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St. Louis Symphony Presents 'Bosnian Journeys: Generations'

Maureen Byrne

After the devastating war that ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina from early 1992 through 1995, refugees began arriving in the St. Louis area. And now the Bosnian population here has grown to more than 60,000, making it the largest Bosnian community outside of that country.

This Wednesday evening, the St. Louis Symphony will present a free concert in its “On Stage at Powell” Chamber Concert Series called “Bosnian Journeys: Generations.”

Produced in collaboration with the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University and the International Institute, ‎ the concert will feature a multi-media look at the heritage of the Bosnian population in St. Louis – from before the war to the present day.

Excerpts of audio recordings of Bosnian immigrants, taken from the archives of the Bosnian Memory Project, will introduce each section of the concert, as the perspective moves through a storyline that begins with recollections of life before the war, to the war years and immigration to St. Louis, to the Bosnia community today.

Each of the eight audio segments will be paired with a musical selection performed by members of the Symphony – and accompanied by Bosnian musician Amir Salesevic. Much of the music will incorporate elements of Sevdah, the traditional folk music popular in Bosnia.

According to Maureen Byrne, director of Community Programs at Powell Hall, this concert is only the latest effort by the Symphony to connect with the Bosnian community in St. Louis.

“We have quite a history with the Bosnian community,” Byrne said during a recent phone interview. “Chris Woehr, who is assistant principal viola in the orchestra, has been presenting concerts at the International Institute for 10 years with his world music group, Strings of Arda. And in 2009, we presented a concert that included Sevdah musicians. But this concert Wednesday promises to be something special.”

Memory Project

The symphony’s collaboration with the Bosnian Memory Project was the key to obtaining the audio segments that provide the emotional framework for the concert.

Benjamin Moore
Credit Provided by Mr. Moore
Benjamin Moore

The project’s work began in 2006 at Fontbonne, when English Professor Ben Moore and History Professor Dr. Jack Luzkow decided to teach an undergraduate course: The Bosnian Immigration: Narrative, Memory and Identity. As part of the course, students interacted with Bosnians who had immigrated to St. Louis.

“That was the start of the Bosnian Memory Project,” said Moore, who is now director of the project, during a recent phone interview. “Our goal is to establish an enduring record of Bosnian genocide survivors through ongoing interviews. Over the years, we’ve gained the trust of the Bosnian community here, and we’ve recorded hundreds of hours of remembrances.”

Winnowing down the recordings to find the eight selections for the concert proved to be a challenging task in several ways.

“For the concert, we tried to include voices from different generations – from those Bosnians who grew up in the 1940s to the younger generation that grew up in the 1980s,” Moore said. “Initially, we looked at the subject matter and were able to begin the process with about 20 hours of audio. We then narrowed that to 45 minutes, and then finally cut it to 12 minutes for the concert.

“At that point, we played the final audio to a focus groups from the Bosnian community to get their thoughts and impressions. I have to say I’m impressed with the strength of what we’ve put together for the concert.”

Sevdah traditions

The musical content of the concert came together under the direction of Woehr, whose interest in world music led to a connection with Bosnian Sevdah traditions.

Chris Woehr
Credit SLSO
Chris Woehr

“About 10 years ago, my housekeeper, who had immigrated from Bosnia, gave me a cassette of music,” Woehr said during a telephone conversation from his home. “I remember I requested some Bosnian music, since I had heard her singing and humming while she worked. I was looking for something interesting to arrange for my world music group, Strings of Arda. Actually, I still have that cassette she gave me -- and the first tune in the concert Wednesday, “Passing Through Bosnia via Cities,“ was on that cassette.

The music Woehr found intriguing was Sevdah, and he has based much of the music at Wednesday’s concert on that style.

“In its flavor, Sevdah is a musical style that’s filled with emotion and longing,” Woehr said. “But it still has a forward, positive feeling. The meters of Sevdah songs are really driven by the vocals and harmonies. But for this concert, we’re taking an instrumental approach.”

That decision to make the Sevdah music instrumental was influenced by guest musician Salesevic, Byrne said.

“Amir, whose musical career was interrupted when he had to leave Bosnia at the age of 15, told us that we didn’t need to provide the vocals for some of the really well known and beloved Sevdah songs in the program,” she said. “He said the Bosnians in the audience would sing along to songs like ‘A Hero’s Farewell,’ which became the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo when the city was under siege.”

Free concert

In addition to being an emotional and reaffirming experience for the Bosnian community, Byrne hopes to make the concert memorable for more recent immigrants to St. Louis as well.

“We’re going to have two busloads of new immigrants coming to the concert from the International Institute,” Byrne said. “Most of these people have come recently from countries like Somalia and Bhutan, and we want to try and show them that they can also be successful starting a new life in this city.”

The free concert, a MetLife Music Without boundaries event, is also supported by the Daughters of Charity Foundation of St. Louis, and will begin at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. In addition to musicians Woehr and Sallesevic, SLSO musicians Asako Kuboki, Melody Lee, Becky Boyer Hall, Cece Belcher, Di Shi, Alvin McCall, Christopher Carson and Thomas Stubbs will perform. Concertmaster David Halen will also make a special appearance.

The hour-long concert will be followed by a reception featuring complimentary Divna Sljivovica (plum brandy) and Sarajevo Beer courtesy of Grand Prix Beverage LLC, and baklava from Grbic restaurant.

Technical audio support will be provided by Nelly’s Ex'treme Institute, and the concert will be recorded for later broadcast by Nine Network of Public Media.

Cudnah Jada (Strange Woe)

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.