24 Nice Things From the Ottoman Ecumene that I Listened to in 2020 (In No Particular Order)
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
Writing a list instead of a real first blog post is kind of like easing into the ocean by standing in the shallows for five minutes, letting the small waves lap around your ankles, convincing yourself you’ll get used to the cold water and eventually dive in. Maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. I usually do. But it’s important to get used to new things, and so, here we are, with a list.
But this is not just any list – this is a list that I made of things I listened to from the Ottoman ecumene this year. One of the goals of this blog is to examine how music is part of real, lived experiences—starting with mine. This list is wacky, but it’s me. It’s what I lived this year. I wanted to write not just about things that were made in 2020, but about all the things I listened to in 2020 that had an impact on me, regardless of when they were made.
I listened to a lot, and there’s a lot I listened to that I couldn’t put on this list, but there are also a lot of things that I haven’t listened to. Let me know in the comments what nice things from the Ottoman ecumene you listened to this year!
1. Yours Truly – EP – Rinesancë
Rinesancë (Rinesa Qeriqi) is a young rapper / hip-hop artist from Kosovo, currently living in Canada. I found her a few years ago on Instagram, when her name was “balkanest” (as in, “I’m the most Balkan”; she’s since changed it to her new artist name), and have been lapping up the freestyles she posts. My fandom was taken to new heights this summer, when I watched the live Facebook concert she held as part of Dokufest's DokuNights. It was me and all the youths in the comments section, posting fire emojis. In August, she released her full, six-song EP and it did not disappoint. Rinesancë represents a young, Internet-savy, queer Kosovo that draws its inspiration from everywhere, and she’s writing about things like emigration, loneliness, confidence, and other stuff I can’t translate yet.
2. “Zena od Sultana” – Tijana eM
The song that swept the world – or, my world, at least – in 2020! This song really was a phenomenon, and for a good reason. It also comes along with an excellent video, which seems like the premise for a delicious TV show. (Thankfully, rumor is there’s a second part in the works!) Tijana eM (Tijana Milentijević) is a 21-year-old singer and former Zvezda Grande (a Serbian American Idol-style music television show) finalist who burst back onto the scene with this firework of a song this summer. It's about a forbidden and dangerous affair – the singer is the “žena od sultana,” or “woman of the sultan,” but she wants another man simply because it’s not allowed. The song has a lot of musical elements (a zurna-sounding instrument, a slow beat, vocal ornamentation, the bass line) that reinforce this “sultan” aesthetic (I couldn't help thinking of the Turkish TV show Magnificent Century (2011-2014) about the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, which was widely popular throughout the Ottoman ecumene). I literally could not stop listening to it for a week straight. Warning: I may be a little more enthusiastic than most. I even recommended it to Jon Caramanica of The New York Times. I would like to thank my friend Lela for sending me this song.
3. “Maca” – Artan Lili
This might be my favorite song on this list. Turn the volume all the way up and dance around your room feeling like a badass. Or at least, that’s what I do. The opening lines alone are enough to be your life motto: “Možda sam nezaposlena / Ali nisam besposlena žena” – “Maybe I’m unemployed / but I’m not an idle woman.” But it gets better: “Maca uvek dobije / ono sto poželi” – “The cat always gets / what it wants.” You are that cat. You get everything you want. I’m totally obsessed with the riff that runs throughout the song, the beat drop after the first chorus, the vocal effects they’ve got on lead singer Romana Slačala’s voice, and any time the whole band sings in unison. Artan Lili is an indie rock band from Belgrade.
4. Nišan Vo Selo, Suad Muška
In 2019, the young Suad Muška, member of a family of Gorani musicians from Kosovo, came out with an album. A proud owner of the CD, which was purchased for me in Dragash, Kosovo during the summer of 2019, I spent a lot of time listening to Muška’s music in 2020. The album has seven tracks, each of them replete with synthesizers and strong, slow beats, and his voice rings with reverb. The music strongly evokes summer weddings in Kosovo, and indeed, on YouTube there are videos of him playing at town dances and weddings, with his synthesizer and keyboard. I'm a Suad Muška fan. I would like to thank my friend and collaborator Danny for purchasing this CD for me.
