Damir Imamović: “I hate repeating myself”
After several solo and trio records, Dvojka is the second work of Damir Imamović with his project Sevdah Takht (the violinist Ivana Đurić has joined the band formed, also, by Nenad Kovačić and Ivan Mihajlović ). Recorded at SONO Records Studio in Prague, produced by Chris Eckman and published by Glitterbeat Records, it marks a new step forward in the artist of Sarajevo career, one of the top representatives of the so-called New Sevdah.
“I might be moving faster and all of the phases cannot be properly perceived but… I can’t do it otherwise…“
“I stopped obsessing over what Sevdah once was. My main question is what it can be“
“I think the time has come for artist to start using their brains and re-think this genre“
By César Campoy.
–Dvojka means many new things: New label, new producer, more songs by you. What does this disc represent in your career?
-It is hard to say, of course. Ask me that when we’re both 70. For now, it seems like the most important thing I did in my career. Reviews in international press, significant attention was drawn to it. And you are right: many new things at once.
-What are your expectations regarding the incorporation of Ivana Đurić in the Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht project?
–Ivana is an extraordinary violinist. I think she is the single best soloist on the contemporary Sevdah scene and her time is only coming. She brought at the same time traditional (Radio Sarajevo), 1950s sound to the band as well as imaginative expansion of that style towards what I like to do with this tradition.
-It seems, compared to the previous album of Sevdah Takht Damir Imamović’s, that the mood of the project has, now, more to do with the calm, reflection. There’s more serenity on this record, especially regarding on interpretive level. Is that so?
-Could be. There are some more playful songs (Sarajevo, Lijepi Meho) but I agree that there is something serene in it. I think that our producer Chris Eckman helped us relax in the studio and acted as our gate keeper for a while so that we could steel from tradition and inject our own things into it.
-In this point, maybe Đurić has contributed to provide a higher level of interpretive serenity, and, maybe, the percussion of Nenad Kovačić plays a less visible and more relaxed role in comparation with the first record?
-It is different that the first record: we were a trio before so we all had more space. In quartet we needed to rethink our individual spaces and I think it was very healthy.
-Are Ivana, Nenad and Ivan absolutely free when they are working with you, or are you the person who marks the guidelines?
-Yes, I’m trying to provide a space for them. I never wanted to have musicians just “filling in the space” when I don’t sing. Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht is a band, not a singer plus some interchangeable people. Sometimes ideas for arrangements come out of us jamming, sometimes I bring it, sometimes both.
-You’re a very restless person. You have had several projects over the years. There has been much change. Does a second album of Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht mean that you have definitely found the formula, the format to display your art?
-I am very happy with the band and where are we going. I love the solo format and will be doing that once in a while. But the band is my main thing. I think this music needs units in which people can develop ideas over longer time. That includes us growing up as musicians and artists.
-What is the reason for this continuous passion for change and evolution? Is there some fear, even on a personal level, to getting stuck?
-Yes. I hate repeating myself. I don’t think this music needs repetition. We had quite enough of that in the history of the genre and the result is a rich archive of the public radio in Sarajevo. I know our scene is not that large so I might be moving faster and all of the phases cannot be properly perceived but… I can’t do it otherwise…
-Let’s talk about that composer facet. You’re one of the few people of the considered New Sevdah that has definitely lost the fear to compose their own songs. Is it a decision that took a long time to take?
-I started doing that timidly. My first was the melody for Dva se draga back in 2007. Since than I was encouraged and the last album is full of my own work. It did take a long time. And I don’t regret that. It takes time to learn the idiom and to find your own place in it.
-Are you very strict when you are creating?
-Theatre works taught me to be less strict. You need to succumb to the collective and to let some things pass even if you’re not completely satisfied but they work in the whole picture and that is what the process demands. That taught me a lot about writing. Still, when I record my own tunes, I’m very strict as to what does it mean to me, to the band, to the music.
-You compose (Pjevat ćemo šta nam srce zna) for Amira on his latest album (Damar). Do you establish differences when you are creating for yourself or for another artist?
-Yes. I wrote one song for her and I think that is exactly the song she needed. I’m not a professional composer who constantly has a pile of songs to offer. I’m working slowly, I need the whole picture, the understanding of the performer, his/her vision for what they want to say. The worst thing is to write for someone who doesn’t know where (s)he is going. Amira is very concentrated and we understand each other very well. We started roughly about the same time and tried to emancipate this music from cafe society attitude. I think this struggle is still going on.
-What parameters do you use when you are composing and planning each of your works? What are the minimum standard elements (subject, sound, structure) that must fulfill a sevdalinka?
-I don’t use “parameters”. When I practice, when I teach, when I perform, I use standard elements of style: mekam influenced scales [maqam is the system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music], typical rhythms, harmonies. But when I compose, I try to forget all that. I count on my subconsciousness to hold it within the framework of Sevdah. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I write something that I don’t feel is enough “Sevdah-like” but when I play it to the band, they hear a quite traditional tune. Audience as well: I was praised for singing “good traditional stuff” in cases where I actually wrote them and cursed for “jazzing it up” when performing something totally traditional. I stopped obsessing over what Sevdah once was. My main question is what it can be.
-You represent the most intellectual, academical, scientist side in the New Sevdah. Do you think it is essential to start from these bases of study, historical, when trying to build the future Sevdah?
