Damir Imamović: "Singer of Tales"


Balkantage 2.0 / World Music Stage

March 12 / Gasteig Carl-Orff-Saal

Thanks to its wonderful vitality, traditional music has always managed to survive the centuries. The modernity of traditional music is constantly evolving throughout Europe, using both native traditions and non-native expressions from other countries, which are transported to a different social context by the constraints of immigration.

As part of the identity of each region and as a universal artistic language, traditional music is at the centre of European attention, its deep roots in a local culture, a historical tradition, allowing it to contribute to the development of cultural diversity, while its plasticity allows it to promote a rich dialogue between different cultures.

Balkantage 2.0 presents the new musicians who can stimulate these discussions by using new forms of traditional music as a means to support and promote cultural diversity in Munich.


Imamović’s Sevdah music has been learned, researched and sung in his family for generations, and one of the most famous modern Sevdah singers after World War II was his grandfather Zaim Imamović. Nevertheless, Damir Imamović managed to break away from the classical Sevdah tradition and to contribute to bringing this traditional old music to a younger audience and to arouse interest on an international level.

Singer of Tales by Damir Imamović is a happy encounter. Here, respect for tradition, innovation and great craftsmanship come together. For Damir Imamović, Sevdah is not just a songbook, but a collection of stories – and stories often have a longer lifespan than melodies.

The Bosnian singer and drummer Damir Imamović is the “King of Sevdah Music!”
– Huffington Post

Sevdah – the Balkan blues that hits people right into the heart with the first sound. Because she is so sad and tells of the joy and suffering of life. In Bosnia – the small country in the Balkans – people have always mixed up. This cultural diversity has been incorporated into Sevdah music.

With his songs, which Imamovic tells in such illustrious concert halls as the Concertgebouw Amsterdam or the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the artist wants to overcome the trenches of the past.

Imamović and his new vibrant quartet, consisting of the legendary bassist Greg Cohen (John Zorn, Tom Waits, Ornette Coleman), one of the Turkish premium soloists on the Kemenche, Derya Türkan (Kudsi Ergüner, Erkan Ogur), and the virtuoso violinist Ivana Djurić nourish the hope for a peaceful coexistence of the people of the Balkans.

Transglobal World Music Chart has awarded “Singer of Tales” as “Best of Europe.”

Damir Imamović

Damir Imamović (born 1978) is a singer, musician, author and sevdah master from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is coming from a family of sevdah musicians and represents a new generation of the traditional music of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since 2005 Damir performs with his Trio, his “Sevdah Takht” quartet as well occasional projects with Jelena Popržan, Bojan Z, Eric Vloeimans, Greg Cohen and Derya Türkans. He recorded 6 CDs for different labels (Glitterbeat Records, Wrasse Records) and cooperated with producers such as Chris Eckman and Joe boyd. With his many projects Damir toured in China, Mexico, all over Europe and USA while performing in prestigious venues such as The Kennedy Centre (Washington DC), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Kolarac (Belgrade), Centre Pompidou (Paris)… A documentary film «Sevdah» by Marina Andree-Škop (DIM, 2009) was recorded alongside his work. He is very active as a traditional music educator with his SevdahLab program. Damir wrote the book «Sevdah», the first history of the genre (Vrijeme, 2016).

Greg Cohen

Greg Cohen (born 1953) is an American jazz bassist. Best known for his work with John Zorn’s Masada Quartet, he has been touring with Ornette Coleman more recently and performed on Coleman’s award-winning “Sound Grammar” album.

Cohen has worked with a wide variety of artists in many styles of music. He has played traditional jazz with Ken Peplowski, Kenny Davern, Marty Grosz and the filmmaker/clarinettist Woody Allen. Other collaborations include Tom Waits, David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Dagmar Krause, David Sanborn, Susana Baca, Laurie Anderson, Willie Nelson, Bill Frisell, Norah Jones, Dave Douglas, Tricky, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, Joey Baron, Bob Dylan, Nina Nastasia, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Odetta, and Antony and the Johnsons.

He has worked as an arranger, producer, musical director and composer for the theatre, film, television and recording studios. At present, Cohen is the Head of Department Bass at the Jazz Institute Berlin.

Derya Türkan

Derya Türkan is a master of the Turkish kemenche (3-stringed fiddle). He plays an improvisational as well as the Ottoman classical music repertoire.

Born in Istanbul in 1973, he graduated from İhsan Özgen’s violin class at the Turkish Music State Conservatory. In 1990, he was invited as guest musician to the Istanbul State Turkish Music Ensemble, directed by Necdet Yaşar, and performed with them for 7 years.

He joined TRT Istanbul Radio in 1991 and recorded there with many great Turkish artists such as Alaadin Yavaşça, Bedri Sıdkı Sezgin, Niyazi Sayın and Erol Deran. Since 1992, Türkan has played with the Kudsi Ergüner group and with the Anatolian Group, directed by İhsan Özgen. He also founded the İncesaz group with Cengiz Onursal and Murat Aydemir.

