Perceptions of ganga

prof. dr. sc. Ankica Petrović prof. dr. sc. Ankica Petrović

prof. dr. sc. Ankica Petrović, etnomuzikologinja i socijalna antropologinja te profesorica na Odsjeku za etnomuzikologiju na uglednoj američkoj Herb Albert School of Music (UCLA)

1. Introduction

The purpose of this article is to describe my radical transformation as a young ethnomusicologist under the tutelage of John Blacking during my study with him at The Queen's University of Belfast in the mid-1970s, That transformation meant switching from the rigid and orthodox ethnomusicology of Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries to a more revolutionary way of interpreting traditional music. In spite of official "humanistic" proclamations relating to their treatment of culture and society, many cultural phenomena and processes of the past and present were neglected, hidden, misrepresented or misinterpreted by Yugoslav scholars and leaders of cultural politics. I would like to devote this article to explaining the crucial differences in scholarly interpretation of the musical genre known as ganga, as a component of rural culture in the former Yugoslavia. Previously, traditional music was interpreted by Yugoslav musicologists as a cultural phenomenon existing as a thing in itself, a self-contained system, a kind of "action autonomous".

At the same time, music was used within the political system as a symbolic tool for ideological manipulation. Here I found some contradictions amongst Yugoslav scholars in the interpretation of our culture. On one hand they insisted on the importance of identifying and studying the artifacts of our national and cultural identity, and on the other they neglected these artifacts in order to replace them with "more cultivated" patterns of interpretation of national music, composing new forms in an "elaborated" way.
The new approach, which I fully accepted while studying with Blacking, treated music as a powerful expressive language which reflects or symbolizes many cultural and social entities, behaviours and processes. My work twenty years ago related to the investigation of ganga, a rural polyphonic song genre, of a lyric character, from the central part of the former Yugoslavia. Some of my findings have become even more relevant in the present period especially the matter of changes in the meaning of ganga over time. At this critical moment in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the results of my research on ganga offer, among other things, evidence about the long-lasting socio-cultural coexistence and inter-relationship of different ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I found that the traditional forms of music were experienced there as very strong markers of pride, social unity and division, based primarily on a sense of regional, class and gender identity. New processes, which I try to follow in a scholarly way through "traditional music", lead to a different channelling of these identifying markers, with the collapse of geographical and cultural boundaries, and the redefinition of social groups and their culture, along exaggerated nationalistic dividing lines.

2. A Study from Inside

Amongst the group of students who studied under John Blacking at The Queen's University of Belfast I was the first to arrive from Eastern Europe, For me it was the beginning of contact with modern Western ideas and theories in the discipline of ethnomusicology, as well as a unique opportunity to interpret my own culture from another perspective. At the same time, supervision of my thesis on rural music from Herzegovina and parts of Bosnia and Croatia meant for Blacking a new kind of exposure to "authentic" East European music, as well as providing the motivation to establish closer professional communication with colleagues from Eastern Europe.
I was raised in the former Yugoslavia, with constant exposure to its communist ideology and indoctrination. During my study of ethnomusicology in Sarajevo it was difficult to get information about approaches to the same discipline in other countries, especially in the Western world. Before going to The Queen's University of Belfast I was already established as a "promising" young East European scholar, with an "appropriate" position within an "approved institution", I had already carried out extensive fieldwork and had achieved "recognized results" as the music editor at the Folk Music Department of Radio Sarajevo. I had paid special attention to developing skills in music transcription and analysis. I had to accept everything I had been taught by my older colleagues as the orthodox Yugoslav (and by extension, East European) scholarly approach to research. This was based exclusively on the researcher's interpretation of music, with no consideration to the treatment and judgment of the music by the people who were performing it. In other words, no attention was paid to the folk-view.

