21 songs I listened to from the Ottoman ecumene in 2021 (mostly in no particular order)
Updated: Mar 9
This year I listened to the same songs over and over again, and although they were excellent, I did not explore as I would have liked to. But that’s fine – this list is exactly what I want it to be: what I listened to this year and nothing more. I hope it gives you a window into what today’s Ottoman ecumene looks like from my (*new and shiny*ahem*okay, my sister’s hand-me-down*) AirPods.
It’s been a year since I launched my blog, and I’m so grateful for all of the love I’ve gotten on the posts. We’ve had over 150 visitors to the site! I’m glad you find these songs as cool as I do. Next year, I’ll be here with more Velika Narodna Lira, as well as music notes, criticism, and analysis. Hajde!
1. KOIKOI – Pozivi u stranu
This album goes first because this is the best album. I got to see Belgrade band KOIKOI’s album promotion concert at Drugstore (where I, yes, bought a t-shirt). From the opening bars of “Ogledalo je zrcalo,” I was totally obsessed. The guitar and drums come in together like a fire igniting, and the entire band sings the opening lines in unison: “Ako postoji, postoji drugo”. Every time I hear it, I hear all the possibilities of my life, which won’t wait forever.
The album proceeds with KOIKOI’s unique rock blend, which of course one of my favorite aspects of is the Serbian etno influence (particularly noticeable on “Dodol,” but you can hear it in “Ogledalo” and many of the other songs as well; it’s in the harmonies, always my favorite part of a song). Perhaps my favorite song is “One koje bole boje se i vole,” whose vocal peaks (Marko!) and wistful guitar had me crying in the middle of Drugstore next to the random man I met there.
2. Zeynep Bastık – Zeynodisco
The only album I danced to all year.
And that’s how Zeynodisco ended up being, like, my numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 10 on my Spotify top songs list. I am not sure anyone has reviewed this album in English, which is shocking. This album, from start to finish, is incredibly fun, but also has just the right amount of production and is quite interesting musically. It’s 2021 global disco (the Dua Lipa effect), not 70s Turkish disco, but I feel that it’s also somehow distinctly Turkish music (not just music in the Turkish language). It doesn’t have any recognizably (or stereotypically) Turkish instrumentation or vocals, but I would argue that the phrasings and some of the un-voiced harmonic possibilities would be rather surprising to someone steeped in American or British pop. Plus, Bastık’s delivery is flawless, interesting, and adorable.
3. Tea Tajrović – “Hajde” and Yllka Kuqi & Ylli Demaj – “Hajde luj qyqek”
“Hajde” was arguably the Serbian song of the summer.
But it’s actually a cover of a song originally in Albanian called “Hajde luj qyqek,” the most popular recording on YouTube of which is by Yllka Kuqi and Ylli Demaj.
Of course, this song’s success in Serbia has been accompanied by a lot of debate about “whose song it is” in the comments section. Tajrović attempted to put a stop to accusations against her, acknowledging the song’s origins in a pinned comment on her official YouTube music video: “Thank you for loving my song “Hajde.” My heart is full! Huge respect for the original version “Hajde luj qyqek” & to the author, who gave me exclusive rights to remake this song in Serbian. Cheers to Balkan united 💪❤️”. Tajrović, along with Hurricane’s Sanja Vučić, are responsible for the new Serbian lyrics. Language aside, the Serbian version adds very little to the production of the Albanian one, just polishes it up. Notably, though, it adds a man shouting in Romanian, just to give it that extra exotic (but still familiarly Balkan) flair.
The real kicker is that the things that make this song so “Balkan” most likely come primarily from Romani wedding music.
4. Amira Medunjanin – in concert
I have loved sevdalinka singer Amira Medunjanin for a long time, but have never had the opportunity to see her live. In fact, everyone in my life seemed to be going to her concerts, asking me, “Oh, I am going to an Amira Medunjanin concert tonight, do you know who she is?” The answer was, of course, always an angry, “Uh, YES I KNOW, but WHY did you not invite me??” Well, this year I finally had my chance, and it was spellbinding. She had this totally rocking band from all over the Ottoman ecumene (“sa svih strana planina”, as she said, echoing one of my favorites of her songs), her voice and her presence are amazing, but what I was not expecting was the audience experience. She interacts with the audience like we’re all friends (see her barefoot in this video from the very concert I saw, thank you Vesko R1), and the audience sings along to everything. It was nothing short of the best Saturday night I spent by myself the entire year. I can take my own self to an Amira Medunjanin concert, thank you.