5. “Shingjergjat po sillen”– Plator Gashi
On March 23, just as my quarantine started, Plator Gashi re-published this song on YouTube. I discovered it, and sang it every day due to its soothing, meditative quality. This is a folk love song that has been recorded by different artists throughout the years (i.e. Hashim Shala). It’s sung as winter encroaches, and at the end of Gashi’s version, the singer pleads, “If my father won’t give me to you, hit the road – but take me with you, dilber (dear), take me with you shiqer (sugar)!” I love how Gashi combines this folk text with a contemporary singer-songwriter sound – a beautiful but simple chord progression on an acoustic guitar and his warm vocals. He also adds in some cool echoes and birds chirping to give it the feel that you’re outside, enjoying the dying, end of autumn light in a field somewhere.
6. Three pop collaborations we’ve all been waiting years for:
“Genge” – Relja and Rasta
Relja and Rasta’s summer hit “Genge” was hailed as “the duet you’ve been waiting 10 years for.” And it’s really that good. Relja has been working with a video director Lana Pavkov on his recent videos, and her strange, somewhat grotesque, but always compelling concepts are really fun. This is my favorite one, especially the part with all the men in the tree. But you also get to see Rasta ride a bike, which is also great.
“Kamikaza” – Senidah, Jala Brat and Buba Corelli
With 83 listens in 2020 alone, “Kamikaza” was my most-listened song on Spotify. I’m not embarrassed – it’s a great pop song. I first heard it on my favorite TV station, the Bulgarian music channel Balkanika, while I was in Macedonia last winter. Even if you're not a fan of Jala Brat and Buba Corelli, Senidah, one of my favorite pop artists, takes this to the next level. I know all the words. Buy me Senidah’s tie-dye jumpsuit.
“Dobro Sam” – Emina and Edita
Emina and Edita! Why hasn’t this happened before? We all love longtime pop princess Emina Jahović, and Edita Aradinović started her successful solo career (RIP Ministarke) relatively recently, so it was just a matter of time before we saw them together. Both have had a few good hits already this year, and this groovy jam capped off their success in 2020.
7. “The Journeys of Ottoman Greek Music” – Panayotis League, Ottoman History Podcast
Hidden in podcasts that are not explicitly about music are often amazing episodes on music. This year, I was sent an episode of the Ottoman History Podcast that was fascinating. Panayotis League is an ethnomusicologist studying the music of the Ottoman Greek diaspora, and this podcast is an interview with him about his work. It also includes fabulous clips of the music he’s been studying. It is a great perspective on the difficult-to-disentangle interconnections woven by musical actors and their music in the Ottoman ecumene. Thanks to my friend and collaborator Danny for sharing this with me.
8. “Veter” – Funk Shui
I had never heard of Funk Shui, a band from Skopje, before a few months ago. But everything about this indie rock song really grabbed me and shook me the first time I heard it. From the lead singer’s deep voice, to the cool guitar riffs, to the whispery background vocals, to the irresistible bass line, to the rhythmic changes. I can’t get enough of it. The lyrics are a bit esoteric, and it seems from the YouTube comments that I’m not alone in this assessment, but it seems the singer is singing about being the wind among the trees. I dig it. And the music video is really neat too. I can't wait to see what they do next.
9. “Svadba” – Emir Đulović and Rada Manojlović
This is a pop-folk song about an imaginary wedding, and it’s great. Đulović is one of the biggest folk stars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Manojlović has also had a very illustrious career as a folk singer in Serbia. Their duet starts with a bang: Emir wails, “Sanjao sam kako svadbu spremam…” – “I dreamed about having a wedding…” With this bit of refrain sung as an intro, we know we’re in for a song about a failed relationship. And then, he comes in with the first verse: “Bila si ti meni kao sluškinja” – “You were like my maid.” Which is one of the greatest opening lines of a song ever. But the song, and the video which goes along with it, are really about the woman’s power in the situation. Although the two sing the same chorus, they have different meanings: the man is angry that the woman left him alone, with no one to care for him, embarrassed; the woman is calling him an idiot for treating her like a maid, and saying his whole life has gone even more downhill since she left. She even seems to mock him for the fact that she won’t be at the wedding he’s been planning. The video shows scenes that evoke elements of traditional weddings in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia (and the Ottoman ecumene more broadly), but while Emir ends up drunk in a cart, Rada is dancing around in the courtyard with her friends and sisters looking hot and happy. The message? Dump the guy, you don’t need any idiots in your life. I want to recognize my friend and collaborator Emma for sending me this song while I was exhausted in Slovakia.
