Damir Imamović - The Sevdah Master of Sarajevo Photo credits: Edvin Kalić

Damir Imamović - The Sevdah Master of Sarajevo

July 3, 20207-10 minutes read

Written by:

Garth Cartwright

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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In spring the city of Sarajevo is shaking off the shackles of winter, the historic city’s elegant Ottoman beauty blossoming as the citizens emerge from winter’s hibernation. And this spring found Sarajevo once again in the context of lockdown, with a curfew imposed after 8 o’clock in the evening. It only lasted throughout April but it was enough to bring back awful memories from the times when the city was under siege during the brutal ‘92-‘95 war.

Also in this context the city finds itself with a new soundtrack as native sevdah artist Damir Imamović released Singer Of Tales, an album whose beauty and elegance matches that of the city itself. Sevdalinka is Bosnian folk music of great eloquence and meditation. It is rooted in Turkish culture from a time when Sarajevo was a major administrative centre for the Ottoman empire. Like any living music it is fluid and can be sculpted by the artist singing it – traditionalists might insist that it should be voice and saz (a long-necked lute) but since the end of the civil war following the dissolving of Yugoslavia wrecking carnage on the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina sevdah has shape-shifted and taken on a new urgency.

The Amsterdam-based Bosniak producer Dragi Sestic discovered both Mostar Sevdah Reunion and Amira Medunjanin in the years following the end of the war and their sevdah fusions have won them international audiences. More recently, cross-dressing sevdah-electro singer Božo Vrećo has drawn comparisons with Bulgaria’s Azis and become something of a Balkan icon for gay and women’s rights.

Imamović’s international profile is quieter than the aforementioned performers yet he has been working on his art for almost two decades. That said, he has performed from the US to China and Singer Of Tales, his seventh album, was recorded in Berlin with Joe Boyd and Andrea Goertler producing and Jerry Boys engineer (this trio previously helmed Saziso’s superb album of Albanian folk songs, At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me).

While the musicians joining Imamović are also gifted: Ivana Đurić (violin), Derya Türkan (kemenche) and Greg Cohen (double bass), all have remarkable pedigree. The dynamics of the musical interplay go way beyond language – only Imamović and Đurić speak Bosnian – and the resulting album is a 21st Century masterpiece. In the three months since the release, the album has been very well received, being at the top of several traditional music charts.

I first met Imamović several summers ago in Sarajevo and was impressed by both his music and winning personality. He had been scheduled to perform at the Barbican in London on May 1st, to promote Singer Of Tales but the Covid-19 pandemic ensured he stayed home.
Damir Quartet: Ivana Đurić, Derya Türkan, Damir Imamović, Greg Cohen. Photo by Samir CK
Damir Quartet: Ivana Đurić, Derya Türkan, Damir Imamović, Greg Cohen. Photo by Samir CK
What relevance does sevdah have in the 21st Century when everyone the world over listens to pop-rock-rap-dance? Why do Bosnians respond so strongly to sevdah?

Sevdah changed as all of us changed. It got modernized with time even without most of us noticing. The songs got shorter and closer to pop tunes as the time went by, electric bass was introduced already in the 1960s. Apart from that, it kept the strong connection with an old, poetic and musical way of telling stories - a way that is so intertwined with a way Bosnians speak. Also, I think it’s crucial that somehow a new generation always appears to give it a new spirit every time the genre gets tired and obsolete.

You are part of a Sarajevo sevdah dynasty: please enlighten readers as to your family history and what it was like to grow up in such an environment.

Music was always around. Traditional music as well as jazz, rock and pop records that I usually had to steal from my older brother. My dad played in the famous folk orchestra of Radio Sarajevo and sang occasionally so I remember going to a lot of his gigs, listening to some important older musicians. My grandfather Zaim was already retired when I became aware of music. He was a legendary singer and a lot of people visited because of him. His older sister, whom I remember very vaguely, was the one who sang before WWII and introduced him to the music. My older brother showed me his first guitar chords when I was 14 or 15. It was during the siege of Sarajevo. Us kids had nothing better to do so I started playing music.

Did you always know you would be a sevdah singer? Were you raised to be such or was it a calling?

