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Amira Medunjanin, the Balkan Billie Holiday

British ”The Guardian” published an article about Amira Medunjanin, BiH singer of sevdalinkas.

Towards the end of an electrifying performance last year among the Corinthian columns of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, Amira Medunjanin – one of the great voices of her generation, and almost certainly the finest from eastern Europe – asks the band to unplug their instruments and the mixing desk to switch off her microphone. She proceeds to sing (and the musicians to play) unamplified, with searing emotional depth but not a hint of sentimentality.

Amira brings to mind Edith Piaf; she is the Balkan Billie Holiday. There are moments that echo even Callas. The voice is silken but determined; it is cast in deep and occult shadow, but is often playful and erotic; it yearns and laughs, it glides and slides across and around oriental chromatics, though she would count the Velvet Underground and Nick Cave among her primary influences. As the great Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksander Hemon puts it: “Amira’s singing brings tears to one’s eyes and unmitigated joy to one’s heart.”

If her music has a genre, which is debatable, it would be sevdah, which derives from the Arabic word meaning black bile – the substance of melancholy – a music that spread from Bosnia’s rivers and mountains across the Balkans, not least with Gypsies who sang and performed it. But Amira takes sevdah somewhere it has never been before: through a modern war into encounters with jazz, even excursions into psychedelia.

When Bosnia’s war ended in 1995, Amira got a job as an interpreter with the European Commission. One day in 1997, a local man came into her office to be interviewed. “I didn’t know who it was, [had] never run into him,” she says. “He got the job, we went out to lunch and it was just “click”. We just started talking about music and I realised I’d been at all the concerts he’d organised during the war, and the Rock Under Siege festival.” The interviewee was Bekim. “He told me about the work with the children too, in the orphanages, and that’s when I fell in love with him.

“I’d never thought of becoming a singer. He said, ‘You’ve been given this voice – but it can’t belong only to you, you have to share it.’ Suddenly all my inhibitions disappeared. Bekim was the energy, he was the inspiration, he opened my eyes. Two weeks later, he asked me to marry him. I knew I would in the end, but I told him to wait two years.”

Bekim came to work in Liverpool during the late 1990s while training to be a customs officer in Bosnia (a job he held only fleetingly). “I felt an immediate affinity to the place,” he says, “when I went out one night in that famous street near the station – Lime Street. People could get incredibly drunk and no one cared – I felt very at home.” Before the war, Bosnia’s most famous band by far was Mostar Sevdah Reunion, masters of the genre, who had opened a window to the world for music from what was then Yugoslavia. In 2002, 28-year-old Amira, who had recorded only a few demos, asked for an accompaniment to a sevdalinka (sevdah song) from the foremost musicians of the band. Warily, they loaned their accordionist and were amazed by what they heard. “Where are you from? Where have you been all this time?”

The result was Amira’s first album, Rosa. “It means dew, not Rose,” she says. The album is traditional sevdah at its best – simple and minimalist, as Bekim writes in the cover notes – a sound of raw beauty, some of it recorded in compete darkness so that “Amira could not hide her emotion”, says her husband.

Rosa was a homage to tradition,” says Amira, “my tribute to sevdah in its original and organic form. But I was not doing this to play at the usual sevdah places, to the usual audiences. The national music had to reinvent itself.” Her second album, Amira, was recorded live and shaped in part by the jazz pianist Kim Burton, who had been around Sarajevo during the war – “to see what the colours of Kim’s playing would bring to our national music”. Jazz, Amira found, “is music you can do anything with, and it can do anything with you”. So already the fusion had begun, “by coincidence, really. Though what happened next was not at all coincidence.” If Amira was an excursion into jazz, there remained something left unsaid that arose from the pain of war in a city proud but still deeply, perhaps irrevocably, wounded. And so followed the extraordinary Zumra. It is the musical record of that war, expressed through the apparently traditional form of voice accompanied by accordion.

“I hated the accordion, to be honest, and I never liked its influence on Bosnian music,” says Amira. “But I met the accordionist Merima Kljuco by accident and knew we had to make this album the way we did.”

The chromatics of the accordion veer from Arabic into psychedelia; Amira’s voice is as haunted as it is haunting. The result is sevdah as though mixed through Jimi Hendrix’s guitar on Machine Gun.

What on earth could follow? “Something small but very precious,” she says. Amulette is an adventure back into jazz – soulful, velveteen, but full of quirks and experiments by three musicians of calibre: the outrageously talented Bojan Z, a leading pianist who moved from Serbia to Paris before the war; Nenad Vasilic from southern Serbia on double bass; and the Lebanese percussionist Bachar Khalife.

The driving force was the chemistry between Amira and Bojan Z. “It’s incredibly hard to sing with Bojan – there’s so much pure experimentation,” she says. “But he was so open to ideas that the album became a real meeting between the sevdah sound and jazz.”

In 2003 Simon Glinn was appointed executive director of the Liverpool Philharmonic, where he supplemented the repertoire of the city’s now highly acclaimed orchestra with regular festivals. But deep down he wanted more than almost anything to bring the girl he met in Sarajevo to sing in Liverpool. In this city, says Glinn, “most of us were refugees at some point in the family history”.

“This is sevdah, this is what we know,” Amira tells her Merseyside audience, about a fifth of whom are Bosnian, the rest concerned or curious locals. From her duffel coat she has changed into a ballgown that would grace a Verdi opera – this is now Amira as diva.

There’s a song about a woman who, when told by her lover that he has chosen another, rejoices at her freedom; it’s sung with theatrically defiant mischief. Another is a love song from Serbia, White Roses, delivered with fists clenched to the side, and lachrymose melancholy. During instrumental passages, Bojan Z and Vasilic stretch their instruments in every way imaginable and beyond, the sound often like something electronically generated.

There is both power and stillness in the music, and an extraordinary drawing in of the audience, so that the great hall shrinks to the size of a living room, the columns acquire the intimacy of a hearth. Towards the end comes the moment when Amira sings unamplified: “This is how they used to do it,” she says. It’s a song much adapted from Rosa: Bogata Sam, Imam Svega (I have riches, I have nothing), in which the heroine does not have the man she loves: “Oh beloved, grant me a kiss, grant me your lips.”

What next? “All I know is that I don’t want to do what is expected of me,” says Amira. “I’m not here to make money or be a star. All I know is that I don’t want to do what is expected of me. I just want to take sevdah to as many people as possible and feed it with as many kinds of music I can.”

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