aka Hit by Lightening!
I could never have imagined what was waiting for me in Bosnia. Armed with an official invitation from the Sevdah Institute in Visoko, I thought I was going to take lessons with various singers over the month of July, study the language in my room every day like a good student and do some sight seeing. Nothing could have been prepared me for just how far reality exceed these expectations. Mr. Omer Pobric, founder and director of the Sevdah Institute, living legend of sevdah, brilliant artist, story teller, and family man, pulled out all the stops and each day was like a feature film. Album of photos is available here. War related photos are here.
The first night set the stage for this magic. After traveling from Seattle through Detroit, Amsterdam, Zagreb and finally to Sarajevo, I was completely beat and had two things in mind - a shower and a bed. Instead, I was greeted by dear Semir Vranic at the airport with the news we were going to the first birthday party of Mr. Pobric's grandson Ali. About an hour later, in an altered state of exhaustion and exhilaration, I found myself sitting next to the beloved singer Kadira Cano who was singing her heart out, everyone joining in, in the bosom of the Pobric family, in beautiful Bosnia, with night falling and a crescent moon in the sky. Sevdah in context! Heaven!
Now get ready for your hair to stand on end! By the time I hit the bed in the cardak (old folk style house pictured here) I slept as if in a coma. In the middle of the night a dramatic storm rolled in. Crashing thunder. The antiques, rich carpets, copper pots, instruments all illuminated by flashes of lightening. Was I dreaming or was it real? It really wasn't clear. Then something went BUMP in the night, literally. Again, did I dream it? When I arose from my bed the next morning, there was a book lying open in the middle of the room....it was the Koran...open to the page that reads: 'You are on the right path. Stay on this path.'
I can tell you every hair on every part of my body stood straight up! What an incredible sign from God! From that moment I relaxed and knew I was where I was supposed to be. (It also assuaged a good dose of guilt I was feeling about leaving my three children and husband for five weeks!)
Singing was the thread that ran through the fabric of experiences. All month, singers arrived at the Sevdah Institute to record the song they would perform at the second Sevdalinka Festival of Bosnia and Herzegovina on July 31 as part of the Bascarsija Nights festival in Sarajevo. I learned so much about styling, pronunciation, breathing, and other technical aspects of sevdah from this exposure. Beyond being truly fine sevdah singers, they were all dear warm people. What a privilege to sit in their recording sessions and then share coffee and conversation. They ranged in age from 10 to over 60, were from all cultures and religions of Bosnia, and from all parts of the country.
My first Sunday in Bosnia I participated in the first of three rehearsals for the concert. Can you imagine what a thrill it was to sing with the 20-piece orchestra in Bosnia with these stars? Can you imagine what an honor to be singing a song Mr. Pobric wrote for me? It was simply unbelievable!
Sevdah is not particularly popular in Bosnia, though everyone seems to love it. In many people's minds, it is extremely undervalued and undersupported. When Mr. Pobric found I could sing and learned quickly, he immediately saw a golden opportunity to promote sevdah and the Sevdah Institute. I was an "attraction." His constant mantra was: "An American woman traveled over 20,000 kilometers and left her three children to learn about sevdah and Bosnia." I have never seen anyone pull out the stops as he did. He arranged and recorded the cd, filmed video spots for each track on the cd, arranged numerous media features on tv, radio and print, took me to various Bosnian cultural events, and all the while preparing for the major concert along with his regular musical work including a performance for five days in Brioni, Croatia. It was incredible.
Recording the cd was an interesting and efficient process. Mr. Pobric composed and recorded on synthesizer all the musical tracks for a particular song. He then sang and recorded the text on top of that and gave me a tape from which to practice in the cardak. He gave me a tape recorder which had handy fast forward and backward buttons. I probably drove the neighbors crazy going back and forth over a particular ornament or phrasing a thousand times. After 2-3 hours, I returned to the studio which is on the ground floor of the Pobric home, and we would record.
It was extremely rewarding working with Mr. Pobric. He is a literate and facile musician, and knows how to work with singers very well. He finds the margin of a singers' ability. It is not always comfortable, but he gets the best from everyone. He coached and encouraged the emotional side of the performance, as well.
Mr. Pobric must have an IQ that tips the scale. Not only is he a composer, performer, author, foundation director, cook, house builder, electrician, and more, he is also a recording engineer. He knew that system inside and out. He also is extremely computer savvy. I couldn't have been more impressed that he was able to turn out this cd in a mere four weeks.
Beyond preserving and promoting sevdalinke, the mission of the Sevdah Institute is to raise the intellectual level of sevdah. There is a 'country hick' association which is not consistent with the historical roots of the urban genre of sevdah. To this end, Mr. Pobric actively searches for singers and musicians with advanced degrees. Our recording reflects another method to raise sevdah's level. Mr. Pobric altered the scan of the words sung in order to better reflect the spoken pattern of speech. My recording may sound strange to people familiar with these old songs. In fact, Mr. Pobric said that he could not do this work with Bosnian singers because they were so ingrained in singing one way. I am concerned that listeners will think I am making mistakes just because I am not a native speaker. I have already heard that reaction, however I have also seen native speakers shout out, "Yes! Yes! I see what he is doing and it's right on!"
Mr. Pobric believes that sevdah should and does evolve. When you listen to old recordings you do hear them as old fashioned. Styles and approaches do change. The issue of sevdah's evolution is a heated one. To some ears, Mostar Sevdah Reunion is revitalizing sevdah through their approach or evolution, by bringing in Roma and jazz influences. Young people enjoy this more contemporary approach. To another, their approach is inappropriate. You find as many opinions as breathtaking views in Bosnia.
