The lights dim, voices hush and incense wafts from a burning brazier as five eclectic musicians take centre stage in the small intimate space of the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Saray Iluminado has arrived.
Bosnian-Australian artist Nela Trifkovic is the brainchild and artistic director of Saray Iluminado and has hand-picked some of Melbourne’s most distinctive musicians to sing Sevdalinka or Sevdah for short; a colloquially multi-layered form of folk music that hails from Bosnia and Herzegovina that is steeped in century old traditions.
Sevdah songs hail back some 600 years to the start of the Ottoman Empire and were mostly sung by women experiencing horrible marriages, broken hearts, and forbidden love. It was a curative release for women to unburden themselves through a song without the harsh repercussions from male discipline.
Saray Iluminado has a bygone charm that settles comfortably over you. I felt I’d slipped backwards in time and was privy to a wizen band of travellers singing and lamenting about one’s existence and of people, who in most instances are long since dead.
The songs are beautiful, mournful, yet soulful tunes radiating raw emotions.
Saray Iluminado is a superbly gifted bunch of musicians and each renowned within their chosen discipline.
Sevdah is not an easy genre to master, yet within the fold, we have five masters playing in perfect concert together.
Nela Trifkovic plays frame drum and is the main vocalist and sings most of the songs in Bosnian. Her vocal control, harmonies, and pitch are flawless as she incorporates the varying mixed and unhurried tempo of each song to perfection. Nela’s insightful yet light-hearted narrative leaves you full of expectations of what is to come, yet still draws you perfectly into the storytelling of the tune.
Her timing, rhythm, and overall control are perfect because it’s not easy to sing Sevdah music with the intensity of emotions as she does.
Ernie Gruner plays violin, mandolin, vocals and is considered one of Australia’s highly acclaimed leading Klezmer, (East European Jewish music specialist.) He is a member of The Bohemian Nights Duo. With numerous television, radio and stage shows under his belt, Gruner’s poised performance is a joy to watch. His serene disposition underlies the fierce passion he has for his craft, and it’s this very passion that exudes and enhances the instruments he plays.
Irine Vela plays the Cretan Laouta. She is the artistic director of the ARIA award-winning ensemble, the HaBBiBis that play Greek and Asia Minor music. She is quietly confident, harmonises beautifully, and is a subtle yet cohesive force within the band.
Dan Witton plays double bass, vocals and performs in Bush Gothic Band. Perhaps a bushranger at heart, nevertheless his pizzazz and relaxed showmanship enhance each song with texture and resonance that brings the double bass alive.
Kelly Dowall who was previously a member of the Australian Arabic Orchestra plays Ney flute, clarinet, and frame drum. She sits calmly yet commands notice in her presence. With eyes closed, she immerses herself and draws the audience into whatever mystical world of sound and emotion that calls her. She captures both imagination and heart, watching her is mesmerising.
The name Saray Iluminado is a regal combination of ideas and metaphors that appealed to Nela’s intellectual mind. It’s a phrase she put together meaning a castle or palace and is of Turkish origin.
The Bosnian capital Sarajevo means a place of palaces and the word Iluminado came via Spanish origins with a basic interpretation of illumination.
For Nela it is a metaphor of illuminated sharing, exchange, and combining cultures focusing on aspects that unite rather than separate people without losing their original qualities.
“I am a person of mixed heritage and perhaps there is something personal in this, although I wasn’t consciously aiming at this when I named the band."
Saray Iluminado’s music is intimate yet expansive because it opens you to a culture rich in history and century-old traditions. You’ll leave imprinted with the richness of their antediluvian world; a people who had no other choice but to share life’s hardships, love, and loss through the cathartic medium of song.
For more information and to follow Saray Iluminado, please visit the links below.
Terri Lee Fatouros