Singer of Tales

Dear Mailing List,

This is hardly the ideal time for a newsletter, since there seem to be a plethora of blogs, sharings, essays, diaries, etc triggered by the lockdown. You’re probably tired of people saying you must have time on your hands, so I’ll come straight to the point.

Andrea and I produced an album last year with Damir Imamovic, a sevdah singer from Sarajevo; we’re very proud of it and think everyone should hear it. The release was scheduled for Friday, April 3 – today. We thought about postponing it, but talked it over with Damir and the label, Wrasse Records, and we all agreed to go full speed ahead, whatever that now means. If you aren’t in a mood to hear the backstory, you can click for a video of the album’s first track and you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s your cup of tea.

For those still with me, it all began five and a half years ago when Andrea and I found ourselves having a drink with Bosnian journalist and human rights activist Nidžara Ahmetasević at a deserted bar high above Sarajevo. The view over the city and its surrounding green hills was beautiful, though it was hard not to think of the stories of the siege she had just told us. Our mutual friend Ed Vulliamy had told her that I was in the music business, so Nidžara had invited along her singer friend, Damir. When he said there were no local music shows scheduled that weekend, we must have looked very disappointed; he made a few phone calls and the following night we all re-convened at a gallery space for a private concert with fifty of his friends.

What a way to be introduced to this music! Damir is from sevdah royalty, with a musician father and a legendary grandfather who was a Yugoslav radio star in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The word sevdah is derived from the same Arabic root – sawdah – that became saudade in Portuguese. I guess it makes sense that the original meaning – ‘black bile’ – could result in ‘sad nostalgia’ at one end of Europe and ‘the sorrow of love’ at the other. A century ago, this folk tradition (like so many around the world), made its way to the bars and brothels of the cities and was accused of being disreputable. But it also got formalized and recorded and, when Tito endorsed it after the war, sevdah entered its ‘Golden Age’. When the country splintered it fell into disfavour, but Damir is part of a new generation bringing it back to life. Not only does he perform and compose sevdah beautifully, but he also teaches it and has written the only history of the genre.

Fast forward a few years, during which Damir serenaded us at our wedding with a beautiful love song (track 3 on the new cd). The following autumn, Andrea and I (along with our Albanian friend Edit Pula) produced our first album together, “At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me” by Saz’iso. Eighteen months ago, we flew to Sarajevo for Damir’s 40th birthday concert, intrigued by the ensemble he had invited: violinist and frequent collaborator, Ivana Ðurić, the Turkish kemenche master from Istanbul, Derya Türkan, and Greg Cohen, an old friend of mine from New York, on bass. We wondered how the European and oriental bowed instruments would sound together, but that night the quartet (Damir’s own custom instrument has a guitar neck and a bowed back like a saz) blended so beautifully with his singing that we cornered Damir after the concert and said we ought to record it.

Greg’s own wonderful-sounding bass lives with him in Berlin and costs a lot to move plus Damir loves that city, so we booked a studio there for a week last March. Jerry Boys, an engineer I first worked with on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay album half a century ago, joined us and we got started. Two days rehearsal in Greg’s flat, four days recording (all in one room, no overdubs) and three days mixing. Thanks to Damir and Andrea’s work selecting the repertoire, we were well-prepared. But not too well-prepared; arrangements were often improvised on the spot, tempi altered, experiments attempted. The classically-trained Ivana was a revelation, with her elegant embrace of Balkan gypsy and folk styles. Derya’s instrument is surprisingly small, but in his hands, its feline sound weaves in and out of the other instruments, providing the magic ingredient to create a blend like a string-quartet from a parallel universe. Greg has played with everyone from Tom Waits to Ornette Coleman and has often embarked on complex and abstract sonic adventures. His playing here might sound straightforward yet it’s full of feeling and, I think, transforms the recording. He and Derya bring their Western and Eastern sensibilities to sevdah but always remain in the service of the music; this is not ‘fusion’, it’s exploring a timeless form in joyful harmony with Damir and Ivana.

When we began looking for a label, Wrasse Records responded immediately. Owner Ian Ashbridge said that they almost never release anything that comes “over the transom”, but they loved this recording so much they wanted to release it. And so they have!

Until a few weeks ago, I was planning to alert all of you to the European tour booked for April and May, including May Day at the Barbican/St Luke’s in London, where we have such great memories of Saz’iso’s concert two and half years ago. You could have experienced up close what I have described. But Jerry Boys’ magic fingers and microphone placement mean you can get a vivid sonic picture of it on the cd. The album is called “Singer of Tales” in honour of a seminal book by ethnographer Albert Lord about musical storytelling in the Balkans. Lord makes the case that this art is ancient, perhaps providing a clue about how The Odyssey might have survived down the oral generations until they reached the pen of Homer. (Damir was surprised I knew the book, but I recall sweeping it onto the floor of my Harvard dorm room when Lord was my room-mate’s tutor and we were competing for time at the only desk.)

The stories and poetry contained in the lyrics are annotated and translated into English in the cd booklet. You can buy the physical or digital cd on all the usual platforms. (The vinyl will be coming later.) For now, it’s only available digitally in most territories outside Northern Europe, but cds can always be ordered directly from the label:

As for me, I go back and forth during this hibernation. Sometimes I love listening to music, familiar and new, or watching films. Often I prefer the silence. I’ve got a deadline from Faber & Faber for my book (still waiting for the perfect title) and I try to hypnotize myself into imagining the world might still be interested when it comes out in a couple of years. I sleep pretty well; the only things that keep me awake are the fate of the planet and imagining how much better some of the records I produced in the past might have been if I’d had Andrea with me as co-producer.

Be well and safe.