TRADITIONAL MUSIC IN THE BALKANS: Togetherness over Otherness—the Seed of Unity


The Southwest Balkan region was an established part of the Roman Eastern Empire and has long attracted researches and travellers who have written about the traditional local music, and the impressions from those observations have been of various kinds. The region evolved distinctive indigenous musical styles of its own that were clearly shaped by diverse specific structures. Emerging out of the ancient trade routes that crossed this geographical fringe area, the origins and musical formation process are regional rather than ethnic, however, associated with local ethnic traditions and customs (Fig. 1a, Fig. 1b). In studying the ancient populations of the South Balkan area, particularly the links between the Illyrians, Macedonians and Epirotes, Hahn asked ‘what are the grounds of this ethnographical relationship?’ His answer was that ‘is it based on the language, customs and common dress, thus, upon those things which constitute the national identity’ (Hahn 1835, 296; Fig. 2). The populations who resided in the South Balkans embraced the main doctrines of the old and new religions whilst also developing their own distinct approaches to worship.

The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova has stated: ‘For the Westerner, our traditions … are exciting with their primitiveness, the elemental quality, the backwardness, the exoticism of the wild’. She comments further:

‘Chakrabarty has shown how non-Western scholars study their own history in conjunction and in reference to the history of the West, whereas Western academia does not reciprocate with the same approach’ (Todorova 61, 1997, Fig. 3a).

Another Bulgarian Documentary Filmmaker, Adela Peeva, has produced a film titled ‘Whose Is This Song?’, which takes place in the countries of the Balkan region (Fig. 4a & Fig.4b). According to the Adela Media (Film and TV Production Company) ‘(It) is a film about a song and the transformations it underwent on its travels along the roads of the Balkans: in the different countries it has different faces and exists as a love song, a military march meant to scare the enemy of, a Muslim religious song, a revolutionary song, an anthem of the right nationalists, etc’. Afterwards she admits that ‘when I first started searching for the song, I thought it would unite us… I never believed the sparks of hatred can be lit so easily’This can be explained by the fact that the documentary, or rather the song, is a creation of ‘otherness’ rather than ‘togetherness’.

The peoples of the Balkan area have shared many common melodic features of their traditional songs, closely connected to their poetical content: some are deeply sentimental, some suggest bird and flower singing, others transmit cheerful and joyous emotions, and so on. These songs were created by local songwriters, but without using the musical notation; they were intended for local people and used to identify particular ethnic groups. One of the most distinctive features of Balkan traditional music is the complexity of its rhythms in comparison to Western music. Although it uses of commonly widespread meters such as 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4, Balkan music also includes compound meters with 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 beats in a bar (and even 11/32 in a bar), sometimes referred to as ‘aksak metres’, ‘asymmetric meters’ or ‘limping metres’ characterised by a strong rhythmic accentuation and pulsation (Fig. 5).

Legends also speak of a common Balkan mentality. One of them is the human sacrifice of the younger brother’s wife in order for a structure (castle or bridge) to stand strong, naturally it is viewed from the standpoint of ethnicity. In fact, the idea of human sacrifice has been around from antiquity, i.e. Homeric legend (Fig. 6).

Even common dishes, although sometimes with different names, appear in Albanian, Rumanian, Greek, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Bulgarian or Turkish gastronomy as witness of a long social and cultural interchange, entering the daily tradition regardless of ethnic, linguistic or religious differences (Fig. 7).

As far as the traditional instruments are concerned, the Albanian lahutë or the Serbian and Montenegrin gusle, (a single-stringed musical instrument traditionally used in the Balkans) are always accompanied by singing, rhapsodic voice, and used in epic poetry (Fig. 8a & 8b). Like the majority of the traditional folk instruments, lahutë and gusle have also a Middle Eastern origin and were brought to Europe in the early Second Millennium via the Islamic cultural wave. The gusle has been used also by the Croats in Herzegovina, as well as in Bosnia.

Sharkia (Albanian) or Šargija (Bosnian/Croatian and Serbian) is a plucked instrument with more strings that çifteli (usually four); its frets produce neutral intervals and is played by several Balkan countries (Fig. 9a & 9b).

As far as the ancient Greek aulos is concerned, this is a double-reed instrument with double diverging pipes (Fig. 10a). Similar types of traditional aerophone instruments with two pipes, one for the tune (chanter) and the other for the drone/iso, which are found in the present southwestern Albanian territories, are cula-diare and bishnica (Fig. 10b). An akin type of instrument is also found in other Balkan countries; a dvojnice, for example, is another double-pipe flute made from a single piece of wood that can be found in Serbia (Fig. 10c) and the fluier gemănat in Romania (Fig. 10d). An instrument of this nature with just one pipe and a shkllaps or bylbyl mouthpiece to enable holding the ison (a drone holding-tone) in a nibet tune, in Albania is called curle, in North Macedonia zurle and in Turkey zurna (Fig. 10f). The kaval (Alb. fyell), one of the most diversely shaped and named wind instruments, is an end-blown flute of cane, bone, wood or metal, traditionally played throughout the Balkans (in Albania, Rumania, Bulgaria, Southern Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Northern Greece and elsewhere). The kaval is generally found among shepherds and goatherds. These types of wind instruments, such as folk flutes and oboes with parallel double-pipes or divergent double-pipes, existed in ancient Egypt and original types have survived to this day.