10. “So maki sum se rodila”
I first heard this song in rehearsal, sung by one of the girls in my singing group. When she sang, it was hard to focus on the lower part that I was supposed to be singing – she conveyed this deep, painful emotion in her voice throughout. Unfortunately, she hasn’t recorded it (yet), but this is the next best thing I can give you. It’s an incredibly sad song, (“со маки сум се родила” translates from Macedonian as something like, “I was born with troubles/plights/pain”), and the music also gives you that feeling. Listen to it as the sun is setting.
There are too many versions of this song to choose from. This is the one I find the most tear-inducing, with Edin Karamazov, a Bosnian lute player, and the harmonies of Klapa Cesarice.
Here is Karamazov with the famous Macedonian singer Kaliopi. Here is Esma Redžepova's version. And finally, here is a jazzy version by Macedonian band MusaiQ.
11. “I dalje” – sassja
Sassja’s 2015 song “Taktički Praktično” was the first song I ever learned in Bosnian, which is pretty impressive given what it is. Sassja (Sanela Josipović) is a rapper from Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she’s been making fun, smart, sassy reggae hip-hop with the recording studio and music collective FM JAM since 2014. I love Sassja’s music because she always has something poignant to say about the world we live in, and her delivery is irresistible. After having a baby last year, she’s returned to the scene. In her most recent single, “I dalje,” she says a lot of things but seems to indicate that we just keep going in this world we’re living in. The fun video features a lot of dancing in the empty streets of Tuzla, and amazing eye makeup.
12. Turkish songs I heard on TV shows
“Yetinmeyi Bilir Misin?” Sezen Aksu
Sezen Aksu is the queen of Turkish love songs. Her music is in all of the soap operas, and in one, a character even joked that one day, when she fell in love, it would be obvious because she would do nothing but listen to Sezen Aksu songs. Same. This song came out last year and is a very simple, very beautiful song about accepting what life gives us.
“Alev Alev” – Derya Yıldırım
On one of this year’s best Turkish TV shows, Menajerimi Ara (Call My Agent), Emir sings this song to the girl he has a crush on, Dicle, at a bar. This leads Barış, the other member of the love triangle, to start a fight with Emir out of jealousy! “Alev alev” means “in flames” – the singer is burning in the flames of love. Hence the intensity of Barış's jealousy. Originally sung by Feridun Düzağaç, I like this version by Derya Yıldırım, whose voice soars beautifully. Her version also has some rock guitar interspersed strategically with the piano, and this gives it the perfect little edge.
“Beni Boyle Sev” – Orhan Gencebay
I became infatuated with this 1977 song, the theme song of a Turkish soap called Beni Boyle Sev, or, Love Me as I Am. Orhan Gencebay is a renowned musician and composer in Turkey, and he has tens of albums. In the YouTube comments for this video, one user (icd 72) wrote, “… His songs belong to 60s/80s. İn Those periods Turkey was in a fast transformation. People [coming] from the villages flooded the cities especially İstanbul like big waves. They feel [alienated]. Orhan’s songs voice this pain.” I like to think about this listener interpretation as I listen to the song.
13. “Maria” – Relja
Formerly an actor and member of the group Elitni Odredi, Relja (Relja Popović) is now one of Serbia's most popular singers. I actually think he’s a really good actor, but after putting out hits like “Maria,” “Meduza,” and “Latino Evropa” in the last few years, I'm okay if he continues with his music career. This song is interesting because it is definitely engaging with the global Spanish-language music trend, which has been all the rage in the Ottoman ecumene, but in a bit of an unexpected way. We have the text, “Yo quiero quiero má, Yo quiero quiero má, Maria” (I want/love Maria, in Spanish) and a mention of Tijuana, but there’s no reggaeton beat or really any other instrumentation that is reminiscent of the current popular Spanish-language music. There’s just a thing that sounds like a xylophone and a trap beat. However, at the end we get a little electric guitar riff—Santana but toned down like a million. Interesting production choices, as well as another alluring, creepy video from Lana Pavkov and some of my favorite Relja dance moves ever.
