One-on-one | Culture

Damir Imamovic: “If someone expects a sevdah singer to stay put, I won’t be their favorite sevdah singer”

By - 19.05.2017

Performer and sevdah theorist talks music, politics, nationalism, and tradition.

Damir Imamovic has been described by many as one of the representatives of the “new sevdah,” a fresh wave of modern interpretation of the traditional Bosnian folk music. Alongside performing, he is a theorist of the genre, and an author and co-author of several books. Imamovic also regularly conducts “Sevdah Lab,” a series of lectures he describes as “a travelling laboratory of sevdah.”

The 2016 album “Dvojka,” that he is currently promoting, was released by world renowned label Glitterbeat, earning it international attention. The Huffington Post refers to him as the “king of sevdah,” while The Guardian writes that his work offers “a new approach to Balkan blues.”

He has performed both independently and with bands, including his current assemble, Sevdah Takht, made up of percussionist Nenad Kovacic, bassist Ivan Mihajlovic, and violinist Ivana Djuric.

K2.0 sat down with Imamovic in between performances in Serbia and Macedonia, to talk music, politics, and the philosophy behind sevdah.

Photo: Rade Markovic.

People call you the voice of “the new sevdah” or the “fusion of sevdah,” next to Bozo Vreco, Amira Medunjanin, and the Divanhana group. How do you feel about these labels?

Well, many of these labels were given to what I started doing more than 10 years ago. In the meantime, others came who have somehow come under that banner, so people had to name us somehow. Honestly, I believe that this scene still awaits the right chronicler.

Your work is often related to the legacy of your father Nedzad, and grandfather Zaim Imamovic, who was a legendary sevdalinka interpreter. Despite this early exposure to sevdah, which other music and performers have influenced your work?

There are many young people whose music inspired me: Anouar Brahem, Ravi Shankar, Kayhan Kalhor, Miles Davis.

When did young people start to become interested in sevdah again? What was the turning point, do you think? Many mention the band Dertum as an important factor in this newly found fascination for sevdalinka

There were several. Dertum inspired interest at first, and Mostar Sevdah Reunion made a breakthrough in the international market. Perhaps I was the first one to try out something “non-popular.” We all started something, but I don’t think that we all have some kind of similar aesthetic and approach to sevdah. Everyone started something from their own vision.

Sevdah is an exceptional art form that plays a part in the emotional upbringing of many people. It is on the other side of everyday politics, a longer and more substantial influence.

You are not only a performer, but also a theorist of sevdah. In your lecture titled “The ten most common myths on sevdah,” you analyze the “truths” and break down many myths — from the myth of exceptionalism (“nobody can be like us” and “you have to be born with it”), to the point where people think that in sevdah everything revolves “exclusively around the popular works” and that “sevdah is exclusively a feeling, and that there aren’t any musical regularities.” Where does this urge to analyze come from and would you say that looking at sevdah has changed recently?

Well, I think it has. After more than 10 years of working, I notice many changes. As for that lecture, a few years have passed, and I think it actually did a lot to open some new perspectives. However, I believe that this is a struggle in the long-run and we have to do a lot more about it.

Can this new wave of sevdah serve to change widespread ideas, and the divided roles that exist in traditional sevdah, and how much do you think about it when you start writing?

Personally, it is important, but I don’t think it is to everybody. In the long-run, I think that we can do a lot more as sevdah is an exceptional art form that plays a part in the emotional upbringing of many people. It is on the other side of everyday politics, a longer and more substantial influence.

In the same lecture you mention nationalism, or rather the fact that sevdah is seen as a corresponding notion with one ethnic group. Did this idea only pick up traction after the nineties, and how much has politics influenced sevdah?

These kinds of ideas have existed in these areas for almost 2 centuries. Romanticism taught us self-love, and nationalism added contempt towards the other and the different. Today, it is up to us to painstakingly work to dissolve the layers that mean we nowadays live in poverty and with the deprivation of our rights. It is a long and complicated process in which, at times, the biggest domestic traitors will be those who refuse to see the guilt of the others in everything.

Could there then be any talk about ‘autochthonous music’ in the case of sevdah?

In the sense that there are parts of the genre which have been completely created in our area, then most certainly yes. But many of its elements came with the armies that passed through here, I mean that both metaphorically and literally.

I’m not one of those people who think that artists are especially in charge of politics: as citizens, we are all in the same boat. Because of that, we should all care.

Is it possible to even split culture from politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or the Balkans? How much importance do you attach to it, and how much does it influence your work?

I don’t think it is possible to detach politics from culture anywhere. Real-politics and the long-term one, the one that tends to deal with sociality itself. As a citizen, I am highly interested in politics. I’m not one of those people who think that artists are especially in charge of politics: as citizens, we are all in the same boat. Because of that, we should all care.

Do you receive support from structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, either logistical or financial aid?

Support from institutions is mainly declarative; or limited to distributing a few thousand silly marks for which they make you jump through hoops. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands, millions even, are distributed to them while they smile in our faces. Honestly, a state should have an idea about what to do with its culture. But I feel sick when they start “having ideas,” and it’s then I feel nostalgic for the times when they had no ideas.

You graduated in philosophy. Does that part of your life influence your work? Should philosophy be attributed to this desire for dissolution, for a greater understanding, and for defying categories?

I think that my music wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t dealt with philosophy. By saying this, I don’t mean my passion for investigation, demolition and composition, but the performance itself. I do really mean that the music itself would be a lot different if it wasn’t for my studies in philosophy.

Imamovic performing with Sevdah Takht, including violinist Ivana Djuric (right) who Imamovic believes has added another musical dimension. Photo: Rade Markovic.

With this album you extended the setup of your band to Ivana Djuric who is playing violin. In which way did the introduction of an additional instrument change the creative process and the music itself?

Simultaneously Ivana introduced the traditional sound of the sevdalinka violin, but also the new more abstract moments. I think that we got a dimension that colored everything, so I can’t think of my music without her.

You have performed independently and with a band. What are the challenges in each of these ways of performing? What is the secret of Sevdah Takht’s success? Bearing in mind that you are almost a miniature Yugoslavia, I believe it isn’t easy to organize…

Honestly speaking, it isn’t that difficult. It’s important that everybody wants to do it and that they find time for it. It is even supportive, because wherever we meet — we work a lot. If we lived in the same city, we would probably spend a lot of time on drinking coffee and making deals…

The song “Sarajevo” was great, because it presents a somewhat different picture of the city; less romanticized, less flat. Where did your vision of Sarajevo come from, and why were there such stark reactions?

I don’t know. Even though people mostly like it. If somebody expects that the role of a sevdah singer is to stay put, then I think I won’t be their favorite sevdah singer. It’s the same with the songs, and their attitude towards the city.

I’ve caught you at a moment between concerts in Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. Is there a difference in the ways your audience respond to sevdah and your performances in different countries across the region?

The only difference is how familiar people are with my work. At first, audiences often go expecting an old-fashioned sevdah and then they are surprised when they see the new life of sevdah. Some get scared and don’t come again, while some have respect for innovation, and come back.

What are your plans for the future? Are you staying part of Sevdah Takht or are you working on other plans, other projects…?

I love Nenad, Ivana and Ivan, a lot, as people and as musicians. Takht is a project which I count on in the long-run, and I hope that we’ll be fresh and inspiring each other for a long time. Of course, we all do other projects beside Takht, but what we have in common is special. I plan to do some cooperation, but Takht is here to stay.K

Feature image: Rade Markovic.