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Voices Spring-Summer 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “An Internet Tour of Bosnian Music” by Rick March here.
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Volume 34
Spring-Summer
2008
Voices

An Internet Tour of Bosnian Music by Rick March

If you happen upon a Bosnian community event, you’re likely to notice the aroma of grilling lamb or spiced sausage and hear the quavering voice of an impassioned singer accompanied by a small combo—typically a musician playing an Middle Eastern–sounding melody on an elaborate Korg synthesizer and a drummer tapping on a drum kit. There will probably be a line or circle of dancers— mostly women—with hands linked, backs straight, and shoulders erect while their feet perform intricate steps in unison.

Mirza Tihic performs on the saz at Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New
York
Mirza Tihic performs on the saz at Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York. Photo: Faye McMahon

The Bosnians as a culture group are relative newcomers to New York. They were driven from their homes in southeastern Europe in the brutal war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many of the Bosnian refugees found a new home in the United States. Some Bosnian refugee communities are located in large metropolitan areas like Saint Louis or Chicago, but even more have settled in smaller cities like Boise, Idaho; Des Moines and Waterloo, Iowa; Salt Lake City; and in New York, Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester.

Few Americans knew much about Bosnian culture and history—in fact, many had never even heard of the country—until the war there propelled it into the international news headlines from 1992 to 1995. The country’s correct full name is Bosnia-Herzegovina, since its present borders encompass the territory of those two historical lands. There is no official internal boundary separating Bosnia from Herzegovina. For convenience, I’ll use “Bosnia” to refer to the entire county—no offense intended to Herzegovina, the smaller part with the longer name. Nearly everyone in Bosnia speaks a variant of a South Slavic language that may be called Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, depending upon the community. In Yugoslavia, the language was usually called Serbo-Croatian, and that designation is still often used in the United States.

Bosnia is a multicultural country: Bosnian Muslims, Serbians, Croatians, Sephardic Jews, and Romany are the main ethnicities. As in much of former Yugoslavia, religion and nationality in Bosnia are intermingled. The largest religious/national group is Bosnian Muslims, most of whom follow a very liberal version of Sunni Islam. The next largest population group in Bosnia is Eastern Orthodox Serbians, followed by Roman Catholic Croatians. Among Bosnian Muslims, the Islamic prohibition on drinking alcohol is not widely observed. The majority of Muslim women wear Western clothes and do not cover their heads. Atheism was encouraged during the half century of socialist Yugoslavia, so many Bosnian Muslims are actually atheists. There are also atheist Serbians, Croatians, and Jews. Much of the culture—those grilled meats, the circle dances, the singing style—is shared among all Bosnians, although there are details of the folk traditions and distinctive folk costumes that are specific to the particular religious/national groups.

A Traditional Bosnian Song

Nowadays the Internet provides a window into the shared and sometimes contested Bosnian musical traditions. Rather than attempt to describe the music in words, I will take the reader on an online tour of performances that illustrate this article. Contemporary Bosnian musical culture is an amalgam of historical influences going back two millennia. There is music that stems from the Illyrians, the indigenous inhabitants of the western Balkans; the musical heritage of the Slavic people that migrated into the Balkans from the northeast in the fifth century AD; strong influences from the Middle East brought by the Ottomans, who governed Bosnia for 500 years; and Western music from Europe and America that has had an influence in Bosnia for the past 150 years.

