Arts, Culture & Media

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There's probably no better way to hear sevdah for the first time than to stumble on a live performance outside a bar in a narrow alleyway of Sarajevo's Old Town. This is the Damir Imamović Trio celebrating the release of their second CD, Abra�ević Live.

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Damir Imamović didn't set out to play sevdah. But he got interested in the music while doing research for a book about his grandfather. Zaim Imamović was a famous sevdah singer in the decades after World War Two.

Damir Imamović TrioDamir Imamović Trio

Damir: He has this slightly nasal vocal which had this touch of oriental kind of singing, but as well he expanded it harmonically as a musician because he was both of course singer and musician; he played accordion and several other instruments. He was kind of a Frank Sinatra of sevdah.

Outside the Babylon bar, SarajevoOutside the Babylon bar, Sarajevo

In order to write the book, Damir Imamović immersed himself in his grandfather's recordings.

Damir: So I learned for the first time how beautiful that traditional music is and how much space does it offer to a young musician and I really fell in love with it and I felt that that can be something like my musical beginning.

Damir ImamovićDamir Imamović

Now the younger Imamović is on a mission. He doesn't want sevdah to die out. He wants young people to know it's not just for the older generation. He and his band hope new ways of playing the old style will keep it alive.

Damir: We are trying to expand this tradition of sevdah playing and singing including elements of other types of music especially fusion music I'm a big fan of. I really love like music of John McLaughlin, music of Ravi Shankar, music of different groups and bands and individuals who really try to merge different types of music together.

Reporter Jeb Sharp and Damir ImamovićReporter Jeb Sharp and Damir Imamović

One way the band tries to expand the tradition is to experiment with new rhythms.

Damir: Because sevdah traditionally had only two types of treatment of rhythm: three-time for these old, slow ballads or fast, in two-fours, this typical balkan rhythm something like (demonstrates, laughs). I'm a big fan of Indian music so I tried to include some rhythms that are different. We even have some blues patterns we play underneath.

There's an intensity about Damir Imamović that draws you in. He croons with his eyes closed and strains into the music with a raw, taut, energy. The new album is a live album. It's named after the Abra�ević youth cultural center in Mostar where it was recorded. The city's old cultural center was destroyed during the war. A new one has risen through the efforts of young activists like Kristina Ćorić. They are intent on recapturing what they see as the lost, multi-ethnic, values of the old Yugoslavia.

Kristina: We are actually trying to preserve what was good about before and not to say ok the whole past we just want to erase it and to live the lives today but we are trying to take the best from the traditions before and to show them with the new approach, like Damir is doing in his music.

But there are skeptics. Bosnian journalist Eldin Had�ovi� likes Imamovic's music, but he's not so sure it's sevdah.

Sarajevo's Old TownSarajevo's Old Town

Eldin: If you've never heard sevdah before it's very hard to describe, because sevdah is more complex than music itself. You have to care about lyrics, you have to care about tradition, you have to care also about some rules in singing sevdah. The best way to do it is the hardest of course, to sing it very low down in volume. They used to say for example if you are singing too loud so the people on the other side of the bar can hear you, you're not singing it properly. You have to sing just for the people around you to open them your soul.

Imamovic would agree with the last point. He's annoyed when he goes to world music festivals and is expected to play on a stage in a big tent. He says people think all Balkan music is gypsy music with lots of people dancing and yelling. He says his trio is more like a chamber group and needs to be heard in an intimate setting. Sevdah is most often compared to the Portuguese style of Fado. Imamovic says it's a fair comparison.

Damir: There's this same feeling of melancholy, this sadness that's not just sad as in a pop love song you know, my god I'm sad he or she left me you know, but that has something deeper into it in terms of some metaphysical truth about suffering you know whatever does that mean.

Whatever it means, that yearning for a deeper truth seems to suit Damir Imamovic. And it has certainly set him on his musical way.

For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp, Sarajevo.