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Montenegro Music

Part III: Gusle

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Without the word about “gusle”, not one single story about Montenegrin music and folklore would be complete. As a nation with a long history, Montenegrins were witnesses of great happenings and events through which they have built their existence and their state. The history had to be remembered, great man from Montenegro kept from oblivion, so every detail and event, every heroism and bravery was turned into a song and in that way became a part of the tradition and a legend, which with its mysticism and beauty will seduce you. They encouraged themselves with poem, celebrated, bemoaned, and “gusle” were there to contribute with their warm tone to that solemnity.

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“Gusle” are a national string instrument, which originates from the East, even though with time they have undividedly become a folklore element of South Slavs. Ethnologists have found a great similarity between Slav “gusle” and eastern “rebab”, which after the fall of the Otoman Empire, even today is played by the Bedouins all over the Middle east, almost in the same way in which today “gusle” are played on the Balkans. Since the XIX century in the countries, which are inhabited by the Slavs, there are records about gusle and similar instruments, which are played almost in the identical way. Today, the area of the Balkans and Dinarids is considered to be an area on which gusle are played as an original folk instrument , and you will find them beside in Montenegro, in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and even in one shape in Albania.

So gusle are a string instrument, of specific shape, which are made in special way. Solely the top masters, who are good in procession of woods, and who know a lot about the acoustic traits of the wood, are making them. For the making of this instrument and almost in any case the maple tree is used, which is extremely noble and beholden for achievement of the necessary shape, further style procession and a quality tone. Only when the master finds the quality material and leaves to be dried at least for a year, the process of making can begin – the wood, which has to be completely dry in order to achieve the desired tone, is processed and deepened with special tools. Gusle is made of “sound box”, which is round, over which the animal skin is stretched – most often goat or lamb skin; then it has the “neck” which is about 40 cm long; and it has a head with a regulator for the tension of the string which is made of about 30 horse hairs. Over it a man playing gusle goes over with “gudalo” (fiddlestick), whose strings are made in the same or at least similar way.

Much more interesting than the technology and acoustics in gusle is the artistic element, which every master implements during the creation of gusle. The back of the sound box, the neck, the head, and the fiddlestick, are parts of gusle on which a picture is being painted or carved, so every sample of this instrument will tell you its own story. Special attention is given to the head, so on Montenegrin gusle one can find a huge number of wonderful carved shapes – most often it is a two headed eagle, like the one from the state heraldry, then the shape of the mountain Lovcen , or the characters from Moontenegrin history, Petar II Petrovic Njegos. Petar I Petrovic Njegos, Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, and many others. Montenegrin masters often decide to make also zoomorphic shapes, among which the billygoat with specially made horns is dominant, then, they also make a horse, a deer, and rarely some other symbolic representations of animals. They often also make heralds, which themselves carry some messages. The precisely carved geometrical mottles or inscriptions with a message usually dominate the neck. In the back, in the technique of deep carving, masters most often gusle make Lovcen Mountain.

Gusle produce a specific sound – it is a very distinct, somewhat elevated tone, not to diverse and rich, but a tone which has drama strength which is necessary, of course along with the song (lyrics), for achieving the effect on the listeners.  The person playing gusle is called “guslar” or the folk “guslar”. He sits in a chair and places gusle in lap, leaning them and holding then with his legs mildly crossed. His left hand is on the neck of gusle, and with the right hand he is playing with the fiddlestick over the wire. The gusle are rarely played alone, without the company of the voice. Usually, after a shorter instrumental introduction, guslar, with a specific voice and signing, is starting the song. Most often those are long narration folk songs, in decasyllable, which speak about the history of Montenegro, as well as about the people who were participants or witnesses of those events. Sometimes it is a legend, and this area, rich with myths does not lack the songs of that kind. Guslar (person playing gusle) has to be a man great trade. The skill of playing is being transferred from generation to generation, in the family, and especially in the village part of Montenegro – north and the area around Cetinje. Playing of gusle as a skill, in Montenegro, is especially appreciated, so often so called gusle nights are being organized on which a great number of people gathers. People playing gusle then are dressed in the Montenegrin folk costume, and the epic poetry with which they are accompanying the sound of gusle is being listened to with great attention – as if people are hearing it for the first time. The very songs, which are being performed, were transferred through centuries orally, until finally they haven’t been   written down and kept for all times.

Through the song, with gusle, Montenegro has preserved a part of itself from the long gone days, as few European countries have managed to do that. This makes it even more beautiful and worthy of your visit.


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