The word "sevdah" is understandable all over the Balkans. In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is used to describe the musical genre of love songs specific for the country's captivating amalgamate of Near Eastern, Mediterranean, and Slavic sound imbued with refined Slavic lyricism. To the Western audience, it's often introduced as the Balkan blues, and the equivalent of the Portuguese fado or Spanish flamenco. All of these musical genres are actually related bearing roots in Arabic courtly love songs from a millennium ago. On this same note, the eternal ambassadors of music, the Roma (Gypsy) musicians should be mentioned. Roma musicians were the midwives that helped deliver all of the four sisters. These caravan musicians spread many fine tunes all over the Balkan peninsula and elsewhere and gave their own contribution to the music of this extremely colorful part of the world.
The Significance of Music
Before I begin, allow me to pose a few questions: Dear reader, what is music to you? Do you listen, or perhaps play an instrument? How important is music to your life? How often do you find yourself listening to a song that describes you, your situation, or just something relatable? Do you listen to songs you know well? Or ones in another language, a melody from somewhere far away. What I’m trying to ask is, how much is music entangled in your culture?
As Daniel Levitan, an American Neuroscientist and musician states, “Whenever humans come together for any reason, music is there [...] weddings, funerals, graduation from college, men marching off to war, stadium sporting events, a night on the town, a prayer, a romantic dinner [...] music is and was [always] part of the fabric of everyday life.”(Mbe). Music is so crucial to us because of the ways in which is connects us. It is constantly a part of our lives, from what we hear on the radio, to the songs we hum to ourselves. It would be near impossible to truly observe all the ways in which our lives are impacted by the music we hear daily.
A scientific study entitled “Cross-cultural perspectives on music and musicality” states that
“While there is no inter-culturally valid definition of music, and the cover term music is found in only selected cultures, a number of presumptive universals indicate that musicality is a prominent and distinctive characteristic of humankind. All peoples engage in activities that we would call music, often in relation to play, and everywhere in relation to ritual.”
Music is in fact crucial to the human experience. It is, essentially, ingrained into the way that we function. As stated in the study, all people engage in musical activities - singing, humming along to a song, or even simply listening, it is still a part of the way that we go through our day and process our emotions. The authors continue,
“All peoples of the world sing, an activity recognized on the basis of context or by cultural consensus as different from speech. All peoples have some form of instrumental music as well, however rudimentary.” (Trehub, Sandra E, et al.)
And while music exists among all people, not all people’s music is the same. Songs often differ in sound and structure drastically from one culture to the next. Different scales, modes, chord structures are harnessed to create different sounds and atmospheres. Think for a moment of what you consider a traditionally east asian sound in music. Certain modes and pentatonic, or five note, scales often come to mind, creating what a western listener may perceive as “pretty” or “floating” because this person’s ear has grown used to the V, I chord structure of European music - a tension, release formula that we have become accustomed to since the baroque era. Now think of a middle eastern sound. The unique sound of these cultures comes from the use of harmonic minors in their scales (Sideways, Hartwell)
Commonly, cultures will use music to express their outlooks and beliefs. Music can be used by a group of people to unite over shared experience as well, with lyrics tying back to hardships faced by the community as a whole. And yet, while our culture shapes our music in terms of themes, emotions, and lyrics, our music shapes our culture through the sound
Now imagine if you were displaced from your country. You cannot return home because of a dire situation, yet you are also in a new environment, forced to adjust to your new situation. Perhaps this is the first time you truly realize the comfort of music and the atmosphere of community performances can bring.
People are united through culture. It is undeniably an inextricable portion of our lives. There are hundreds, if not thousands of elements that come together to make up any culture, yet song and dance have always served a pivotal role. They help to build connections; a sense of community. It is the goal of Sevdah North America to reunite a displaced people through their shared cultural connections, and preserve Bosnian culture in America.
During the 90s, civil war broke out in former Yugoslavia. A community was torn apart as lines were formed based on ethnicity and religion. Nearly two million people were displaced, many of whom fled to other countries. After a traumatic experience, countless people were forced away from family homes and into unfamiliar places where they may not even speak the language.
In order to help unite and repair the Bosnian community, Sevdah North America was created first with the intention of helping a fractured people come back together, to share a comforting and familiar experience many otherwise believed they had lost. Now, it exists to celebrate and preserve Bosnian culture throughout North America by supporting grassroots organizations, and local talents. Sevdah performances and events help tie Bosnian immigrants and their descendants back to their roots, but they also serve as a chance for everyone to learn about a rich and unique culture interactively.
Hartwel, Evelyn. “Music Theory.” 10 Mar. 2019.
Mbe, Vikas Shah. “The Role of Music in Human Culture.” Thought Economics, 29 Aug. 2017, http://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-music-in-human-culture/.
Sideways, director. Why Miyazaki's Films Sound Pretty. YouTube, YouTube, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bZ19hnr8vc.
Trehub, Sandra E, et al. “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Music and Musicality.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 19 Mar. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321137/.