5. Noizy – “Një herë e mirë (Vaccine)”
I found this song because I saw somewhere that Albanian rapper Noizy had a song with the word “vaccine” in the title and I was intrigued. Actually, I was thinking, “What stupid stuff is he going to rap about vaccines?” But what I discovered when I pressed play was a perfect song, like it was made for me and this blog. Noizy is someone I loosely follow, since when I was in Prizren and taught an English class to some young children one of the kids told us Noizy was his favorite singer.
Obviously, the coolest thing about this song and the thing that really makes it is the sample of “Ergen Deda,” which is looped behind all of Noizy’s rapping, from start to finish.
(I’m not sure if this is the exact version he used for the sample). I know this song from my study of Bulgarian traditional music, so it immediately jumped out to me (and I immediately jumped around my house) when I heard it. It’s a very well-known and complex song from the Shop region of Bulgaria. It’s been sampled before, but never by an Albanian rapper.
I actually really love the way they did the sample. It starts out with a slowed down, relatively unmodified fade-in of the original, and then you get the sample transformed: auto-tuned, warped around the edges of the lines, slurring into itself, made to fit a 4/4 beat, which then drops. So, basically, you have a rap song in Albanian from an Albanian rapper set to an iconic Bulgarian traditional song. And it totally slaps.
Born in Albania and raised in the UK, Noizy has collaborated with artists from many countries; not only those from the standard Germany, but also with rapper Snik from Greece and, most recently, Jala Brat from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The lyrics to me are secondary; from what I can understand they’re a lot about success, fame, starting from the bottom, and not too much about vaccines (“This [song] was the vaccine,” he raps in the outro). Noizy won best artist and best male artist at the Billboard Albania Music Awards 2021 (yes, that’s a thing), and, spectacularly, this song was voted best hip-hop song. I mean, that’s cool.
6. Senidah – “Balkanka”
This is probably my standout best song of last year. It’s absolutely Senidah just bragging about being a boss, but it’s called “Balkanka” – she’s not just any kind of boss, she’s one firmly rooted in the Balkans. She drives her black Mercedes Benz through Vienna on her way to Paris, you know? This to me is autobiographical, not just in the sense that she truly is the queen of Balkan music right now, but also because she has footholds in so many different parts of the region: Slovenia (where she grew up), Montenegro (where she’s from), Belgrade (where her music career is). And she’s celebrating that aspect of her success in this song, name dropping all the cities where she is known, and which she knows. It’s part of this trend of today’s artists reclaiming a term (“Balkan”) used to stigmatize them and give it new meaning, noted by Donna Buchanan in her introduction to the volume she edited on the Ottoman ecumene, but also quite visible, particularly in Serbian music today. Best part of the song? When the beat drops on the emotive line, “Ma jok, ne treba mi sponzor” / “No, I don’t need a sponsor”.
7. Vasil Hadžimanov
This year, I went to Slovenia for the first time. I did actually listen to quite a bit of music made by Slovenes (although most of it was in English; I was at a jazz workshop; more on that below). But I had the distinct pleasure to listen to Belgrade jazz pianist Vasil Hadžimanov (not a Slovene, if we’re being technical) in Slovenia. I got to hear him perform with a number of other phenomenal musicians, least of all with his combo of young jazz students who had the funkiest, most danceable set at the workshop. I learned from a lecture Hadžimanov gave that he is descended from a Macedonian ethnomusicologist, who was responsible for some very large collections of traditional songs. Hadžimanov's music tends to incorporate different elements from Balkan music, be they melodic motifs, rhythms, or harmonies, although he says it’s somewhat unintentional – it’s just what’s in his ear, basically, and it shows up in his improvisation and writing. I started listening more intently to his music this year, and it’s so interesting and really fun. I was hoping to find a video of his performance, but it’s not available; instead, check out one song on YouTube I dig.
