The Pavarotti of Bosnia: Božo Vrećo


If I had one word to describe both the music of Sevdah(In Serbo-Croatian, the H is hard, akin to a soft k sound), and it’s preeminent contemporary prince, Božo Vrećo(Pronounced Boe-Zsh-oe Vre-cho), that word would be confluence. A thousand histories and traditions all seem to meet in this transcendent performer. Božo Vrećo seems to embody five thousand years of Balkan history, from Celtic and Illyrian traditions, to Slavic, Turkish and Sephardic, to illustrate just a small list of traditions and histories. You’ll note I am being careful in the use of pronouns in describing Vrećo. There is a reason for that, which I shall get to in a moment. It is, however, important to begin with the music first.

Tall and lean, an indication of the marathon energy Vrećo exudes with each performance, Vrećo cuts a striking figure. Vrećo’s body is adorned in meaningfully exquisite tattoos, partly shrouded by self-designed gowns finished with shimmering new high-heeled Michael Kors boots. Hints of silver tease a bold neatly trimmed beard. The auburn eyes are at once striking and inquisitive, as though balanced between his background as a professor of Archaeology and the spiritual ebullience in exploring the musical world of Sevdah. Božo Vrećo is as comfortable in his feminine persona as well as the masculine.

“Surrounded by a society who is not prepared for a person like me,” Vrećo said, “my duality is something unusual and it is still taboo.”

But what comes across both in speaking with Božo Vrećo, and in witnessing the emotionally uplifting and impassioned performances is a quality essential to both performer and Sevdah: Freedom. What some may find controversial, Vrećo would argue is as essential as water and sunlight to a garden. Sevdah as a cultural Art form is not altogether incomprehensible for the unfamiliar, but there is an emotional rather than intuitive step towards understanding.

I received my first introduction to Sevdah in 1994, standing before the home of the classic Bosnian Poet, Aleksa Santich in the embattled city of Mostar. The city was under siege at the time, Mostar suffering even worse in the civil war than Sarajevo, 40 miles to the Northeast. Santich, a Serb, is best known for two poems, The first is called “Stay Here”, a plea for Muslims not to emigrate from Ottoman administered Bosnia as was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The other poem tells the tragic tale of his forbidden love for a Muslim girl, Emina, the title of the poem. Santich spies the veiled Emina nightly watering her garden with an Ibrik, a Bosnian vase, in her hands. It is the passion and tragedy of their unrequited love that exemplifies Sevdah.

For me, the history of Sevdah is best illustrated by a simple story of how young men in Turkish Bosnia, living under Islamic cultural codes were forbidden from addressing single women, but for in the evenings after Friday prayers. Young men would stand on corners or below windows singing to their love interests. Knowing the ancient streets of Sarajevo’s Turkish market, Baščaršija, as well as I know my native Chicago, I can almost imagine walking those narrow stone causeways in old Sarajevo on a Friday evening, with streets filled with music.

There is much more, but love and sorrow are the foundation. Musically, and poetically there is a structure to the Art form as well. Songs are soft and melodic, the lyrics simple. Each line is usually no more than eight or ten or twelve syllables long. The melodies are roadmaps to the influences to Balkan music, most particularly Sephardic Jewish, Spanish, Middle eastern and Slavic musical influences and traditions.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia, and terrible wars throughout the 1990s, nationalists attempted to inject ethnic animosities into the Artform. While minority Croat and Serbian voices decried Sevdah as “Muslim” music, younger generations looked towards Western music. The importance of Sevdah is that it is inherently and sublimely a common link among all the diverse peoples of the Balkans. But given the political climate and scars from the wars Sevdah struggled for relevance.

Božo Vrećo all but single handedly revived Sevdah to an entirely new generations of Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. It is incredibly versatile as an Artform. Among the collaborations that illustrate the incredible Musical spectrum of Sevdah is Vrećo collaboration with Bosnian singer, songwriter, and producer Marko Louis, whose own work is inspired with contemporary soul, hip-hop and R&B themes. Original works by Vrećo, like Pašana, arranged by Louis, feels as fresh and new with a heartbeat-like R&B base line that at once thrusts the listener back in time, carried by the near perfection and power of Vrećo’s unwavering voice, then thrown forward into the modern with Louis’ rich, emotionally charged arrangement.

On stage, with Vrećo’s flawless voice undulating and twisting around words of pain and passion emotion swelled in the chest of the audience. Vrećo dances, spins, the flowing gowns reminiscent of the Turkish whirling Dervishes, and an assertion of a soul uncompromised by anything but celebratory freedom. The music seems to flow through Vrećo, as if the Artist was merely a portal, a conduit to something pure and beautiful, which Vrećo’s plainly and simply defines as “love.”

For two hours, and three encores, along with many others in attendance, we were left awestruck, as though we had been a part of something exceedingly rare in the world. In commanding the stage and the audience we became a community, and our sovereign commanded the stage imploring us only to exalt in love and beauty.

What’s next for Božo Vrećo? I put that question to Vrećo.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I will always take a special place for Sevdah, and all that surrounds it. There will be a mixture, a fusion. I want to mix with the Blues, with Pop, with Soul, with Gospel, with the Classical even.”

And that’s the power of Sevdah,” I said, “that you can use all those influences…”

“Yes,” Vrećo says, squarely understanding that the core is always Sevdah, which is more than simply a song, but a world unto itself. “It is the question of the measure, because sometimes it’s bullshit and sometimes it’s genius.” / 30.10.2018

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