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Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022 Showcases

Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022 Showcases

Courtesy Dzenat Drekovic/Jazz Fest Sarajevo

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The Europe Jazz Network has grown from a purely musical network to a network which is completely involved in society—in sustainability, in social inclusion. If we keep on doing that, we make a difference. And the artists on stage make that difference with us.
—Wim Wabbes, EJN President
Various Artists
National Theatre/Jazzbina Club
Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
June 2-5, 2022

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina proved an excellent choice as host city for Beyond Europe, the latest initiative from Europe Jazz Network. The three-day music conference, Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022, in conjunction with Jazz Fest Sarajevo, is designed to build collaborative bridges between all countries of Europe. More specifically, Beyond Europe... extends open arms to those countries within Europe but outside the European Union.

It is a timely initiative. With war raging in Ukraine following Russia's brutal invasion, Europe is once again reminded of how fragile peace can be.

In fact, as they know all too well across the Balkans, peace is not something immutable; it is a state of equilibrium that needs to be preserved. Now more than ever in Europe, the values of unity, co-operation, collaboration, support, respect and exchange need to be championed.

Such values are bread and butter to Europe Jazz Network, a non-profit association that binds over 170 organisations—clubs, festivals, venues, promoters—stretching across 34 countries. Music is at its center. Jazz specifically, but creative music in general. The promotion of musicians and their music is the EJN's raison d'etre, but its aims are multiple: education; social inclusion; greater diversity; emotional and economic growth; deeper and more harmonious relations through shared projects, and more.

For three days, seventy delegates from twenty-six countries attended talks, panel discussions, a film-cum-Q&A session, cultural tours and, of course, music showcases. This report covers the musical showcases.

Adis Sirbubalo

The National Theatre was the venue for all but one of the showcases. Founded in 1921, the National Theatre was designed by Czech-born architect Karil Pařík, who conceived of over seventy Austro-Hungarian-style buildings in Sarajevo, including Hotel Europe (the city's first modern hotel), the Sharia School, the Ashkenazi Synagogue and the National Museum.

First on stage was Bosnian pianist/multi-instrumentalist and composer Adis Sirbubalo, with a solo piano performance. The classically influenced opening served up dramatically contrasting tones; reverb-heavy bottom end rumblings fought with light, Chopin-esque melodies, like gathering storm clouds blotching a summer sky. The initial gravitas gave way to more lyrical and anthemic terrain, the pianist's tumbling melodies drawing from Sevdalinka folk music, a traditional music originating in Bosnia and Herzegovina but performed across the Balkans.

Jazz-inflected improvisation and emotive folk melodies merged in Sirbubalo's flowing narrative and dancing rhythms, evocative at times of Bojan Zulfikarpasic's hybrid language, though perhaps more classically inclined than the France-based Serbian. For thirty minutes, Sirbubalo commanded the attention with shifting musical panoramas, brooding melancholy segueing into brighter, freer passages, the borders of form and freedom fading in and out.

Sirbubalo broke his stride to acknowledge the audience, the EJN and JazzFest Sarajevo, remarking how good it felt to be playing once again in his home town before a live audience. "It has been a struggle for the past two years, unable to perform and travel," he noted, "But hopefully all of that is all behind us." Sirbubalo signed off "Sarajevske kajde," an upbeat tune of dancing folkloric figures, with a constant left-hand rhythmic motif underpinning his free-flowing melodicism. It served as an appropriately celebratory finale to a fine performance.

Damir Imamović: Singer of Tales

Bosnian singer Damir Imamović reminded those present that sevdalinka, or sevdah as it is also commonly known, is primarily sung. Imamović should know. His grandfather, Zaim Imamović, who was a popular sevdalinka artist in the mid twentieth century, wrote some of the most enduring songs in the sevdah tradition. Damir Imamović has even written a book about the tradition.

A recording artist since 2006, Imamović played songs from the award-winning Singer of Tales (Wrasse Records, 2020). Produced by Joe Boyd, the album featured bassist Greg Cohen, Turkish kemençe (three-stringed fiddle) player Derya Türka and violinist Ivana Ðuriæ. For this concert Ðuriæ was absent, while bass duties were undertaken by Slovenian Ziga Golob.

Imamović's spun tales of love, or more specifically the sorrow of love, for sevdah has much in common with the blues. Universal blues, that is, for sevdah is music that speaks to the heart. Imamović's six-string guitar—somewhere between an oud and a tanbur—forged a steady rhythmic course, with occasional tasteful embellishment. But it was his tenor voice and the longing, aching and yearning transmitted in each song that seduced.

Golob was a quietly buoyant presence throughout, his comping felt as much as heard. Türka enjoyed a little more individual spotlight, and though an obvious virtuoso, the real magic lay in his dialogue with Imamović. Their chemistry, pronounced throughout, was accentuated on ballads where the similarities between crying kemençe and soaring vocals were laid bare.

