I have been spending time in Vrbas, Serbia, a town of about 35, 000 people which is approximately a forty-minute drive to the second largest city in Serbia, Novi Sad. Vrbas is a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Belgrade.
I have been told that this is the town where the gusle tradition has maintained itself more than in any other place in Serbia. There is a small guslar association here, and I joined it! So, presently, I am a card-carrying member of a guslar group.
When I took my first lesson, I was introduced to the carved figure on the top of my teacher’s gusle—the head of a mountain goat. Apparently, this is only one design, and there are many different carvings that may adorn a gusle, though, from what I have seen, the mountain goat top seems to be the most prevalent. Second, I was given a bit of the history behind this instrument and the tradition of gusle playing. It was emphasized to me that the instrument and its messages are very powerful: they carry the history and spirit of Serbian people. I was told that, in times past, the gusle has been considered so powerful that, during invasions, Serbian guslars have been targeted and killed because of their knowledge.
The gusle produces four tones. In addition to the tone produced by simply drawing the bow across the lower string, fingers are placed gently at the sides of the upper string to produce three more tones. Sound simple? Not at all. My teacher was gracious with me, telling me I was learning very quickly, but I shuddered at the squeaks I was making as I tried to establish my first even tone with simply the bow. I did try to advance with what I will call the index-finger tone, but I was quickly aware it would take a long while to achieve even a basic knowledge of how to operate the instrument.
I was glad that I had travelled around Serbia prior to picking up the gusle and seeking tutelage about it. The gusle and its messages have been around for thousands of years, and it is necessary to know about such figures as Sava, Serbia’s greatest saint, who was part of the Nemanjić dynasty, perhaps the most powerful Serbian family in the country’s history. It is necessary to understand something of the Turkish conquests and, even more recently within history, the originator of the Serbian Cyrillic orthography, Vuk Karadžić, who, in the nineteenth century, made language and literature more accessible to the public and whose phonetics capture a belief in the importance of everyday speech. As my teacher reminded me, the instrument and its poetic art came long, long before even Christopher Columbus, and, as he said, it’s strange that not more is known about the tradition, that not more is taught about it in international educational systems.
I chanced to pick up a magazine in the room where I was being taught. The centre page caught my attention as I saw a photo of an older woman playing the gusle. I was delighted to see it as I realize that gusle playing is a male-dominated tradition, so much so that I have heard anecdotally that perhaps no women study or play gusle. I wondered how many other Canadian women with a fascination for poetry and the scholarship of Milman Parry and Albert Lord picked it up.
Indeed, people thought it a bit bizarre that I had travelled to Serbia in search of gusle knowledge. Upon arriving for my second gusle lesson, I was met by journalists who interviewed me. I believe they took notes for the local papers, and a small video was also uploaded to YouTube. Click the following link: https://youtu.be/7FCHO8a3UsM
Since I do not speak or understand Serbian and am unable to comprehend what was said in the video (other than the English I spoke), I asked a Serbian friend to translate for me the general gist of things. This is what he said: “The first part gives your background. The second discusses your impressions of Serbia, and the final section talks about the guslar club you worked with and how they hope contact with academics, such as yourself, will help them in their efforts to have gusle and epic poetry recognized by UNESCO. Of course, the bulk of the clip is about your impressions of Serbia and the local area.”
The sounds of the gusle are mesmerizing, and it is amazing how much can be done with four tones, how many different moods can be created. The night of my second meeting, there were also a number of guslars who met me, and, as I listened to them play and sing, voices powerful and passionate, I anticipated even more what I could potentially learn about the words being sung and the messages being delivered. Not all the poems are about history or war. As with many, if not all, artistic traditions (oral and otherwise), the subject of love assumes an important place in guslar poetry.
Presently, I am trying to figure out if a gusle can be carried around in a suitcase. I am also trying to figure out where I could practice it on a daily basis. Anyone living in the same apartment building as me would be bound to attack me in the hallway. I think it’s safe to say all hotels would kick me off their premises. The gusle is powerful, plaintive and beautiful in the right hands, and one must have serious training. To the newly initiated and those who have to listen to the newly initiated, it’s a lesson in patience.
There are those who are very talented, though, and if you click on the following link, you can listen to a master guslar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wry5E5J5KrU