Our own Chetna Prakash meets with Balkan music virtuoso Nela Trifkovic as she de-mystifies a deeply rich and proud musical tradition.
I’ll start with a confession. I had no clue what “Sevdah” or “Sephardic” meant when I went to a performance by the Melbourne-based band Saray Iluminado on a mild, breezy evening last month. It is my aim to attend one artistic event a week, and the performance was described with words like “Balkan”, “folk”, “Sevdah” and “Sephardic Jewish Romances” on the website of fortyfivedownstairs, an independent performance arts venue. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try.
The performance started out as unfamiliar and oddly discordant to my ears, especially with Nela Trifkovic’s singing in Bosnian. But before long I found my fingers drumming along involuntarily. My foot joined in just before the interval and by the end, every cell of my body seemed to be singing along to Trifkovic’s intense, melancholic melodies. She seemed to carry us all across time and distance, into a world entirely made of her haunting voice.
Upon my return home, I started looking up Saray Iluminado in earnest. The four-member group plays folk music from Bosnia and Herzegovina (part of ex-Yugoslavia) and Sephardic Jewish romances. The music, called Sevdah, goes back to medieval times but it particularly came to life during the cosmopolitan Ottoman era between the 15th and 19th centuries. In Bosnian, the word “sevdah” refers to longing for a loved one or place. The music itself is characterised by slow tempo overlaid by fervent passionate singing about love, longing and loss.
On June 20, 2015 the group will premiere its first original composition The Song Boat at the Richmond Theatrette in Melbourne. On behalf of TBS, I reached out to Nela Trifkovic – the group’s artistic director and lead vocalist – to chat about being an immigrant, singing Balkan folk music in Melbourne, cosmopolitanism and her original composition.
CP: Tell us about yourself and your music.
NT: I was born in Bosnia, and arrived in Australia as a refugee with my family in 1996 as a 16-year-old during the Bosnian war. I had been studying music from the age of 13. I continued my studies in Western classical music at university in Perth, studying piano and classical singing and composition. I earned two bachelors’ and a master’s degree there. Ten years ago, I moved to Melbourne to do a PhD in classical music, met my now husband, the theatre actor and director James Adler, and stayed here. I come from a very musical family, particularly on my father’s side. They were all involved with the traditional Sevdah music back in Bosnia.
CP: So when did you start playing Bosnian folk music here?
NT: After I finished my bachelors’, I sang some Balkan folk in Perth music events, and it was noticed by theatre directors. Some of them approached me to sing live during their shows. Even though I was singing in a completely different language, they said they liked the tones, both the melancholy and the upbeat aspects of my singing. So it is really through theatre I started exploring my Balkan musical roots professionally. The funny thing is that when I was trying hard to be Australian, cut off from my own music, I felt more foreign and different. But as I started playing Balkan music, I started feeling more comfortable here. Now I just feel like another ethnic girl in Melbourne.
CP: How and when did Saray Iluminado come about?
NT: I met William Thompson through another music project. He is English but was very well versed with Mediterranean guitar instruments. Like me, he was also highly trained in classical music but we both wanted to do something world music-y with our classical musical selves. So we just started doing gigs in art galleries and cafes. Kelly Dowall, who is New Zealander with a real passion for Turkish music, met us at one such gig and soon the three of us started playing together. Ernie Gruner, who is the established Melbourne musician in our troupe, joined us towards the end of 2013. He and I had met during a theatre project, when I was still doing my PhD from the VCA, and he had suggested we do something together. So when a musical grant opportunity came up, which required us to find a mentor, I asked him to join us.
We got the grant in 2014. The money and Ernie’s network within the Melbourne art scene has really helped us go beyond casual gigs. We could approach venues such as fortyfivedownstairs – a well-known independent performance arts space – for concerts. We have just recorded a full 10-track CD of traditional Balkan folk music, which will be released in September. It has also allowed us to explore our own original compositions, like the one we will be performing on June 20.
CP: What is the Balkan music scene in Melbourne like?
NT: As immigrants in Australia, we all have our individual communities, the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs. But there is a lot of interaction, particularly at a musical level. Music and food are really the two mingling factors for the community. Music, in particular, is quite strong in our community. There are a number of cafes that are hubs of Balkan music and food. There is also a strong Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern scene in Melbourne, which intermingles with Balkan culture. However, our band doesn’t particularly play to the Balkan community. I feel I sing in memory of Yugoslavia and Bosnia but not to the Bosnian community.
CP: Is it hard singing in Bosnian to a non-Balkan audience?
NT: I believe that if I sing with integrity and conviction, we will find our audience. Moreover, any folk music plays on universal themes of birth and death, love and grief, requited or unrequited love, and these exists in every culture. So from that perspective, the repertoire is really easy. I just feel I must sing from my heart and it will appeal to many people.
CP: Cosmopolitanism is a theme that overlays a number of your songs. Why is that?
NT: When this music was written, Balkan people lived very different lives (and many still do). Bosnians were marrying Serbs, Muslims were marrying Jews, and this music was born out of that variety. In fact, Germans, Turks, Hungarians all contributed to this music, even though it is considered Slavic today. In comparison, our national identities are a lot more rigid today. In my music, I want to emphasise cosmopolitanism because it is an important thing to show to Australia. That allowing different traditions to co-exist and intermingle is a great way to build new expression. It helps people assimilate better.
CP: Is that where your new composition, which premieres on June 20, arose from?
NT: The original composition is a song cycle inspired by the traditional folk music, but the lyrics belong to Bosnian poets of the 1950s to the present day. Through our songs we explore the story of a boat filled with Jews named St Louis, which in the 1940s was turned away from every country it approached, and the people eventually returned to Germany to be sent to camps. I guess in exploring it, we are trying to draw a parallel with what is happening to asylum seekers today. Being an immigrant whose application was successful, this is a personal journey for me as well. I want to bring out how powerful and overwhelming it is to beg for your life, or to be in a position to say yes or no. I want to bring out how one person’s yes or no is another person’s finality.
In our premiere performance, we collaborate with other artists. A video installation will accompany the performance, and there are spoken parts too, for which my husband James Adler collaborated. We are exploring stories of refuge and how you find a home.