Taking its name from sevda, the Turkish word for love, derived in turn from the Arabic sawda meaning ‘black bile’ (and hence melancholy), sevdah has been played in the Balkans in one form or another since at least the 15th century. Although the temptation to refer to it as ‘Bosnian blues’ is perhaps too infrequently resisted, its lyrical and musical preoccupations with love, longing and loss do provide us with a bridge to other European roots traditions, such as fado, whose central concept of saudade is itself related to sawda.
Sarajevo born and raised, Imamović has been steeped in the sounds of sevdah since childhood. Much has been said of his stellar family tradition – both his father and grandfather remain legends of the form. Since those early days, however, when he would ward off boredom during the siege of the city in the early 1990s by learning guitar chords in his basement shelter, Imamović has completely changed the rules of the game.
For this is not a man content to insert himself seamlessly into any line of succession – that would be too easy. He comes with questions and challenges above all: questions for those gatekeepers of the genre bent on reducing style, rhythm and repertoire to a narrow set of conventions; and challenges to the more recent 20th century orthodoxies that would make of sevdah a straightforward reflection of national character. Imamović’s art is nothing less than a quiet, steady insurgency within sevdah – deeply considered work that refuses the seductions of nationalism. It takes the music beyond its birthplace and shows it the world.
The new album takes these musical and cultural orthodoxies and plays the hell out of them. The title, Dvojka, refers (perhaps slightly provocatively) to the 2/4 rhythm of modern sevdah’s ‘golden age’ of the 1950s and 60s, when many of the conventions of the genre were codified, and when what you couldn’t do had as much weight as what you could. There is enough affection for those conventions to make it a tribute, albeit a sceptical one, to those earlier Radio Sarajevo generations; but this wouldn’t be a Sevdah Takht album if it did not strike out on its own from the very outset.
‘Sarajevo’, the opening track, puts the familiar sonic inflections of sevdah at the disposal of ‘the other Sarajevo’, the fading and forgotten generations of misfits and radicals that quietly underpinned the cultural and political life of the Bosnian capital. There is elegy throughout the album, of course, but slow-burning ecstasy too: from ‘Opio se mladi Jusuf-beg’ (another one for the Sarajevans among us) to the beautifully supple ‘Lijepa Zejno’, which shows precisely what the recent addition of a violin brings to Sevdah Takht. In between lie songs of hope and heartbreak in a stunning interplay between tradition and innovation, with the album being split more or less evenly between original Imamović compositions and songs by authors whose names have long been lost to history.
03 Lijepi Meho
04 Uzbrdo je mene bole none
05 Lijepa Zejno
06 Star se Curcic pomamio
07 Lijepa Mara
08 Cija li je ono djevojka malena
09 Sen' gidi sarhos
10 Opio se mladi Jusuf-beg
11 Je li rano