Damir Imamović: “I just need to raise my voice whenever I can, whenever I feel I would hate myself if I stay silent”
One of the most innovative artists of the Sevdah releases a brand new album, Singer of Tales (Wrasse Records, 2020), with a title inspired by the mythical Albert Lord’s book, about the legacy of the epic oral poetry of the South Slavs. Accompanied by his compatriot Ivana Đurić, the American jazz bassist Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed) and the Turkish virtuoso of the kemence, Derya Türkan, Imamović prepares his definitive international takeoff with a work recorded in Berlin under the watchful eye of producers Joe Boyd and Andrea Goertler. In it, East and West merge into an accurate embrace full of unfathomable twists and turns.
“Music is music and once you start playing we never think about ourselves as ‘Eastern’, ‘Western’ or anything of the kind”
“In the region, we like to separate the whole of South-Slavic poetic and musical opus into genres and national traditions because we made a cult out of ‘small differences'”
“Ivana Đurić is just a brilliant musician. She is my musical soulmate and I hope to work with her whenever I can in the future”
By César Campoy.
-From the beginning of your career you have moved between two cultural and musical worlds that have influenced you: the Western and the Eastern. Working with Derya Türkan and Greg Cohen for this new adventure is further proof of that. It is as if each of them pulled one end of the rope, and you were in the middle, giving and receiving information. Do you think so?
-That is a funny picture, me on a rope. I think both Greg and Derya are such great musicians because they’re playing for the music. They always try to do what’s best for the song and not “pull the rope” in their own direction too much if the song doesn’t require it. I’m so grateful and humbled by their interest and dedication to the project. Music is music and once you start playing we never think about ourselves as “Eastern”, “Western” or anything of the kind. This world of sound that develops from our instruments have to sound coherent, same as the world we live is one and common to us all. Maybe it’s time we challenge this East and West division.
-What did you expect they could give you, and what are you learning from these great musicians?
-I think the casting of musicians was the most important thing for the musical identity of this project. Greg, Ivana and Derya all have strong individual voices and the very act of getting them all together was the first act of “arranging the songs”. They all do come from different places, just like the songs we play. I hoped Greg’s bass could give the songs interesting interpretations of traditional sevdah grooves, Derya’s and Ivana’s phrasing could unlock some new potentials of the melodies. I think my hopes came true.
-Have they adapted easily to your project? Everything flowed naturally?
-Yeah. It was fast. All three of them are extremely proficient performers. They have enough studio time under their belts that would suffice for several carriers. All went smoothly.
-Let’s talk about the role that Ivana Đurić has been playing, for a few years, in your career. The communion between you both seems absolute.
–Ivana is just a brilliant musician. She took on this traditional Sevdah violin style and is bringing it to another level. She is my musical soulmate and I hope to work with her whenever I can in the future.
-The September 2018 concert, in which you celebrate your 40th birthday, was the first time that all of you were together on stage oficially. At that time, was it already clear that you were going to record, or does everything come from that magical night live?
-Well. In that moment we already knew we’re going to make a record and tour together. But I wanted us to share a stage before that. Nothing brings the band together like sharing the stage. My 40th birthday celebration came as the great opportunity to do so.
-Joe Boyd, Andrea Goertler and you have been friends for a few years. Did you know that they had to be in charge of the production of this album?
-We talked about doing something together. Singer of Tales idea is something I was toying with in my head for some time, and we all felt that would be an important statement. Joe and Andrea work on each of their projects like it is going to be a classic record. I learned from them that it is the only way to do a record.
-How have they contributed to Singer of Tales?
-In all the possible ways I cannot even start to fathom. Since Dvojka, on which I worked with brilliant Chris Eckman, I started learning about working with a producer. When you are performing, you are in a different state of mind and you need someone to keep an eye on the whole picture while you are working on the details of performance. It is similar to the relationship between an actor and a director. Joe and Andrea are a wonderful and charming power-duo.
-And, what has been the role played at the controls by Jerry Boys?
