I listen to your music for a long time now, especially the song Dva se draga (on a replay button during several phases of my life). In 2018, I invited my friends to join me in witnessing the soul of your music during your concert in Zonnehuis, in Amsterdam. You are a Sevdah singer – a genre Wiki-known as traditional folk music from Bosnia & Herzegovina. Besides the genre’s strong form of storytelling, what I like to think of its structure is that it encourages the story to be told for t h e moment, and regardless of the story’s age. Emotion is a crucial element that contributes to the shaping of the story/song, which is something I have a hard time directing my friends to focus on while listening to Sevdah. The most direct instruction I managed to offer so far was to just LISTEN, followed by my stare at the listener until I’m convinced that they are able to recognize the essence of the genre. It was successful as much as it was unsuccessful.
Anyhow, you are not just a Sevdah singer, you’re a deeply admired and internationally recognized Sevdah singer. Through the Sarajevo Calling episode (shout out to Aleksandar + Jasmin even though we don’t know each other), I discovered that you’ve been labeled as a Sevdah Revolutionary by Spanish media (sevdalinkas.com), and then, by the podcast’s hosts themselves: a Punk of Sevdah. Your (witty and funny) commentary on these portrayals is the reason why I decided to reach out and further question the representative aspect of your music career, especially as someone with expertise in traditional Balkan folk.
Despite your great passion for Sevdah, I believe that you can tell me more about the ‘local’ Damir and the global, Eu-recognized one.
***Proof of Work fact: This interview happened in a CryptPad Rich Text. Damir and Maisa conversed by actively typing for about 2 hours.***
M: Eh, let’s begin. First of all, thank you once again for your time and willingness to join this ‘experiment’. I will jump straight to the questions.
My main target audience for this interview is: my friends -> who admire me admiring your music, therefore admire your music too. I often fail to explain the importance of Sevdah (as a genre, and emotion) in words, so I’d appreciate it if you explain briefly what Sevdah means to you?
D: Well, if u allow me to get more philosophical, since you know what Sevdah is in a nutshell (a genre of music/poetry)… For me, Sevdah becomes, more and more, a mechanism through which everything that is coming from the traditional culture gets digested. Even bits and pieces of epic songs, old romantic poems, excerpts from longer ballads, etc. It is a very exciting move, an artistic act of this “digestion”.
M: As someone who grew up out of Bosnia and who has experienced the genre from, let’s say, far away, Sevdah echoed like a re-telling of preserved traditional poetry and stories originating from the Bosnian culture. I’m gladly going to shift my perspective and read it as an act of “digestion”, which I think is a crucial pursuit in any kind of artistic process. Could digestion be the reason why the style (in which you deliver Sevdah, stories, music) is classified as contemporary Sevdah? In other words, what is contemporary about contemporary Sevdah?
D: Yeah! I think it’s actually a similar view: digestion = re-telling. Every telling is – retelling. While researching older performers, I got a sense that they did exactly that: they were giving their versions of old songs, changed them to suit their own reading of it. That is how the genre came into being. Many powers of the past (including: romantic movement in culture, nationalism in politics and culture, socialist endeavors…) come down to that. It is only that today’s generation kind of became more aware of this act of ‘changing things’. But the old habits of insisting on “originality”, “authenticity”, “our own culture”, etc., are still alive and kicking. Many people still think that they’re “just nurturing authentic music/poetry of our people”. In humanities, it’s called the old “positivist” view of research. Contemporary Sevdah is freer for that matter: we’re not afraid to dig deeper. And a historical moment comes our way: we’ve never known more about the history of the genre, as we’ve never had more access to archives, old recordings, poetry collections, etc.
M: Yes, I agree, endless archives tangle into forming new hybrids – out of the old and the incoming. In Sevdah’s case, and in your case specifically, how much freedom do you take to change the historical? Furthermore, what is of more importance: the style of re-telling or your voice/position in someone else’s story?
D: There is, actually, no “changing of the historical” (facts, etc.). It is a question of awareness: through my research, I became aware of bugs, hidden meanings, blind spots of earlier research. For example: I became aware of the simple facts, of how ideological oral poetry collections are. The ones from the past and the present. Some of them, for example, include song titles given by the editor (and it IS NOT stated in those books but was assumed that the titles are traditional). There is a wonderful song about someone (not stated WHO) in the song praising a handsome soldier who is walking down the street as if in a military parade. And the title states “a girl is watching a young soldier”. But from the lyrics, nowhere is the gender of the observer discernible. So, by going back to things like that, you let your imagination run wild. And you seek further and so many times you see that there is more to the story. Often does this kind of awareness (or just asking different questions) open doors to different performances of the song today. For example, this one does not have a traditionally passed down (remembered) melody. So, if I ever manage to write a good melody to it, I can reintroduce the song and at the same time, play with this ambivalence… Stuff like that. Sevdah singer is, for that matter, like an old Greek actor: wearing a mask, a mask that makes it possible for you to lend your voice to a god, a girl, an old man… It is a wonderful playground.
