Our world seems increasingly fractured by mistrust and hate. Can music, especially that of the human voice, heal those fractures?
Sevdalinka or Sevdah music is a genre of folk music that flourishes in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These elaborate and virtuosic songs are set in moderate or slow tempos and speak of love, loss and longing. Traditionally, these melodies have been unaccompanied by instruments, giving the singer complete control over rhythm and tempo and creating the potential for intensely emotional and spontaneous performances. Sevdah is related to Portuguese fado in subject matter and in origin, stemming from a synthesis of Asian, Greek and Sephardic sources.
Božo Vrećo, lead singer for the band Halka, is a popular singer of Sevdalinka. He combines traditional elements with an extremely modern sense of identity and gender. His voice is virtuosic and tender, powerful and gentle. Moy Sevdah, or My Sevdah, is his first solo album, completely unaccompanied, and it is a stunning exploration of the genre.
Sevdah was originally sung by women and provided a place where the feminine spirit could pour out its frustration, desire and disappointment. Some songs speak unabashedly of physical desire and a few have comic or ironic elements. Men followed suit later with their own sevdalinka, exploring their psyches through music as well. Božo Vrećo embraces both masculine and feminine sevdah, employing his otherworldly high tenor in songs sung by both women and men. To farther emphasize this choice, his wardrobe is ambiguous, interchanging gowns and dresses for suits and long caftans that recall dervishes. Sometimes bearded, he wears eye makeup and posts pictures of himself online smiling with his long black hair in curlers.
Despite all this, Božo Vrećo does not identify himself as transgender nor as a cross dresser, as some have labelled him. In his view, we all contain masculine and feminine elements and he is only being true to that which he is. In conservative Bosnia, where LGBTQ rights are not popularly accepted, he enjoys enormous popularity. This immense talent and sensitive persona wins hearts remarkably easily. I don’t know about you, but this gives me hope for the human race and awe at the power of music and expression.
This video, Lejlija, or Leila, is a short taste of the passionate beauty of Božo Vrećo’s art. It is a heartbreaking lament sung by a young girl who is dying, addressed to her mother. She will never be married and will never have the life that they hoped she would have. Tomorrow, when the village celebrates Eid, breaking bread as the daily fasting of Ramadan ends, she will no longer be on Earth. She clings to life, symbolized by bread, even as she knows she must leave it, and dances in a style reminiscent of the Sufi dervishes, who do so to abandon their own egos. Her intense sorrow is partnered and sweetened by the certainty that she is being lovingly carried to the next life, both by her fellow villagers and by the emissaries of God. The dark man, stern, yet loving and patient, is a portrait of the Angel of Death, Azrael, who serves God by collecting the souls of those who are departing this life.
The words and music of Lejlija were written by Božo Vrećo and are dedicated to his mother. Absolutely enchanting.
Video via Božo Vrećo on YouTube.
On the eve of Eid, she fell sick, mother’s only child Lejlija.
She suffered, grieved, wailed and said: My dear mother, if I die, clothe me in traditional clothing!
Unbraid my hair like golden wheat, let it fall down my face!
Let them carry me, the young men on both sides, and let them sing songs and not sleep at night while guarding me.
Like a new bride, bathe me with water from the pitcher for my long journey, mother, from hand to hand I’m lovingly carried, mother, lovingly carried.
Moy Sevdah is available on Amazon and iTunes. I wholeheartedly recommend the entire album, which includes seventeen songs, some of which are more virtuosic than Lejlija, which is somewhat subdued.