Türkan collaborates with a wide range of musicians and has performed all over the world. He recorded the album “Fuad” with Armenian whistle artist Djivan Gasparyan and Erkan Oğur and “Silk Moon” with bassist Renaud Garcia Fons.

Ivana Đurić

Ivana Đurić is a virtuoso Bosnian violinist. Born in 1984 in Sarajevo, she began her classical music education when she was 9 years old and studied the violin in Bosnia and France. In 1996 a UNICEF film was made 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. From 2010–2014 she was a member of the National Radio-TV Orchestra and still regularly performs with them on a variety of projects.

She first met Damir Imamović as a studio musician. After several years of musical collaboration and friendship, she joined his band Sevdah Takht in 2015 and features on the group’s album “Dvojka”, which was internationally released on Glitterbeat Records in 2016.

CD Release “Singer of Tales”

feat. Greg Cohen, Derya Türkan and Ivana Đurić
Wrasse Records, 2020

“Singer of Tales” wins Schallplattenkritik Prize! 

The Tale of the Singer of Tales

“Every great musical form should be so fortunate to have a champion such as Damir Imamović”, says producer Joe Boyd. The artist Huffington Post calls ‘the king of sevdah music’ is both a brilliant and charismatic performer and a tireless innovator who continues to find original ways to connect sevdah’s rich past with an expanding and invigorated future. For his new studio album, he assembled an all-star team: renowned bassist Greg Cohen, Turkish kemenche master Derya Türkan and violin virtuoso Ivana Đurić. Legendary producer Joe Boyd, co-producer Andrea Goertler and Grammy-winning engineer Jerry Boys completed the line-up. The album combines Imamović’s powerful and exquisite tenor voice with an unusual and rich blend of four stringed instruments to create a seductive and original acoustic sound. Singer of Tales is a deeply moving homage to the art of storytelling.

It wasn’t at all obvious that Damir Imamović would become a musician, much less a visionary who would lead an insurgency within the world of sevdah. Born into a famous Sarajevo family of musicians, the sounds and words of sevdalinka (sevdah songs) were omnipresent. But Damir resisted his calling and went off to university to study philosophy.

The word sevdah comes from the Arabic sawdah, which means, literally, ‘black bile’, and has been appropriated from Portugal (saudade) to Turkey (sevda) to express longing and love. The musical form can be traced back to the 15th century and evolved in the cafes of 19th century Sarajevo and Mostar. It became popular across the new nation of Yugoslavia in the 1920s and ‘30s and was a staple of mass entertainment during the Communist period from 1945 to 1990. Sevdah risked turning into an unfashionable relic of the Tito era, but during the Bosnian war, it took on a new and greater meaning for the young generation, including Damir Imamović.

When the time came for me to accept sevdah as my calling, it was already the beginning of the 21st century. I hurried to meet its last remaining masters and hunted for old tape reels from private gatherings, rare performances and unusual songs.
– Damir Imamović

Once the corner had been turned, Damir became a passionate student of the craft, learning techniques and repertoire from the old masters. They also taught him that sevdah could not stand still, that each generation and each singer must find their own sevdah. He became a tireless advocate – writing, lecturing and, most of all, composing and performing.

His understanding of the depth of the music’s history was transformed when he discovered a book by Harvard ethnographer Albert Lord about the Balkan travels of his mentor, Milman Parry, in the early 1930s. Their studies connected 20th century Balkan song to ancient epics that reach back to the time of Homer. Most important, Lord’s book placed the universal human need for stories at the heart of this music. Its title is The Singer of Tales and it inspired this album.

The road that led to its recording began when Damir heard Turkish kemenche master Derya Türkan at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival. The kemenche is an ancient bowed instrument, related to Persian and South Asian traditions as well as those of Greece and the Middle East. Türkan’s playing has enriched ensembles as diverse as those of Kudsi Ergüner and Jordi Savall. The following summer, Damir joined Derya on the island of Crete for his Turkish makam master- class at the Labyrinth Music Workshop. They discovered they were both musical adventurers and vowed to collaborate to explore the centuries-old links between sevdah and Ottoman music.

After giving a concert in the ancient Dalmatian city of Pula, Damir was approached by American bassist Greg Cohen, who had been in the audience. Damir had long known and admired Greg’s work with John Zorn’s Masada and Tom Waits. Having recorded and toured with luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson and Willie Nelson, Cohen has always been eager to immerse himself in lesser known musical traditions from across the globe. A Berlin rendezvous of Damir, Greg and Derya inspired them to work towards a collaboration.

To celebrate his 40th birthday in the autumn of 2018, Damir decided to bring the two great musicians to Sarajevo for a special concert and invited Bosnian violinist Ivana Đurić to join them. Damir first heard her five years earlier in a Sarajevo recording studio and was struck by her beautiful tone and the profound musicality of her fresh approach to sevdah. He invited her to join his band Sevdah Takht soon afterwards. She has been recording and touring with him ever since.

