FolkWorld #81 11/2023
© Smithsonian Folkways / Angie Lemon PR / Macmillan

Love, Loss, Hardship and Perseverance

Bosnian singer, songwriter and sevdah tradition-bearer Damir Imamović is a firm believer in the power of song to connect and transport. On this new album The World and All That It Holds he performs original compositions and traditional songs in Bosnian and Sephardic Ladino with breathtaking emotion and conviction. Created as a musical companion to Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon's epic novel of the same name, the songs tell stories of love and loss, hardship and perseverance. Imamović's music invokes the spirit of the cultural melting pot that is Sarajevo, his lifelong home, reflecting sevdah’s rich historical influences while invigorating its future.

Damir Imamović

Artist Audio Damir Imamović "The World and All That It Holds", Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2023

Damir Imamović (pronounced ‘Im-mam-o-vitch’), "the king of sevdah music" (Huffington Post), is releasing his long-awaited new album ‘The World and All That It Holds’, out on the iconic Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label on 19th May 2023. After the phenomenal success of his previous album ‘Singer of Tales’, “one of the finest works Bosnia has produced this century" (Songlines Magazine), he teams up once more with the distinguished producers Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd) and Andrea Goertler. It was recorded in Sarajevo in May 2022 with multi-GRAMMY® winning sound engineer, Jerry Boys.

This album, 'The World and All That It Holds', by Damir Imamović is the exciting and unique result of the creative partnership struck up with Bosnian American author Aleksandar Hemon whose epic novel of the same name (a Picador publication launched 2nd Feb 2023), rich in language and lyricism, now has a scintillating soundtrack to accompany it: music enhanced and inspired by literature; a new and acclaimed novel glowing with a resonant and tangible soundscape.

Featuring a collection of original compositions and carefully chosen arrangements of traditional songs performed in both Bosnian and Ladino (the language the Sephardic Jews brought with them following their expulsion from Spain centuries before), the album gives voice to the everlasting and impossible relationship between two men of two different Sarajevan origins, Sephardic Jewish and Muslim respectively, the introspective pharmacist, Rafael Pinto, and fellow soldier Osman. As Hemon writes in the novel’s acknowledgements, “Without Damir’s brilliance, Rafo and Osman’s journey would’ve been different, not least because his album … is an outrageous masterpiece.”

A deeply captivating love story, the novel follows its safety-seeking protagonists from the epicentre of the outbreak of World War I, in a way that will resonate with many refugees today (Brody, Galicia, one of the cities they pass through, is now in western Ukraine). Displaced from the city for which they forever more yearn and equipped with nothing more than their everlasting love and this handful of equally enduring ‘sevdalinka’ (songs of sevdah) and Sephardic songs, handed down to them from their respective communities, the two lovers set out on their conflict-fleeing voyage. These traditional songs of forbidden love, loss and pining for home are the perfect means through which the two communicate both their tender love and their home sickness. Of the sevdah genre, Damir says, “For us who were raised with it, it has endless shades of sadness". Aleksandar Hemon’s words, give us deeper insight into the emotions at play: “Sevdah is not sad music … but a means to convert the longing for what is absent into the celebration of what is present”. Joy and adness intertwine throughout the emotionally charged album, as is most searingly apparent in the song ‘Osmane’, the first single of the album in which Damir imagines “as both a love cry and a funeral march”.