-I have never in my life met such a meticulous person like Jerry. Once we decided to record in Berlin, him and I travelled to meet there and we visited 5 or 6 different studios in order to chose the one for the recording. He taught me how important the room is for the recording process. It is as if he’s always set to record not instruments but performance. He would come in the studio and clap his hands around the room trying to imagine us play there. If he liked what he heard, only then, he would ask about mics and technical details.
–Singer of Tales has been recorded, live, in four days, at the Tritonus Studio in Berlin. It’s hard to understand that this album didn’t have to be recorded live, right?
-Of course. I recorded all of my albums with the entire band playing and me singing at the same time. Over-dubs I do only to solve a technical problem and only partially.
-Your previous work, Dvojka (together with Sevdah Takht), had already been published by an international label, Glitterbeat. How does your contact with Wrasse Records occur, and what do they offer you?
-It was actually quite quick. After we started pitching the album to different labels, Ian [Ashbridge] from Wrasse came on board right away. He loved the record and saw a lot of potential there. It was very encouraging for us and we decided to go with them as the right label for this album.
-Evidently, the title of this album is a declaration of intent, from the book of Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, a capital work to understand, among other things, the oral tradition of the area. How did this book influence in your creative and artistic path?
-Sometimes the magic comes from formal structure of the music or poetry and not only from the content or the subject we’re singing about. The research of traditional culture of the South Slavs was always dominated by the content analysis and truth value of the old songs for nation building processes. Apart from some lonely voices in South-Slavic realm, The Singer of Tales by Albert Lord was the first monumental research that tried to understand formal inner workings of oral poetry. It may sound dry and not inspired, but any artist knows that a form is the queen of artistic process. It can open doors to new creation and inspire a rebirth of the tradition. It can also help us understand why telling stories changed so much from the time of great oral epics of the past but, also, what remains the same. That is why this little book is so important.
-For many years, the music of the region attracted the attention of musicians and experts as important as Lord himself and Milman Parry, Ludvík Kuba, Béla Bartók…; all of them foreigners. What did they find so enigmatic and mysterious? What were they looking for with such hunger and insistence?
-The interest from “outside” of this tradition helped me appreciate the whole of South-Slavic poetic and musical opus as a continuum. Us in the region, we like to separate it into genres and national traditions because we made a cult out of “small differences”. From the point of view of those foreigners, I think different people took on the research of this tradition out of different reasons. Some of them were political (Kuba), some of them intellectual (Parry and Lord), others took it on as a part of their own creative research process (Bartók). Wherever stories appear, people take interest.
-Let’s talk about the selection of songs on this album. Two of them (U Stambolu, na Bosforu and Kafu mi, draga, ispeci) are two of the most popular sevdalinkas of all time. Why did you choose these well-known pieces?
-Well. The whole of the album is structured as a presentation of Sevdah tradition and my work in it. That is why the record had to encompass very different strains within this tradition. Of course, a big part of Sevdah is its popular appeal made through some of the “big hits” from the past. I don’t do that often, but I wanted to tell that part of the story as well. I played Kafu mi, draga, ispeci in concerts for some time now, and U Stambolu, na Bosforu is inspired by one live version made by Himzo [Polovina].
-The story of O bosanske gore snježne is overwhelming, because it emerges from your meeting with Omer Ombašić, a Bosnian who had to flee during the war, and who lives in Sweden. He handed you the lyrics, and you played music full of melancholy and anger. Was it very complicated to devise those sounds?
-Actually, his daughter wrote to me about Omer’s poetry and traditional songs he learned from his mother and grandmother, the songs he wanted to share with me. I get a lot of there letters and not very many interesting things happen out of that. But this time I felt I was dealing with an authentic artist that dwelled in a very old idiom. We’ve met in Sarajevo and he recited and sung some of the tunes for me. I felt that the O bosanske gore snježne was not a traditional tune immediately after I heard it. It’s such a powerful song about longing for home, one of the oldest Sevdah themes.
-With Poljem se vija, Hajdar-delija, as with other songs on this album, you can create a perfect setting that makes the listener imagine the scenarios and the events narrated. Did you seek inspiration in interpretations such as those by Himzo Polovina, Božidar Ivanišević or the Montenegrin branch of Branka Šćepanović, or did you start from scratch?
