The gusle is the Serbian folk musical instrument with or two strings. Most often it is made of a maple wood. As a one-string instrument, the gusle can be found in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dalmatia, whereas those from Lika and Bоsаnska Krајina are made with two strings. The strings are made of 30 braided horsehair, the same as the string of the bow. It is an instrument that requires particular playing prowess. In the long years of servitude under the Turks, guslе had an important role in maintaining the Serbian national identity. It was the gusle players – the singers of the conquered lands, who spread the glory of the mediaeval rulers and heroes, as well as of the latest haiduk deeds of that time. A rather sharp sound indicated a supressed strength of the enslaved folk, and the word about the heroes gave hope to the prospective liberation. The songs were spread orally, and in the 19th century, most of them were recorded by Vuk Kаrаdžić. Many of the Vuk’s singers were the haiduks themselves; nevertheless, an image of a gusle player is mostly related to a blind figure, who possesses a special, inner insight.
RELIGION AND TRADITION
The maple tree is significant in the Slavic ancestral cult, so the ancestors were celebrated to the sound of the gusle. On top of the gusle neck, there was usually a ram’s head carved – a symbol of animal husbandry and a nomadic way of life; but the instrument neck could also have a horsehead or a bird (an eagle) head, while the bow was usually made in a shape of a snake.
The Blind Gusle Player ( Slеpi guslаr), a painting by Rista Vukаnоvić and a frequently used copy of the painting Filip Višnjić, early 20th century.
The gusle can be found in the East (Syria, Pаlеstine, Saudi Arabia) and in the West (in Lusatian Sorbs).
In the period from the 16th to the 19th century in Srem (Austro-Hungary at that time), there was a special Academy for the Blind, a school for the blind gusle players. The imperial laws banned the school, as it reinforced the rebellious spirit in Serbs.
Some books make a reference that in the 12th century, the king of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa was welcomed to the sound of gusle when he met the Serbian ruler Stephen Nеmаnja in Niš, on which occasion Nеmаnjа offered him Serbian help in the Crusades. They say that Barbarossa was amazed by the sound of the instrument.
Hаiduk Теšаn Pоdrugоvić, Filip Višnjić, the blind player, the Old Man Мiliја, …