Damir Imamović

Artist Video Damir Imamović @ FROG

Illustrating well the scope of the novel and its accompanying soundtrack, Lucy Hughes-Hallett for the Guardian writes, “Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel is immense … because it contains almost as much as its title promises: journeys that take years, and lives that span continents; falling empires and storied cities; so many wars they blur and merge in the characters’ memories; indelible loves, unbearable losses”. Damir’s credentials for this epic commission were indisputable. The resulting collection of songs is powerful and draws on his dynastic sevdah heritage - the music of his forefathers runs deep in his veins. Grandson of the great sevdah star, Zaim Imamović, Damir’s understanding of the nuances of sevdah and his ability to express these as a performer and composer deliver an album as ‘immense’ as the literary masterpiece that has inspired it. About sevdah music, Damir says, "It is a sister music to Fado, Tango, Blues or Rembetiko and any other genre of music that was formed out of meetings of different worlds of music, languages, mindsets. It is a specific blend of music and lyrics connected to the notion of sevdah (the Turkish everyday word for ‘love’ and an Arabic word for the Greek ‘melancholy’. Therefore, sevdah is a meeting of the worlds. It contains echos of epic singers, travelling ashiks (Ottoman era "minstrels"), romantic songs and ballads about forbidden love.” (Huffington Post)

Opening the album is ‘Sinoć’ (‘Last Night’), which like the first single, ‘Osmane’, is a song Damir wrote soon after reading Hemon's novel. The tar, instrument of Central Asia (through which the lovers journey, via Tashkent), replaces the more usual Bosnian saz and provides the introduction to the melody, joining the frame drum’s rhythmic beat, and sets the tone for the album. The lyrics are inspired by Bosnia’s famous Romantic poet Musa Ćazim Ćatić. The album features three songs in Ladino, from the Sephardic Jewish tradition of Sarajevo: ‘Madre mija si mi muero’, (Mother, If I Die), ‘Anderleto’ and ‘Nočes, nočes’ (Nights, Nights). Damir researched extensively what few archival recordings remain before arranging his emotive renditions, realising his own Sarajevan accent was absolutely suited to the genre as it had evolved over the centuries, over which time Jewish and Bosnian merchants travelled through the Ottoman Empire.

Fittingly appropriate with the subject of same-sex love in Hemon’s tale, Damir performed the traditional song ‘Snijeg pade’ (‘The Snow Has Fallen’), ninth on the album, at the first Pride march in Sarajevo in 2019. It recently became an unofficial LGBQT+ anthem across the Balkans. The forbidden love that is sung of and yearned for outside of arranged marriages in former times is easily adapted to the cause still needing to be fought for, “Let everybody love whoever they want. And those who don’t want, should not impose.”

Damir Imamović

The moving ‘Teško je ljubit tajno’ (It’s Hard to Love in Secret), originally from Vojvodina, Serbia, was part of the classic sevdah repertoire, interpreted by many sevdah greats. Damir re-wrote the last two verses to make it a hymn of secret lovers who eventually triumph.

Also present on the album is ‘Harmoniko’ (Accordion), a moving song written by Damir for his friend and “good Sevdah angel”, Farah Tahirbegović. With her, Imamović collaborated on a book researching the musicianship of his grandfather, an experience that put him on the path to becoming the music maker he is today. Farah has not lived to see his success, passing away aged just 33, but her talent lives on in the inspiration she lends his music, and in the way, with foresight, she urged Imamović to follow in his family’s footsteps.

‘Koliko je širom svijeta’ (‘As Vast as the World’ – reminding us of the album title), an iconic sevdah classic famously sung by Imamović’s own grandfather Zaim, closes the album. The Bosnian diaspora around the world, refugees from so many countries in strife, will be moved by this hymn of loneliness: “There is no greater orphan, Than I have become”.

‘The World and All That It Holds’ brings a whole new depth and colour to the incredibly strong novel, as Aleksander Hemon says in his own words, “One of the many beautiful consequences of our collaboration is that the novel and the people in it now glow in the light of the music, while the music has acquired an additional, narrative dimension.” For his part, Damir says, “Both Aleksandar and I believe in the power of song. It can connect you with a person you love, it can reconnect you with your former self, your childhood, and a home that is no more. … The idea of creating this imaginary world with Saša [Aleksandar]and to have my new album emerge from this collaboration was enthralling.” What Aleksandar Hemon has imagined, Damir Imamović has made real.