3. A Process of Conversion

I came to Belfast with prejudices about my native music, but also with a readiness to learn how to understand it in a different way. I had discovered that I did not like nor understand certain rural styles, even though they belonged to my own Bosnian and Herzegovinian musical heritage, and although I had learned everything about them that was on offer in terms of official scholarly information.
I decided to study the rural polyphonic form ganga, which is found in Herzegovina, and in parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Certain elements characterize all ganga forms. It has a very narrow ambitus with untempered intervals and frequent chromatic movements, The second part of the form must always be performed in polyphonic progression with the characteristic use of major seconds and ending on that interval, which in ganga territory is experienced as consonant. Typical short grace notes are used in the lower voice of the polyphonic section. Ganga is usually performed by a group of three to five singers, eidier women or men (never mixed), "Properly" performed ganga is experienced and described as a remarkable vocal genre within its cultural environment,
Ganga was one of the most controversial kinds of songs froxn an aesthetic point of view, being treated in quite opposite ways by different groups of people occupying different social positions in the former Yugoslavia. Performers and consumers (listeners) of rural origin appreciated ganga highly, and regarded it as the most effective cultural symbol of the region where it was performed. In contrast, urban dwellers and people from other regions of the former Yugoslavia, denied that ganga was a kind of music at all. They experienced it as disorganized sound, as a kind of shouting, and as a symbol of primitivism. Yet ganga and similar forms were of scholarly interest as a part of our cultural heritage. The study of ganga seemed to me an ideal research topic for re-thinking the complex issue of rural music culture in Yugoslavia.
The widespread cultural prejudice against ganga, and other forms of rural music, was reinforced by politicians and officials of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was immediately faced with this problem when I had to get permission to study ganga in Belfast. The officials declared ganga to be an inappropriate topic for study abroad, something almost to be ashamed of, although it had been studied by several Yugoslav ethnomusicologists. Some of these prejudiced officials were themselves of rural origin, and they clearly had an inferiority complex about their native culture. Later on I used these negative statements about ganga, made by politicians and government officials, the creators of the new cultural politics in the country, as fieldwork data for my analysis.
Blacking's theories about humanly organized sound left a strong impression, and made me see him as a scholar from whom I could learn something new. It was during my first meeting with Blacking at the ICTM conference in Regensburg in 1975 (where we were discussing my future study at The Queen's University of Belfast) that I realized that there was a new dimension to understanding and explaining music which had been inaccessible to me before. I accepted his ideas at once. After I had read "How Musical is Man?" (Blacking 1973) I was attracted even more deeply, as I found in it Blacking's profound expression of the need "to identify all processes that are relevant to an explanation of musical sound".
Yet I did not at that time fully understand some of the crucial points of Blacking's approach to music as humanly organized sound. It seems that I was not entirely prepared for conversion. I believed that I could attain a radical transformation in my approach without abandoning my strongly-held belief in the validity of reaching conclusions exclusively on the basis of music analysis. I came to Belfast with a large amount of research material, gangas recorded In numerous villages of Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia. I had made transcriptions and analyses of ganga forms, following "our" models for the visual presentation and analytical explanation of ganga, as had previously been done by several older distinguished Yugoslav ethnomusicologists. Gangas, and other rural music forms, had been heard and analysed outside their social and cultural contexts. So, I notated only tones which I regarded as the major substance of the form, and I neglected many other structural elements which I regarded as unimportant or as mere irregularities.
I expected Blacking to be dazzled by the quality of my research materials and of my analysis, but I got a negative reaction. After listening to some recordings and glancing at my transcriptions he immediately recognized that tones which were neglected in my transcriptions were consistently found in gangas. He also heard some internal alterations, which later on proved to be important signifiers of differences in style between divergent regions of ganga territory, or as gender differences.
On seeing the deficiencies of my transcriptions, Blacking did not insist directly on correcting them, but he pointed out that I would have to carry out further fieldwork in ganga territory. In fact, he did not object to my isolating what I thought to be important in my transcriptions, but he insisted that I would have to find out what people from ganga territory treat as the basic generative features of the form, as well as regional, local, individual or gender particularities of the style.
Blacking also realised as I presented my research materials on ganga that we Yugoslav ethnomusicologists did not study our music as part of a creative process, but observed it as a fossilized cultural product from the past. Our scholarly interests were concentrated primarily towards older musical forms, even though they did not have a place on radio or television, Folk music presented by the media, and on stage, had to be polished according to Western aesthetic standards. The media ignored the genre of new rural songs, just as they ignored the cultural processes within rural society of the former Yugoslavia which brought about the changes. Only new rural Partisan Songs were accepted as a subject worthy of scientific interest by the media.