-For a long time an intellectual dimension was absent from this music. The business of thinking was done by academics (ethnomusicologists and literary theory people alike) and musicians were supposed “just” to play. I think the time has come for artist to start using their brains and re-think this genre. That is the most important revolution. That is why I don’t see myself as “academic” (plus: I don’t have an academic position, I don’t strive for an academic title, I’m a professional musician earning a living from my concerts). I’m a Sevdah guy and as the Sevdah guy I’m re-thinking this genre. I refuse to exclude intellectual dimension from the creative process and adopt an outsider’s perspective to the genre. Isn’t it strange that the very “knowing things about Sevdah” is automatically proclaimed an outsider’s (academic, scientific, journalistic) approach?! Why can’t I know things as a Sevdah-guy. Do you understand my problem with this?
-Is it easy to combine that intellectual element of research with the element that emerges from the passion, the heart, the soul, of the irrational?
-It is the most interesting question. My understanding is that mental is always emotional. I don’t see the divide. For example, mental barriers are so frequently emotional and I know many people who refuse to see the obvious because they are emotionally incapable of handling it. Practically, you can call it emotional or intellectual, the result is the same. Sevdah is a great training in that: you have to be able to cry with your mind and think with your sweaty fingers. If you don’t train that, you are just another cafe society performer: cute but irrelevant.
-Why are there so few people who dare to compose new sevdalinkas? Is there too much fear of criticism from traditionalists?
-No. We know about this tradition more than most conservatives. On contrary, I see many people trying to compose in the “Bosnian traditional style” or in the “sevdalinka style” and they get disappointed after they are not recognized as “Sevdah”. Simply, it takes a lot of time to learn the idiom of this music and not many people take that time.
-You’ve shown that sevdalinka can have a vindication element, with lyrics like Sarajevo. To what extent can the Sevdah help to make a more just world of this world, to raise awareness?
-I really don’t know. Younger people recognize the impulses in these songs. They feel they have an ally in popular culture. Maybe that is enough for a small revolutions of mind to happen?! I don’t know. I opened in my lyrics many new topics that Sevdah never handled and it confused many people. They swallowed my abstract arrangements after ten years, they swallowed my non-folkish, leftist political attitude, but I’m not sure how will they on a long run handle my changing the focus of Sevdah. We’ll see. Conservative people will always hate new things and progressives sometimes cannot recognize the change is coming…
-Are art and culture the only two hopes for that, finally, BiH can wake up and escape from pessimism and stagnation?
-Individuals and small collectives are the proof that not everything is pessimistic and stagnating. Apart from art and culture, they are also some good examples of that in other industries. But for the general change, real politics has to do its part.
-What has to change so that BiH can have, finally, a strong civil society?
-To be honest, I have nothing interesting to say about that…
-People talks a lot about New Sevdah projection, about the “Golden Age of New Sevdah”, but that New Sevdah is about celebrating two decades of life. Are we not at risk that, if we keep repeating patterns and structures, we end up staying stuck? I’m talking about (and this is not your case) to continue using the same stylistic parameters in recordings, album after album; to continue to base those recordings and repertoire only in classic songs, and not look for something more original. Can’t it, all be detrimental to the future of the genre?
-Yes. Both with performers as well as those who provide infrastructure for Sevdah (radio hosts, academics, critics). They just don’t notice how big a work has been done in recent two decades by individuals who created this new movement. Mostly they’re uninformed, without any international perspective, not being able to value music that is being created without foreign press providing the context for them. Younger performers often see Sevdah as just a repository of “new old songs”. As soon as their audience gets tired of 10 sevdalinkas they started with, they switch to pop or folk. That lack of awareness that Sevdah is the genre in which you need to have (as we talked above) also “an intellectual” dimension, that you need to spend some time in mastering it, that almost killed Sevdah as a genre in 1960s and 1970s. And is about to attempt at killing it again (by turning it into a pop-folk, Eurovision-like bullshit). They are not aware of it but conservatives are the leaders of this movement of killing the art of Sevdah.
-Fortunately, the Sevdah has each day more international projection, and every day more people are discovering it and enjoying it. At what point or phase is the genre, both locally (BiH, Balkans) and externally?
-It struggles locally with the lack of infrastructure and is usually won over by turbo-folk stars. That is what people usually listen to and Sevdah is becoming more and more an artistic form for a minority audience. Internationally, some of us are having great advancements in our careers individually but we can do just as much for Sevdah as the genre. There is no serious promotion without state funds being allocated into promotion of this genre internationally and I don’t see that happening in any systematic way.
-Under your point of view, what names will shape the future of Sevdah?
-It’s hard to say. Amira is here to stay, for sure, but I’m not sure that she want to be just “a Sevdah singer”. We’ll see. In recent 10+ years the whole scene changed completely and many popular projects stopped playing Sevdah (or music in general). It is early to say, perhaps.
-Studious of Sevdah, instrumentalist, singer, composer, producer… Your grandfather’s figure (Zaim Imamović) is what inspires your path?
-The art is in imitating the process, not the result.
-In an interpretive level (instrumentalist, singer…), what do you think is still your weak point? What do you think you should continue to work more intensively to improve?
-Everything. Sometimes working on rhythm helps your breathing, sometimes working composition helps your understanding of the lyrics. That is why I’m still trying to work on it all.
-What are you working at, short, medium and long term?
-My biggest struggle is to work simultaneously on creative and business side of my Sevdah adventure. There is so much work in promoting, traveling, finding appropriate platforms for your music, while at the same time rehearsing and keeping it creatively interesting. My long term project is also the instrument “tambur” which was made for me by two excellent luthiers: Ćamil Metiljević and Mirza Kovačević. I recorded Dvojka with it and we are currently making the new version of it. My dream is to (re)connect the sonic world of saz with the sonic world of band/orchestral arrangements. In singing, my long term project is to take the most interesting melismatic [the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes] and other elements of Sevdah singing and develop it further: in improvisation, in new composition…