On The World and All That It Holds, Bosnian Musician Damir Imamović Invigorates the Sevdah’s Future
On May 19, Bosnian singer and composer Damir Imamović will release his first album on Smithsonian Folkways, The World and All That It Holds. Produced by the renowned Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd) and Balkan music expert Andrea Goertler and recorded by Grammy-winning engineer Jerry Boys in Sarajevo, the album draws from and expands upon the traditional Bosnian style of sevdah while serving as a companion to Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel of the same name. In Hemon’s highly acclaimed novel, which the Washington Post called “brilliant” and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell dubbed a “masterpiece,” the two protagonists, propelled far from Sarajevo by the Great War, sing to each other to express their longing for home and for each other. Imamović’s album, at times exuberant and at times mournful, soundtracks their story.
Imamović descends from icons in sevdah, a Bosnian folk music that blends Eastern influences from the Ottoman Empire with traditional Slavic and European melodies and is sometimes compared to Portuguese fado and French chanson in its evocation of longing, sorrow, and, ultimately, perseverance. His paternal grandfather Zaim Imamović was, as Damir puts it, “a sevdah divinity” who popularized the genre in the middle decades of the 20th century, while his father Nedžad Imamović was a bass player in the legendary Radio Sarajevo Folk Orchestra and a singer. For years, though, Damir resisted following in his family’s footsteps. After the war, in which he and his family sheltered in a pizza joint for most of the 1,425 days of the Serb Siege of Sarajevo, he “ran away from my family’s history to study philosophy,” as he puts it in the project’s extensive liner notes. He didn’t return to music until his mid-20s, seeking to move the genre forward and find “a new sevdah, one rooted in the music’s past but challenging the ways things were traditionally done.”
He first connected with producers Boyd and Goertler in 2014, who “were instantly enthralled by his singing and his playing—and by sevdah. Over the years that followed, we became his friends and, eventually his producers and witnesses to his boundless creativity and tireless quest to bring sevdah to new audiences.” They first worked together on the 2020 album Singer of Tales, which led to Imamović being named "The Best Artist of Europe" at 2021’s Songlines World Music Awards.
For this new project, his first on an American label, Imamović worked closely with Macarthur “Genius Grant” recipient Hemon, the pair constructing the narrative of Imamović’s record and Hemon’s book in tandem. Using original compositions, old Sephardic songs, and reimagined sevdah classics, Imamović channeled the novel’s themes – same-sex love, war and loss, displacement, longing for home – through moving and mournful performances that powerfully convey the emotional tenor even to listeners who don’t understand the languages (the expensive liner notes include English translations for all lyrics). Imamović and Hemon shared drafts of chapters and demoes of songs as they worked, each side informing the other. “Both Saša [Hemon] and I believe in the power of song,” Imamović writes. “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. Could it help us build a bridge between two separate art forms: an album and a book?”
“It was always obvious to me that Damir was the perfect artist to collaborate with,” Hemon adds. “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. I cannot imagine my own novel existing without Damir’s music. The very existence of this album expands the boundaries of my novel, and as literature as such. I can only hope that my book does the same for the music.”
In Imamović’s track-by-track notes, he explains how each song connects to the genre tradition and the novel’s plot, musically evoking the rich cultural of Bosnia and the diasporic characters’ longing to return home. Among the original compositions, the propulsive “Sinoć” (Sorrow) uses new lyrics inspired by Bosnian Romantic poet Musa Ćazim Ćatić and incorporates a tar, an instrument widely played in Central Asia, the region where much of the novel takes place. “Harmoniko” (Accordion) honors Imamović’s late friend, the singer Farah Tahirbegović, by collaborating with her favorite accordionist, Mustafa Šantić of Mostar Sevdah Reunion. “Osmane,” which Imamović calls “both a love cry and a funeral march” channels the love story of the novels’ protagonists Osman and Pinto: “Their travels, their bringing Sarajevo with them wherever they go, their dreams of returning home—all this resonates in this song.”
Imamović also reinterprets an array of traditional sevdah songs as well as pieces from the Sephardic Jews of Sarajevo. The selections channel the book’s protagonists singing songs from their youth across two traditions: Pinto sings Sephardic songs in the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino while Osman sings sevdah back to him, both using music to remember the homeland to which they are unable to return. In the longing “Madre mija si mi muero” (Mother, If I Die ), Imamović sings in Ladino for the first time channeling Pinto’s warm memories of home. In “Koliko je širom svijeta” (As Vast as the World), Imamović emotionally croons a sevdah standard his grandfather used to sing about the loneliness emigrants often feel. “Some of the songs on this album I have known my entire life, and yet I have not really heard them until I heard Damir, and now I cannot hear the previous version except in comparison to Damir’s interpretation,” Hemon says.“I feel that an important circle closes with this cooperation,” Imamović concludes, “my childhood, my father who died in 2020 while we were working on this album, the memory of my grandfather, my friendship with Farah, and our discovery of the sevdah tradition with its power to set us free. That is my world, my sevdahand all that it holds.”
On The World and All That It Holds, Bosnian Musician Damir Imamović Invigorates the Sevdah’s Future | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings