Once upon a time, the city of Mostar was considered a model for how fractious ethnic communities could learn to live together. The Bosnian war changed everything, although amid the general destruction, groups of musicians struggled to instill a small sense of normalcy. Meeting by candlelight, they quietly assembled to perform the bluesy style of Turkish-influenced café songs called sevdah. After the war vocalist Illijaz Delic, accordionist Mustafa Santic, and other musicians staged a reunion in the MCP recording studios, making three demo cuts that re-created the spirit of the wartime concerts. These remarkable songs form the centerpiece of Mostar Sevdah Reunion, featuring an expanded version of Delic's ensemble, which apparently was in such a hurry to cut this disc, it didn't even bother to give itself a name.
Sevdah musicians are considered a breed apart from other Bosnian players, and there is a mysterious intensity to almost every note that transforms love songs into a kind of Balkan qawwali and turns a piece about shoeing horses by moonlight ("Mujo Kuje Po Konje Mjesecu") into an esoteric tract whose emotional force denies common sense. It ain't exactly easy listening. Disc-opener "Asik Osta' Na Te Oci" ("I Fell in Love with Your Eyes") unfurls with the slow deliberation of a moth emerging from a cocoon. Running water paired with environmental clunks and rattles suggest either the river separating Bosnian and Croatian halves of the city or perhaps dishwashing duties at a local café kitchen. A moaning accordion and the leisurely entrance of the magnificently operatic Delic throw timeless gravity in the face of anyone expecting instant payoffs à la pop.
Like the blues, sevdah mines the deepest human emotions, holding nothing back in its examination of the terrible beauty of life. One of the disc's most powerful cuts, the pile-driver-of-a-love song "Dul Zulejha," swells with relentless urgency out of proportion to its delicate subject matter ("Zulejha the Rose"). The lyrics about a country girl communing with the dew does little to explain the militant rhythm thumped by accordion, bass, and drums as trilling strings set up an anxious counterpoint. Fortunately the incandescent "Moj Dilbere" follows, lightening the mood. The so-called Queen of the Gypsies, singer Esma Redzepova, takes a whip-crack dance rhythm as her own, trading verses with Delic with all the passion and ribald underpinnings of an Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo son.
Squarely in sevdah's corner is the belly-dance rhythm of the faster songs that speaks of Turkish origins, violin solos with the phrasings and fire of Balkan Gypsy songs, and an ornamented, quavering lushness to the vocals. This disc adds taut arrangements, crisp studio ambiance, and polished cabaret drumming you might expect from a Tony Bennett session. Sevdah Reunion's lack of concessions to an international audience makes the regionalisms difficult to penetrate. For example are these songs allegories or merely nods to history? But the strictly local flavor gives the disc an undiluted power and, if you grant it a little leeway, a constant ability to enthrall.