The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 2. Singers: Performance and Training

Were we to seek to understand why a literary poet wrote what he did in a particular poem in a particular manner and form, we should not focus our attention on the moment when he or someone else read or recited his poem to a particular audience or even on any moment when we ourselves read the poem in quiet solitude. We should instead attempt to reconstruct that moment in time when the poet wrote the lines. Obviously, the moment of composition is the important one for such study. For the oral poet the moment of composition is the performance. In the case of a literary poem there is a gap in time between composition and reading or performance. In the case of the oral poem this gap does not exist, because composition and performance are two aspects of the same moment. Hence, the question “when would such and such an oral poem be performed?” has no meaning; the question should be “when was the oral poem performed?” An oral poem is not composed for but in performance. The implications of this statement are both broad and deep. For that reason we must turn first in our analysis of oral epic to the performance.

We must grasp fully who, or more correctly what, our performer is. We must eliminate from the word “performer” any notion that he is one who merely reproduces what someone else or even he himself has composed. Our oral poet is composer. Our singer of tales is a composer of tales. Singer, performer, composer, and poet are one under different aspects but at the same time. Singing, performing, composing are facets of the same act.

It is sometimes difficult for us to realize that the man who is sitting before us singing an epic song is not a mere carrier of the tradition but a creative artist making the tradition. The reasons for this difficulty are various. They arise in part simply from the fact that we are not in the habit of thinking of a performer as a composer. [1] Even in the realm of oral literature most of us in the West, at least, are more accustomed to the ballad than to the epic; and our experience has been formed in large part by “folk” ballad singers who are mere performers. The present vogue of revival of folk singing on the concert stage and elsewhere has distorted our concept of the essence of oral composition. The majority of such “folk” singers are not {13|14} oral poets. The collector even in a country such as Yugoslavia, where published collections have been given much attention for over a century, some of which have become almost sacrosanct, must be wary; for he will find singers who have memorized songs from these collections. In spite of authentic manner of presentation, in spite of the fact that the songs themselves are often oral poems, we cannot consider such singers as oral poets. They are mere performers. Such experiences have deceived us and have robbed the real oral poet of credit as a creative composer; indeed to some extent they have taken from epic performance an element of vital interest. Our task in this chapter is to restore to performance and performer their true significance.

What is true of the home gathering in the country village holds as well for the more compact villages and for towns, where the men gather in the coffee house (kafana) or in the tavern rather than in a private home. The taverns are entirely male establishments, whether the district is predominantly Moslem or not. Neither Moslem nor Christian women are ever allowed in these places. This is a man’s world. Here the men gather at the end of the day. The farmers of the nearby villages may drop in for a short while to sit and talk, sip coffee or raki, and listen to songs. They come and go. The townspeople join them. There are shopkeepers and caravan drivers who {14|15} have come in with merchandise from other districts or are stopping on their way through. Frequently the tavern is also an inn, a “han,” and here the drivers will spend the night. Many of these men are also singers and the carriers of tradition from one district to another. They are a critical audience.

In market centers such as Bijelo Polje, Stolac, Novi Pazar, and Bihać, market day, the one day in the week when the town is crowded with people from the countryside who have come in to buy and sell, will be the busiest day in the han or in the kafana. Some of the business is done there during the day, and some of the money which has changed hands will be spent in the kafana at night before the men return to their own villages. They may even stay the night there and return the next morning, if they feel so inclined, or if the day has been particularly profitable. This is a good opportunity for the singer because, although his audience may not be stable, it does have money and is willing to reward him for his pains. He is not really a professional, but his audience does buy him drinks, and if he is good they will give him a little money for the entertainment he has given them.

When the singing takes place, as it occasionally does, at a wedding festival, the amount of confusion is increased by the singing of lyric songs and dancing carried on by the young people. The evenings offer the best opportunity for the singer of the old songs, when the older men are not watching the games or gossiping with their neighbors and are content to relax and sit back and listen to the bard.