There is a little bit of the world in Imamović's music, which is perhaps unsurprising given the melting pot that the Bosnia and Herzegovina—and the Balkans more widely—is. And with a sizeable Bosnian diaspora—an estimated one million people left Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of the war—Imamović is taking his passionately and elegantly wrought sevdah to all corners of Europe. Recommended too, the documentary Sevdah (2009) directed by Marina Andree Škop. Imamović is featured prominently in a powerful film that traces the roots and meaning of sevdah. (Sevdah is available on YouTube with English subtitles.)

Lakiko

Stage presence is something that can be cultivated, but for some artists it seems to come naturally. Lana Kostić, aka Lakiko, is one such artist. During the entirety of her solo performance at the National Theatre the audience observed an almost ceremonial silence. In part, this atmosphere was orchestrated by the cellist, who guarded silence between compositions—a silence that nobody saw fit to break with applause. The result was a suite-like performance of beauty, as well as a certain solemnity.

Taking the stage bare-footed and sporting hefty-looking earphones, Kostić wasted no time in looping plucked ostinatos, the backdrop to bowed legato melody and soaring wordless vocal. A pedal board conjured echo and drone effects, strikingly so as Kostić used mallets to pound a rhythmic tattoo on her cello. These rhythms bookended a folksy vocal of gently ethereal character. By contrast, urgent sawing riffs created an altogether darker ambiance, with Kostić arching her back as she sang close to the cello's bridge and f-hole to create—via pedals—striking harmonic vocal layers.

Kostićs final number, "Sarajevo," ended the concert with an unusual ode to the city. A driving riff coursed as Kostić sang, 'It's a town where people hate people, it's a town where people eat people, it's a town where people are no longer people, it's a town where people leave... ' And on it went, hope that chokes in the smoke, east hating west, west hating east... but just when it all seemed hopelessly nihilistic, Kostić sang, "but I am in love with this Black Box." Provocative and undeniably dramatic, but unlikely to get picked up by the country's Tourist Board anytime soon. An uncompromising, captivating artist of original stamp.

Miron Rafajlović

A town where people leave, Lana Kostić had sung. That was true for Sarajevo-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Miron Rafajlovic who was forced to abandon Sarajevo during the war, migrating to Canada. Since 2014, Rafajlović has lived in the Balearic Islands, Spain, working in jazz, flamenco and Latin circles. For his debut as leader, the Afro-Cuba-influenced Trubadur (Superlala, 2018), Rafajlović recruited flamenco/Latin jazz giants Jorge Pardo and Israel 'Piraña' Suarez.

Afro-Cuban currents flowed through this homecoming performance, courtesy of Cuban double bassist Reinier Elizarde 'El Negron,' but this was but one element in the music. Spanish pianist Daniel Garcia Diego and Iranian drummer Shayan Fathi brought something of their respective tierras to the mix, while Rafajlović toggled between plaintive impressionism that reflected the confluence of musical cultures in Spain, and more contemporary sonorities.

Rhythmically, this was a vibrant stew, enlivened by thrilling solos, principally from Garcia Diego and Rafajlović. The warmest applause, however, was reserved for Elizarde's turns in the spotlight with beautifully lithe and sensuous solos. Rafajlović was presenting unrecorded material, though in truth it sounded well road-tested—expansive, open-ended and effortlessly lyrical—suggesting that a studio date isn't too far away on the horizon. Another killing solo from Elizarde opened the last number, his swinging gait eventually drawing the other musicians into his orbit. Extended solos from Rafajlović Garcia Diego and Fathi crowned a pulsating performance.

Fish In Oil

It was a short walk from the National Theatre to Jazzbina Club, a basement venue where the air had been replaced by a thick pall of cigarette smoke. The hot, cramped locale was the ideal sort of venue to witness Serbian band Fish in Oil, best experienced up close and at high decibels.

Fish In Oil doesn't fit snugly into any one category: free-jazz, Afro-Cuban swing, rock and whatever—it's all part of the heady mix. Formed in 1993, Fish In Oil has built a reputation as a live band, first venturing into the studio in 2012 for Poluostrvo (Columbia Record). Three more albums have followed: Drnch (Mascom Records, 2014); 3 Klijuca (Metropolis Records, 2016); and Sve Ce Biti U Najboljem Redu (Metropolis Records, 2018). All are worth tracking down.

Stage-front towered saxophonist Dušan Petrović, alternating between sinewy lines on a 1930s alto saxophone and rasping exclamations on a tenor of more recent vintage. Almost hidden from view, guitarist Bratislav Radovanic dealt out shimmering chords, feathery arpeggios and cool Cuban melodies. Drummer Tom Feda Franklin, percussionist Velko Nikolić and bassist Branislav Radojković—who switched back and forth between acoustic and electric—cooked up wicked rhythms, hard-grooving and soulful, according to the music's needs.