The contemporary Albanians consider the Illyrians to be their forebears and contend that the poorly documented Illyrian language was the ancestor of Albanian. When the Slavs entered the Balkans, they intermarried with the Illyrians, and throughout Bosnia, the Slavic language became dominant, but many Illyrian musical practices nonetheless survived. The most striking is a diaphonic (two-voiced) style of singing with vocal contortions almost like a yodel. These songs are called gange, linguistically the same as the Albanian word for song, kange. The following web site has dozens of examples of gange from the Bosnian-Croatian border region: www.imota.net/html/ganga_u_zvuku.html

Choral singing in larger groups was a Slavic village tradition brought to Bosnia. This video shows a group of male singers from Kotor Varos, in north-central Bosnia:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeS9CH-LI-Y

As for instruments, an ancient pre-Slavic type of bagpipe in Bosnia is the diple. It has a double, two-voiced chanter and no drones:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiBo59Cd5b0

Bosnia lies on the route between Central Europe and the Middle East. Middle Eastern influences entered Bosnia even before the Ottoman Turkish conquest in the fifteenth century. Around the tenth century, a one-string bowed lute called the gusle spread to the Balkans, where it was exclusively used to accompany epic singing. Epic singers recount tales of historic battles and make up new heroic songs about recent conflicts—even about modern-day heroics in soccer tournaments. Because the songs usually portray conflicts between the ethnic groups, they typically provoke heated exchanges:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA9CR5gpCwA&NR

The mid-Eastern culture brought by the Turks has proven to be a decisive influence shaping Bosnian culture. In Bosnian instrumental music, the most widespread instrument is the family of long-necked Turkish lutes with a pear-shaped body: the largest is the saz, and other variants are the sargija and baglama. The classic Turkish style of playing and singing to the saz was adopted in Bosnia, with singing in the local Slavic language replacing Turkish. Selim Salihovic, a saz player from Sarajevo, accompanies singer Emina Zecaj, one of the most noted singers of the older type of sevdalinka, urban Muslim songs: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LJVyc7MEZQ

Another singer, Rajko Simeunovic accompanies himself on saz:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcsAIw8HQ-E

The sargija is a smaller, often more crudely fashioned village version of the saz. The sargija, often as a duo with a violin, became the favored accompaniment for a genre of village singing that shares much of the harmonic basis of the gange. This is an instrumental piece by a violin and sargija duo:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyfqVV13KS8

Gusle, a one-string instrument used to accompany epic singing. Photo: Rick March
Gusle, a one-string instrument used to accompany epic singing. Photo: Rick March

This video features violin and sargija, with singing and a kolo circle dance:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhSYYUNe8LM

In the twentieth century, Western instruments became more frequent to accompany sevdalinka. A clip from a 1960s film about the assassination in Sarajevo that set off World War I depicts a 1914-style sevdalinka group with guitar, violin, contrabass, and tambura:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6Nmfbi5HN4

Over the next few decades, other Western instruments, such as the accordion, clarinet, and drum sets, were adopted by sevdalinka musicians. Most recently, the synthesizer has often been added to sevdalinka groups. The synthesizer has even replaced the sargija in some village ensembles.

The most up-to-date sevdalinka singers have instrumentation akin to contemporary rock bands, as in this performance by Hanka Paldum:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGT68c886oo

This Internet tour of the world of Bosnian music demonstrates how centuries-old musical traditions continue to be practiced. The region’s Illyrian, Slavic, and Ottoman music formed an amalgam that is being updated today using new Western instruments. The Bosnian musical heritage continues to evolve, both in Europe and in the Bosnian communities in the United States.

Diple, an ancient type of bagpipe. Photo: Rick March
 









Rick March is the folk and community arts specialist for the Wisconsin Arts Board in Madison, Wisconsin. He lived for several years in Croatia while researching the folk music of the western Balkan region. He is currently completing a book on South Slavic tamburitza music, to be published by the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore in Zagreb, Croatia.



Contemporary Bosnian musical culture is an amalgam of historical influences going back two millennia. There is music that stems from the Illyrians, the indigenous inhabitants of the western Balkans; the musical heritage of the Slavic people that migrated into the Balkans from the northeast in the fifth century AD; strong influences from the Middle East brought by the Ottomans, who governed Bosnia for 500 years; and Western music from Europe and America that has had an influence in Bosnia for the past 150 years.

Ornate carving on a dvojnice, or
double flute. Photo: Rick March
Ornate carving on a dvojnice, or double flute. Photo: Rick March





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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