Epic Song, Comparative Analysis, and Balkan Sephardic Culture
[Presented to Conference on "Return of the Song: the Milman Parry Collection and Its Reception in the World"
Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 3-6, 2008]
This paper is dedicated to the memory of my friend and mentor, rahmetli Professor Muhamed Nezirović (1934-2008) of the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Sarajevo
Ramon Menendez Pidal
Twenty-six years ago, on November 6, 1982, Albert B. Lord (1912-91), professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and the recognized heir to the legacy of Milman Parry (1902-35) as a folklorist in the Balkan region, appeared as co-chairman of a farsighted conference held at the City University of New York. The event was titled "The Question of Kosova: The Present Situation and Prospects for the Future," and Prof. Lord served as chair of the morning session, on "Historical Considerations and Cultural Aspects."1
I did not know Prof. Lord personally, but the papers from the conference to which I refer were co-edited by another friend and mentor I must acknowledge, Sami Repishti, now retired professor at Adelphi University, in cooperation with one more intellectual inspirer for my work, Arshi Pipa (1920-97). The papers further included one by the outstanding Albanian poet and, again, a friend and mentor for me, Martin Camaj (1925-94).
A paper by Prof. Lord, titled "The Battle of Kosovo in Albanian and Serbocroatian Oral Epic Songs," was presented in the session he chaired. Considering the events that have transpired in the former Yugoslavia since the 1982 conference, and the commemoration of Prof. Lord's work at this conference, his remarks of more than a quarter century ago remain extremely relevant.
As is visible from the standard edition of The Singer of Tales 2 Prof. Lord's study of oral epic singing in the Sandžak/Sanxhak region of former Yugoslavia, as well as from the conference roster, the undeniable impact of the Parry-Lord canon on the Anglo-American approach to folk poetics has been accompanied by its thorough Slavization in the established "academic narrative." Nevertheless, as pointed out by Arshi Pipa and recently reaffirmed by my colleague Robert Elsie3, the outstanding Albanologist, in a collection published with the support of Lord's student Berkley Peabody, four of the five singers whose work was recorded and analyzed by Parry and Lord, namely, Salih Ugljanin, Xhemal Zogiq, Sylejman Makiq, and Ali Fuljanin, were Albanian.
In his paper on the Kosova battle ballads, Prof. Lord acknowledged that many of the singers Parry and he worked with, in their combined efforts, were bilingual Albanians whose performances were recorded in what we today would call the Serbian variant of Croatian-Bosnian-Serbian, but which Salih Ugljanin himself insisted on referring to as Bosnian. Prof. Lord also noted that Albanian versions of these songs had previously been collected by other scholars, and were treated as Albanian translations of the "classical" texts edited by the Serb literary figure Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864). But Prof. Lord further offered a rather surprising argument: that rather than the Serbian sources having preceded and been rendered into an Albanian variant, the two traditions "emerged more or less independent of one another" and were fused into a third, "new, strong," and, I might add, a "syncretic" tradition by the bilingual Albanian singers in Sandžak/Sanxhak, an area that is, to this day, mainly inhabited by Slav Muslims and Albanians. In sum, according to Prof. Lord, "cultural exchanges did not move only in one direction along the trade routes and administrative interchange between the [Slavic] north and the [Albanian] south."4
Elsie, and Pipa before him, demonstrated that Parry and Lord "followed in the footsteps" of three outstanding figures in Albanian culture, all Catholic clerics. The first was the Franciscan Father Shtjefën Kryeziu Gjeçovi (1874-1929), born at Janjeva in Kosova, who also collected and standardized the text of the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, the oral customary law of northern Albania and Kosova, and who was assassinated by Serbs in 1929.5 Father Gjeçovi's effort was widened by the folklore studies of another Franciscan, Father Bernardin Palaj (1894-1947), born in northern Albania and executed by the Hoxha regime in the general purge of Catholic intellectuals after the establishment of Stalinist Communism in Albania. 6Father Palaj was assisted by a third Franciscan, Father Donat Kurti (1903-83).
