Have you ever heard Balkan pop? When you hear it for the first time, you may even mistake it for a Middle Eastern pop song. Since the 1990s, countries such as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria have emerged a style of electronic music that is full of “spicy” flavors from the Middle East. In the former Yugoslavia, the genre is called turbofolk, while in Bulgaria it is called chalga. What the hell is going on?
After overthrowing the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the southeastern European countries are eager to get rid of their “Turkish” taste, but at least in the entertainment circle, this “Turkish” smell is still lingering and blowing at us.
Occupied by multiple empires successively, and the ethnic relations are fragmented and intricate, the Balkans can be said to be the “storage room” of southwestern Europe. The flavors left by multiple powerful civilizations on this land are mixed together, as if it is a hodgepodge.
ghosts of empire in song
If you’ve ever seen club life in a Balkan country, you’ve probably experienced something like this:
”Vishegrad and Bajna Basta / That’s enough for me to drink a jug / Half the city is holding on to me / Want to find a wife for me as a married man/My wife, what should you do if you are cheated/A little girl almost snatched me away/If my tutor is not so good/You would have been alone in the vacant room… …”
It was an ordinary night in a nightclub in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Goci Bend, a Serbian band from Bosnia and Herzegovina, proved that even singing out of tune throughout the whole process could not stop the sensuous Turbofolk from lighting up the atmosphere. As the locals say, there are some songs that are terrible to listen to when you are sober, but are best “drinked” with alcohol.
The lyrics of sevdah folk songs in Bosnia and Herzegovina mostly use some words handed down from the Ottoman Empire.
Bosnian Serb band Goci Bend
”Alazha, Alazha / You are like a bird in the ashes / Reborn from the ashes…” On one side, in the former Sephardic Synagogue of the Bosnian Cultural Center in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, wearing a tall black turban, Serb male singer Bo?o Vre?o, in a black vest with see-through fringe, sang his original Bosnian sevdah folk song in praise of the Al-Azhar Mosque. Amidst the excited cheers of the audience, the male and female singer lifted her bright red flowing dress and twirled and jumped on the stage.
Bosnia and Serbia, two countries that no longer belong to each other, are inextricably linked culturally. What maintains them is not only the common past as a republic of Yugoslavia, but also a long-standing Ottoman cultural network.
The Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Balkans for five centuries, has been defeated for a full 100 years, but it seems that it has not gone far in the singing of the Balkan people. At the Gusle song conference of the Bosnian Serbs, the legendary story of the Serb bandits in the mountains and forests ambushing the “Turks” and avenging the oppressed and killed Serb compatriots is still sung.
The “Turks” in their songs are actually Bosniaks who monopolized regional privileges during the Ottoman Empire, that is, Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the former Yugoslavia, the grievances and grievances of the Ottoman Empire have been continued in later generations, and the cultural trace left by the common Ottoman life history of all ethnic groups—music—has more or less witnessed the rise and fall of Yugoslavia.
”Don’t sing in Bosnia, don’t dance in Serbia, don’t do anything in Macedonia.” In the former Yugoslavia, there is an old saying whose origin cannot be verified. Don’t dance”. In short, this sentence really reflects the local people’s love for music and dance. In the difficult years of Yugoslavia in the 1950s, people listened to the radio with telephone poles, and music brought a lot of joy.
Among the traditional folk songs of various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, the sevdah of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most distinctive. This kind of song has a long rhyme and a gentle rhythm. The wide use of the minor second interval makes it quite characteristic of Middle Eastern music. The lyrics are also very beautiful, especially good at chanting things.
Serb singer Nada Mamula in Yugoslavia
Serbian male singer Pojo Frejo
The lyrics of sevdah folk songs in Bosnia and Herzegovina mostly use some vocabulary handed down from the Ottoman Empire, which has a unique flavor. For example, the rose is called ?ul (pronounced “Pearl”, “rose” gül in modern Turkish); moreover, many words are related to Muslim historical figures in that period, so sevdah is considered to be the Bosniak Traditional folk songs.
However, Damir Imamovic, the grandson of Zaim Imamovic, an older generation of Bosnian folk songwriter Zaim Imamovic, who is also a sevdah singer, said in his 2016 book: sevdah has become a general term for a category of songs , is derived from a song in a collection of Bosnian Serb folk songs published in Belgrade in 1873; the word sevdah was first spread in the Serb cultural circle, and initially referred to all local traditional folk songs. In other words, it was actually the Serbs who helped the Bosnians “give birth” to sevdah, a folk song theme that the latter is proud of.
In the Yugoslav period, the performers of sevdah songs were mainly Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but there were also many well-loved Serbian singers, such as Vuka ?eherovi? ) and Nada Mamura. The arrangement of sevdah in this period mainly used the accordion, violin, cello, and the local instrument tamburica originated from the Persian instrument “Tambur”.