-The influence of Himzo Polovina is probably the strongest. But what old arrangements from the Sevdah’s radio era (from 1945 into the 1980s) sometimes lack is the individual workings of the song. They paint everything with the same sound and I think, however important and beautiful they once were, both us musicians and the audience somehow got tired of them. That is why I always try to find new ways to tell the story musically. When Greg started improvising around the groove of the song, I felt that the bass line he came up with perfectly fit with the story. It had to be slow and dry but powerful.
-Let’s talk about Sunce tone, with text by Aleksa Šantić, which Himzo Polovina recorded as Laku noć many decades ago. That rhythm of waltz adds an extra component of tragedy and pain, and we can also find it in other pieces like Što te nema (Hasanagin Sevdah) (also with lyrics by Šantić) or Voljelo se dvoje mladih (Žute dunje). Could we talk (this special rhythm of waltz) about a subgenre within the Sevdah genre?
-Many times, 3/4 rhythms in Sevdah are accented as waltz dances (reminiscence of Austrian rule of Bosnia from end of 19th Century to the First world war). I experimented with other types of 3/4, with other accents, in my earlier records. From listening to a bit older tradition of saz players and other musicians, I felt that some of those 3/4s actually came from the East and didn’t always have the waltz accents. But in Sunce tone I decided to pay tribute to that very popular tendency of waltzing because it is also a historically important influence in Sevdah.
-For a long time your albums include songs composed by you. Here too, but, with Kad bi ovo bio kraj, what you do is recover a beautiful song that you created for the theatrical production Kad bi ovo bio film. Did you think it was the perfect time to record it with Derya?
-Yeah. That aksak semai (10/8) rhythm [a rhythmic structure of ottoman tradition] is something I learned from Derya a long time ago. While toying with it, I wrote the tune for a theatre play for the National Theatre in Sarajevo. I always wanted to try it out with Derya. I love the version we did together.
–Adio, kerida is another act of justice that, moreover, discovers Ivana singing. How important Sarajevo has been for the Sephardic community, and how important the Sephardic community has been to understand traditional Bosnian music, don’t you think?
-Jewish community in Sarajevo left an indelible influence in the culture of the city. Even after Holocaust, those traces remain. I think we need a lot more research into musical influences between city’s Jewish community and popular musical styles. Jews were an important actors of public life since the Ottoman times. Jewish singers in the first recordings from Sarajevo in 1907 and 1908 sing not only songs in Ladino but also sevdalinkas and other popular repertoire. And Ivana’s singing was Andrea and Joe’s doing. I have to admit that having shy Ivana sing is something that is beyond my persuasive powers. But they did it and we all fell in love with it.
-You incorporate a verse that does not usually appear in most interpretations of Adio, kerida: “Espera, en tu eskalera, tu vida entera, ma yo no vo vinir“. I think it was Eliezer Papo who discovered to you this lyrics. Where does that last text come from?
–Eliezer told me a story that this last verse (sung in a repetition of the chorus at the end) was written by someone from Sarajevo. In the Jewish community, it is sung as an integral part of the song. I couldn’t find better way to integrate Jewish part of the story of Sevdah on this record. Also, thematically, when you compare O bosanske gore snježne with Adio, kerida, you see that it is the same thing. Sephardic Jews longed for Spain in the same ways many Bosnians long for Bosnia: country they love dearly, but the country from witch they were expelled and had to seek refuge somewhere else. It created a love/hate relationship that is complicated but so true to the experience of many. In the same way, Jews sing about Spain: as of a lover whom they loved, but who rejected them.
-In Salko se vija, I would like you to explain us about those instrumental transitions, and how Derya and Ivana (demonstrating their great resources) combine and dialogue with their instruments.
-Depending on the song, I had more or less strict arrangements. But the way how their two string instruments would merge together, I have never arranged that. I was afraid of restricting their freedom. The first time we sat to play, I listened attentively to their relationship trying to spot a problem we would need to work on. But zero problems appear. Derya and Ivana treated the same melodies, each from their own stylistic perspective, and the overall sound came together out of their difference in playing the same (sometimes in two voices) but in different ways. Very different things can come together if you know how.
