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26 May 14

Saving the Rich Sound of Sevdah

Celebrated Sevdah musician Damir Imamovic talks about past and future of a Balkan musical genre that is in danger of disappearing.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade

Damir Imamovic says sevdalinka is a musical genre that surpasses ethnic divisions in the Balkans. | Photo by Amer Kapetanovic

Music maestro Damir Imamovic is refreshing himself with a coffee and a snack after a hard day’s work in his Belgrade studio.

A philosophy student from Sarajevo turned performer of traditional Balkan folk music, Imamovic works within a genre that is popular in a number of parts of the Balkans known as sevdalinka.

Imamovic, who says he plays sevdah in a way that “even the most joyful ones sound sad and melancholic”, both plays guitar and sings in a trio of musicians called Sevdah Takt.

He performs along with Nenad Kovacic, a percussionist from Zagreb and Ivan Mihajlovic, a bass player from Belgrade.

Together they will perform at a small concert in Parobrod in Belgrade on May 31 for only about a hundred people and on June 6 and 7 at the Poezika festival in Novi Sad. Eric Vloeimans, a trumpet player from Holland, will join them at this concert.

Later this summer, they will play in Sarajevo, while Imamovic says their most important performance will be at a World Music Festival at Rudolstadt, Germany, from July 3 to 6.

The sound of sevdah music crosses national frontiers, he observes. Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, especially, formed “a common cultural space in which musician exchanged songs, lyrics and had a lot of things in common,” he recalls.

For Imamovic, sevdalinka is a musical genre, like blues or jazz, which surpasses ethnic divisions in the Balkans and cannot completely belong to any one nation or ethnic group.

He also maintains that sevdalinka “rises above the popular music whose value expires with time. It is more like flamenco, fado or tango – it has achieved a kind of artistic expression that endures.”

He sees the role of the artist performing within that genre as breaking down artificial national barriers and observing reality with open eyes.

“No musical genre can be connected with ethnicity,” he says. “That is maybe the story that brought us all these problems with nationalism.

“It is more interesting to see what is held in common in Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and parts of Croatia, than to see what divides them,” he says.

Imamovic observes that there are many historical layers to modern sevdalinka.

These encompass old songs created by unknown authors, passed down from the 18th and 19th centuries, to newer songs created within the oral tradition, radio hits of the 1920s, and another phase that began after the Second World War.

That is why sevdalinka is not only connected to the spirit of a time long gone but contains universal values, he says.

“Songs that are hundred years old have gone through many different performances, harmonisations and styles, but are still interesting for people,” he recalls.

“This means there is something in the melody, the way of singing, that is much more valuable than some pop hit that only lasts a few months before it’s worn out,” he adds.

The genre is especially interesting, he says, because it draws on several melodic forms that are present throughout the region.

“There is this strong tradition of Slavic singing, with long songs in decasyllabic meter, which is mixed with oriental influences from Islam,” he notes.

“Jews also contributed a lot to this musical scene, as well as the Orthodox liturgy that also came from the east. All these influences were present across the Balkans.”

Born into a family of famous artists in the sevdalinka world, Imamovic grew up with the sound that his grandfather Zaim Imamovic, a legendary performer of sevdalinka, and his father, Nedžad, both celebrated.

Although he at first tried to escape the same destiny by studying philosophy, the sounds of sevdalinka played on Radio Sarajevo during the Eighties came back to haunt him.

In his late twenties, he decided to become a musician. He has since released several albums and achieved success both in the region and internationally.

These days he uses his travels and performances across the region to add to his treasury of rare and forgotten songs.

“Whenever I get the chance to meet these old musicians, learn songs, collect information, I use it,” he says.

His fear is that the tradition will die out if people do not take more care. “Balkan music has always had that anti-intellectual attitude…which is OK, but no one has tried to retain all this for future generations, which will have to relearn everything from the start,” he says.

 “There are great songs out there that lie forgotten on some records or in some people's memory,” he muses.

To encourage more discussion about sevdalinka, as well as to document its rich heritage, in 2012 he started a project called Sevdah Lab. Its activities vary from film screenings to workshops with musicians.

Imamovic believes sevdah should be progressively shaped as an art and introduced to new people. They can then discover for themselves the rich spectre of emotions that it can produce.


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