M: Ahh, sharp self-awareness, and awareness in general, is quite recognizable in your work. Compared to what I remember from my childhood (in which the tone of most songs carried the weight of monotony), you make sevdalinkas sound like a rollercoaster. For example, Sen’ gidi sarhoš (I just stole the title from Youtube because I’m playing it now), is a song that really puts a smile on my face. I experience two-three different narrators hanging out just to deliver a well-crafted narrative. I’m wondering, in your research, do you ever come across material/stories which limit these doors of perception? And if yes, do you still work with the material or move on?
D: This song you’re mentioning “Sen gidi sarhoš” is a good example. I’m aware of that text but I didn’t like the earlier melody. The text I had in the beginning was promising but not this good. And I didn’t do anything with that for years. Many of my albums include songs that I was searching for for years. I finally found this one in the recordings of an old singer from Sarajevo and it was much better than the version I previously had. So, I constantly search for better versions than those I already have. Once I found some interviews with Himzo Polovina in which he is telling the same thing about his process: he was searching for some of the songs for more than a decade. He’d have a good melody and two strofas, but he felt that the story was not finished. After a decade he heard the third and the fourth one from an old woman in a small village near Trebinje, and he instantly knew – that’s it, that’s the whole story. In some cases, you sit and write additional strofas in order to complete the story. The song consists of a poem (lyrics, textual part) and the melody. They both need to be good. Not necessarily “catchy”, but good.
M: Beauty. I appreciate the realistic outcome of a process that requires as much time as it needs for its “that’s it” moment. It’s time for a lil’ commercial:
M: Your, allow me to call it: expertology, is not the only reason why I wanted to chat with you. As mentioned in the intro, I’d like to investigate your public image in Bosnia and that in Western Europe. Scrolling back to my childhood memories again, all Bosnian ‘stars’ were (humanely) reachable in the local scene and in the physical context of the city (depending on which one). Unless of course, they were reality show stars. How is that for you in 2020 (or how has that been for you in the last few years with the rise + social dependability on the internet)? In other words, how spectacular are you in Sarajevo?
D: I’m inhumanely reachable 😀 And very spectacular, indeed. … Well, don’t know what to say about that. Of all the moments which a life of a singer brings, that is the one I could totally do without. The fame and stuff around it. Good thing is that I’m not extra famous. People know me, they approach me, but it’s not too much. It’s always with respect and I try to be available, even if waiting in a line for COVID19 testing, or in a meat shop. That is a part of the job in a way. But, to be honest, I don’t pay much attention to it in my career. I’m sure many would urge me to do more (reality tv, hit shows) and less of “smart interviews”. That would surely help to sell more tickets. But, I love my life and have no need for more “fame”. I never felt that I’m in this game for that.
M: Shout out to my parents who gave me the same impression of you after they’ve attended your concert in Prishtina, many years ago. As I’m media-skeptical (to keep it simple) or even better, too-media-curious, I try to understand the correlation between the IRL public image and its digital version (for me, the two are best comparable in the lives of artists/musicians/cultural workers/not influencers). I want to bring back the title (which keeps flying over my head like a plane banner): the Revolutionary of Sevdah. Before detailing, I want to ask simply: what’s up with that image, and do you agree with it?
D: I’m really in a bad position to speak about that. To be honest, I’m sick and tired of press releases of companies, artists, anyone, being senselessly copied to newspapers and as a result, you have: if I write “Genius of Sevdah” in my press release, many journalists will just forward it to their outlets. And you have a majority of people being present in the public space through bombastic shit they themselves wrote about themselves. For me, the very notion of myself determining what I have become for Sevdah lovers, music lovers, bla, bla, is insane. We need other people to get involved and try to think about it. The old role of critics. I can tell you what I love and strive to do, but don’t ask me how far I have come. I have no way to judge that. It’s somehow incestuous.
M: Agreed on the need for change of informational delivery. I like what you mentioned in the Sarajevo Calling episode about the aspect of a ‘promotional’ interview; I think that, since the accumulation of internet delights and influencer culture, writers too, approach artists not only to enhance publicity for the artists, but to bite on some for themselves too. Who gets to the frontline has always been an issue, despite the fact that the current info-capital makes the getting harder. At the same time, (something which I am not sure if it hit the Bosnian art/music scene yet) over-exposure to which artists and musicians have to comply to, in order to gain bigger recognition, is starting to feel like promotion is becoming the main part of work within their creative production. Structure-kills-content kind of thing. Soooo, I’m going to ask one last question on this matter and that is: do you have enough professional agency to decide what gets to be written about your work?