8. Olivera Popović – Trio of new music
My girl Olivera has new music and I’m thrilled. I was the literal luckiest person in the world and just happened to be in Belgrade in October 2019 (in that brief but sad year before I moved back for good) when she had a very intimate concert as part of the Bez buke series at Kulturni Centar Rex, which had just recently moved to its new location across from Kalenić market in Vračar. I showed up so early, because I didn’t know if I had to buy a ticket or not, that I watched from across the street as Olivera and her guitarist wait to be let in to the building with all their gear and stuff. Relieved that this was not going to be some crazy sold-out show, I went and got dinner and then came back, sat on the floor right in front of her, and cried basically the whole time. (You can see my head in all of those videos linked above).
Well, she’s back, and she’s got a record deal and a stylist and a music video director and god knows what else, and it’s all looking shiny and good. I love that a lot of her new music is kind of about standing up for yourself, holding yourself sacred, against the jerks you may end up dating. I love Olivera’s sound, and a big part of that is her guitarist Milica Uzelac, who makes the most dreamy, complicated, provocative sounds I’ve ever heard a guitar make (of these three new songs, most apparent in “Dupe”). Can’t wait to see her again in 2022 and just vibe to “Lekcija o osečanjima.” I chose to feature “Drama Queen” because it has a special new music video, but also because I love the end: “Zar ne?” / “Isn’t it?”
9. Marina Satti – “PALI”
I actually listened to some Greek music this year that was not Sin Boy.
Marina Satti is an amazing artist with top-notch training. She often combines elements of traditional Greek/Balkan/etc. music with contemporary elements. In this song, I just love the powerful softness of her voice with the intensity of the beat. Then later in the song when she builds in just a few harmonies, it brings the entire drama of the song – just enough so that the cup is brimming, about to overflow, but never does. This music video is also really fabulous. The shots, choreography, and styling are great, but it also shows a sequence of different symbols of the life of a woman that would be recognized and identified with by women throughout the Ottoman ecumene. I’m just going to leave you with one more of her songs, which is totally and utterly beautiful.
10. Muha – “Claut”
Let’s follow that with my upstart of the year, MUHA. I loved getting deep into Zoi and tam this year, but Muha is the one who stole my heart with that little fly image on the cover of her debut EP, Identitet.
A doctor in training from France making hip hop for Bassivity from Sarajevo, with the coolest look on your Instagram feed, that is Muha. She’s not just a cool girl, though: she’s got awesome beats and a delivery that is delectable. Her lyrics aren’t surface-level, either. In “Claut,” she sings about how some people will do anything for status. In “Identitet,” she raps about how people want her to pick an identity, a language, but, she says in Spanish, “No tengo límites”: “I don’t have limits.”
11. Three Albanian vacation songs
This year, all my dreams came true: I went on vacation on the Albanian coast. The main reason I have been dreaming of this for so long is that I wanted to hear Albanian pop music in one of its most important habitats, the beach. And boy, did I. These are my 3 favorite tunes, which I bumped in our rental car as we drove extremely winding roads overlooking the most gorgeous coastline.
Butrint Imeri x Kida x Ledri Vula – “DALE”
I absolutely love this song. It is so fun, and what is even more fun is the music video, where you get to see three extremely gorgeous and well-coordinated pals just goofing off on a golf course. I’m not going to brag, but my comment saying just that on the YouTube video has made me low-key famous, receiving 493 likes and 21 comments as of the time of publishing this.
Elvana Gjata – "LOTI"
I don’t know what to say about this song, other than it is a pop masterpiece. It was stuck in my head the entire drive from the beach to Gjirokaster, where I spent a few nights (and got to hear këngë labe in its element (I had to mention that, you know it)). No, but this song showcases Gjata’s pop songwriting prowess and her technical vocal dominance of the scene. That “uj uj uj uj” part is so emotive, so challenging.
Alban Ramosaj, “Shpirto”
This has got to be one of the best voices in pop music today. In this song, Ramosaj controls his voice very carefully, never diminishing his power but showing off different facets of it based on the melodic or lyrical moment. I love when he tosses an English, “Look,” at the beginning of an otherwise Albanian line, and when he shouts a perfectly calibrated “Hey!” after singing the soaring line, “Shpirto.” And this song is so, so catchy. It’s coupled with a sexy wild west themed music video, which I would argue also has some Turkish soap elements in the way it’s composed, styled, and filmed.
