The Sydney Morning Herald: Bozo Vreco rewrites Balkan folk music and gender norms

Dueting with fellow Balkan superstar Marko Louis in the windswept video for their hit song Sanjao sam, (I dreamt), Bozo Vreco’s lustrous raven hair is tied up Medusa-like, snaking tendrils echoing the traces of black ink that circle his bare arms.

His flowing black dress is pulled tight around the waist by a gold band and his kohl-ringed eyes peer out above a luxuriant beard.

With his soaring and swooping vocal range and daring reinterpretations of traditional Bosnian sevdalinka folk music (also known as sevdah), Vreco is a free spirit.

“I am male and female at the same time,” he says over the phone from his apartment in Sarajevo.

“We live in a very conservative and closed society here, and that is a problem. When I started to explore sevdah, if you were a man you were expected to dress in a suit and tie.

Vreco with his mother and muse.

“There’s a certain closet in the clothing but I just wanted to smash it all, because the music is without any gender.”

Vreco, who happily goes by male pronouns, has been enthusiastically embraced at home despite those conservative attitudes.

He has toured Europe extensively – sometimes with band Halka, sometimes solo and a capella – and last year took Broadway by storm, with the New York Times calling his voice “angelic”.

He visits Australia for the first time at the end of this month, with appearances at the Castlemaine State Festival and Hobart’s Mona for Ten Days on the Island.

Listening to beautifully melancholic sevdah on the radio offered Vreco solace as a small boy after his father took his own life. Growing up during the civil war with his two sisters and artist mother, he embraced his fluid identity from an early age and experimented with their clothing.

“My mother is my muse,” he says. “It was a tough time, but she always found the time to joke and to make everything comfortable. She always encouraged me, she never found it tough to believe in me. It was always yes. There are always possibilities, so I grew up with her painting and embracing all kinds of liberation.”

Today, when Vreco brings his unique and visual style to the stage, he says he’s harnessing the strength of that sanctuary to inspire others who have the courage to stand out.

“Even if they don’t understand the lyrics, they always understand the emotion,” he says. “You can feel that sorrow and loss, but even when I am singing about sad things they always find hope and some encouragement to keep going.”

The music is without any gender

Born in Foca, a town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina on the banks of the river Drina, Vreco moved to Belgrade as a young man to study archaeology but quickly discovered sevdah was his true passion.

“All that working with history and the past, with tradition and cultural elements, I just figured out that sevdah was something I wanted to be involved with,” he says. “I wanted to explore it, so I followed my path, believing in my dreams.”

Vreco describes himself as a "free" person who is both male and female.

He relocated again to Sarajevo and began singing in cafes and bars, rearranging traditional and lesser-known examples of the form and mixing them with jazz, blues and more (he counts Bobby McFerrin as a hero). He has since collaborated with Halka on two albums and produced three solo efforts. He’s in the midst of penning a second memoir and has ambitions to write music for movies.

“It’s my time, you know,” he beams. “I have a certain pride and my voice is in a great position to express whatever I want. I just want to push that forward.”

Despite his roaring success back home Vreco says he still experiences abuse on account of his ambiguous gender and sexual identity. But he doesn’t let it hold him back.

'I don't deal with haters.'

“I don’t deal with haters,” he says. “I am just focused on my music and on my audience that truly loves and understand me. You must find the light and you must say, ‘I quit with the shitty people’.”

Several of Vreco’s distinctive tattoos are traditional protective emblems. “It is like a second skin, telling the stories of my people,” he says.

“I am very open on stage – undressing to just a skirt sometimes – and when you move with all that decoration, it is mythical, spiritual and sexual as well.”

Bozo Vreco performs at Mona, Hobart, on March 24 as part of Ten Days on the Island and at the Theatre Royal, Castlemaine on March 27 as part of Castlemaine State Festival.

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