Amira, “Amulette”

November 28, 2011
By William Tilland

The subtlety and silky finesse of this recording is such that it can float right past the listener, which would be a shame given its extraordinary quality. One theoretical problem is the language barrier. Amira is a Bosnian originally from Sarajevo who sings in her native tongue, and for those who require the literal understanding of a lyric for maximum appreciation, something may be lacking.  However, the voice can be appreciated as just another (albeit very expressive) instrument, so this is obviously a matter of personal preference and taste.  The ten traditional songs on the program, all dealing with various aspects of love and personal relationships, are from Serbian, Macedonian and Bosnian sources.  They are not given literal translations in the CD liner notes but good summaries of each lyric are provided, along with the original text.  The program is divided almost equally between ballads and mid-tempo numbers.

The two things that make this CD exception are Amira and her backing band.  Amira’s singing style is known as “sevdah” (loosely translated as “yearning”), which aligns it with the “duende” (i.e., soul) of Portuguese fado or Cape Verdean morna.  But while there is soul aplenty in Amira’s gorgeous voice, she consistently understates the lyric, drawing in the listener rather than delivering the overwrought sonic assault that is often associated with both fado and a wide variety of volatile, highly extroverted Balkan vocal music.  The heart-on-sleeve (or sometime, the heart-being-ripped-from-the-body) anguish of much of this music undoubted has its appeal, but Amira’s purity of tone and her restraint are much easier on the ears (and emotions) without ever degenerating into blandness.  She has been called “Bosnia’s Billie Holiday,” and while her voice is not at all similar to Holiday’s, the comparison is clearly apt in relation to her ability to inhabit a lyric with taste and nuanced sensitivity.

The other half of this impressive musical equation is supplied by producer, arranger and pianist Bojan Zulfickarpasic, otherwise known as Bojan Z, who was born in Belgrade and has a considerable reputation as a jazz artist, especially in France, where he has won numerous honors.  To say that Bojan Z and his trio (assisted by guitar and accordion on several tracks) gives these traditional songs a jazz “treatment” would be a gross oversimplification.  Nowhere on the CD is there a sense of the music being altered to conform to a jazz template.  Instead, Bojan Z’s arrangements work with the traditional melodies, modes and rhythms, with piano, bass and percussion embellishing and improvising within a prescribed framework.  Bojan Z’s own playing is the pianistic equivalent of Amira’s vocals – understated and highly sophisticated.

The opening track, Bele ruze, has Amira supported only by Nenad Vasilic’s lyrical double bass. Several other tracks use hand percussion to accentuate ethnicity.  The production uses just a touch of a synth wash on several pieces and on “Grana od bora,” prepared piano is introduced for a bit of an experimental edge.  “Omer beze” has Amira warbling modally against the classic Balkan umpah, umpah, umpah beat, with Bojan Z improvising with a playful, almost boppish figure during the instrumental break.  It’s just one of many delightful little touches on this uniformly elegant and fully realized CD.

World Village
10/10

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