A collection assembled by Palaj and Kurti, "Kângë kreshnikësh dhe legenda," was published in the canonical two-volume edition of Albanian folk literature, Visaret e Kombit (Treasures of the Nation) in 1937. Unfortunately, this monument of Albanian culture is ignored in The Singer of Tales. I should note that as indicated by the work of Florence Graham, a teacher at the Franciscan Classical Gymnasium in Visoko, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Palaj and Kurti may have been influenced by their Croatian Franciscan predecessors, Fra Ivan Frano Jukić (1818-57) and Fra Grga Martić, who referred to the traditional culture of the Bosnians as "narodno blago" (people's treasure).7
The comment of Prof. Lord about the possibility of the Serbian and Albanian oral epics emerging independently brings up the general question of origins in discussing this topic. Western and Yugoslav scholarly literature has tended to overlook this aspect of the broader phenomenon, while Pipa, in his paper 1982 conference, pointed out that for Salih Ugljanin, the "preferred hero is not Djerdjelez, the legendary Bosnian hero, but Mujo, the Albanianized Mujo, who together with his brother Halil,
is omnipresent in Ugljanin's songs, just as in the Albanian tradition."8 While Prof. Lord suggested a dual origin for the paired Slavic and Albanian works, Pipa offered a "tripartite as well as bilingual" analysis, in which he perceived in the frontier heroic cycle encountered in the Sandžak/Sanxhak three distinct streams: Serbocroatian Bosnian/Albanian Muslim, Kosovar Muslim, and Albanian Catholic – as Pipa put it, three components in two languages. Looking further back, Palaj and Kurti believed the Mujo-Halil cycle originated in ancient Illyrian culture. The Illyrian thesis was supported by other Albanian scholars including Ernest Koliqi, Eqrem Çabej, and Qemal Haxhihasani.
Non-Albanian experts, however, have dealt with these issues in a manner anticipated many decades before and relatively far away by the Spanish scholar Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1869-1968), who pioneered the study of the Sephardic oral tradition and who therefore laid the basis for analysis of Bosnian Sephardic singing.9 Unconsciously imitating the "triune" model of comparative analysis proposed by Pipa, the introduction of Sephardic culture into the discussion of Bosnian oral epic further emphasizes the lack and need of a comparative approach. In a greater Bosnian context comprising Christian, Muslim, and Jewish elements, where local features in Sandžak/Sanxhak are Bosnian, Kosovar, and Albanian, a fruitful approach may draw on the work
of Spanish as well as American, ex-Yugoslav, and Albanian researchers. A unified theory of modern oral epic in Europe should encompass Christian and Jewish examples in the Iberian peninsula and the Sephardic presence in the Balkans alongside the Slavic and Albanian textual evidence from the latter area. I will address the Sephardic canon and offer some observations about common origins for the differing manifestations of this phenomenon further on.
Menéndez Pidal noted, in an anticipation of the focus on Homer in Parry and Lord, that the 18th century Scots Hellenist Thomas Blackwell (1701-57), in his approach to Homer, pointed to the traditional Spanish ballad as an example of true popular poetry, and that the Romancero or Spanish ballad collection appeared to poets and philosophers as a revelation for the intimate comprehension of the poetry that then most occupied the Romantics: i.e., epic. For the early Romantics, epic was perceived as emerging from the surviving fragments of a vague past. Johann Gottried Herder, when he published his Volkslieder in 1778, included Spanish ballads in its pages; he was followed by Jakob Grimm, who may be considered the father of all of us in the study of epic.
Grimm, also recognized as an initiator of Indo-European linguistics, ascribed to the origin of epic a supernatural, divine, and mysterious inspiration, as a poesy bestowed by God on the Aryan peoples. Menéndez Pidal, nevertheless, follows the direction imposed by this view on the Romantic discovery of epic to a challenging and dismaying conclusion. Although the Poema del Cid was recognized as the fundamental Castilian epic, Spanish researchers were unable to find any earlier sources for it.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. While the "Homeric" character of the epic singing recorded by Parry and Lord has become an established principle of contemporary Anglo-American and Slavic literary studies, no attempt is made in these milieux to establish a Greek origin for the recorded texts, in contrast with the Illyrianist efforts of the Albanian school. In all these cases, it appears that the origin of epic is still treated rather as it was by Grimm; an ineffable divine inspiration was bestowed on the Bosnians and Albanians alike, as it was once presumed granted to the Aryans, and, in the absence of any better explanation, the Spanish. Menéndez Pidal intelligently summarized the dilemma of folklorists as follows: if the evidence provided by Spanish literature could not illuminate the theory, then the theory would have to illuminate the development of Spanish literature, and so it was presumed, in an echo of the earlier Romantics, that hypothetical primitive ballads anticipated the emergence of the Castilian tradition. Menéndez Pidal also wrote acutely on the 19th century scholarly debate over whether traditional singing reflected a collective or an individual form of creativity, and offered the perceptive insight that all attempts by accomplished writers and poets to produce works matching the flavor of the popular ballad had failed; the tone of popular oral verse and that of formal compositions are unmistakable dissimilar.
