Sunday, May 16, 2010

BHFF ’10: Sevdah

When they get the blues in Bosnia, they call them Sevdah, or Sevdalinka when expressed in song. For many younger Bosnians in exile during the war, the Sevdalinka of the older generations came to poignantly represent their homeland and all its sorrows. United by their affection for Sevdalinka stoked by a dearly departed mutual friend, a musician and a filmmaker explore the music as a means of grieving and healing in Marina Andree’s reflective documentary Sevdah (trailer here), the winner of the Audience Award at the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival, which screened last night at this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival.

The late Farah Tahirbegović’s love of Sevdalinka inspired her stories and essays, stimulating a similar ardor amongst her friends and colleagues. Musician Damir Imamović was no stranger to Sevdalinka as the grandson of Zaim Imamović, one of the music’s most beloved vocalists. However, he is a relatively recent Sevdalinka convert, adapting his Hot Club-style jazz trio to Sevdalinka, partly as a result of Tahirbegović’s influence. While the music heard throughout Sevdah is all quite stirring, the clear highpoints involve his Sevdah fusions, like a Sevdalinka rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” and a traditional delta blues take on a Sevdalinka standard.

More meditative than narrative-driven, Sevdah ultimately culminates in the Imamović Trio’s concert at a cultural center for Bosnian youths right on the line bisecting the divided city of Mostar. While Andree explains a bit of the music’s recent history, she avoids extended ethnomusicologic inquiry into Sevdalinka’s Turkish and Roma roots. She is more concerned with its recent cultural currency, especially as a symbol of Bosnia’s primarily urban culture, at a time when it was literally under siege. For Andree and Imamović, it serves as both anthem and requiem, providing the appropriate soundtrack to mourn those killed during war, as well as their friend Tahirbegović.

Imamović’s Trio and Andree’s selected archival recordings (mostly featuring more traditional instrumentation, including violin, accordion, and clarinet) always sound great, conveying a keen sense of the music’s dramatic yearning and its rhythmic drive. Sevdah also looks quite handsome, with Sandi Novak’s lens soaking up the scarred beauty of the Bosnian locales, while filming the performances with an elegant sensitivity.

Though relatively short (approximately sixty-six minutes), Sevdah effectively illustrates how aptly music can represent certain individuals as well as entire cultures, without overselling the point. Often elegiac, but frequently swinging, the music is the thing in Sevdah, and it is very definitely worth hearing. Jazz listeners in particular should find it easily accessible. A great introduction to a beautiful musical form, Sevdah was a highlight of this year’s BHFF, which also included Hans-Christian Schmid’s Storm, a scathing depiction of corruption and incompetence at the International Criminal Court, and Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and Steven Eastwood’s Buried Land, a strange hybrid of fictionalized documentary, mockumentary, and performance art that premiered at Tribeca last month.