No. Actually, I was running away from it. When I was a kid, everybody kept asking me when will I start singing. For some reason, I hated it. I played in parties with friends and loved it but always felt the pressure of family tradition to be too strong. Only in my late twenties did I feel the urge to perform publicly. I studied philosophy and got a job in a local publishing house. And, just by chance, a friend and I got an assignment to edit a song book of my grandfather. It was only then that I discovered not only what a beautiful and meaningful music it was but also that I would like to be a part of it. Most importantly, I felt the need to do something new with it.

Bosnia suffered awfully in the 1990s and has since been left in political limbo by the Dayton Accords. Is there a way forward? And if not, what future do you see for your small, divided nation?

What people usually don’t understand about Bosnia is the reason why we still, even 20 years later, cling to the same problems we had in the 1990s. The war was ended by the Dayton Peace Accord that you mention and that Peace Treaty became a constitution of the country. That Peace Treaty petrified the results of the genocide Serbian forces committed against Bosnian Muslims, ethnic cleansing and the war-time division of power. Of course a country cannot function in peace in the way it was functioning during the war. And we’re in this ‘limbo’ as you call it precisely because of that. All our other problems are just coming out of that major one.
Watching the trials of Mladić, Karadžić and such did you feel a weight being lifted? That justice was done?

Just partially. Because their criminal heritage lives on. They continue to be celebrated as heroes in some parts of the country and the values of nationalism, even fascism, ethnic division and mass killings still persist. Our ‘denazification’ was never done.

When the Swedish Academy gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Austria’s Peter Handke in 2019 - a writer who has been a prominent apologist for Milošević’s regime - how did you feel? Is this simply a matter of freedom of expression - Handke and any other artist can say what they want - or is it the honouring of a man who is a genocide denier and thus an affront to European arts?

I have never seen such a strong revolt against the decision of the Nobel Committee. Of course, you always have people who complain on different grounds, but the prize being awarded to Handke really provoked a strong reaction. Also, it is coming in the times of the rise of nationalism in Europe. Right-wing parties are gaining seats in parliaments, neo-fascists of all kinds are back and they have never been so loud. Us in the Balkans were often called ‘backward’ in the 1990s because of the rise of nationalism with fascist background. We were constantly reminded that we need to get civilized and stop those hatreds of ours that were deeply rooted in the past. Only today we see that we were not backward. Judging by the situation in Europe today, we were avant-garde.

Bosnia was a warning of the world to come if we, even just for a moment, don’t take Nazi sympathizers seriously - in the case of former Yugoslavian Chetniks and Ustashas were Nazi collaborators during the WW2: their supporters came back in the 1990s insisting that they were the sole possessors of Serbian and Croatian national identity. I remember us Bosnians (during the siege of Sarajevo, during the genocide in Srebrenica, during The Old Bridge in Mostar being torn down) crying out to Europe and the world: help us! Do not let nationalism kill us! Fascism is on the rise again! And just a few individuals in the West took us seriously. Unfortunately, Bosnia was not treated as a warning of the world to come.

Did the siege and Bosnia’s brutally forced independence imbue sevdah with a greater relevance? Or was sevdah always popular during the Yugoslav era?

Zaim said in his last interview (that he gave during the siege, just before he died): “sevdah will be sung after every war”. It was definitely prophetic! I guess wars bring about huge shakes of identity and traditional music is always about identity. That might be a good answer to your question about the relevance of sevdah. This music was very popular from the 1950s to 1980s. It kept its guard against other popular genres but somehow became obsolete in the 80s with punk and other popular music. All the new states that came out of dissolution of Yugoslavia tried to save something from its cultural heritage for themselves. I think Bosnians embraced sevdah stronger than ever partially because of this new need for identity.

You have committed your life to sevdah – what drives this dedication?

I see sevdah as my own standpoint in the world of music. It is a very rich tradition and when you sing it (because it is dominantly a vocal tradition) you always have one eye set on the East and another on the West. But I think these notions of “East” and “West” gain new meaning in this globalized world. For me it is a challenge to work on this new meaning. I see it as an ongoing process and it nourishes a lot of my creative processes.
Nenad Kovačić, Ivana Đurić, Ivan Mihajlović, Damir Imamović; sitting: Chris Eckman). Photo by Amer Kapetanović
Nenad Kovačić, Ivana Đurić, Ivan Mihajlović, Damir Imamović; sitting: Chris Eckman). Photo by Amer Kapetanović
Singer Of Tales is magnificent: how did this album come about?

