Balkan Stories: Orphea on Oral Culture & Musical Heritage

Balkan Stories: Orphea on Oral Culture & Musical Heritage

Josie Carder interviews Jasmina Stosic and Jovana Backovic on their Balkan Stories performance as Orphea. Not So Popular takes a look into their contemporary approaches to traditional singing and melodies from the Balkans, as well as discussing nationalism, heritage and whether balkan music has become a product, categorised and labelled...

Not So Popular: Well to start with, you're performance was amazing. Perhaps you could introduce Orphea to us?

Jasmina Stosic: We are the band ‘Orphea’. Together we sing Balkan/South Eastern European acapella accompanied with electronic music. I am a singer and actress myself. Initially, I was just straight acting in the West End – but for me it got a bit boring, and I realised I had a whole culture and heritage that I’m not tapping into. I’ve always been interested in folk music, and my cultural roots, which is Balkan culture (specifically Serbian), and then I met some people who were on the Balkan scene in London who had studied in Serbia and Bulgaria, and I started getting into it. I started singing with a trio who did acapella Balkan music. So that was 2008, where my interest in this was brought to fruition, and then now I am alongside Jovana - who is of course an amazing musician.

NSP: Yes! We definitely thought so - Jovana can you introduce yourself a bit? Where are you from? 

Jovana Backovic: Thank you! Well, I came to England to do a PhD in electroacoustic composition, which I did, however, I was also writing about the Balkans since it was the music background of my work - specifically, Serbia. But I think of the Balkans as my homeland because, for me, just one little country doesn’t really contain all of it – it’s a huge heritage, and culture and songs have travelled across current national borders for dozens of years. Because of tat, I believe if you can’t put a border or boundary on a song, then you shouldn’t be forced to see yourself primarily through nationality. I think of myself as either from the Balkans or Yugoslavia, although, except in people's memory, Yugoslavia doesn’t really exist anymore.

NSP: How did you come up with the name Orphea?

JB: It derives from Greek Mythology, the cultural and musical figure of Orpheus. As the story goes, Orpheus wanted to get back his beloved from the underworld. He was a Greek heroic figure and famous musician; it was said that his music and song even had power over Hades. Orphea is a female version of that name - we do not need someone to save us, but we are hoping , that we might through song and music be able to help other people escape from the grasp of Hades, so to speak.

Orphea. Left: Jovana Backovic, Right: Jasmina Stosic.

Orphea. Left: Jovana Backovic, Right: Jasmina Stosic.

NSP: In your talk before your both sung, you said there’s a whole political side to music within the Balkans, but you’re more interested in the immediate – what can you take from it there and then. Do you feel like meaning is lost when politics come into play? 

JS: Definitely, I really don’t like the political side of things as it makes immediate ‘the divide’ that we experience so often in the Balkans. The dividing of cultures, religions, ethnicities. Whereas actually these songs we perform have universal messages – they are not saying ‘we are Serbs, we are Orthodox and these are our traditions’ – no. It’s about the universal principles and values. That’s what we’re about, even though we both happen to be Serbian.

JB: Yes, I want to highlight that the key to understand our perspective is that we both happen to be Serbia – it’s irrelevant, we could have just as likely been born in Asia. We relate Orphea to a more universal concept because we in our own way tried to go beyond the whole Christian paradigm – as it puts everything into a black and white perspective and we try to avoid this. Our songs originate from a time when the idea of being part of a nation –  nation as an idea – didn’t exist – the closest it came to in meaning was more of a tribal ‘we’. 

JS: I do think that we still have that in ways today - in Balkan nationalism. I feel our mentality is much more tribal, we don’t have a‘civilised’ western mentality.

JB: I’d say that we we're half way!

NSP: Is that why I've heard the Balkan performers this evening claiming that you’re all wild?

JS: Yes and no. This wildness comes about because it’s how we have been and continue to be perceived, and that’s what we play up to. Because when someone says ‘oh gosh, you're so wild, so exotic and untamed’, you feel kind of flattered and think ‘oh god! Am I? Look at me!’ When actually it’s not fully that. And there’s the other side of this wildness – which arguably is lots of boredom, monotony, and lack of progression in the Balkans.

JB: Yes, there are a lot of sides to it all. The whole mythology of the ‘wild people’ of the Balkans originated partly because of the writer and traveller Rebecca West. She wrote a book called ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia’. Basically she was travelling through the Balkans, and the people that left the biggest impression on her were those from the remote villages – I believe that in them she found some type of innocence which she loved. Unfortunately she overly emphasised this element and the urban - the rural divide between the villages and metropolitan centres of the Balkans. In a way, she over-romanticised the Balkan people, which was not hard to do - they must have seemed exotic and occasionally 'uncivilised' to her. The wars in the 90s did not help improving our 'image' positively, especially as the Western media's representation at the time was pretty one-sided. In a way, I guess the media always simplifies things...

Rebecca West at her writing desk.

Rebecca West at her writing desk.

NSP: That’s the things with the Balkans, you’re relatively unknown, especially in the West. So I guess it's slightly inevitable that you've been romanticised?

JS: Yeah, I suppose because we’re not politically and economically as out there as other global leaders, such as the Germans. What we have notably is our oral tradition to represent us and the music.