Producers Joe Boyd and Andrea Goertler met Damir on a visit to Sarajevo in 2014 and were instantly enthralled by his singing, and by sevdah. Over the years that followed, they became friends; the birthday concert was an occasion not to be missed. It was a revelation: the four great performers filled the hall with music that was deeply moving and excitingly original. A recording project was born.

For us as producers, the recording sessions were an extraordinary experience. There was alchemy in the air. We loved working with these four virtuosos as they explored the songs, listened deeply to each other, improvised and found their grooves – creating something genuinely new while paying their respect to the great lineage of sevdah.
– Joe Boyd & Andrea Goertler, Album-Produzenten

Behind the console could have been no other than engineer Jerry Boys, winner of Grammys for his work with Buena Vista Social Club and Ali Farka Touré and collaborator of Joe Boyd over a span of half a century. They have worked together on recordings by Sandy Denny, R.E.M., Toumani Diabaté, Cubanismo and many others. Andrea, Joe and Jerry had worked together on Albanian ensemble Saz’iso’s debut album in 2017.

Singer of Tales was recorded live in four days at Tritonus Studio in Berlin in March 2019.

The tales Damir Imamović tells here reveal both a deep understanding of sevdah and Bosnia’s history as well as a connection to the present day. The album opens with ‘O bosanske gore snježne’ (Oh The Snowy Mountain Tops) by Omer Ombašić, who, like many Muslims from Eastern Bosnia, was expelled in the 1990s. A few years ago, he visited Damir from Sweden and gave him this stunning song about the pain of exile and determination to return.

Love, of course, is the subject that transcends eras. The gorgeous ‘Kafu mi draga ispeci’ (Make Coffee For Me, Darling), one of the most popular sevdalinka of all time, was frowned upon during the Communist years for its seductive frankness: “Make coffee for me, darling… I will come around midnight”. Historically, lovers had to keep their distance during extended periods of courtship and longing was the rule, as in the 19th century song ‘Poljem se vija Hajdar delija’ (Haydar The Brave). Greg Cohen’s bassline groove evokes the hoofs of Haydar’s horse when he and his tower-bound beloved lock eyes as he rides past. Longing in “cataclysmic” dimensions, as Damir puts it, features in ‘Gdje si dragi’ (Where Are You), a song recorded by Milman Parry in the 1930s and made famous by recordings of sevdah divas Nada Mamula and Zehra Deović: “yearning for you burns my body and soul.” Ivana Đurić’s soaring violin evokes the Roma style to which sevdah owes so much.

The tragic ‘Sunce tone’ (The Sun Is Sinking) is a cry from the grave in waltz time. The words are taken from a poem by the famous 19th century Mostar poet, Aleksa Šantić. It was often performed during the Communist era, but as fin-de-siècle romanticism was considered ideologically suspect the poet’s name could not be mentioned. ‘Puhni tihi vjetre’ (Oh, The Softest Wind) was recorded in the 1970s by the full Sarajevo Radio Orchestra with a rare vocal performance by Damir’s bassist father, Nedžad Imamović. Damir strips it down to a duet between voice and bass, echoing the haiku-like simplicity of the heartbreaking lyrics.

Both ‘Salko se vija’ (Salko Cries With Pain) and ‘Kad bi ovo bio kraj’ (If This Were The End) tell of a mother’s love for her son. The results, however, were not always happy; ‘Salko se vija’ shows the conflict between true love and a patriarchal tradition that views marriage as an economic project. Maternal affection is more benign in the second song, where a mother performs rituals of farewell as her son departs for the army. Originally composed by Damir for a theatre production, ‘Kad bi ovo bio kraj’ uses a classic Turkish 10/8 rhythm he learned from Derya Türkan, who weaves divine kemenche lines into the track.

Five hundred years of Ottoman rule could not fail to influence Bosnian culture but singing sympathetically about a dying sultan and the fate of his harem was perhaps easier after the long captivity was over. Himzo Polovina and Zaim Imamović, Damir’s grandfather, were among the stars who popularized ‘U Stambolu na Bosforu’ (In Istanbul On The Bosporus Shore).

Bosnia has for centuries been a land of diverse faiths and cultures but the welcome given to Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain in the early 16th century is not so well known. All over the world, ‘Adio Kerida’ is a popular Jewish song, which Damir sings in Ladino, adding a final verse unique to the Sarajevo Jewish community.

Having begun the album with a song of an exile’s yearning to return, Damir ends it with ‘Čovjeku moje zemlje’ (To The People Of My Country), a composition of his own, which expresses hope for a future Bosnia that overcomes the lingering scars of war, nationalism and resistance to change: You are greater than your fears / Stronger than your sorrows / … / Change yourself, pick up the step / Give breath to something new.

Sevdah is what we Bosnians do best, it permeates our lives in ways known and unknown. Its singers are chroniclers of our pain and joy. And then there are masters of it like Damir Imamović, who are able to bring its meaning and beauty closer to the world. A singer of tales indeed.
– Refik Hodžić, bosnischer Journalist und Aktivist