In Search of the Gusle and History

Okay . . . I cannot enthuse enough about Belgrade, but it will have to wait. I arrived in Belgrade almost two weeks ago now and am simply breathtaken. At first I was a bit reticent as my new digs were introduced to me via tagging or graffiti on the entrance to my building, but I soon discovered that many buildings are tagged and look old from the outside but that, inside, everything is fair, clean and safe. This is the case for me. While I may want to go on about Belgrade at this point—funky, cool, energizing—I want to write about other places right now as I have had the opportunity to travel in order to understand more of Serbia and as my travel, for various reasons, had to be arranged early in my journey.

I came here to study traditional gusle performances—to see if I could find anything out about the epic traditions of poetry which, for centuries, have been performed to the accompaniment of the gusle, a traditional wooden instrument with one string. I had become fascinated with this tradition during my years as a PhD candidate when, studying Anglo-Saxon traditions (Old English literature) at the University of Toronto, I came across the research of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. My study of Beowulf and such poems, dependent on oral recitation and traditions, led me to write a paper on the characteristics of oral literatures, and I relied upon these scholars of classical Yugoslavian literature (specifically, Serbo-Croat literatures) to make sense of the foundations of English literature. Parry and Lord had catalogued the characteristics of oral verse as they manifested themselves in very old Yugoslavian epic poetic cycles, and I thought there was worth in applying their observations to an analysis of Old English poetry. I also consider this scholarship when trying to make sense of First Nations literature that seems connected to oral traditions.

View from Mokra Gora, Serbia

How best to find out about the gusle, then, and gusle traditions? Sometimes life is serendipitous, and, while I was travelling around Serbia to research the history of the country (this is essential as the poems performed to gusle accompaniment draw on Serbian history), I was fortunate enough to meet a gusle performer who runs a school to train the young how to carry on this important tradition. I am delighted to say that I will soon have my first crash course in the gusle and the composition of poems that accompany gusle performance!

But back to understanding something about Serbian history and the need to have this understanding . . . I travelled for twelve days around the country trying to get a sense of history, politics, geography, culture, and contemporary life. I went to many monasteries, some built as early as the tenth century. Looking at Orthodox churches which had been burnt or vandalized hundreds of years ago, I learned about the Ottoman takeover of Serbia in the 14th century and the strong Turkish influence in this country. Travelling to Roman ruins, I was reminded of how extensive the history of this country is. Viewing many Orthodox churches, I learned more about the creation of Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th century–when Eastern orthodoxy was established and when it split from Western Catholicism.

Bridge in the Divided City, Kosovo

It would seem, perhaps, that I would mention more contemporary history here as the wars of the 1990s in the Balkans are still in mind. However, in addition to the fact that traditional (not modern) gusle compositions are predicated on very old history and the fact that I was intent on learning about the latter, the wars I witnessed on television about twenty years ago did not hold my immediate attention. This country and the city of Belgrade are so peaceful, safe and welcoming. I did see remnants of buildings bombed by the States, but war (at least for me) is not readily apparent, and what stands out most is the beauty and hospitality of this place.

I realize these comments must sound so naïve to others who were immersed in this time period and who are prey to conflicts around ethnic difference. And when I crossed the border into Mitrovica, Kosovo’s Divided City, I was reminded that there is a stark reality one must consider when one looks at the bridge that largely separates Serbian and Albanian peoples. However, I feel I would be remiss to focus on these politics, as well as too ignorant to do so. I would also be remiss to not speak of this country’s beauty above all and to ignore mentioning, first and foremost, that this place is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had while travelling.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Bosnia

Crossing over into Bosnia, I was also reminded of the fact that there are people of international artistic importance everywhere I’ve been. In Visegrad, where I spent the day, Bosnian Serb and Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić marks the town. Though his house is largely unmaintained, a large mural exists which commemorates his importance. This is also where Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan’s famous bridge (commissioned by Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović and completed in 1577) is seen over the Drina River.

Mural of Ivo Andrić, Bosnia
Traditional Serbian Cuisine

As for a different form of art and a word about Serbian cuisine . . . It is absolutely delicious but far from anything to do with vegetarianism. Serbian food equals meat galore, and kaymak (a type of clotted cream) most often accompanies any plate of food. This is not the place to go on a diet, though it is a place to indulge in anything a doctor might warn you against.

I look forward to writing more about this remarkable place and, if possible, travelling to nearby countries which, I am told, are as beautiful as Serbia and whose people are marked by kindness and sophistication, too.


Sunflowers on Serbian Roads