12. Zorica Dubljević – “Sečer mujo”
I learned this song from Damir Imamović, who I was lucky enough to take a workshop from this year. You may remember that his song “Kafu mi draga ispeci” was on my list last year; well, this year I worked with him! I had the most amazing two weekends with him and a group of other talented and interesting musicians, learning all about sevdalinka. I also finally got my hands on his book, Sevdah, this year, and read it in two great gulps on a trip to Mostar. I love his philosophy about sevdah, which is basically that the music we call traditional today is always reinterpreted in the social and cultural context that it is performed anew in, and that this is a good thing. I mean, me walking down streets throughout the world singing “Sečer mujo” several keys lower than Dubljević probably isn’t what anyone ever had in mind when they wrote the song. But that’s what I’ve done since I learned it; I hope I get to perform or record it one day. And Imamović would concede that an American girl like me with sevdah in her heart could do it.
13. Vocal quartet “ABAGAR” – “Shopski pripevki”
In my singing class this year, we learned – or, started to learn – a Bulgarian song that was stuck in my head for a few weeks. It’s definitely going to take a long while more to get this one down, as you can see from the video below, but it’s going to be worth it. The song is not actually called “Shopski pripevki”; “Shopski” refers to the Shop region of Bulgaria, and “pripevki” is a type of song. (Interestingly and unintentionally, both of the Bulgarian songs mentioned in this list are from Shop). I love the part that is so fast, even the singers cannot properly pronounce the words (neither can I, though I practice). And the ending is majestic.
This one also has a modern interpretation, although it’s not as good as “Një herë e mirë (Vaccine),” tbh. I think that’s partially because the song is really the feature; there’s not that much artistry in the combining of the song with other elements. There’s quite a lot of this type of Bulgarian music (“trap,” they’re calling it, although really?) on YouTube, and I wonder what it’s deal is.
14. Sallahane 05
I am not even sure this song has a name, to be honest. It might be “Ghetto,” but I can’t actually tell. It is too good to have a name, too good to be featured on this blog.
This song was shown to me by one of my friends and collaborators (Danny). I have a lot to say about it (in comparison to some other music), but I will leave it for a time when I can more eloquently say what I mean to say. The beat speaks for itself.
15. “Fërfëlloj thëllënza n'ujë” – learned from Merita Halili
I joined the East European Folklike Center’s online camp this summer, but I could only make it to one session. That was, of course, Merita Halili’s session, an Albanian singer I have been obsessed with since I heard her famous song, “Doli Goca n'penxhere” a few years ago. I love her voice, which is so different from mine, and I love her cheerful and professional presence. She taught us two songs, including this one, which is from Tirana and meant to be sung just by one voice.
Raif also joined the session, which was very special, as we got to hear the two of them sing and play together right on Zoom. Since a person can only live in one place, it’s great to have access to all these wonderful musicians through online sessions, although I will jump at the chance to work with them in person if it is ever presented to me (*universe, talking to you*).
16. Adria TV
So, Emily, why are there no songs from Montenegro on this list? Well, when I was in Montenegro this year, I did not catch any classic Montenegrin tunes, but I spent an entire night watching Adria Music Television. And boy, what an interesting experience that was. In contrast to other regional music stations such as Balkanika, this one has a special focus on the Adriatic region, and the type of music played is, well, specific to that region. Think lots of tamburicas, pop klapa, and videos shot on the beach. It is, surprise, surprise, a Slovenian station. Although not the most pleasant experience, I will definitely do it again next summer.
17. Sytë featuring Qendresa, “Up in the Air”
I spent a lot of time listening to Sytë’s album Divine Computer this year, with its dreamy, glittery synths that sound like what people in 2021 think people in the ‘60s thought the future would be like. It was perfect for making all the time I spent lounging around the house seem more glamorous and profound. This Prishtina-based band performs primarily in English. Their frontwoman Nita Kaja is of Albanian heritage but grew up in New York; on a visit to Kosovo a few years ago she just decided to stay. Which is cool for us, because now we get this great music. Qendresa is another Albanian heritage artist, but she grew up in London. Just another piece of evidence, in case you needed one, that Albanian diaspora girls can make MUSIC. The thing I like most about this song is their voices, which are so different from each other but share a common soulful thread, and how their voices change throughout the song’s different parts to highlight the different emotional spaces the lyrics take them to.