Herder was also an enthusiast of Hebrew poetry and it is therefore appropriate to here take up the Bosnian Sephardic tradition. Bosnian Sephardic balladry and lyrics offer an extremely rich corpus of texts parallel to the Bosnian Muslim works known as sevdahlinke, such that the 20th century Sephardic ballad collector Samuel Elazar referred to Sephardic singing in Bosnia-Hercegovina as Jewish sevdahlinke. Elazar described "poetic expressions distant, in form and substance, from the original Spanish models, with, by contrast, the emergence of a resemblance in style and content to Bosnian folk music and the Muslim love songs known as sevdahlinke … The love songs, in which the love of a boy for a girl and vice versa are proclaimed, are full of the sentiment we call sevdah. This passionate feeling, without parallel in its affective depth, is expressed in its most delicate and noble form in the ballads... It is certain that we can speak of no Western influence in these Sephardic melodies… The Sephardic songs, which were almost always sung individually, reproduced Arab, Turkish, and other motifs drawn from Oriental music. When we hear them, nothing stops our souls from being transported to a romantic and oriental world, to quietude and a placidity of being, to that unique and exquisite languor we call sevdah."10
The question of whether the majority of widely-sung Bosnian sevdahlinke belong in the category of epic is a separate one, which I will not treat beyond the observation that such examples as the ballads about the Morić brothers of Sarajevo seem obviously to fit in the category. But we see in numerous sevdahlinke, as well as in Bosnian Sephardic singing, the same characteristics of improvisation and adaptation encountered in the Parry-Lord aggregate from the Slavic-Albanian borderland. These features are also clearly visible in the diversity of versions of Sephardic ballads and lyrics collected by Samuel Elazar in Bosnia. The Bosnian Sephardic enlightener Kalmi Baruh (1896-1945), who died in Bergen-Belsen, pointed out an extremely interesting precedent for the creativity of Balkan Sephardic singing, drawn from Sephardic religious practice: the adoption of popular Christian melodies with the addition of Jewish religious textual content. This custom, which emerged from the Sephardic diaspora, was originally condemned by the rabbinical elite, but was then permitted on the argument that it made the sacred instruction of the Spanish-speaking Jewish masses easier. In a seemingly unique counter-example to the dictum of Menéndez Pidal about the inefficacy of popular lyrics composed by accomplished authors, Jewish scholars exemplified by Israel Najera, the distinguished 17th-century Hebrew religious poet, composed zemirot, or religious songs, based on Christian songs, that are included in the Jewish siddur or prayer-book today.11 But this point also illustrates the futility of national or ethnic particularism in the analysis of popular oral traditions. Similarly, Menéndez Pidal indicated identities of texts originating in the Gitano community of Andalucía and those sung in the Colombian Andes; the Spanish linguist Antonio Tovar discovered that the widely-known Sephardic lyric "Dame la mano paloma" was (and may still be) sung in southern Mexico, and the great Latin American poet Rubén Darío, born in Nicaragua, mysteriously published a Sephardic song as an indigenous text from his country.
As an example for discussion of Sephardic epic, I have chosen the text entitled "La doncella guerrera," reproduced in two versions. One was printed in standard Castilian by Kalmi Baruh in 1933, in Sarajevo; a second appeared in the Sarajevo newspaper Jevrejski glas (Jewish Voice) in 1939. Both were included in the 1971 edition of Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Bosnia edited by Samuel G. Armistead, Joseph H. Silverman, and Biljana Šljivic-Šimšic. In the 1933 version, the text begins, "Caballeros van y vienen – por la ciudad de Aragón:/todo el que hijo varón tiene – a la guerra lo envió." The 1939 version differs in that it is rendered in slavized Judeo-Spanish orthography (e.g. ižo for hijo), substitutes "prigoneros [pregoneros] – messengers" for "caballeros – knights," and, very interestingly, substitutes "Anadol – Anatolia" for "Aragón." Neither Anatolia nor Aragón is a city, but these toponyms may be considered metonymic for Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, and Barcelona, a Christian capital. Muhamed Nezirović translated and published, in the Bosnian companion volume to the Elazar Romancero, a third recension, printed in the Jevrejski glas in its issue dated 1 April 1941, beginning "Pregoneros van i vienen – Por la sivdad de Aragon." He rendered this version in Bosnian, with the text beginning, "Glasnici odlaze, dolaze – U gradove Aragona." I translated this key text, which Armistead correctly describes as "one of the most beautiful," into English beginning "Heralds pass through the streets, Of the city of Aragon/Everyone who has a son, Into battle he must send."12.
"Glasnici odlaze, dolaze," to refer to it by its Bosnian title, is well-established in Spanish. It recounts the story of an old man with seven daughters, who curses because he cannot send a son to war. His youngest daughter offers to don armor and take up arms, disguised as a man. She appears on the battlefield and distinguishes herself as a hero, confusing the son of the king, who is amazed to discover that the warrior is not a man, but a girl.