4. A Study from Outside

In the winter and spring of 1975/76 I went back to do fieldwork in my mountain villages of Bosnia, Herzegovina and parts of Croatia following Blacking's instructions. I had to find out how people from ganga territory experienced their own music and what they regarded as its most important stylistic features; what other musical features were found in the same territory as ganga\ and how the creative processes operating in ganga forms reflected, or otherwise expressed, the social and cultural identities of the performers and consumers of ganga.
I directed the new phase of the fieldwork towards listening to and analysing my previously recorded examples of ganga with my informants. To document this I made recordings of my extensive discussions with the informants and of their verbal reactions to the sounds of other related music. Many of them, especially women, were illiterate, but they were perfectly capable of explaining and verbalizing in their own terms what they had been doing while singing, or what they expected to hear while listening to ganga. They also discussed stylistic and symbolic distinctions between ganga and some other local music forms.
There were not that many skilled singers of ganga, but almost all members of the communities from ganga territory had very clear ideas about how it should sound to satisfy their stylistic and aesthetic expectations. They knew about the significance and aesthetic value of every tone, pattern, fluctuation, vibration, and melisma, as well as about their symbolic meanings. They were able to distinguish tiny nuances of style, which were unrecognized by the previous researchers of ganga, including me. They detected without mistake the regional origins of particular forms according to their stylistic features. Each ganga performance sounded, in some degree different, as ganga always had to be reinterpreted and recreated.
The informants also knew about social roles in the creative process: who is supposed to lead, and thereby to create, and how other participants in the group have to respond to these creative challenges. They had a clear idea of how far their creativity could go in relation to traditionally fixed stylistic norms. The sounds I had failed to transcribe in the first phase of my ganga research, such as the melismatic pre-strikes, were emphasized in discussion by all informants as being the crucial feature of ganga style. The informants' explanations and the high degree of consensus in their judgments, based on common experience of the culture, became for me an important key for generic designation of ganga. It was also crucial for understanding the cultural and social meaning of all relevant sounds used in ganga in the area where it was found, as well as people's statements about the power of their music. During that second phase of my fieldwork I received crucial information on how music operates in society and how society shapes music structures. This new information on ganga and related rural music forms brought me to a new kind of understanding in my work at The Queen's University of Belfast. It became most productive when I connected my field findings to Blacking's theories about "humanly organized sound" and about "soundly organized humanity".

5. The Interpretation of ganga

In the mid-1970s I found ganga to be the most effective traditional cultural symbol for the society which performed it. In fact, ganga was regarded by its singers and listeners as a recent cultural creation of this century. It synthesized various starinske, i.e. "ancient" elements of local music styles.
All the musical creations of that rural society in Herzegovina and parts of Bosnia and Croatia operated in a closed circle, reflecting limited social communication and scope for cultural challenges. In spite of the general and rapid socio-economic changes in this century, there was no place for any radical transformation of music-expressive language of ganga, such as an extension of the tonal range of the form, or the introduction of some instruments for musical accompaniment. However, ganga, with its extremely narrow tonal range and limited formal structure, had the power to remain a unified cultural artifact among people of different religions and ethnicities in a wide geographical area of the Dinaric zone of the former Yugoslavia.
In this region, ganga was treated as a unique expressive symbol of all rural people who once shared the same kind of pastoral life Muslims, Croats, and the Serbs, that is, people of Muslim, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian religions. It covered the central part of the Serbo-Croatian or Croat-Serbian language territory, but the river Neretva created a natural border between two dialects of the same spoken language. In Herzegovina the river Neretva served as the main line of division between Serbs on the left bank and Croats on the right, and thus between people of Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions. But there were rural Croatian settlements in East Herzegovina as well as Muslim cities and villages on both sides of the river. The Muslim settlements along the river stream served as the backbone which unified different parts of a unique body. It was ganga and some other artifacts of culture, like the "silent dances" (without musical accompaniment), which traditionally bound together all rural people of different religions and nations in the mentioned region.
