Albania and Serbia at odds over Lute

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 5, 2018 14:56

Albania and Serbia at odds over Lute

Story Highlights

  • Serbia has nominated the practice of singing with the gusle or lahuta as a UNESCO intangible heritage. Some media have concluded in panic that this means that the lute is Serbian and not Albanian, but Serbia has merely successfully registered the tradition as singing with the gusle to UNESCO, whereas Albania is still stuck in lobbying for submitting its own paperwork.

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The 13th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage took place at Port Louis from Nov. 26- Dec. 1. A list of 40 countries enlisted their nominations, seven among them named in urgent need for safeguarding. Among the 40 countries were also Serbia with its nomination of ‘’Singing to the accompaniment of the Gusle.’’

Gusle is a bowed stringed (one to three strings) instrument which is used to accompany the singing of epic poetry and folklore. It is held vertically, rested between the knees while the hands create the music. This is a largely used instrument in Balkans for singing heroic songs. Gusle in Albania is known as lahuta (lute), a traditional instrument widely used by the North of Albania. There is also a book called ‘’Lahuta e Malcis’’ (The Highmountain Lute) written by renowned Gjergj Fishta, poet, educator, politician, franciscan.

Some media in Albania panicked over this news and rushed to write that UNESCO has already declared the lute or gusle as a Serbian instrument, meaning that the lute is not Albanian after all. However, Serbia has merely nominated in safeguarding the practice of singing using the gusle.

In one of the paperworks of its application to the UNESCO, the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Information, after having explained what the gusle is and its used practice, also added that ‘’this archaic form of folk art promotes the highest ethical values, the importance of kinship and the homogeneity of the community, and it is also a blend of the community's historical memory and traditional music skills. The communities that practice it consider it the most representative element of their identity. Singing to the accompaniment of the gusle, as part of both performing arts and oral tradition, is present in the entire territory of Serbia. However, its practice is more pronounced in the western and central parts of Serbia and in Vojvodina.’’

This nomination is still under consideration by UNESCO. To this news also reacted Albanian Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro in correcting the false allegations made so far.

‘’No decision has been made and in no case did the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage claim, as it is falsely said in media, that the ‘lute is not Albanian, but Serbian’,’’ said Kumbaro in a media announcement.

In a paperwork for its application, Serbia claims that communities and groups concerned of this practice of ‘’singing to the accompaniment of the gusle is an element of the living cultural practice of a significant number of local communities in Serbia whose members identify themselves ethnically as Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosniaks, Albanians, and confessionally as Orthodox Christians and Muslims.’’

Even in a section below regarding the geographical range the practice includes, it writes that ‘’the geocultural zones where singing to the accompaniment of the gusle is part of living cultural practices do not coincide with administrative borders and the practice can also be found in some areas of the neighboring countries (Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Croatia), as well as in the Diaspora.’’

So, in no case did Serbia claim that the gusle or lute is a Serbian instrument, but it is merely claiming the practice of singing with a gusle as a Serbian intangible heritage. Yet, it does not deny that this practice is spread among other Balkan countries, thus making it a Balkan tradition.

For the origins of the gusle itself exists no clear consensus, as it is not clear where the instrument came from. In Albania however, the instrument cifteli is far more spread than the practice of the lute. The Albanian Ministry of Culture said that it is in contact with the respective Montenegrin Ministry, so more South-Eastern European countries can be included in this process of safeguarding the cultural instrument.

Academic and musicologist Vasil Tole also reacted to this news with some more insights. He said that the Serbian gusle has some minor changes from the Albanian lute, however, the important note is that Serbia has successfully submitted its epos at UNESCO, and this should serve in encouraging our country’s institutions in working better for registering our epos as an intangible heritage.

‘’Naturally Serbs registered their part, but that doesn’t mean that the door to register our own epos and lute to UNESCO is closed for us. It is a heritage present in both nations, but we claim that it is earlier in our regions, according to studies made by various foreign albanologues and scholars,’’ said Tole regarding the situation.

He added that the lute is a Balkan instrument, however, where the case lies is registering the various works and eposes made for singing along with the instrument, which are a cultural heritage to each nation that has a tradition of singing with a lute. Tole has been part of the team preparing the documentations for submitting the Albanian epos and lahuta to UNESCO as an intangible heritage.  

The documentation work started eight years ago by a team raised from the Ministry of Culture. Within a year from when the work started, the team decided that except the Epos of the Braves, in the documentation would also be included the lute, the towers in which the epos would be sang, and the traditional outfit xhubleta.

The Albanian Academy of Sciences said two years ago in an optimistic declaration that the documentation consisting of five thousand explanatory pages, entitled ‘’The Albanian Epos of the Brave in five countries of Balkans,’’ was ready. The documentation was conducted by Prof. Dr. Zymer Neziri, Prof. Vasil Tole, and Prof. Dr. Shaban Sinani. However, it seems that the file has been stuck since due to failed lobbying from the Albanian Ministry of Culture and that of the Foreign Affairs.

You can download the Serbian application document from UNESCO here:  38970-EN  

And you can check the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Serbia for singing with the gusle by pressing in the link.


Note: an update was made to the article to add the words and insights made by Prof. Vasil Tole concerning the case.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times December 5, 2018 14:56