The Institute, by the way, is located in the village of Mulici. I awoke every morning to the sounds of housewives sweeping their walks, children playing, cows and chickens making their comforting noises. What a dream to be in this isolated environment to concentrate on the music and get a taste of village life in Bosnia (even though one morning at 2:00 AM I was awakened by a car blaring wild kafana music with a load of young men calling my name underneath my window for about 20 minutes!).
At some point in the recording process, Mr. Pobric arrived at the idea to create music videos on location for the tracks on the cd which are being broadcast on tv in Bosnia. The locations were selected to be in harmony with the song text. The most unforgettable was the one filmed for the song "Mila majka salji me na vodu" in (yes 'IN') the Fojnica River near Visoko. It was a gorgeous spot, the river tumbling down in light rapids with two picturesque old mills on either shore, and green green green all around. Two unsuspecting fishermen were quickly recruited to help me step through the water to some rocks in the river. As with each of the video spots, two cameras, operated by the handsome and charming Esmer and Hasan, filmed the song three times. The boom box was started, cameras rolled and Mr. Pobric and I performed. It was a dream! We shot spots in a number of places including the cardak where I stayed, the Pobric courtyard, in a lavishly decorated home, and a 100+ year old village house complete with chickens running around, and finally, particularly moving to me, a neighbor's field.
Why was this one so moving? This song, Negdje u daljine (text by Rade Jovanovic, d.1986), was the one I sang in Richland, Washington, when Gordana from Mostar rose to her feet, tears streaming down her face, arms outstretched in a beseeching gesture. It was at that moment I knew I could not sing for Bosnian refugees without going to the source of the music and experiencing the soul of Bosnia; to see the sun filtering through leaves, to hear children's voices at play, to see the towns they so tragically had to flee. The text of the song is so poignant: 'A heart longs for the warm embrace of a sweetheart in a land far away. Distance has separated many hearts. Is your heart still faithful or does love die into silent oblivion?' I stood in the field, looking out into the sky over the mountains to the west thinking about all the refugees who are longing for someone on Bosnian soil. The long rows of plowed furrows, the blue sky, the golden light, the song. It was overwhelming.
That particular field belongs to a family in the village pictured to the left. Their story is a compelling one like so many in Bosnia. Due to a series of unfortunate events, they became extremely poor. Poverty is real in Bosnia. As Zlata Pobric put it, "For some people war was luck; for others war was war." It was war for this family. The wife invited me for coffee one day. They do not have water so she must haul it every day. They have only one light bulb. They eat mainly fish from the river, milk from their one cow, and a few eggs. Her daughter 10-year old daughter stoked the fire and made thick sweet Bosnian coffee. The wife spoke of her life with a courage that was truly inspiring. At the end of our visit she gave me two pillowcases embroidered by her grandmother. Though she had nothing, she still gave me this gift. I left dazed and barely made it back to the cardak before weeping at this example of humanity and giving.
Bosnia has a strong core value of hospitality and generosity. Take for instance the Sevdah Institute:
And speaking of kindness, composer Tomislav Uhlik spent a very uncomfortable night on the overnight bus from Zagreb so we could spend two short but sweet hours together in Sarajevo. Mr. Uhlik is the composer of "Narodil se Mladi Kralj," the focus of a 2-year musical project in Seattle. I was hit by lightening the first time I heard his composition, decided right then and there we were going to do it here in Seattle, and devoted myself to that goal. Tomislav and I have remained fast friends ever since. It was wonderful to reminisce about the magic of Narodil. His work gave meaning and depth to the lives of everyone it touched. There was a real feeling of divinity throughout the entire project. Tomislav looks great, as handsome as ever, has many commissions for new compositions, and all his family members are healthy. It was simply smashing to see him, though WAY too short!
I learned sevdah is far more than the music. Sevdah is the ambient of Bosnia. It is its joys and sorrows. It is the unprecedented beauty of the land. Its delicious food. It is the closeness of family and friends. It is the experience of war, loss and displacement. It is the beauty of a woman. The light in a lovers' eyes. It is love blossoming and lost. It is pain. It is joy. It is the resiliency of people from the horror of war. I will never understand completely because I wasn't born Bosnian, but these generous people gave me a look inside sevdah that will inform every note I sing. My own story of loss and displacement as a child resonates deeply with the music and the people. I felt I had found home at last.
Along with all the depth of feeling, was sheer excitement and fun. I will never ever forget the sight of what appeared to be all of Sarajevo in front of me from the stage at the Bascarsija Nights concert on July 31. At one point, the film crew turned the spotlight on the audience to get some shots of the huge crowd clapping and shouting their approval. That sight with the beautiful and tragic national library behind was a moment of crystalline purity. And the celebrity was a real hoot! It was exciting to be recognized on the street after having been on tv a number of times. It was exciting to have callers from all over the world to the various radio programs I was on give me the thumbs up. It was thrilling to read emails from all over the world that came to the Institute after TV HAYAT satellite broadcast their program about me. Simply unbelievable! True love! True magic!
Now I am on a mission....to publicize and promote sevdah and Bosnia here in the west. Bosnian people said so many times, "The world has forgotten us." No, it hasn't!!! I will use my resources and contacts to bring sevdah, beautiful Bosnia, Bosnian hospitality and soul into the mainstream. The world needs to know your story. There is healing and compassion in your experiences. There is wisdom and comfort. If my presence at concerts in Bosnia and in diaspora communities around the world brings more exposure to sevdah and inspires Bosnians and others to get involved and preserve the musical jewels of sevdalinke, I am ready! People going through war and pain can, by your example, learn that music is a comfort and refuge in hard times. It is a good and timely message for the world today.