song, always verging on tears.”

Watch an example of traditional sevdalinka:

Zaim Imamovic, “Mujo Kuje Konja Po Mjesecu” (Mujo Shoes His Horse Under the Moonlight)

Kelly Marshall, an American whose grandfather was Croatian, remembers him playing these songs over and over again. “A lot of immigrants that left Yugoslavia for America had a sadness, homesickness, nostalgia and longing for their homeland, friends and family –and that melancholy and nostalgia was then transferred onto their children and descendants here.

“Even though my grandfather came here when he was only three, he used to sit for hours in the living room listening to the music without saying much of anything.”

That melancholy, says Semir Vranic, a sevdalinka enthusiast and a collector from Sarajevo, remains at the center of this song that was originally plucked on the strings of an Oriental instrument called a saz.

Sevdalinka, like much of Bosnia’s food, architecture and popular customs, owes a lot to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire’s 400-year-long presence in that part of the world. But as Bosnia was a crossroads where empires met, each leaving traces upon retreat, so was sevdalinka a meeting point of its peoples. Along the way and through time it incorporated other influences.

“In Turkey, the players of saz are called asiks, or ‘those in love,” explains Mustafa Avci, an ethnomusicologist and a saz player from Turkey who now studies at New York University.

“A legend has it that if a man is visited in his dream by a saint who gives him wine to drink –a wine of love– he wakes up an asik, a skilled player who then wanders the earth with his saz, in search of his loved one.” In Bosnia, asikovati means “to flirt,” and many sevdalinka have been written as songs of courtship between young lovers.

At the celebration in Queens, Fatima Sahmanovic shared her memories and what sevdalinka meant to her.

“I used to take care of an elderly woman and I would often take her to the park. If the park was empty, I would just sing sevdalinkas the whole time. They remind me of my hometown’s sokaks (small streets), of my youth, of my first love.”

“But shhh…” she laughed, her voice muffled under the music. “Don’t let my husband hear.”

Part II: Sevdalinka, a way to keep younger Bosnians connected to the homeland.

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.