D: Well, I remember when I started playing regularly in the concert hall of Bosnian Cultural Centre (former Djuro Djakovic), in downtown Sarajevo (I think the first one was in 2007). I was not able to do that without at least a brief mention in Dnevni Avaz (Avaz Daily), the biggest daily in Bosnian at the time. Already in 2009, I had so many followers on Facebook that I was able to sell-out 1000 seats without any support from the press, but just by using social media. That changed everything, of course. I was relieved that I didn’t have to speak to every journalist, every reporter, etc. Generally, of course, I don’t have any agency in deciding on what will be written about me. I have my own channels on social media, a newsletter list, my website, and that’s what I control. Everything else comes from other places.
M: I quote you(with a smile on my face): “I was relieved that I didn’t have to speak to every journalist, every reporter, etc.” I’m sorry to tell you, or confirm again, that you are a punk of Sevdah. Or just punk.
D: hahah ok, if u say so 😀 Maybe I’m just a ters(e)
M: hahaah..Anyhow, a random question before the final important ones: Do you know Nicolas Jaar?
D: hm, not that I remember. Composer. Just googling him…
M: Yes, that’s him. Due to my incomplete understanding, I can’t explain my reason to bring him up. What I know for sure is that since I’ve been listening to your music (a long time) and his music (a long time), I’ve come across methodological resemblances that are arguably not genre-related. S o m e t h i n g about both of your methods places you on a similar ground. During Corona, Nicolas produced three albums; Quuuuite different results came out of similar experiments. During Corona, many musicians went down the memory lane and revived old covers or attempted to re-do better versions of them. How was Corona production-wise for you? Did you notice a switch; did you get an opportunity to finally do what you didn’t have time to do before? Or or or…
D: Well, I was doing quite a lot of things. Writing a new book on Sevdah, writing many songs – for me and other performers. It was a time of a long, intense re-thinking. It’s kinda still going on. I played a lot of frame drums. I love that instrument and it calms me down. Even if just therapeutically, it’s wonderful to play it. I had the new album coming out on April 3rd, 2020. So, I did a lot of promo for it online. Also, at some point, I realized I had quite a lot of arrangements finished for new-folk tunes or narodnjaci. I started publishing it on my Facebook and Instagram and it was a hit 😀 Had a lot of fun with it. My manager says he already has many invites for concerts with that setlist 😀 We’ll see…
***Narodnjaci: traditional folk songs***
***It was a hit: It was a success***
M: Lovely, I look forward to the new material. And now, fast forward: THE FUTURE OF SEVDAH. I was imagining a new genre the other day, some cyborg Sevdah -> a hybrid between its current, contemporary stage and something beyond-and-of-course technological. An attempt to expand my listening capacity was quite challenged by this imagination. Do you think about it? Can you foresee any upcoming trends in Sevdah, and if yes, can you imagine yourself being a part of it?
D: Future has this activist dimension to it. The question of the future is: “What are we going to do about it?”. I’m already doing what I’m doing.
M: AMAZING!!!!!! Pre-last question, and I hope you’re ready: What’s your favorite song by Damir Imamović?
D: I don’t have one. Or I do, but it always changes. When I write, my favorite is always the one I’m working on, or the one I last finished. That’s because I still think about it. I polish it, change, something is still happening, so, of course, I’m interested in it all the time. To be honest, I never listen to my music once I finish it. I mean, when I finish recording it. As any musician knows, you work on something for a year or two, a couple of months at least. And because you are so obsessed with it, it becomes almost the only thing you listen to. Demos, new demos, demos with added this or that. After that, rough cuts from the studio. Then, many times again, for the mixes, the whole thing. Then for mastering, again… After all that, you need a several years-long break from the recorded material, before you can judge it with new eyes. And even that is not enough time because in the meantime you’re performing it live and intensely. Because of all that, it’s hard to have a favorite.
M: Yesss, I hear you: the moment of pure creation synced to living, synced to creation, synced to living. I’ll just conclude that all your songs are your favorite songs and that none of your songs are your favorite songs. And the final final question (of simple matter): Any idea on how to title this interview? 😀
D: hehe, no … Be my guest.
M: I don’t know myself yet, but I’ll give it time. For sure it will not be “The Bosnian Nicolas Jaar”. Anyhow, it’s been two hours since we’re chatting – and without making it last forever, the conversation sloooowly ends here.