-In your albums it is also common to find not very popular and well-known songs. In this case, the example is Puhni tihi vjetre, which I think has an important sentimental value for you. Please, tell us about this composition and that almost naked interpretation.
-It is a lonely voice so I think it deserved a lonely, sparse or, as you say, naked interpretation. Sometimes I cannot say more about the arrangement than that. It is a feeling that you get, what work and what doesn’t. Also, we all felt we needed a song in witch Greg‘s powerful bass will be exposed.
–Gdje si dragi is also an important song in your career, which you already recorded, as a trio, on one of the most important albums of the modern Sevdah, Abrašević Live. Here you have preferred to keep that spirit, and record it as a duet with Ivana. Which is the reason?
-I love how Ivana plays that “vorspiel” or melodic intermezzo I wrote for Abrašević Live. Also, in the structure of the record, I so wanted to have one of the “poravna” (or so called “flat”) songs. In Sevdah repertoire, those songs are very important.
-The album closes with another composition of yours, Covjeku moje zemlje, a song to hope and the desire that the citizens of your country wake up and fight for a better future. How was that song born?
-I had a melody for a long time and just bits and pieces of the lyrics but I finished it during the recording process in Berlin. Although I believe in preparation, sometimes this adrenaline rush of finishing things up in the studio, trying some stuff you didn’t plan is very fruitful.
-You have always been a visible face of your country’s civil society in vindictive acts calling for a more plural and modern Bosnia and Hercegovina. Are you optimistic with the present and the future?
-Optimism and pessimism have nothing to do with it. It is not a question of viability but of principles. I would do the same even if I’d be a pessimist. We have no choice but to fight narrow-mindedness. In different countries it appears as different things on a political spectrum: nationalism, imperialism, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia… I don’t see that I do anything special. I just need to raise my voice whenever I can, whenever I feel I would hate myself if I stay silent.
-Possibly we are talking about your album with more possibilities of international projection. Do you agree?
-I hope so. From the comments I received so far, people from throughout the world are reacting very well to the very idea of this album. I hope it will be a significant step for me.
-You have played in several countries around the world, but now they are opening new and important doors in Europe, like the British one. Is it time to focus your goals on that internationalization?
-Since I started performing, I always played partially on the international scene. But since Dvojka I started to take it more seriously. I hope I can make music that would mean something to people regardless of where they’re coming from. After a concert in Leon, in Mexico, a couple of years back, a guy approached me and said: “I have no clue where are you from and I don’t speak the language you are singing in. But I understood all”. That is one of the most beautiful compliments I have ever received. The invitation from Barbican to play in London in May, and many other interesting concert invitations I’ve received for this year show that something is happening. We will see.
-Does your collaboration with Derya and Greg end with the promotion and difussion of Singer of Tales, or are other future recordings planned?
-We have a long tour planned. We’re going to play in UK, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands and many other countries starting April 2020. I can hardly wait to infuse this music with a live energy of the stage, and after that, we will see.
-How do you imagine the Damir of the future: alone, with Ivana, with Sevdah Takht, with different guests…?
-Well. I will continue playing in different formations. And solo is something I treasure from time to time. Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht is a band I will surely work soon again. I even have plans for the new album. But first, the Singer of Tales.
–Damir Imamović Trio: Svira Standarde/Plays standards (Buybook, 2006)
–Damir Imamović Trio: Abrašević live (Self-published, 2008)
–Solo: Damir Imamović (Gramofon, 2010)
–Solo: Svrzina Kuća (iTM, 2011)
–Damir Imamović Sevdah Takht: Sevdah Takht (iTM, 2012)
–Damir Imamović Sevdah Takht: Dvojka (Glitterbeat Records, 2016)
–With Ivana Đurić, Greg Cohen and Derya Türkan: Singer of tales (Wrasse Records, 2020)
Sevdalinkas: 150 joyas del Sevdah, por César Campoy