Damir Imamović is pining for a curry. “We don’t have any Indian restaurants in Bosnia,” he explains, “and I’ve always wanted to try Indian food. Last year I was booked to play St Luke’s at the Barbican, the Brighton festival, Manchester’s Band on the Wall – it was going to be my first ever time in the UK and I’d been promised a trip to Brick Lane. I was so looking forward to it!”
Then the world went into lockdown and the Sarajevo-based singer and songwriter of sevdah – Bosnia’s folk music, comparable to Portuguese fado and French chanson in its dramatic narratives – found his entire year cancelled. Imamović’s album Singer of Tales had won great reviews, yet the pandemic dispelled opportunities to reach a new audience along with his hoped-for curry. “Being locked down in Sarajevo as a musician did feel odd as I’m so used to travelling,” he says, adding that it would be unfair to compare it to the siege he and his city lived under between 1992 and 1996 during the Bosnian war. “But I did feel a sense of cataclysmic deja vu: the empty streets, nothing functioning, everyone living in fear.”
Things got worse when his father was diagnosed with cancer. “I had to take him to hospital in the middle of the pandemic and then he and my mother both got Covid and I had to nurse them and …” His voice trails off and our Zoom call falls silent while Imamović composes himself, before explaining that his father’s cancer wasn’t late stage, yet Covid killed him. I can feel the hurt in his voice yet he speaks without self-pity or anger, even describing himself as “fortunate” due to not catching Covid, alongside having music to keep him busy and the mountains surrounding Sarajevo to hike in.
Anyway, he adds, things are looking up – Singer of Tales was recently issued on vinyl (it’s his seventh album but the first to both win wide attention and get an LP pressing) and last week he won Songlines magazine’s best European artist award, beating marquee names such as England’s Sam Lee and Portugal’s Mariza. “I didn’t expect to win,” says Imamović, “so it’s great to get the recognition.”
Aged 42, Imamović is no newcomer but, until now, he has been little known beyond the countries of former Yugoslavia, and the Bosnian diaspora. The Songlines award should help change this, and introduce sevdah, a music rooted in Ottoman times that’s been described as the soul of Sarajevo, to wider audiences.
“Sevdah is a specific genre of music in the south Slavic region that is concentrated in Bosnia, but also performed in Croatia and Serbia,” Imamović explains. “The Balkans had 500 years of Turkish rule so this explains its Turkish influences, but sevdah has never been sung in Turkish – it’s always been sung in Slavic languages as a form of oral poetry.”
Sevdah is mournful yet beautiful – commentators have also labelled it “the Balkan blues” – with songs focusing on the anguish of love alongside older ballads that tell stories of life on the border, rebellions, family relationships, and more. After Yugoslavia’s brutal dissolution young performers have renewed the genre with Mostar Sevdah Reunion and Amira Mendunjanin both finding degrees of international success.
Imamović’s father and grandfather were renowned sevdah musicians. But as an adolescent during the siege of Sarajevo he wanted to play anything but sevdah. Then as a philosophy student, he began forging intellectual connections with the music, developing into both a performer and historian: his book Sevdah is published in English and is very readable. Sixteen years into his career, he interprets traditional sevdahs alongside writing new ones, his exquisite tenor ensuring listeners who speak no Slavic languages can engage with the music.
“Sevdah has been shaped by a cultural mix,” says Imamović. “As with any living music sevdah exists in flux – some performers have turned it into Balkan party music because Goran Bregović won huge audiences by performing such.” Bregović, a Bosnian rock musician whose soundtracks to Emir Kusturica’s films (Time of the Gypsies, Underground) slickly repackaged Balkan Roma music as drunken party anthems, commands a vast pan-European audience. “That’s not my interpretation [of sevdah]. I see myself in the tradition of singing oral histories, a music for audiences to sit and listen to. Which isn’t as easy to market as Bregović’s ‘bring on the Gypsies, everyone get drunk’ bullshit.”
‘Sevdah tradition has a strong emancipatory voice’ … Damir Imamović. Photograph: Almin Zrno
His insistence that sevdah is a form of European art music might have kept from him those enamoured by Kusturica’s madcap movies but it won the ears of Joe Boyd and Andrea Goertler, who would co-produce Singer of Tales. Boyd’s production credits include Pink Floyd, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake alongside Cuban, African, Bulgarian and Albanian musicians; he and Goertler met Imamović in 2015. “We were entranced by his voice and the sevdah culture – both of us felt Damir possessed something unique that people should hear,” he says.
Imamović is equally effusive. “As a performer you can get lost in the music, and they challenged me as to my interpretation of sevdah: why this rhythm, that melody; what are you wanting to express here?” Backed by violinist Ivana Đurić, Greg Cohen on double bass and Derya Türkan on kemenche, a bowed string instrument popular in the eastern Mediterranean region, Imamović considers their music as “sevdah that’s looking outwards, not hiding in tradition”.
Imamović is getting used to being regarded as a spokesman of sorts for Bosnia. “Many people don’t realise how difficult it is to get noticed if you come from a small, poor nation. Bosnian artists really struggle because there’s almost no government support.”
In turn, he is scathing about the west’s lassitude. “Someone asked me ‘are you wiser as a survivor?’ and I had to sit and think: what is it we learned? Well, this is it – war, genocide, awful situations – can happen anywhere. Growing up in Yugoslavia we thought we had the best of both worlds – east and west – and look how we ended up! If we are not paying attention, not fighting for good things, then very bad things can overtake us. The world ignored Bosnia’s suffering at the hands of extreme nationalists for too long and, when I look at American and European populists, see how they are often rooted in old fascist parties, it scares me.”
I wonder if the 2021 Oscar nomination for Quo Vadis, Aida? – Jasmila Žbanić’s acclaimed film about the Srebrenica genocide – made up for the hurt caused when the Nobel committee awarded the prize for literature in 2019 to Peter Handke: the Austrian author served as the west’s most vocal champion of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia during the 1990s, and still refuses to describe the mass murders in Srebrenica as genocidal. “Jasmila’s film is superb and it’s forcing people to talk about Srebrenica, but giving Handke the Nobel shows how blind western Europe can be – he now swans around Serbia being given all kinds of honours,” Imamović says. “This is how fascism rises.”
On a more positive note, he suggests Bosnia, for all its troubles, is moving forward. “Sarajevo is so culturally vibrant, there’s really strong creative energies, great film, theatre and jazz festivals and, in 2019, we held the first Sarajevo Pride.” Imamović sang a sevdah and the Italian protest anthem 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.”
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