This album was actually released in 2016 but only recently came to my attention. My ear has wandered away from Balkan music for a while, and Damir Imamovič turns out to be a great attention-getter.
Imamovič is the scion of a family of singers in the Balkan tradition of sevdalinka, also known as sevdah, a melancholy song form whose roots go back to at least the 15th century. Growing up in Sarajevo, he steeped himself not only in the roots of legends of sevdah like his father and grandfather, but also in the other Sarajevo, the city of rebels and bohemians. The result he brings forth with his ensemble Sevdah Takht, which provides stellar backing to his clear and emotive tenor vocals on this program of 11 songs, a mix of his own compositions and traditional pieces. This album Dvojka was beautifully recorded and mixed by American expat Chris Eckman in the Czech Republic. It’s just a superb project in every way.
No other than Joe Boyd, renowned producer and world music maven, sings Imamovič’s praises: “Damir Imamović balances tradition and modernity with deft elegance; in him, sevdah has found the perfect champion who can open its doors to the world. Balancing tradition and modernity is the hardest trick in music and Damir accomplishes it with deft elegance.”
Elegance pretty perfectly describes Imamovič’s vocals right out of the gate on the opener “Sarajevo.” But on a second and third listen, what begins to stand out is the accompaniment. The pairing of the singer’s custom tambur (a long-necked lute) with the violin of Ivana Đurić both anchors it in the fiddle-centric Balkan tradition and spreads it out into the greater environs of the old Ottoman empire. Add in the West African-influenced percussion of Nenad Kovačić and the electric bass guitar of Ivan Mihajlović and tracks like “Sarajevo” and the next, “Tambur” sparkle with modern, cosmopolitan wit.
Much of sevdah consists of achingly slow, emotive songs like those two; in the tradition it might be unaccompanied or joined only by a violin. Imamović subverts those expectations on tracks like “Lijepa Zejno,” his plaintive vocals backed by a loping bass line from Mihajlović and jazzy cymbal-cutting from Kovačić.
Gentle and rhythmic tambur plucking, thumping toms and fiddle interjections make the lovely “Cija li je ono djevojka malena” sound like it’d be at home at an Americana guitar pull. On the other hand, a song doesn’t get much more exotic to an American ear than the sad Croatian ballad “Opio se mladi Jusuf-beg,” with its dark-toned scales and a rattling frame drum setting down a waltz time.
A lot of this repertoir of course is dance music, and it’s well-represented here. “Lijepa Meho” with its bobbing shuffle beat would fit in well at a wedding, and the oddly-metered “Star se Curcic pomamio” is tailor-made for a Bosnian circle dance. My favorite track, though, has to be “Uzbrdo je mene bole none,” with its plodding beat set down by the bassist, and an exotic violin counter-melody in between the somber-sounding verses. However far it may stray from the tradition, to me it sounds like it perfectly encapsulates it as well, both defiant of and reveling in the painful emotions it depicts.