JB: Tonight however has been a great opportunity to witness two complete opposites in terms of Balkan music culture – one which is ‘pure’ tradition, such as our acapella performance and then on the other end of the scale there's this big brass band formed of people from all over the world [Op Sa! Balkan Band] playing what is usually known as ‘balkan music’. I think of it as a cultural construct, combined of many different music traditions and influences. But that's fine too - neither one of us can really go back and say yeah I know that song it’s a hundred years old, and talk of ultimate authenticity and belonging. I did learn one song from my grandmother, and she learned it from somebody, but who can tell where it came from? Balkan is a melting pot of many cultures. 

JS: Yes, like Jovana said to me earlier this evening, you can't exactly say you gone to a rural village in Serbia and seen someone play a saxophone? It’s a very western classical instrument. 

JB: Yeah, because honestly it’s about music becoming a ‘product’. So what you know more generally as ‘Balkan music’ is basically what we export as Balkan music for the West. Bregovic was the first one to do it, and he in a way set a formula. So this is how we in the Balkans look, how we are perceived and categorised to the outside world. Which is again unavoidable, as all people sort of need to generalise. For example, when people think of music of South America, the first thing that comes to mind is usually panpipes. It’s cognitive science, it’s how we think – we need to put things into draws, categories. It’s natural. But I think tonight was a good experience for the audience, because it was an opportunity to hear and see the difference faces of the same culture. To see different versions of cultural and musical reality of the homeland.

NSP: I see what you mean - and I must admit, I wasn't expecting you to sing what you sang. I don’t know what I expected though. Your acapella performance was very moving, whereas the band has been much more upbeat. They evoke different emotions. Can you tell us a bit about the context of the songs you were singing?

JB: Our songs derive from an older time; they are the songs of people at work, they are songs of personal and communal events which were truly part of everyday life. However, like we said we would like to avoid the usual claim to authenticity - because, for us, context is extremely important. We perform in a contemporary context and our lives are very much removed from what the life of a girl in rural environs used to be at the time. It is impossible to recreate the actual context unless you take the whole audience to the field to do some gruelling physical work and sing along (smile). But, putting these songs on stage, and having that performer - stage distance is also good - it leaves a space for people to interpret each song in their own way. Without any cultural baggage.

NSP: But there are people who do claim to perform the most authentic traditional music?

JS: This is a fundamentalist approach to sell authenticity, but it’s not – it’s their musical interpretation. I think it's good to always be weary of anyone trying to claim or sell you music in this way as everything is passed down through generations, and reinterpreted, so 'authentic' becomes a blurry term. 

JB: Yes, especially so as music crosses national borders and cultures. I heard recently of three ladies who were born Americans but loved the 'Balkan music' so much that they learnt Macedonian music. I listened to their  music and I couldn’t distinguish – I could swear they were from a village in Macedonian – but they’d never been to the balkans! It just shows that heritage is not necessarily determined by genes, but whether or not you feel that you can relate to music or tradition. That's how you can also inherit it, not through birth. If you are able to connect that strongly to the the music in this way, you can be Americans and still be as authentic as Macedonians in the village.

NSP: You guys seem pretty authentic too! You definitely didn't try to take full ownership of any songs, and you even stretched their origins from the Balkans and beyond to the likes of Syria. Can a song belong to a single place then do you think?


For those interested, Not So Popular recommends watching the heavily awarded and recognised documentary 'Whose Song Is This?'. 

JB: It’s all about the influences, you can't claim that a single song belongs to one particular place. The reason some songs last is because they are universal, and to be universal stands in direct opposition to a really narrow, nationalistic approach which tends to claims exclusive possession of a song. If a song survives it's because people find they relate to it across generations, time and space - they don’t survive simply because we are somehow conscious that we must preserve them, that's not how it works.

The problem that often arises in Balkans is the conflict of a variety of religions and new nationalities – if we were to say, for example, to a Serb that one song he was singing since childhood actually came from Syria he would possibly be incredulous.The phrase ‘they stole it from us’ is often used.  It’s a good example of the issues that arise from lumping nationality, heritage and religion together. For me, it was always very hard to define myself within those boundaries, but nonetheless people often refuse to see beyond their little yard and it's fence. I guess, it is still one of the most common traits of being human.


Orphea are the dynamic combination of singer Jovana Backović and singer/actress Jasmina Stosić, whose performances focus on the contemporary creative approach to traditional singing and melodies from the Balkans. Next to being an interpreter of traditional melodies, Jasmina brings strong theatrical and storytelling element into the performance, making Orphea a crossover between theatre and music.


Jovana Backović is a composer/singer born in Belgrade, Serbia, where she graduated classical composition from the Faculty of Music Art in 2006. While studying for her degree she founded, composed for, organised and led the ensemble 'Arhai', performing both arrangements of traditional music and her original works. Arhai's debut album ‘Mysterion’ was released in 2006 on the major Serbian label PGP.

As a UK resident, Jovana continued to create music under the name Arhai, moving toward solo performance using live electronics. When she was completing her PhD thesis, she began her collaboration with British folk guitarist and tambura-player Adrian Lever and developed the current format of live multilayered vocals ad electronics combined with Adrian's tambura and medieval dulcimer. This collaborative work was generously supported by Arts Council of England. Jovana also composes music for feature and documentary movies and her current interest lies within the field of electro-acoustic music and live improvisational performance – exploring the process of the creation and development of individual music identity through improvisation and the use of technology. Jovana's PhD thesis was completed 2014 at University of East Anglia, with the subject ‘Between Two Words: Approaching Balkan oral tradition through the use of technology as compositional and performance medium’.

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