As well as being recipient of Songlines’ coveted award last year, Imamović won Best European World Music Album in the Transglobal World Music Charts 2020, was awarded Best Folk by the German Record Critics' Awards 2020 and has been featured in The Huffington Post, The Guardian, the BBC and more. History, mythology, poetry and multi-cultural musicality abound throughout this album. Damir Imamović sings and plays the tambur and tar and is accompanied by Ivana Đurić on violin, Ivan Mihajlović on bass, Nenad Kovačić on percussion and Mustafa Šantić (formerly of Mostar Sevdah Reunion) on accordion & clarinet. Damir and band will be performing the album at his debut London concert at the Barbican’s Milton Hall on 21st May, 2023 and on the 22nd May, at Brighton’s Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts. Damir and author Aleksandar Hemon will be together presenting this fabulous two-fold creation at the Hay Festival on 27th May.

Damir Imamović

Featured Musicians’ Biographies

Damir Imamović

Damir Imamović

Damir Imamović, born in 1978, is a singer, musician, author and sevdah master from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Descending from a family dynasty of sevdah musicians, he represents a new generation of the traditional music of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 2005, Damir has performed with his Trio, his quartet Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht as well as with Jelena Popržan, Bojan Z, Eric Vloeimans, Greg Cohen and Derya Türkans for various projects. He has toured extensively all over Europe, in China, Mexico and the US. He has released seven albums, cooperating with renowned producers such as Chris Eckman on 'Dvojka' (Glitterbeat Records, 2015) and with Joe Boyd and Andrea Goertler for his last two albums, 'Singer of Tales' (Wrasse Records, 2020) and 'The World and All That it Holds' (Smithsonian Folkways, 2023), a genre-spanning creative collaboration with Bosnian American author Aleksandar Hemon. Damir regularly writes for theatre and film, produces other Bosnian artists and is a passionate traditional music educator with his SevdahLab program. He is the author of „Sevdah“, the first history of the genre (Vrijeme, 2016).

Ivana Đurić

Ivana Đurić is a virtuoso Bosnian violinist. Born in 1984 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, she began her classical music education when she was nine years old and studied the violin in Bosnia and France. Ivana is a member of the National Radio-TV Orchestra in Sarajevo. In 1996, a film was made by UNICEF featuring Ivana playing Bach’s double violin concerto with the renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov. In her twenties, she started to passionately research and arrange traditional Bosnian sevdah music. She first met Damir Imamović as a studio musician. After several years of musical collaboration and friendship, she joined his band Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht in 2015 and features on Damir’s internationally released albums ‘Dvojka’ (2015), ‘Singer of Tales’ (2020) and ‘The World and All That it Holds’ (2023).

Nenad Kovačić

Percussionist Nenad Kovačić was born in 1982 in Zagreb, Croatia. He studied Ethnology and Sociology at University of Zagreb and has been active as a musician since 1997 and an important presence in the Croatian contemporary/improvised music scene. Nenad is a member of several bands such as Antenat, Afion, Mimika, Truth≠Tribe, Chant Electronique with which he has released 13 albums and has been performing internationally. He joined Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht with whom he recorded three albums, including ‘Dvojka’ (2015). He features on Damir’s latest album ‘The World and All That it Holds’ (2023). Since 2007, he works as writer of theatre and film music. He has composed/produced music for over 40 theatre dramas and contemporary dance, documentaries and films. One of Nenad’s biggest musical passions is traditional music both from the Balkans and the wider world. Through his travels in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso he has acquired a deep knowledge of West African rhythms and music.

Ivan Mihajlović

Bassist Ivan Mihajlović, born in 1980 in Belgrade, Serbia, and started his music career as bass player in the avantgarde jazz band Menson Benson Sextet (Cosmic Sounds). Shortly after, he co-founded the Belgrade world music band Naked, with whom he recorded two albums. A band with two bass players, Ivan was exploring the possibilities of the electric bass guitar as a melodic and solo instrument. He continued this direction after joining Damir Imamović’s Sevdah Takht, creating a new approach to the bass guitar in contemporary sevdah music. Ivan recorded three albums with Sevdah Takht, including ‘Dvojka’ (2015), and features on Damir’s latest album ‘The World and All That it Holds’ (2023). Ivan has played and recorded with Serbian prog rock star Nikola Vranjković, pop star Nevena Bozović and pop rock band Svi na pod. He also works as sound engineer, producer and composer with numerous music projects from across the Balkans.