The bagpipes seem to have existed everywhere in the Balkans and the most popular term for this aerophone instrument of sheep or goatskins is gaide/a (Fig. 10e). It is an ancient instrument and it was probably originated in Persia (as ney-anban). In Southeast Europe the term varies from Albanian gajde, North Macedonian гајда, Bulgarian гайда, Greek γκάιντα, Aromanian gaidã, Serbo-Croatian гајдe/gajde and Turkish gayda.

The shared musical and ethnographical traditions of the Southwest Balkans are the attributes and assets of the ethnic populations of this region. The fustanella (a pleated kilt or dress), claimed by both Albanians and Greeks as their traditional national costume, is associated with their practices and the shared influence of some of their common history; it is regarded by both with pride and as a mark of identity (Fig. 11a & 11b). But, it is not just the fustanella; there are other components of similar roles and functions, however, in some cases bearing different names, such as the instrumental kaba or mirologia, saze or koumpaneia (of mainly Gypsy professional ensembles), chamiko (çamiko) or tsamiko, llauta or laouto, the Pyrrhic dance, tetratonic and pentatonic tunes, tonic and subtonic tonalities, common trochaic and iambic verses, all of which represent the continuity of these earlier traditions (Fig. 12 & Fig. 13).

The Aromanian or Vlach populations are still living in ethnic areas in their original homeland throughout the Balkan region, especially in Northern Greece, Albania, North Macedonia, as well as in Eastern Serbia, Northeast Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania (mostly in Dobrogea) (Fig. 14a & 14b). There is a typical pastoral Aromanian/Vlach style of singing, with the second part falsetto, more or less as in the Andon Poçi village, north of Gjirokastër, which I also found in Kefalovriso, another Aromanian village in north Greece. Both villages on both sides of the frontier were set up to make room for the Aromanian people as permanent residents.

There was also a substantial contingent of Gypsy or Rroma nomadic people moving from Asia Minor (Ottoman Empire) into Europe and entering the Balkans in the 14th century who brought with them their oriental sonorities, interpretation styles and effective ornamentations. New ‘Balkanised’ music and songs adopted by the Rromani musicians, were based on regional ethnic tunes, modes and melodic contours, however, adopted to the Rroma/Gypsy style widespread throughout the Balkans.

The Albanian renowned linguist and scholar Eqrem Çabej, has investigated that ‘in general, the Oriental tunes predominate in the towns of North and Central Albania. However, it is important to ascertain the degree of Balkanisation of these tunes, i.e., to measure how far the Oriental tunes have departed from their original character under the influence of the relatively regional tunes of the Balkans and how much they have changed in these areas. Since the bitter and monotonous sound of the tunes of the Balkan people is different from the ecstatic and sensual character of Oriental tunes, this sound is better suited to the character of the land and inhabitants of this peninsula’.

Last but not least, the art music with its orchestral, operatic, instrumental and vocal repertoire, carry the main weight of the Balkan concert series and operatic calendar based on orchestral and choral troupes as well as local and international soloists and conductors. The music of Balkan composers of the past and present, with its characteristic regional idioms, is an integral part of European music.

During the last decade of the 20th century, products of the global music market in Albania were increasingly accessible and commercial music started market making with a particular emphasis on live performances and recording industry; it was considered as a kind of globalisation of music. The political transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic system was shaping a new product according to the taste of the new society. The traditional music ensembles began to look as relics of the past.

Given the long-shared history of Balkan region it is not surprising that its musical tradition should display some similarities in style and form. Although the traditional music practiced between geographical neighbourhoods share some common expressive devices and regional patterns, however, they differ in language and customs, as well as in some specific, clearly identified, styles and features. As a shared collective heritage, Balkan music is something of a cultural necessity for the populations where it is practiced and it is often used at important occasions of everyday life.

During the 20th century, especially in the second half, national cultures became institutionalised and few attempts were made to appropriate them into a nationalist ideology. In this period special attention was given to folklore and this was seen as one of the best vehicles for incorporating epic-historic tradition into a doctrinal nationalist one. Some specific branches of traditional music were and are often conceived by the nationalist ideology as an isolated phenomenon or as non-affected by external influences, and not as a broader musical and regional concept as well as a shared practice with neighbourhood cultures; this kind of tendency acted as a kind of cultural appropriation. Thinking about these developments on other sides of the frontier, I asked myself whether this was a new phase where an intercultural communication could be transformed into cultural appropriation. Was it a kind of contest to determine which group was the authentic heir to the tradition, and which was the appropriator? Nationalist ideologies failed to recognise that the traditional music culture is mostly a regional occurrence based upon different ethnicities and for this reason will always be resistant to artificially imposed cultural distinctions.

Professor Seebas of the University of Innsbruck, from the position of a western viewpoint, analyses: ‘Nowhere else [in the Balkans] so much effort and intensity has been invested in identifying specific styles or instruments with specific ethnic or national groups. It is time that we redirect our energy away from the assumption that national identity, ethnic identity, and musical styles are one and the same. … The richness and variety of Balkan music is to a high degree the result of the cultural contacts, adoptions, and crossovers’.

The professor of cultural anthropology, Slovenian Božidar Jezernik, writes: ‘We have seen how vigorously the people of “the mountainous peninsula” struggled to progress and how splendid were the results of their efforts to Europeanise’. However, concludes Jezernik: ‘While the Balkans is now making every effort to be part of Europe as it once was, Europe now defines itself on the basis of its difference from the East, the Balkans included, and claims to be what the Balkans used to be for centuries’.

Dr. Eno Koço

Musicologist and conductor


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