In 2005, the Bosnian singer Amira Medunjanin released her debut album, Rosa, for Snail Records, run by Amsterdam-based expat Bosnian and producer Dragi Sestic. On that album, she was backed by Mostar Sevdah Reunion, a virtuosic ensemble who made a series of great albums with Sestic before music business shenanigans sadly broke up the original line-up. Rosa was a welcome introduction to Amira's clear, pitch-perfect voice, yet somehow not quite the sum of its parts.
Now, Amira has returned in a far more stripped-down musical setting, which suits her better. Zumra (meaning Emerald) was made with her new producer Merima Kljuco, who joins her on a bass-heavy accordion, at times sounding almost like an organ or harmonium.
The bulk of the material is still traditional sevdah, the generally slow, mournful folk music recently rebranded 'Bosnian blues', which has roots that go back to the Middle Ages. More often than not, these are plaintive songs of lost, unrequited or thwarted love, and the pathos needs no translation.
At the end of the 19th century, sevdah songs were typically accompanied by just accordion and violin, so their stark, minimal arrangements are actually a kind of return to roots. Even so, in an effort to reveal what they consider has been lost through repetition over the years, these interpretations put a radical new spin on well-known pieces.
The most obvious example is Mehmeda Majka Budila, a lullaby that recounts a disturbing dream. Kljuco's accordion weaves unsettling layers of dissonance, powerfully reinforcing the anguish in Amira's verses. Similarly, on Kuje - a song about a man shoeing his horse in the middle of the night so he can rush to his love's side - her playing is frantic and feverish.
Nevertheless, most of the material is beautifully sedate, such as Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano and in particular Zosto Si Me Majko Rodila, which has a yearning, unforgettable melody. Another highlight is Kales Bre Ando, an exquisitely sad song from Macedonia.
There are also a couple of humorous pieces that lighten the tone. Karanfil Se Na Put Sprema has a mother-in-law joke and a jaunty rhythm, while the closing Jo Hanino Tu Hanina is a Bosnian Sephardic song that finds them duetting in archaic Spanish and really shows how much these two enjoy working together. Let's hope they continue to do so.