‘The World and All That It Holds’ is a soundtrack and companion piece for the homonymous novel by Bosnian American author Aleksandar Hemon: The epic, cross-continental tale of a love so strong it conquers the Great War, revolution, and even death itself.

The World and All That It Holds

Aleksandar Hemon, The World and All That It Holds. Picador, 2023, ISBN 978-0330513326, pp352

The major new novel from Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon: a grand, tender and sweeping story spanning decades and continents. The World and All That It Holds is heartbreaking, philosophical, blackly funny in places; sensuous in others. It is deeply immersive, gripping and moving.

As the Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrives in Sarajevo one June day in 1914, Rafael Pinto is busy crushing herbs and grinding tablets behind the counter of the family pharmacy. It’s not quite the life he had expected during his poetry-filled student days in Vienna, but it’s nothing a dash of laudanum from the high shelf, a summer stroll, and idle fantasies about passersby can’t put into perspective. And then the world explodes. In the trenches in Galicia, fantasies fall flat. Heroism gets a man killed quickly. War devours all that they have known, and the only thing Pinto has to live for are the attentions of Osman, a fellow soldier, a man of action to complement Pinto’s introspective, poetic soul; a charismatic storyteller; Pinto’s protector and lover.

Together, Pinto and Osman – a Jew and a Muslim who both grew up in Sarajevo and came of age just in time to be drafted into the army of their Austro-Hungarian overlords - will escape the trenches, survive near-certain death, become entangled with spies and Bolsheviks. Over mountains and across deserts, from one world and one war to another, all the way to Shanghai, it is Pinto’s love for Osman that keeps him going. Theirs is an epic story of a world in convulsion, of millions broken between war, displacement and revolution, and of bonds so strong that they stretch from Sarajevo to Shanghai without snapping, and encompass all.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of several works of fiction, including The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, and of non-fiction works The Book of My Lives (which includes the devastating essay ‘The Aquarium’, extracted in The New Yorker) and My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You. His work as a screenplay writer includes most recently The Matrix Resurrections (co-written with David Mitchell). He was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a ‘Genius’ grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Aleksandar Hemon also writes and records music (EDM) under the name Cielo Hemon. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.

From Aleksandar Hemon: It took me upwards of twelve years to finish The World and All That It Holds, during which time much has changed around us. Now, alas, the world resembles my novel far more than I was hoping, except for one thing: my characters, Rafael and Osman, a Sephardic Jew, and a Muslim, are sustained by their love for each other, even if one of them (perhaps) dies. In the course of their journey east (Galicia, Central Asia, Xinjiang, Shanghai) between 1914 and 1949 they pass through a series of wars and adventures. Crimes and spies abound, as does death, but nothing diminishes what they feel for each other. Rafael adopts a girl, Rahela, whose mother died at birth and whose father may have been Osman, and takes care of her through the very difficult times, thereby transmitting his love for Osman onto her. I don’t know if this is my best book—though it feels so at the moment—but I do know that I’ve never loved my characters more, not least because they maintain their ability to love under the hardest of circumstances. While I am happy and excited to see my book materialize, I am having a hard time letting go of my people. But there is hope of keeping them around by way of music. Rafael and Osman sing songs to each other in the book. Rafael sings songs in Ladino, carried over from the Iberian Peninsula after the 1492 expulsion, while Osman sings Bosnian love songs. My friend, and one of Sevdah’s greatest singers, Damir Imamović, has recorded an album that features the songs from the book, some of which are traditional, and some of which he wrote. The album, also entitled The World and All That It Holds, will be released in May 2023 by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

Photo Credits: (1)-(5) Damir Imamović, (6) Aleksandar Hemon, The World and All That It Holds (unknown/website).

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