The music, visceral and tender in turn, sounded like a cross between Lounge Lizards and Los Cubanos Postizos, and whilst John and Evan Lurie's and Marc Ribot's respective vehicles may be touchstones, there was a free-wheeling, exploratory edge to Fish In Oil's interplay that took its music into fairly unique terrain. Psychedelic jam, rock sing-along, Slavic balladry, ragged blues, Cubano-bop—a glorious mash-up of influences that sounded organic and heartfelt.

Dobrila and Dorian Duo

The final night of Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022 featured three bands, folkloric all, but each with their own individual stripe. The North Macedonian duo of Dobrilla Grašeska (vocals, loops) and Dorian Jovanović (oud, loops) seemed to experience a few technical problems during their set, but that could not diminish the beauty of Grašeska's vocals or the sure foundation of Jovanović's rhythmic support.

Though Grašeska and Jovanović have played together in the folk group Chalgia Sound System since 2008, their duo partnership is much more recent, having only materialized in 2020. Yet they didn't waste much time recording their debut album Apocryph (Skopje Jazz Festivals Records, 2021), which provided the guts of the music in this showcase. In essence, these were folk songs pure and simple, with Jovanović's subtle embellishments gently punctuating Grašeska's emotive delivery.

In both voice and oud there appeared hints of Indian classical music, though given North Macedonia's geographical position and the tides of history, there were doubtless many more musical threads that keener ears would readily discern. Highlights included "Ti se armasa," a yearning Macedonian blues featuring a suitably aching oud solo, haunting interpretations of the traditional songs "Kirajdžiče"—that floated on a tanpura-like drone—and the stirring set-closer "Stojan mi bolen legaja," with its mantra-like vocal refrain and insistent rhythm. Folk songs of timeless beauty.

Braća Teofilovići

There is no instrument quite like the human voice and no vocal duo quite like Ratko Teofilović and Radiša Teofilović. The Serbian twins have been singing as a duo since the early 1990s, recording their first album, Čuvari Sna in 1998. Since then, they have been in demand all over Europe and beyond. Initially dedicated to interpreting Serbian folk songs, the brothers have gradually broadened their palette, turning their a cappella harmonies to the folk music of the Balkans at large.

No matter the provenance of the songs, the common denominator among the majority was their liturgical character—these were chiefly devotional songs. With eyes screwed tightly shut, as though in prayer, and palms held upwards imploringly, the duo's body language mirrored the music's feel of deeply felt incantations. On several songs, a brightly colored goblet drum provided thumping rhythms and a change of ambiance.

Tender evocations of lullaby-esque finesse rubbed shoulders with celebratory and even humorous fare. One song was rendered in unison, almost close enough to trick the ears into imagining just one singer. But two heads are usually better than one, and it was the power of the Teofilovići's a cappella flights—caressing at one pole and quasi-ecstatic at the other—that most stirred the soul.

Alkatmer

Having opened the showcases on Thursday evening, Adis Sirbubalo—this time on accordion—had the honor of playing the final showcase with vocalist/violinist Zanin Berbić. The Bosnian duo presented traditional sevdalinka songs from its eponymous second album for the Gramofon label, recorded at the Pavarotti Music Centre, Mostar, in 2021.

Boasting a rich tenor voice, Berbić led the duo through folk songs tinged with melancholy, with both instruments in a chiefly supporting role. Instrumental flourishes injected lively relief, carnivalesque at times, but these were fleeting. For the most part, Sirbubalo played rhythmic accompaniment with a light skip, or melodic bridges between Berbić's singing.

For those on the wrong side of the language barrier, the story-telling aspect of Alkatmer's music proved elusive. It was still possible, however, to appreciate the sincerity and passion in Sirbubalo and Berbić's elegant performance.

Wrap-up

Given that Beyond Europe ... was the initiative of EJN, with the music programmed by Jazz Fest Sarajevo, it would not have been unreasonable to expect a more jazz-centric program. Though there was jazz improvisation in Adis Sirbubalo's solo piano concert on the first evening, and jazz elements in Fish Oil's barnstorming gig on the Saturday, perhaps only Miron Rafajlović's concert fell squarely and unequivocally under the banner of jazz.

That said, in Rafajlović's music there were identifiable strands, sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger, of Romani, Arabic, and Jewish music—traits that were also present in much of the music heard elsewhere throughout the three days.

The takeaway from Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022 is that music is not hermetic. Like people, music travels, picking up accents and character traits along the way. The agenda behind the predominantly folk music of Beyond Europe Sarajevo 2022 may have been to highlight the diversity and beauty of indigenous music throughout the Balkans, and in that it surely succeeded in grand fashion. But it also served to underline music's ability to welcome and absorb other cultures—in short, to celebrate the common ground.

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