Fighting oblivion with gusle

Musical ear of a contemporary man, even that born in Montenegro, is not accustomed to the sharp, the dramatic sound of our national instrument. Perhaps because the times are not as dramatic as they used to be? Or even because of  a variety of instruments we have today that produce more melodic and pleasant sounds?

But for every Montenegrin, gusle remain to be a sacred instrument. It’s no coincidence that its sales price is so high: Gusle is not a wall decoration, or a souvenir, and it should never become that. Nonetheless, gusle kept our history from oblivion till the appearance of those who replaced the oral tradition with a written word.

At a time when a vast majority of population was still illiterate, the only way of transferring historical events from one generation to the next was with the sounds of gusle and the light of fire. Guslars (performers, people who played gusle), these national authors, found inspiration in the true achievements of their fellow countrymen, celebrities, battles, or even the struggles of everyday life. Epic poems, performed in a specific way, with expressive tones and weak tonal variations of this one-string instrument, depended heavily on the singing capacities of the guslar. His voice should have compensated the poor support of the instrument that played a key role in creating a collective memory and national unity.

Painting “Guslar” by famous Croatian painter Vlaho Bukovac, 1879.

The largest number of songs performed on gusle originates from the time of war against the Ottomans. Guslars, who were at the same time the authors, would perform their songs surrounded by a crowd, eager for encouragement in darktimes and glorious examples they would follow. A part of the audience was at the same time in charge of quality control: survived witnesses of an event listened carefully whether the guslar deviated from the facts and vigorously objected to any such case. Guslars had more poetic freedom in interpreting events that occurred in the distant past, as there were no more live witnesses to “spoil” the song. For this reason, the historical accuracy of songs declined over time. In some cases, it is hard to say where history ends and the poetic freedom and imagination of the author starts.

Novak Djokovic was given gusle as a present, on occasion of consecrating a small Church of St. Michael in a village Jasenovo polje in Montenegro. This church was largely financed by Novak, since his ancestors were born in the village.

In any case, gusle is a wonderful and precious testimony of turbulent times, in which one, not so wealthy, people managed to preserve its spirit and freedom and resist the most powerful force of its time. Even today, listening to gusle performed live, accompanied by a serious tone and the posture of the guslar, leaves no one indifferent, neither locals nor the tourists.

Did you know?

There is no consensus on the origin of this instrument. It is still unknown whether the Slavs brought it here or it came with Islamic cultural wave. Arab travel writers reported that the Slavs had been using them already in the tenth century. However, gusle is not only a national instrument of Montenegro but it can be found in some other Balkan countries like Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and even Albania.T

he instrument has a specific shape and it is made only by the hands of the most skilled masters who know wood treatment and its tonal properties. It’s mostly made of maple wood, which first needs to be dried (a process that takes about a year) to start its processing. Gusle is made of “sound box”, which is round, over which animal skin is stretched – most often goat or lamb skin; then it has the “neck” which is about 40 cm long; and it has the head with a regulator for the tension of the string which is made of about 30 horse hairs. A man playing gusle goes over the string with “gudalo” (fiddle stick), with strings made in the same or at least similar way.

The most commonly encountered motifs on the head in Montenegro are the two-headed eagle, the poet and ruler Njegoš, Mt. Lovćen, a bill goat, horse, or even a snake, as well as geometric elements. With its specific decorations, almost every gusle has its own tale to tell. Playing gusle requires a lot of skill. While playing, Guslar places the body of gusle in his lap, holding the long neck with the palm of his right hand and the fiddle stick with his other hand.

2 Replies to “Fighting oblivion with gusle”

  1. Looks and sounds like a fascinating instrument and I would like to hear one being played when next I’m in Montenegro.

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