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Mia Hammond, Staff Writer

In 1992, an ethnically charged war erupted within Bosnia and Herzegovina. Shortly after the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina endured an era of great violence in its attempt to succeed from Yugoslavia. As Serbia and Croatia attempted to halt Bosnian independence, the multi-ethnic nation suddenly encountered a problem that it had never before encountered: racial and ethnic unrest. Following centuries of peaceful alliance, the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina were suddenly pitted against each other. Therefore began an era of “ethnic cleansing” that included tactics of murder and rape. According to History.com, around 100,000 people were killed in the war, 80 percent of them being Bosniak. According to the Women’s Media Center, 20,000 to 60,000 Bosniak women were raped in the war, with often their own families “forced to watch at gunpoint.” Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still healing from the wounds of the Bosnian War. Most ethnic groups live apart in separate villages and the children attend separate schools. In this time of great desperation and polarization, it seems nearly impossible to mend the ethnic gap within the multi-cultural nation.

However, some trailblazers are stepping out from the confines of the Bosnian severance and are petitioning for unity. Samira Merdzanic is one of these trailblazers. Merdzanic founded a multi-ethnic, multi-religious choir that focuses on music from all regions of the Balkan states, therefore creating a place of peace that is reminiscent of a time before the Balkan War. Indeed, Merdzanic proves that in an era of discourse, music allows people to unite in perfect harmony.

Merdzanic evolved as a musical leader long before the troubles of the Bosnian war.

“I grew up in a musical family,” Merdzanic said. “My father plays a small instrument like a flute, and my mother has a beautiful voice. We used to sit together in the night and sing our songs; that’s the way we grow up in my country.”

Merdzanic’s musical roots continued to thrive even after here childhood.

“When I graduated my school, I was actually an accordion teacher, but to the music school, I conducted and orchestra and I sang in the choir,” Merdzanic said. “So, when I came back to my city, some people in my town asked me to start leading the choir in 1996. So, I started work with girls, fourteen years and older. We work on traditional music; that’s our specialty, but we like to sing other songs, especially songs from American popular music; my girls like to sing more than Bosnian songs.”

Indeed, this diverse repertoire that Merdzanic’s first choir boasted has shown its influence in Merdzanic’s other choirs, one of them being the multi-cultural choir that has been a source of light within the post- war period.

“A few years ago, ethnic Croatians (from Bosnia) invited me to lead them too, and that type of group is called Klappa, and the main repertoire for them is klappa songs, songs from Croatia. Mainly the songs are from the Christian religion,” Merdzanic said.

Currently, Merdzanic is utilizing her talents in the United States, in our hometown of Jackson Mississippi. Scott Sexton, the Director of Choral Music and Fine Arts Department Co-Chair at St. Andrew’s, invited Merdzanic to conduct the Rhapsody Choir in a Balkan concert on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Sexton and Merdzanic’s relationship goes as far back to when Sexton met Samira through a summer music program in Bosnia. Sexton described his first time venturing to Bosnia.

“The first time I went I did not come by air; I came from Croatia, so I came on land, so I just remember beautiful country-sides, small mountains and rivers, and lakes,” Sexton said. “And then I came to discover that the people were equally as beautiful and they are some of the most hospitable I have ever encountered.”

As an American, Sexton has come to appreciate the unique intricacies of Balkan music.

“Most of the songs tell really fascinating stories about folk- life from many years ago, so a lot of the songs are very ancient; they are two to four hundred years old, so it’s neat that they tell stories of how life was back in another time,” Sexton said. “Musically it’s a little different from our music. It sounds different because a lot of their songs might be in a minor key or have a modal of sound as opposed to a major sound. A lot of time their time signatures are different. Whereas we just have regular four-four patterns, they have a lot of the seven-eight, and the nine-eight. It’s appealing to me because it’s different, and it’s a challenge for me, as someone who grew up in the United States, to learn in and count it; but it’s a fun challenge.”

Both Merdzanic and Sexton believe in the therapeutic effects of music and travel, recognizing the harmonious blend that music and culture can create.

“Music is a language which all people can understand,” Merdzanic said. “Through singing, we are connecting, sharing our traditions and sharing our culture. We travel a lot to different countries, making friendships with other people.”

“One thing that I have really learned personally is that every culture has beauty,” Sexton said.

Not only is Merdzanic creating unity within a nation of division, but she is also teaching the world of the beauty within our differences. Her choir is a microcosm of a peaceful tomorrow: a tomorrow that is blind to hate and open to love.

“It wasn’t difficult [to form the choir],” Merdzanic said. “There’s not any difference between them. The main thing that makes the group is singing and a love for music.”

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