Youth Voices

Sevdalinka – Love, Passion and Sadness

By Elma Begic
Bosnia and Herzgovina

Sevdalinka is a traditional genre of folk music Bosnia and Herzegovina. Image source:

I’ll tell you a story about Sevdalinka. Imagine a woman, with her eyes closed and singing. Imagine sorrow and sadness in her voice, and a beautiful love song being sung by her. Can you?

Every time someone sings Sevdah, you have a strange need to close your eyes and to enjoy in that beautiful, tragic feeling. Sevdalinka was born at the juncture of civilizations. Those are actually love songs in which a man and a woman sing mostly about ungratified love, but about other aspects of life too. There have always been numerous obstacles between men and women, especially because of Islamic norms and way of life, and these songs seem to be an attempt to overcome this. Their only opportunity to unite was through song. This is how these songs acquire their open melancholy and tragic atmosphere. The origins of Sevdalinka are not known for certain, though it is known to date from sometime after the arrival of the Turks in medieval Balkans. The word itself comes from the Turkish sevda which derives from the Arabic word sawda (meaning black and also black bile, which in earlier times was used by doctors to denote a substance that purported to control human feelings and emotions). But in Turkish sevda doesn’t mean black; it means love, caressing. That word was brought to Bosnia by the Ottomans.

Thank you Ottomans! If you ever come to Bosnia, please, ask someone to sing it for you. Just close your eyes and listen. The authors of Sevdalinka were mostly anonymous. But some of the most beautiful Sevdalinka were written by THE famous Bosnian and Herzegovinian poets such as Aleksa Santic, Safvet Beg Basagic, etc. Our writer Miljenko Jergović said:

As love even in ancient times, often caused melancholic moods, it was related to a black gall which also caused melancholy. So sawda became sevda in Turkish, meaning love.The Bosnians has added „h“ and so sewda became sewdah. But there is something more than sewdah, it is karasewdah, darker, more sad and more erotic, as the highest love passion and sadness the words can express.

There has always been something deeply tragic in Bosnia-Herzegovina; it is an introverted world, but at the same time beautiful, full of hidden shades which are revealed through the poetry, melody and interpretation of the Sevdalinkas. Here is English translation of Sevdalinka called: “Čudna jada od Mostara grada“;

Strange pain from the city of Mostar
It’s already been a year now
Since Biba got hurt by love

Čelebić Biba is suffering from pain,
Suffering from pain, telling no one
Suffering from pain, telling no one

“Biba, my daughter, rosy rose,
dear, tell your mother where it hurts!
dear, tell your mother where it hurts!”

“Both my heart and my head hurt
Cause my Ahmo is talking to another!
Cause my Ahmo is talking to another!”

“What Ahmo?! May the water carry him away,
because of him, you’ve fallen ill Biba!”
because of him, you’ve fallen ill so young!”

“Dear mother, don’t curse Ahmo,
He said he’d marry me in the fall!
He said he’d marry me in the fall!”