La doncella guerrera comprises a theme present in many examples of oral traditional singing, in numerous cultures. Menéndez Pidal recorded more than 100 variants of it. In his unique survey of Bosnian Sephardic culture, Jevrejsko Španjolska Književnost (Jewish Spanish Literature),13 the majority of copies of which were destroyed during the Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina of the 1990s, Nezirović described a different text, also included in the Elazar Romancero, having been printed in the Jevrejski glas of 7 March 1941. This text begins, "Blanca niña, blanca flor" (White daughter, white flower), and specifically places the conflict in Anatolia.
The feminine-heroic character represented in the Sephardic song La doncella guerrera may be compared with the traditional Bosnian women's ballads from the Parry Collection translated and published in Bosnian and English by the organizer of the present conference, Dr. Aida Vidan, under the title Embroidered with Gold, Strung with Pearls. 14With regard to the conservation of oral balladry, Menéndez Pidal noted that in Latin America, women were the main preservers of tradition. While he ascribed this fact to the scarcity of women in the European and creole strata in the New World colonies, the same social role was also present among the Sephardim in Bosnia, where the female population was demographically stronger.
The feminine hero is also an enduring motif in Albanian, and especially the Kosovar oral tradition, with which I began these reflections. The outstanding representative figure in Albanian resistance to Serb aggression, through most of the 20th century, was the legendary woman fighter Qerime "Shota" Galica (1895-1927), about whom many ballads are still composed and performed by both men and women in Kosova and Albania. Albanian tradition also boasts the special role of the sister of Gjergj Elez Alia, who cares for him in the eponymous ballad, as well Ajkuna in the epic song "Ajkuna mourns Omer" (Ajkuna kjan Omerin), in which Ajkuna protests the death of her son Omer, appearing at his grave.
The Albanian scholar Fatos Arapi argues,15 "In the epos of the Southern Slavs, Christian and Muslim, no song is to be found like our 'Ajkuna mourns Omer'… one of the most beautiful and moving songs of our epos." Arapi perceives in this work an expression of an ancient myth embodying the cycle of seasons and rebirth of plant life on earth.
Finally, Arapi's writing returns us to the question of origins. How is it that oral epic survived in the Iberian and Balkan cultures, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish? We might posit oral epic as surviving a common pre-Islamic, i.e. Byzantine and pre-Romanesque culture – from which the troubadour phenomenon, reflecting the influence of Persian and Arabic models, especially those associated with Sufism or Islamic spirituality, appears absent. But troubadour literature was a court genre, flourishing among the Islamic and Christian elites, while oral epic was a form of popular expression. Many issues, then, remain to be explored, including that of the decline of oral epic among the Balkan Slavs, while it has remained vital among Albanians. To cite an example I observed, few epic songs emerged from the Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina during the late war, while Kosova, when armed combat began there, was filled with new patriotic songs, many of them in the epic style.
Having dedicated this paper to the recently-deceased Hamo Nezirović, I would be remiss in failing to mention his last major scholarly work, the translation of the work Sefardska žena u Bosni (The Sephardic Woman in Bosnia), by the poet Laura Papo Bohoreta.16 For Hamo, then, Fatiha.
6. On the purge of Albanian Catholic intellectuals, see Sinishta, Gjon, The Fulfilled Promise, Santa Clara , CA , n.p., 1976, and Pepa, Dr. Pjetër, The Criminal File of Albania's Communist Dictator, Tirana, Uegen, 2003.
7. See Graham, Florence, "Bosanski prijatelji: The Bosnian Oral Tradition of the Franciscan Brothers, fra Ivan Frano Jukic and fra Grgo Martic," presented at the same 2008 Tuzla conference on the Milman Parry collection as this work.
8. Pipa, Arshi, "Serbocroatian and Albanian Frontier Epic Cycles," in Pipa and Repishti, eds., op. cit. [back]
10. Elazar, Samuel M., Romancero Judeo-Español, Sarajevo, Svjetlost, 1987, bilingual Bosnian and Spanish, 2 vols. ed by Muhamed Nezirović, cited in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook, London, Saqi Books and The Bosnian Institute, 2005. Bosnian translation: Sarajevska Ruža: Bilješke o Jevrejima na Balkanu, Sarajevo , Tugra, 2006.
11. Baruh, Kalmi, "Španske romanse bosanskih jevreja," in Izabrana djela, Sarajevo , Svjetlost, 1972. This essay was famously and fortunately translated and included in Armistead, Samuel G., Joseph H. Silverman, and Biljana Šljivic-Šimšic, Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Bosnia, Philadelphia , U. of Pennsylvania P. , 1971, and retranslated in a selection of Baruh's work rendered into English, in a flawed edition, as Baruh, Kalmi, Selected Works, Alexander Nikolić, ed. and author of intro., Jerusalem , Shefer Publishers, 2005.