In Novi Pazar Đemo Zogić kept a kafana, and Salih Ugljanin and Sulejman Makić had at one time or another been engaged in it as singers. Đemo paid the singer a hundred dinars in advance, or a hundred oka of grain for the singer to leave with his family for food, because the singer stayed in town and ate at Đemo’s house. After the bard had sung a song in the kafana, Đemo circulated among the guests and took up a collection for him. According to Đemo some gave one dinar and some five, but Sulejman told us that they usually gave two dinars and that he made as much as sixty {15|16} dinars a night (I, p. 238 and p. 265), Murat Žunić was much sought after in the district of Cazin and Bihać in the north, both places competing for his talent. He had sung in Banja Luka for six years during Ramazan (Parry 1915). Đemo Zogić was himself a singer and would sometimes sing for his own company, but he told us he was generally so busy serving coffee and greeting guests and talking that he had to hire someone to do the singing. Once when the singer had been indisposed during his engagement, Đemo had taken over, and the guests had given him great praise for his singing, so he tells us (I, p. 240).

In an account of the occasions for singing and of the audience which fosters it, mention at least should be made of the courtly entertainment of the earlier days in Yugoslavia. What we have been describing up to this point was in existence in Yugoslavia in the 1930’s and to an extent still continues. In medieval times, before the Turkish conquests, the Christian courts had undoubtedly fostered the minstrel’s art as had the courts of other countries in Europe at that time. When these courts re-emerged, however, after the expulsion of the Turks, they were no longer interested in the bards but sought their entertainment from abroad or from other sources. Hence in the Christian courts oral narrative poetry played no role for many generations. The local Moslem nobility on the other hand with its rich estates had fostered the art, and since this local nobility was still alive in some districts, such as Novi Pazar, Bijelo Polje, and Bihać in the 1930’s, it was still possible to obtain firsthand information about the practice. It actually differed little from our account above except that everything was on a grander scale; the settings were more luxurious and the gifts to singers richer.

The records of the Parry Collection abound in stories, some fairly full, of how the Moslem bards used to sing at the “courts” of the Turkish nobility. Here the professional or semiprofessional singer was afforded the best opportunity for practicing his art. There seems to be little evidence, however, that the beys and aghas actually maintained a court minstrel. They not infrequently called in singers for special occasions when they entertained guests, but they did not keep a singer in their courts. In the old days the ruling class of Moslems celebrated the feast of Ramazan in its courts rather than in the kafana. When the Turkish rule was overthrown, the celebration took place more commonly in the kafana than in private Moslem homes.

Whether the performance takes place at home, in the coffee house, in the courtyard, or in the halls of a noble, the essential element of the occasion of singing that influences the form of the poetry is the variability and instability of the audience.

The instability of the audience requires a marked degree of concentration on the part of the singer in order that he may sing at all; it also tests to the utmost his dramatic ability and his narrative skill in keeping the audience as attentive as possible. But it is the length of a song which is most affected by the audience’s restlessness. The singer begins to tell his tale. If he is fortunate, {16|17} he may find it possible to sing until he is tired without interruption from the audience. After a rest he will continue, if his audience still wishes. This may last until he finishes the song, and if his listeners are propitious and his mood heightened by their interest, he may lengthen his tale, savoring each descriptive passage. It is more likely that, instead of having this ideal occasion the singer will realize shortly after beginning that his audience is not receptive, and hence he will shorten his song so that it may be finished within the limit of time for which he feels the audience may be counted on. Or, if he misjudges, he may simply never finish the song. Leaving out of consideration for the moment the question of the talent of the singer, one can say that the length of the song depends upon the audience. One of the reasons also why different singings of the same song by the same man vary most in their endings is that the end of a song is sung less often by the singer.


The major part of this book is concerned with the special technique of composition which makes rapid composing in performance possible. For an understanding of this technique it is necessary to introduce the Yugoslav singer and to examine the way in which he learns his art of singing. Let the singers speak for themselves from the phonograph records of the Parry Collection.