Until recently, the rural Muslims of that area followed the traditional rhythm of shepherds' transhumant movements, and an extremely conservative way of life. Their ganga style was regarded in the territory as very archaic. Rural Muslims of Herzegovina were able to sing ganga with people of other ethnicities, as ganga was closer to them than the urban musical form sevdalinka, which was strongly associated with the urban Muslim culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
According to informants' statements and the results of an analytical approach it become clear that differences in ganga style were based more on regional distinctions and gender segregation than on national divisions. Prior to the present war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, rural people of different nations (and that means religions) sang the same or very similar ganga?,. Male singers from different ethnicities performed this kind of polyphonic song together. That fact was treated by them as a sign of close social communication between people of the same or different ethnic origins. In contrast, it was impossible to hear ganga performed together by singers of different sexes, even if they originated from the same family. Gender division within this rural society was in many ways more rigid than ethnic division.
All my informants noted the presence of stylistic differences between female and male gangas within a village or district. They had also developed different systems of aesthetic evaluation of female and male gangas, as the cultural expression of existing principles of social organization and segregation. The meanings of the sound symbols related to male or female gangas were unified all over its territory, Moreover, different moral norms, developed within different religious groups, did not increase different symbolic meanings of the ganga.
Properly performed female ganga was always experienced as a powerful sexual sound symbol. That is why there were age and status restrictions for female singers of all three ethnicities. Male gangas also expressed ideas about sexuality, experienced as emphatic masculinity. Such expressiveness in ganga performances was always reinforced with a harsh vocal quality, often provoked by over-consumption of alcohol, This expressive quality evinced a very positive emotional response among all active listeners to this music. Women judged male singing style very positively even when it differed greatly from the "tender" female way of performing ganga. In the period when I investigated ganga I found that along with its unique stylistic musical features using particular kinds of melismatic tones a unique experience of this form was created as a common regional cultural symbol of all Herzegovina and parts of nearby districts of Bosnia and Croatia. It was experienced in the same way by all rural people of the territory, without distinction according to their ethnic, religious, gender and regional affiliation. Closer regional identities were expressed through particular melodic patterns, formal structures, the polyphonic relationship of two or three different parts, or through specific usage of melismatic tones.
The texts of gangas, which could be improvised, were created to emphasize regional identity, especially at gatherings where gangas were performed by rival groups from different villages or districts. Projection of regional identity through ganga forms was especially typical of groups of male singers who had a wider spectrum of social and cultural communication. It became especially clear when ganga singers found themselves outside their normal social environment, such as the urban ambience of modern skyscraper apartments in Sarajevo, where they might be encouraged by over-consumption of alcohol to sing ganga to express their rural and regional identity. Such rare situations of the performance of ganga in inappropriate social contexts were experienced by urbanites as a rude disruption of their sophisticated urban life. On most occasions, rural newcomers to the cities were restricted in their opportunity to continue, replace, or even transform their own rural music. From this point of view they found themselves in a kind of gap, because their traditional rural musical system was incompatible with the dominant Western system. A new system, being offered through official education and media, had to provide not only new genres but to some extent continuation of the older genres of folk music. In most cases traditional music forms and new expressive language found a compromise, but not in the case of ganga.

