Damir Imamović: Singer of Tales

September 22, 2020

Loving Melancholy

Listening Post 271. As a boy during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-96) Damir Imamović took advantage of confinement and learned to play guitar. He didn’t envision a music career, but after earning a philosophy degree and landing a job in publishing, fate approached him, dressed as an assignment to edit a book on the songs of his grandfather, Zaim Imamović, a leading sevdah artist of the twentieth century. By the time the book was published in 2004, Damir had fallen in love with the Bosnian folk genre and embraced it. Like fado, blues, tango and rebetiko, sevdah is an urban folk style with its own romantic-melancholy tones and melting-pot influences. The younger Imamović has pioneered a form that resonates with new urgency but remains faithful to the old storytelling art. In addition to a singer-composer he is an author and educator; on Singer of Tales, his seventh album, he chants in Bosnian with exquisite sadness, not only of thwarted and forbidden love but also of identity, exile and war. Imamović’s voice is finely balanced, pulled east by Derya Türkan’s kemenche, west by Greg Cohen’s double bass and down to the Balkan roots by Ivana Đurić’s violin. Longing and hope coexist in the contemporary lament O, bosanske gore snježne (Oh, the Snowy Mountaintops, video 1). The classic U Stambolu na Bosforu (In Istanbul On The Bosporus Shore, video 2) radiates nostalgia for bygone Ottoman days. The Ladino song Adio kerida (Goodbye My Beloved, video 3) pays tribute to Sarajevo’s historic Jewish community—part of the cultural mix that produced sevdah—and serves as a reminder that Bosnia once welcomed rather than produced refugees. And Čovjeku moje zemlje (To The People Of My Country, video 4) enjoins Bosnians to be “Greater than your fears/Stronger than your sorrow.” Addressing the yearning of one people, Singer of Tales extends a bridge—of sighs and wonders—to hearts everywhere. (Wrasse Records)

Damir Imamović: Singer of Tales
Damir Imamović: Vocals, tambur, guitar
Ivana Đurić: Violin, vocal harmony
Derya Türkan: Kemenche
Greg Cohen: Double bass

Lyric translations into English by Amira Sadiković


O, bosanske gore snježne / Oh, the Snowy Mountaintops
Lyrics & music: Omer Ombašić
From the album notes: Omer Ombašić learned about the art of sevdalinka while growing up in Vlasenica, a small town in Eastern Bosnia. He wrote this song inspired by the desire to return home some day—one of the eternal themes of sevdah. For most Muslims expelled from Eastern Bosnia in the 1990s, this longing is always interlocked with their memories of the magical River Drina. Omer still lives in Sweden.

(From the Bosnian lyrics)
Oh, the snowy mountain tops/Oh, the longing sevdah songs
Tender are your dawns/Our courtyards and gardens
Glimmering with dew drops

If only I could return/If only for sojourn
To Bosnia and its peaks/That hold my memories and dreams

Sing to quench my soul’s thirst/Let ancient sevdalinka burst
Let beauty shine a light/On Zemka’s face, warm and bright
Sing a song of sevdah by the Drina/Let me hear about the pride of fair Fatima


U Stambolu na Bosforu / In Istanbul, On The Bosporus Shore
Trad., Arr. Damir Imamović
Album notes: I have never been able to find anything reliable about the origin of this song. It was recorded in 1942 by Edo Ljubić and again in the 1960s by my grandfather, Zaim Imamović, and by Himzo Polovina. Probably of recent origin, the song represents a memory of the long-gone days of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

(From the Bosnian lyrics)
In Istanbul, on the Bosphorus shore/The old pasha lies in pain
His soul about to depart/Thoughts he cannot restrain
Prayer is his salvation/As from the minaret he hears the muezzin
His voice delivering: “Allah ill Allah, salaam alaikum!”

The sad pasha in his palace/On the throne he rests
Calling all his dervishes/Softly he speaks
His heart knows what is coming/As his eunuch he addresses
His voice delivering: “Allah ill Allah, salaam alaikum!

My harem faithfully you have served/And with that you deserved
To each take a wife/Gifted from me to you
Down his cheek a single tear rolled/He fell on the bed as he died
A believing man/Allah ill Allah, salaam alaikum

Learning the saddest news/That pasha had moved to a better world
His loving wife sighed/Down her cheek a single tear rolled
She fell on the bed as she died/The pasha’s beloved
Allah ill Allah, salaam alaikum


Adio kerida / Goodbye My Beloved
Trad., Arr. Damir Imamović
Album notes: Following their expulsion from Spain, many Sephardic Jews settled in the Ottoman province of Bosnia. Their culture and Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) language became an important part of Bosnian life. Like the best sevdah songs, “Adio kerida” is a blend of love and anger toward a loved one—many would say directed at Spain. Although sung wherever there are Sephardim, the last verse was added in Sarajevo. This was revealed to me by Eliezer Papo, the Rabbi of Sarajevo.

(From the Ladino lyrics)
When your mother gave you birth/And brought you into the world
She did not give you a heart/To love another

Goodbye, goodbye, beloved/Life I do not want
You made it miserable

Go, search for another love/Knock on other doors
Wait for another passion/As to me you are dead

Wait there on your stairs/Your life entire
But I shall not come


Čovjeku moje zemlje / To The People Of My Country
Lyrics & music: Damir Imamović
Album notes: Like many countries in our time, mine has become a place whose people are leaving in search of a better life. Even 25 years after the war, the soul of the land is still scarred. My dream is that some day, whether we physically leave or not, we gather a new kind of strength and move on from the past. Maybe sevdah stories can have a healing power and help us find some future common ground.

(From the Bosnian lyrics)
Listen, I know it hurts/This sevdah of an odd bird
For how long will you be/The one from the land of refugees

You are greater than your fears/Stronger than your sorrow
Yes, your country is a wasteland/But to leave is not in your heart

Let go, break and snap/So small, you need more strength
Change yourself, pick up the step/Give breath to something new



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