Rediscovering the Magic of the Gusle

The first time I heard live gusle singing, a UNESCO-protected Serbian national ritual, was not fortuitous.

I was fifteen, and my stern Serbian teacher took our High School class to a local library to hear poems and stories written by fellow high-schoolers.

The boredom of this dreary event was somewhat lifted when one guy decided to perform his longish poem, written in traditional decasyllabic verses, to the accompaniment of the gusle.

For those of you who haven’t yet been blessed with hearing this one-string lute-like instrument, it makes a peculiar screeching noise which is drowned out by even louder singing by the performer. This cacophony went on for what seemed like forever, and hormonal teen as I was, I got antsy and at one point started sniggering. The situation was made worse by the fact that the song was a particularly sombre and dealt with a violent death of child, and my laughing fit became unbearable at its climax, which described a child’s head bursting open. I, of course, was the lone laughing psycho (some girls in the audience seemed genuinely touched and were crying) and had to run out of the room, which was no easy feat (I sat in the middle of my packed row).

From then on, I could not but be haunted by this awful memory and the gusle just seemed like a thing that I will never get into. Most of my Western pop-culture-obsessed crowd had little interest in any exploring our traditional culture. Even when I got a bit into world music and ran to watch performances of everything and anything from flamenco to sitar the idea of actually going to something local of that sort never crossed my mind. 

Sixteen years later, after coming back from abroad with a great appetite for what Serbia has to offer, I was leafing through my High School book of Serbian epic poetry and found myself wondering what these powerful songs of heroism, familial piety and death, actually sounded like when performed by the fireplace to the screeching of the gusle. After all, my ancestors, most of whom grew up in the rugged parts of Montenegro, Bosnia and Lika – all regions with strong gusle singing traditions – must have found something in those strange sounds, which the Serbs, according to one story brought with them from the central Asian steppes. It was thanks to the memory and talent of the great gusle-bards of yore, Filip Višnjić and Tešan Podrugović that Serbian epic poetry survived along with its moral imperatives of “čojstvo” (ethical principle defending others from oneself) and “junaštvo” (heroism).  Finally, it is one of the few UNESCO-protected parts of Serbian immaterial heritage along with Slava and kolo, and if a bunch of international bureaucrats in Paris think that there is something to it, well – who am I to oppose them?   

After realising that my attention span is insufficient for listening to gusle singing on YouTube (one song can go on for more than 30 minutes – I managed to stay focused for about two minutes), I realised that there is no alternative then to attend a “gusle night”. A friend helpfully suggested that there are regular performances at Kolarac, and I got two tickets – less than three euros each – to connect with the magic of the centuries gone by.

Finding someone to watch the performance organised by the most prestigious gusle singing association in Serbia, proved even more difficult than I imagined. After a dozen of my friends point-blank refused, I had to resort to trying to coax people by saying that they would be listening to an unspecified UNESCO-protected world music performance. Even that was unsuccessful, until I finally found a friend who was eager to lose his gusle virginity (predictably he is also a repat, who is trying to explore Serbian culture after a long time in the US). 

Although I knew that I was mature enough not to laugh this time around, I was dreading that I would find whole 90 minutes of gusle singing too painful. I was also excited to hear the epic poetry I had to learn by heart performed as it was meant to be: by a skillful gusle-bard surrounded by an adoring crowd.

My gusle night was attended by about a hundred people, whose impressive heights revealed Dinaric roots. They also all seemed to know each other and within minutes I got flyers for several upcoming gusle events. There were to be about half a dozen gusle performances of fragments of (mostly traditional) epic poetry, as well as two singing acts without the gusle.

The lights dimmed, the crowd went silent and the extremely polite MC announced the first gusle-bard, detailing his origins and accomplishments, and highlighting the most interesting segments and morals of the poetry we were about to hear. The bard came out dressed in the traditional highland costume, stopped and stretched his arms out holding the gusle, as if they were an offering to us, bowed down and sat on a little stool.

His performance of a fragment of “Banovic Strahinja “– a famous epic song about a hero whose wife was raped – was amazing, even though I could barely make out the words. The crowd even exploded in cheers at the most technically difficult parts, and it was over before I even got a chance to wonder if I was bored.

As the night went on, things got even better. One youthful bard from Podgorica was especially good, with his clear but dramatic rendition. While he was singing, my normal thinking was jammed by the sound of the gusle, and I felt almost transported to a strange epic realm, where the mythical events from centuries ago seem timeless. With each of his words, I felt surrounded by honourable heroes surging into battle and defiant captives meeting bloody ends from my childhood books. The strange sounds I was hearing increasingly sounded like primeval chanting, coming from the depths of history only to be interrupted only by enthusiastic applause from the audience, which seemed to be as intoxicated by the event as I was.

Those previously endless-seeming 90 minutes flew by, and it was all over. I was happy that I got to sense at least a bit of the magic which made my ancestors gather around their tiny hearths to be transported to gilded halls of kings and heroes of yore. Magic which tied them to these shamanic bards whose strange singing promised to transform their often tragic mountain lives into transcendent stories of bravery, loss and suffering to be relayed to their cynical urbanite offspring.

I will definitely try to go to the “gusle nights” more regularly, as the gusle were made to be enjoyed directly and as a communal ritual.

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