6. Changes of Meaning Within a Tradition

In contrast to ganga, there was another genre of traditional rural cultural expression which did acquire political legitimacy in the new urban context, This was the Serbian epic, accompanied by the gusle (one-stringed bowed lute). Epic singers, exclusively of Serbian or Montenegrin descent, who gained power as army or police officers, or received privileged social and political treatment as partisan fighters in World War II, gained favoured status for their native epic songs. In Sarajevo and other big cities they founded guslarska društva, associations of gusle-players, and they regularly presented their songs on radio programmes and on the concert stage. The music of the epic songs was as hermetic in its structure and power as gangas: it was limited in scope for radical expressive transformation. Yet, Serbian epic poetry, with its strong ideological connotations and scope for political manipulation by the ultra-nationalists, became a leading factor for one-sided and narrow-minded transmission of these songs exclusively among the Serbs and Montenegrins in a new political context and ambience. The epics of other ethnic groups, such as the Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Albanians, were not ideologically accepted in the former Yugoslavia, and those traditions became endangered. Present knowledge about the promotion of Serbian epics in the communist period offers us an insight into its usage by the Serbian nationalists as a weapon of indoctrination for the intense development of nationalism among the Serbs and Montenegrins in the 1980s.
During my research in the mid-1970s I learned about the use of ganga in World War II as a nationalistic symbol by the Croatian ultra-nationalists from Western Herzegovina. During my fieldwork in the same territory I also hear several such songs, which projected exaggerated feelings about ethnic identity, and hatred against another nearby ethnicity the Serbs. It was strongly condemned in communist Yugoslavia and several singers of improvised gangas with nationalistic messages were arrested and punished. It was not permitted to use ganga for the expression of this kind of nationalism.
However, during my fieldwork in the 1970s I found that ganga was sometimes used for the expression of meanings and symbols other than those traditionally known. The new political aspect of ganga in its territory, even though sporadic in appearance, also reflected the channelling of social and cultural processes in a different direction. Its neutral lyric character changed to a new and politically negative expression with nationalistic connotations. Such gangas were sporadic in appearance, and their performance was limited to hidden nationalists of Croatian origin. They had to reflect the existence of new social and cultural processes which were moving in the opposite direction from the official political streams of the former socialist Yugoslavia, But the traditional lyric character of ganga, its music with unique elements of style, and the common experience of it among three existing ethnicities still predominantly expressed a sense of homogenous rural and religious identities until the 1990s.
Presenting ganga in my dissertation in its whole social and cultural context, I was obliged to expose my findings about its new, nationalistic aspect. However, in the former Yugoslavia the recognition of such sporadic expression of nationalism in ganga and other music forms was officially denied and suppressed. I had to play down this aspect of ganga, as it could have placed me in a delicate position in my own country. It was against Blacking's professional ethics, but he understood my problem. However, be insisted that I should continue to follow musical and extramusical processes related to ganga and other forms of traditional music.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s the intensification of nationalism in former Yugoslavia, expressed through some forms of traditional rural folk songs, became obvious and provocative. Ganga, performed by the Croats from the West of Herzegovina and Dalmatian Zagora, became an open response to the nationalistic functioning of Serbian epics. In 1992, when Sarajevo was besieged and attacked with mortar shells by the Serbian aggressor, the citizens of some city districts were also assailed by the terrifying sounds of Serbian epic songs and guste accompaniment heard from the loudspeakers and RTV (Radio-Television) programmes emitted from nearby Serbian occupied territory. The two styles with exaggerated sounds and textual messages became the symbol of enmity directed against other ethnicities and "a resource for the strategic manipulation of ethnic identities" (Lockwood 1984:221).
In the summer of 1993, in the Diocletian Palace in the Dalmatian city of Split, I heard ganga performed by a group of five drunken Croatian soldiers from Herzegovina. The basic aim of the singers was to express their warrior strength and emphasize their Croatian nationalism. Hearing such a harsh interpretation of ganga, in an inappropriate urban ambience and in an atmosphere of conflict. I experienced it as an extremely unpleasant sound, Dalmatian people who were there also commented with revulsion that such unusual ganga singing was an act of aggression towards their own culture, committed by armed and "primitive" people.
Following the contemporary situation in Croatia I found that ganga has become a general symbol of primitivisni and socio-cultural regression, named as "ganga kultura"-"ganga culture", being introduced by a new strata of powerful people who originate from rural Herzegovina and Dalmatian Zagora.

7. Conclusion

What is significant about ganga today is not its form or sound, but its new message and a new construction of its meaning manifested in a new way, by one ethnicity. It is a result of the exaggerated process of change, provoked and "shaped in problematic ways by modern individualism" (Calhoun 1993:396) towards nationalism. Such a decadent development is counter to the acceptance of diversity which is required by the modern approach to the problems of ethnicity. It provokes forceful exclusion of others in their preservation of the tradition and identity in general. In this case music not only reflects the situation in the societies in question, but is also used actively in the transformation of the political and cultural situation. The findings about perception and role of ganga bring to mind one of Blacking's statements;
Man makes music as a patterned event ill a system of social interaction, as part of a process of conscious decision making; but there is also a sense in which music makes man, releasing creative energy, expanding consciousness and influencing subsequent decision-making (Blacking 1979:4).
I do not think that Blacking, while writing the above, had in mind the idea that his statement might apply to such a negative development as the contemporary expression of ganga. It is true that Blacking, when he supervised ray study of rural music in the former Yugoslavia, supposed that there were some deeper cultural conflicts which were not recognized properly in our society, and predicted that they might increase one day, with disastrous consequences. He believed in the power of musk and recognized it as releasing "creative energy," but he probably could not have believed that in certain critical circumstances "creative energy" could become "destructive energy", and that this process could occur in a naive lyric form such as ganga.


Blacking, John
1973. "How Musical is Man?" Seattle: University of Washington Press,
1979. "The Study of Man as Music Maker" In The Performing Arts. Music and Dance. John Blacking & Joann W. Keuliinahomoku, eds. World Anthropology. The Hague: Mouton, 3-16.

Calhoun, Craig
1993. "Nationalism and Civil Society; Democracy, Diversity and Self-Determination" International Sociology 8(4);394-411. Lock wood, Y.
1984. "East Europeans; Local, Regional, and Ethnic Identity" Media, Culture and Society 14(2);185-92.

Petrović, Ankica
1977. "Ganga, a Form of Traditional Rural Singing in Yugoslavia", The Queen's University of Belfast. Unpublished Ph. D. thesis.

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