18. Sara Renar – Šuti i pjevaj
I actually did listen to a lot of Croatian music this year courtesy of some “new music” playlists I started following, but out of it all Sara Renar was my favorite. Her 2021 album Šuti I pjevaj is a layered, ethereal soundbath that occasionally sparks in its own darkness.
The first track off of the album is “Hana Je Već Dugo Budno,” (below) which features so many different elements expertly woven together: whispers, horns, synths, layered harmonies, interjecting backing vocals, etc. This moves into “Marija Budi Oprezna,” a song that opens with a heartbeat and deep-voiced chanting, followed by a dance bass line and quick talk-singing, layered with effects. I don’t know whether to be comforted or scared, and that for me was the total beauty of Renar’s album, which should be listened to from beginning to end with no stops, multiple times.
I promised you more information about that jazz workshop I went to. I spent a week in Novo Mesto, Slovenia learning jazz from some of the region’s greatest. I had the best group of girls I could ask for to sing with, and we were blessed with the most fabulous and understanding mentor. Every night, we listened to concerts from Slovenian artists, mainly people who had studied jazz but then took that education and did something different with it. Interestingly, many of these artists were making music in English (a fact I would like to explore more, but which I hypothesize is related to jazz and/or the European music market), in what was for me pretty high-quality musicianship and performance but pretty standard writing. I enjoyed all of it, of course, but there was only one artist there that truly got my attention, and that was MaLinE. What a cool show. She also sang primarily in English, but I felt that she wove a lot of different references into her music that made it feel kind of global and yet unique. She also has a very sweet voice and interesting musical sensibilities, in terms of chords and harmonies. Here you can see a set similar to the one I watched (but without her wildest, coolest, most Ottoman-ecumene numbers, honestly), on a too-cold summer night in the very quaint town of Novo Mesto.
20. Lil Nas X – “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”
I’m not kidding. Lil Nas X’s triumphant and controversial return, which has cemented him as a real artist and not just a one-hit-wonder – it’s a song of the Ottoman ecumene (more or less).
You may have heard that clapping beat, guitar part, and strange stringed instruments and thought of flamenco, and you would be almost right. But not. I spent several weeks dancing to this song, thinking about how good it was, thinking about how well it mixed with my other music, but it actually took an episode of Switched on Pop to crack it open fully for me. Charlie (of the podcast) talks to musician and researcher Gal Kadan and the song’s producers Take A Daytrip and uncovers the possible lineage of these production choices. I cannot do justice to the whole story in this little blurb; I would encourage you to take a listen if you are interested. The one-line explanation is that this sound can be traced back to Mizrahi music, which had influences from many different places (including Greece and the bouzouki) and used middle eastern scales (many of which are those used in Ottoman and Turkish music). (The song itself is in the Phrygian mode, for the nerds out there, which was previously considered devilish by western classical music although very similar to a perfectly acceptable Turkish makam which I believe is known as kurd.) They mention that this scale is “even in Balkan music.” Wow, even there?! Thus, these musical choices may highlight the “going down to the devil” message of the song, evoking a feeling of “otherness” in the American pop audience.
21. Дeva – “Witchcraft”
I found this song through a Facebook suggested article. It’s HUNGARIAN. I’m still putting it here. I had the opportunity to perform in Vojvodina this year, and I am thinking more and more about the space Hungary occupies in this whole musical picture. Certainly the Ottoman ecumene stretches to Hungarian music, in some way, just a way as of yet not uncovered by me. This song is in conversation with a lot of the other music I’m listening to, with a lot of what this project is, sonically. You will notice immediately the use of a Hungarian folk vocal motif throughout, combined with uber modern, sparse electronic beats, synths, and Дeva’s silky 2021 voice leading the main melody. This is definitely one very cool way to do it.
And I thought about putting “Bile Bile” by Karya Çandar on this list but I restrained myself.