Mostar Sevdah Reunion: Band over troubled water

Mostar Sevdah Reunion are a Balkan band born of war, whose harmonies build bridges, says Simon Broughton
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The Independent Culture

"Hatred is not in my make-up. I can forgive, but I can't forget," says the singer Ilijaz Delic, who lost three members of his family in the Bosnian war. He is a national treasure in Bosnia, although people are only just starting to realise it.

"Hatred is not in my make-up. I can forgive, but I can't forget," says the singer Ilijaz Delic, who lost three members of his family in the Bosnian war. He is a national treasure in Bosnia, although people are only just starting to realise it.

He was born in Mostar, a beautiful, ancient city beneath craggy mountains. The city was famed for its elegant Turkish bridge, built in 1566 on the orders of Suleiman the Magnificent. In the good old days, Delic, and many other men of Mostar, would do death-defying 60ft dives from the bridge into the fast-flowing Neretva river, which dramatically divides the city in two. Though not as dramatically as the Bosnian war in Mostar, which raged from 1992 to 1995, killed more than 2,000 people, and split a multicultural population into Croats on the west bank, Bosnian Muslims on the east, and sent the Serbian population as refugees into Serbia.

The Old Bridge was deliberately targeted by Croatian shelling in 1993 and collapsed into the river. Despite nearly a decade of uneasy peace and the rebuilding of the bridge, the city is still divided, with music being one of the few things to bring it together.

Delic is the singer with the band Mostar Sevdah Reunion, one of the most remarkable bands in the Balkans. It is remarkable both for its yearning, beautiful music - sevdah - which is typical of Mostar, but also because this multiethnic group, representing the sublime cultural melting pot of the old Bosnia, was born directly out of the devastation of the war. "Even with shooting everywhere, there was still the need to sing," says Delic.

While war was raging, Delic and a young accordionist, Mustafa Santic, gave candlelit concerts for people who simply needed to forget the fighting for a while. Dragi Sestic, now the producer of the band, worked for the radio at that time: "I went to a performance where there was room for 20 or so people who were crazy enough to run between the grenades to listen to Ilijaz singing sevdah. It was the first time I'd heard this passionate, expressive way of singing, and I thought, 'My God, this is the John Lee Hooker of Bosnian Blues'."

Sestic, like most Yugoslavs, had grown up listening to Western rock and pop, and had little interest in the traditional music of his native town. But suddenly, in the midst of the fighting, the power and beauty of that music became clear. For Bosnians, sevdah is a state of mind. "It's a little bottle with all kind of emotions inside," says Sestic. "Even if you feel sad, you feel good that you're sad." He looks at the Old Bridge, and, trying to hold back tears, continues: "Someone thought that this bridge was somehow a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism. It's incredible. They destroyed the bridge, but they couldn't kill sevdah. They couldn't destroy the spirit of Mostar. They couldn't kill our songs."

The story of the band is powerfully told in a documentary, The Bosnian Bridge of Blues, tonight on BBC4. Made by the Serbian-born, London-based director Mira Erdevicki, the film was recently shown on Bosnian television and the impact was huge. Around two million people (out of a population of four million) watched the programme, which told a story and highlighted a music that to most of them was unknown.

During the war, Sestic married a Dutch photojournalist and settled in Holland. It was only when he went back to Mostar in 1998 and met people involved with the new Pavarotti Music Centre that the idea for the band took off. The duo of Delic and Santic was supplemented with clarinet, violin, guitars, bass and drums, the typical line-up for a Bosnian band, and Mostar Sevdah Reunion was born.

"The main requirement was to be a good musician," explains Sestic. "We never asked whether a musician was Bosnian, Croat, Serb or Roma. We never planned it - the band just happens to be multiethnic. And we've ended up all over the place. Some of us live abroad, some of us are here. The band is just like its name - it's a reunion."

Mostar Sevdah Reunion have now completed their fifth CD, which comes out early in the new year.

'The Bosnian Bridge of Blues' is on BBC4 tonight at 9.20pm. Simon Broughton is editor of the world-music magazine 'Songlines'

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