Thank you. It’s been long in the making, three or four years in total. I met Greg in Croatia some 7 or 8 years back. He approached me after the concert. I loved his playing and was very aware of his work with John Zorn, Tom Waits and many others. We jammed in Berlin later on and I decided to invite Derya to join us. Derya is a living legend among Ottoman classical music fans. He was my teacher of Ottoman music when I was trying to research that strand of sevdah tradition. Having them both playing with me is a dream coming true. I celebrated my 40th birthday in Sarajevo in 2018 with a concert and invited both of them to join me. The violinist from my band Ivana Đurić joined us and the quartet was born. It was an instant magic that I felt in having those three extraordinary musicians with me on the stage.

Did you arrive in Berlin to record knowing exactly what you wanted to achieve? Or was it a more experimental process?

Well, at the same time I’d met Joe Boyd and Andrea Goerlter. We were introduced by a friend of ours and we spent a wonderful day together in Sarajevo. Their insights on my music and the music of the region all struck a chord and we decided to work together. We worked on the repertoire together, tried many different things. We wanted to tell a story about sevdah and my vision of it. That is why we chose songs from different periods with different angles on sevdah tradition. The whole of the album is a tribute to a famous book by Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales; one of the most important pieces of writing on the oral poetry tradition in the Balkans.

As to the actual recording - it’s so important for us performers to have a reliable ear to keep you in check. You are too much in the process, sweat and tears of the production, that you are not always able to see the whole picture. It is similar to the relationship between an actor and a director. It is about trust and joint vision. Joe and Andrea helped me a lot in the studio to bridge this gap and give me feedback in real time. And Jerry is a wizard, he achieves remarkable things as a sound engineer.

While you are credited with the arrangements of the songs most are traditional. Would you ever sit down and write songs ala say Bob Dylan? Or do you prefer to interpret the words from the sevdah masters of past ages?

Well, this album is dominated by traditional tunes because of the concept of presenting this story-telling tradition, its history and its different facets. That is why I have only two songs written by me on Singer of Tales. I wrote a lot on my previous albums, both music and lyrics. Actually, my most successful songs were ones that I wrote. I also wrote for other performers like Amira Medunjanin. But you can’t do everything on every album.

I’m aware that in 2019 you lead the first ever LGBT Pride march in Sarajevo and had everyone singing the anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao – fabulous!

It was such a beautiful Pride! I played an old sevdah tune “Snijeg pade na behar na voće (neka ljubi ko god koga hoće” (English: “Snow falls on blossom and fruit (let them love whom they like)”) and “Bella Ciao”. The first one because I strongly believe that sevdah tradition has a strong emancipatory voice and the second one, because it is crucial to say “no” to all the haters, fascists and homophobes of the world.
Does music offer a salve of sorts in difficult times? Is it a way of crossing borders and bridging divisions?

Of course, but music is weak. We shouldn’t put all the weight on the music or culture in general. I feel that the real decision makers are relieved when we talk about music as means of bridging divisions. As if music created it. It is never music that divides! It is politics and bigotry of the strong and powerful. Us musicians sometimes obtain some money and celebrity and we think we can have an influence. But, at the end, we all bow to the God of algorithm. It is the new power player in town and we have to invent a new secularism that would help us restrain this new god.

As The Attic is run from Bucharest have you any thoughts/experiences of Romania that you wish to share?

I think Bosnia and Romania share a big part of musical cultural heritage. From the Ottoman times to Communist aesthetics, etc. I’m a big fan of some of the beautiful voices of Romania such as Dona Dimitru Siminica or Romica Puceanu. Sadly, I never visited Romania, but I hope I will.

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* Singer of Tales is released on Wrasse Records and has been shortlisted for the Schallplattenpreis ("German Record Critics' Award") in the traditional music category.
* Main photo credits: Edvin Kalić
About the Author

Garth Cartwright

New Zealand born, London based journalist, critic, DJ and music promoter. He is the author of several books including Princes Amongst Men, More Miles Than Money, and Going For A Song.

@garthcart1 garthcartwright.com
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