Review: Balkan Epic: Song, History, Modernity

This review originally appeared in Slavic Review 72:1 (2013), 156-8.

Balkan Epic: Song, History, Modernity. Ed. Philip V. Bohlman and Nada Petković. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012. xix, 353 pp. Afterword. CD Commentary and Notes. Bibliography. Index. Figures and Illustrations. Sound Examples. Hard bound.

What is the significance of Balkan epic poetry and folklore today? Often the answer from the sociology and cultural studies of southeast Europe is: as a toolkit of themes and linguistic practices on which nationalist leaders in the successor states of former Yugoslavia were able to draw in order to mobilize their populations behind a largely imaginary history of heroism. Antinationalist intellectuals, as Jakša Primorac and Joško Ćaleta explain in their contribution to this collection, have implied that the sooner epic and its archaisms vanish from visibility the better for a tolerant and forward-looking public discourse. Giving value to contemporary Balkan epic is the task of Philip Bohlman, Nada Petković, and the ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and linguists who have contributed to this volume. The editors are clear that they do not regard epic as “atavistic” (3): rather, they argue that it operates to “re-present the past in the present” (3) in ways that sometimes reinforce, but more often complicate, the aims of political actors who seek to align themselves with the form.

A major contribution of this book is to argue for epic as a genre of intersection and connection rather than a wellspring of narrow nationalist imaginaries. Most strikingly, Nicola Scaldaferri’s chapter reexamining songs from the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature gives evidence of multilingual guslars able to switch between Albanian and South Slavic languages without concern for issues of authenticity or ethnic origin. Victor A. Friedman, in an afterword, revives Alfred Lord’s warning against writing Ottoman creativity out of the history of Balkan epic. Margaret H. Beissinger expands the scope of the collection with a chapter on Romanian epic, which is or was performed by professional lăutari (Roma professional traditional musicians) but has not produced public narratives on the South Slavic model. Dimitrije O. Golemović argues that, out of the three instruments most ethnicized during the Yugoslav wars (saz, tamburica, and gusle), the gusle—slipping into some Croatian cultural identities through the Dinaric contact zone—was in fact the most successful at crossing borders. This focus on borders, identity, and ambiguity is very much in line with contemporary currents in European ethnomusicology and should make the book of comparative interest beyond its immediate region.

The other main theme of Balkan Epic, besides borders, is modernity. While the collection as a whole argues against the impression of epic as inherently problematic and premodern, its most critical voice on epic is that of Tomislav Longinović, whose deconstruction of heroic masculinity in the Kosovo cycle and Gorski vijenac includes a postcolonial critique of Lord and Parry that is missing from the rest of the book and, indeed, an implicit polemic against the concept of modernity itself. From Svanibor Pettan’s chapter on the absence of a Romani tradition in South Slavic epic and on the Croatian guslar Mile Krajina, the uncomfortable question emerges of whether the politicization and ethnicization of epic since the 1980s means that observations about the transnationalism of earlier epic may no longer apply. Beyond this unresolved debate, Balkan Epic is to be commended for advancing the study of epic in another sense, by incorporating its “political economy” of “appropriating, collecting, publishing, [and] mass-marketing” (5). Most apparent in the chapters by Beissinger and Marko Živković, this perspective situates epic within a wider web of economic and cultural flows within and through southeast Europe.

Scarecrow Press’s Europea series on European ethnomusicology, edited by Bohlman and Martin Stokes (an ethnomusicologist of Turkey whose work also deserves to be read in Slavic studies), has become an important player in southeast European cultural studies. Balkan Epic is Scarecrow’s third such collection after Balkan Refrain (2010), edited by Dimitrije O. Golemović, and Donna A. Buchanan’s landmark anthology Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene (2007). This volume is accompanied by a useful CD of musical examples. (Less useful is the publisher’s decision to print this volume with so thin a typeface that the book is difficult to read for sustained periods; other Scarecrow volumes seen by this reviewer have not appeared like this.) Bringing together an important group of scholars, Balkan Epic will be a valuable addition to research libraries with interests in southeast Europe. For researchers and musicians, its importance goes further, opening up space to question whether epic performance could be reclaimed or redeemed in innovative and pluralistic ways.


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