14. Violeta Rexhepagiqi
When the Kosovo singer and journalist Violeta Rexhepaigiqi passed away on April 16, 2020, there was an outpouring of her music on social media and in the news. She was a rockstar in Yugoslavia during the ’80s, with music and style that has been described as “avant-garde” and “revolutionary.” Violeta represented Kosovo twice at Jugovizija, the contest to select Yugoslavia’s Eurovision representative. In 1986, she performed a song in Albanian, “Nora”, with Milica Milisavljević Dugalić, a singer from Kosovska Mitrovica. In 1987, she represented both of Kosovo’s submissions to Jugovizija: she sang “Nuk te harroj” in Albanian as a solo artist, and her band Vivien performed “Fedora” in Serbo-Croatian. I love this video for “Yjet,” which proves the thing I tweeted at Alex Marshall of The New York Times in response to his article, “Can a Music Festival Make Kosovo Cool?” a few years ago, which is that Kosovo has always been cool.
15. Darko Dimitrov as a child
Anyone who knows me knows I am an ardent follower of Darko Dimitrov’s career. This Skopje-based producer and arranger has been in the industry for years, and he is responsible for some of today’s greatest hits and many of the region’s songs that compete at Eurovision. He works with artists from Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Croatia, Turkey… This guy is everywhere. He’s like the pop node of the Ottoman ecumene. I will save the long explanation for another time, but this spring Dimitrov graced us with a rare video clip of him singing as a child, which is absolutely delightful.
16. “Kafu mi draga ispeci” – Damir Imamović
Damir Imamović’s album Singer of Tales (in reference to the classic Albert Lord book) is considered one of the best world music albums of the year. I spent most of the spring practicing his version of “Kafu mi draga ispeci” on my piano over and over again. You can listen to a recent interview Imamović gave on Sarajevo Calling to learn a little bit more about his philosophy and work—I’m so glad he’s making music and working to educate people about sevdalinka, a slow, urban song form which Bosnia and Herzegovina is known for. The best part of this song is how simple it is. It is really just a beautiful acoustic guitar, until the violin joins for an interlude and the other instruments quietly join for the second verse, and Imamović’s unique sevdah voice at its sweetest (especially when he sings “Ah, ja ću doći oko pola noći da legnem kraj tebe” – “Ah, I will come around midnight, to lie next to you.”).
17. Toše Proeski
I have known about Toše Proeski for a long time, but this year was the first time I sat down to really listen to his music. I can’t believe I waited so long. The multi-genre heartthrob from Prilep, tragically killed in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 26, is one of the most amazing singers I have ever heard. I cried profusely as I listened to this song.
And this one.
You can listen to his first-ever performance (1992) here, a children’s song called “Paplu a Meu” sung in Aromanian (which Proeski’s parents both spoke at home).
18. “Pishmon” – Kida and Mozzik
This list would not be complete without an Albanian pop song. This year, my favorite Albanian pop star was Kida. Pishmon is a great word that comes from the Turkish pişman and means something like “regretful.” The song itself is really simple – just a beat, a bass line, and occasionally some flute-like synthy sounds. Mozzik’s voice reminds me of a baseball pitch, if that makes any sense, and Kida’s also has that vibe (plus some butter, and occasionally some ocean mist), so I think this is a really great pairing in terms of blend and complementarity. The best part of the song is the chorus, which makes me want to dance all day long. “Oh veç a je pishmon-mon-mon-mon-mon / E kërkush vendin ton-ton-ton-ton-ton / Sun e zavendson-son-son-son-son / Veç a je pishmon, oh veç a je pishmon.” I don’t even need to translate it—you can already see why this might be catchy. (But it’s something like, “Oh just tell me that you regret it (are pishmon) / And no one else your place / Could ever replace / Just tell me that you regret it, tell me that you regret it”).
Skip to 3:23 for “Pishmon.”
