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Aj, od kako sam sevdah svez’o (1)

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

The first song in Velika Narodna Lira, which is organized in alphabetical order, is “Aj, od kako sam sevdah svez’o.” It is a sevdalinka, or sevdah song. This is evident from use of the word sevdah in the first line (which typically functions as the title). This is a genre of music that has typically been associated with the urban Muslim culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also associated with slow tempos, a minor sound, elaborate vocal ornamentation, and melancholic themes about romantic love and longing (Efendić 2015). Certain characteristics are typically attributed to sevdalinka: it can be sung in unison or harmony; it is most often composed in decasyllable verses; it can be performed with or without musical instruments (commonly the saz); and its melodies usually include augmented second intervals, the Mixolydian mode, major and harmonic minor scales with the final on the second degree, chromatic alteration, melismas, and long phrases that span a wide range of notes (Maglajlić 2011, Pennanen 2010). The word sevdah comes to Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian from Arabic, via Ottoman (sevda), and describes a powerful emotion, one that can be loosely translated into English as: love, passion, intense longing, despair, melancholy, spleen, or black bile (Efendić, Pennanen). The songs themselves tend to deal with related themes. Efendić quotes Myhsin Rizvić’s 1963 essay, “Olged o Sevdalinci” (“An Essay on the Sevdalinka”): “The sevdalinka, therefore, is not just a song about love, it is a song about sevdah” (Efendić 2015). But sevdah and the music named for the term is not as straightforward as this modern packaging would indicate. Many contemporary researchers of sevdalinka are engaged with questions around its definition, development, and associations with certain national groups. For example, sevdalinka itself is a new name (mid-19th century): formerly, the music was referred to as sevdalija, or turčija, both of which call to mind its connection to the Ottoman presence in the area today known as the Balkans (Efendić, Pennanen). Although some who put a critical eye to previous definitions of sevdah have nevertheless concluded that the genre is an important form of Bosnian “intangible cultural heritage” (Efendić 2015), other recent academic work has called into question the history of sevdah as it is told today. This includes its “belonging” to Bosnia and Herzegovina and in turn to the Bosniak people (Muslim citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Some authors claim that in its modern history, it has become rather a regional music that has been performed, listened to and influenced by the entire region (Korozog and Bartulović 2016). I have found mention of sevdalinka associated with the Vranje area of southern Serbia, which appears to be independent of or to have developed in parallel with the tradition developed in the territory of Bosnia.


Pennanen posits that the discourse surrounding sevdalinka has in effect orientalized it, thus serving both colonialist and nationalist aims (2010). Rasmussen has examined how sevdah has gone through a process of “cultural authentication” in order to nationalize the genre, which has included a sort of “revivalist movement” of performing sevdah in the way it was historically played as well as arrangements for symphony orchestras (2007). Contemporary composers have also transposed the genre into “newly-composed folk music” and what she calls “sevdah-rock.” In her view, the sevdah we hear today is rather a part of an identity-formation process, one of contemporary people attempting to reach back into the past to answer contemporary questions. Further discussion on this is for a longer blog post, or perhaps an essay. Yet this debate is highly relevant to understanding sevdah songs in their modern context. Many contemporary sevdah performers, such as Damir Imamović, Amira Medunjanin, Božo Vrećo, and Divanhana, actively engage with this debate—about what sevdah is and who it represents—in various ways. The lyrics to the song are as follows (English translation by me, an amateur translator, so comments welcome):


Aj otkako sam sevdah svez'o Nikad rahat nisam bio – Aj, dertli sam ti i suviše, Od sevdaha sve bi pio! Aj, lutao sam svud po svijetu, Kao pčela po cvijetu, Aj, vidio sam svega dosta, Al' mi na te merak osta! Aj, ima l’igdje išta slađe Od šerbeta najslađega, Aj, što daju usta tvoja, Čuj, Merimo, dušo moja?

 

Aj, since sevdah bound me

I have never been comfortable –

Aj, I am too full of emotion for you,

Sevdah, I’d drink it all up!


Aj, I wandered everywhere in the world,

Like a bee to a flower,

Aj, I saw enough of everything,

But the desire for you remains!


Aj, is there anything sweeter anywhere

Than the sweetest sherbet,

Aj, that they give to your mouth,

Do you hear, Merima, my soul?

 

The most popular recording, according to its 16.4 thousand YouTube views, is that of Safet Isović, from 1982.

It appeared on his 1982 album, Sevdalinke, from the label Diskoton. Another recording of Isović’s, along with Sextet D. Radetica, is from 1962. The description below the video says this is the first of three different interpretations Isović did of the song.


Zaim Imamović’s recording, with 7,000 views, actually has a music video (year unknown): Imamović sings in a park with red flowers and passersby strolling fuzzily in the background.

The song was the title track on his 1988 compilation, from Jugoton. This more cheerful recording from Imamović is here. It had appeared previously on his 1975 album released by PGP RTB. Imamović and Isović are widely known as some of the most legendary figures of sevdah.


The earliest recording I have found, however, is Edo Ljubić, from 1941. According to the description on the YouTube video, Ljubić recorded in Chicago with the Balkan Tamburitza Orchestra. Finally, we have versions from Nedeljko Bilkić (1980), Mile Janjić, Zekerijah Djezić, and Himzo Polovina.


Most contemporary versions of the lyrics note the first word as Haj, as opposed to Aj. The “h” sound is typically associated with how people living in the current territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina pronounce words (Alexander 2006). Among other small variations, other versions of the song contain the word “tertli” instead of “dertli” in the first stanza, the fourth line of the first stanza replaced by “od derta bih suze lio,” and in the third stanza the first line replaced by “Haj nisam pijo slađeg pića.”


As with most folk songs, specific information about the song’s origins is not available online. It seems that the song is primarily seen today as a classic, interpreted by some of the sevdah greats. This song, of course, in its form and content, is consistent with the genre elements mentioned above.


In particular, the song’s lyrics are worth highlighting here. They echo the Rizvić quote noted at the beginning: “The sevdalinka, therefore, is not just a song about love, it is a song about sevdah.


“Aj, od kako sam sevdah svez’o” is, quite literally, a sevdalinka about sevdah—the music, the emotion or both—and its power to take hold of one’s life with a sort of sweet and necessary, but also deeply sad, troubling and unshakeable, feeling of desire and longing. The text contains a few classic sevdah words (of Ottoman origin) that reinforce this internal reference to the genre: rahat (comfortable), dertli (emotion, sorrow, grief; for more on dertli/tertli, see Ramiz Hadžibegović, Privilegija zrelog doba), merak (worrying, hope), and šerbet (a sugar water drink popular in the Ottoman empire).


 

You can find a collection of all the songs from Velika Narodna Lira that are available on Spotify on my playlist.