19. “Leno le, Leno mome galeno”
This song was introduced to me by my good friend and collaborator Emma. It is a folk song often associated with Macedonian folklore, although it is performed by both Macedonian and Bulgarian groups and I wasn’t able to trace it to a more specific location using the tools available to me. The song is a back-and-forth between a woman, Lena, and a man, Stojan, as they discuss whether there are any girls available for Stojan. Although many girls want Stojan, Stojan finds Lena, his relative, beautiful. This is my favorite version.
20. Josipa Lisac sings the national anthem
Josipa Lisac, the legendary Croatian singer, was at the center of a very public controversy in February 2020. Lisac, who I fell in love with when I first hear her song “Magla,” was invited to perform the national anthem at the inauguration of the new Croatian president. Consistent with her unique vocals and performance style, Lisac gave the small audience present at the inauguration (as well as Croatian television) her version of the anthem, “Lijepa naša domovino.” Definitely stamped with her brand.
Unfortunately, some people thought this was disrespectful to the Croatian nation and one even sued her. The public at large seemed not to be too worried about it, and Lisac has progressed with her fabulous life and career.
21. “Djelem, djelem” – Saban Bajramovic
My friend and collaborator Danny shared this song with me after reading this excellent article. Rather than me expound on it here, you can read the article. But this song takes me back to the early fall, when we had a period of respite and I was able to move to Belgrade; when the sun was still shining but cooling off; when I was just passing through. “Djelem, djelem” means “I’ve traveled” or "I've been wandering" in Romani.
22. “Sto idej” – zalagasper
This song, a Christmas song, came to me close to the end of the year. I have woken up singing it every day for the last two weeks of December. I don’t listen to Slovenian music regularly, so I was really excited to find zalagasper, a duo who makes music together and is a real-life couple! (According to their Instagram). Most of their music is sad, computer-made bedroom pop, but this song has a little bit more of a classic, jazz feel to it. Zala’s soft, sliding voice and the swung beat lend a lot to this. With lyrics like, “Sto odej, zavila sem se kot burrito / S toplim čajem v miru berem dobro knjigo” – “A hundred blankets I wrapped myself into like a burrito / With warm tea I'm reading a good book in peace” and “Najlepše je, ko pademo si kot snežinke, točno na nos” – “It's the most beautiful thing when we fall like snowflakes right on each other's noses”, and an arrangement/production that sounds like snow falling and has the faintest hint of a jingle bell, I really think this is the only Christmas song I’ll ever need.
23. Washed by the Moon – Dan Shutt
This is a film, and not a piece of music, but it is a film about music! Washed by the Moon is a film about këngë labe, a form of iso-polyphonic singing in southern Albania performed primarily by men. I watched it in 2018 at the Dokufest film festival, but was excited to find that it is now on the internet for everyone to watch. The filmmaker Dan Shutt skillfully shows how the music is inspired by and fits into its surroundings in the Albanian hills, with the bells of sheep clanging, the brooks trickling, the bees buzzing, the wind whipping, animals calling. Perhaps my favorite part of the film is seeing how much the music means to those who sing it – from the older men who have become famous singing it, to the younger ones who are scrappily trying to prove themselves.
24. SUPER MENI / “Ne izlaziš mi iz glavi” – Luka Rajić
My absolute favorite discovery of the past few years has been the radio show SUPER MENI. SUPER MENI is a weekly top-40 list for indie and alternative music, broadcast out of Belgrade. The show covers indie music from everywhere – all over the world – but there’s a special focus on “regionalni” or “domaći” (regional or homemade) songs and artists. It has led me to discover an entire world of indie music happening in the former Yugoslavia. I like to sit on a Saturday or Sunday and just listen to a whole episode while I write or do chores, but I keep my phone close so I can Shazam everything.
This year, if there was one earworm I caught from SUPER MENI, it was Luka Rajic’s “Ne izlaziš mi iz glavi.” My favorite part about this song is the catchy, catchy chorus: “Zar tvoje oči nisu boje plave / Gledam te toliko često / Ne izlaziš mi iz glave / Sunce davno u nas / Utonulo je / I uvek kažeš kako vremena malo nam je” ("Aren't your eyes blue / I look at you so often / You don't leave my head / The sun has long been in us / It's sunk / And you always say how little time we have"). Especially when he sings “Utonulo je” with that little uptick. Plus, it’s true: we have such little time.