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  • Emily

Velika Narodna Lira: 1000 Pesama Naroda Jugolslavije: An Introduction



I visited the Belgrade Book Fair twice in October 2019, and on the second go around I found this book, Velika Narodna Lira: 1000 Pesama Naroda Jugolslavije (The Great People’s Lyre: 1000 Songs of the People of Yugoslavia), the very last of its kind, lying sadly on the table of the national publishing company. I snatched it up, and it now lives in a happier place (my bookshelf).


My copy was published in 1990, although earlier versions of the book appear to have existed. This book contains exactly what it says it does: 1,000 songs, no more and no less, with an introduction of barely two pages.


The songs were collected by Ivan Cenerić, the author of several other collections of folk songs. Cenerić’s collection, which ostensibly spans all regions of Yugoslavia (today, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia), is based not only on his experience as a performer of folk music, but also on his trips around the country to collect such songs from singers and elderly people.


Nationalism and song collections


The use of the terms narodna (people’s) and narod (people) in the title begs a question about the book’s contents. These words translate directly to “people,” in English, but specifically refer to the collective group of those people belonging to a given nation. Thus, one way of translating the Yugoslav narod is inclusively – the people who were citizens of Yugoslavia, despite their ethnic background. Today, narod in the former Yugoslavia is commonly used in association with individual ethnic groups – as in the Croatian narod in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina that identify as ethnically Croatian.


Collections of this kind are the legacy of the nineteenth-century intellectual project of nationalism, which held folk songs, alongside folklore, as central to national identity. It thus became essential to the nationalist project to collect oral traditions in places like Southeastern Europe. However, the role of the editor was crucial to this process of collecting songs and issuing those songs as written volumes, and as a result, collectors and ethnomusicologists had a significant influence on the stories that came to form the backbone of the national identities.


The article “From Myth to Territory: Vuk Karadžić, Kosovo Epics and the Role of Nineteenth-Century Intellectuals in Establishing National Narratives,” by Aleksandar Pavlović and Srđan Atanasovski (2016), describes Karadžić’s influential role in selecting songs to be issued in collections for the development of Serbian national mythology. Such collections became popular in the region in the nineteenth century – collectors compiled songs that were associated with a certain group under a single title, but they carefully selected the songs to glorify certain heroes and identify certain values as important for that group. In his introduction, Cenerić acknowledges the legacy of Karadžić’s nation building, stating that he “compared a certain part of this material with the old records of verses of folk artefacts from Vuk onwards”.


In this sense, then, the book appears to be anti-nationalist in the context of Yugoslavia, taking songs from all over Yugoslavia into one book and reclassifying them under the framework of “the songs of the Yugoslav people.” The book also provides no context for the songs, further distancing them from their origins or any more specific “belonging.” The collector states that he tried to include the version of each song that was closest to its origin, but never indicates what those origins are for specific songs.


On the other hand, upon quick glance, it seems that the majority if not all of the texts included are in Serbo-Croatian (to use the Yugoslav term for Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian), which leaves out other languages spoken by citizens of Yugoslavia, such as Macedonian, Albanian, and Romani, to name but a few. Indeed, the book’s title and all of its introductory material is in Serbo-Croatian. This is not surprising, given that this was the language of prominence in Yugoslavia.


However, we may find that the book is really representative of the songs of only a subset of the Yugoslav narod—those who spoke and/or sang in Serbo-Croatian. Many popular songs that have their origins and were performed in Yugoslavia might not have made it into the book due to the simple fact that they were not in the appropriate language (and therefore not considered representative of the Yugoslav narod by the author).


Cenerić leaves us with questions: what do we do to music when we “collect” it? What do we do to a work of music when we place it alongside other works of music and give it a title? How does this change the music itself, or at least our experience of it?


Our project


The author addresses in the introduction the difficult task it is to create a book like this. Not every song could be included, of course (he only had 1,000 spots!), and many songs had to be shortened. In addition, some songs have multiple sets of lyrics, written by various different famous authors or unique to different oblasti, or areas, of the country, and he had to choose just one of them.


On a blog, however, we are not limited to just one version—we can post them all on the same page. In order to explore Cenerić’s work, and through it the Yugoslav people’s music and the ways it has been collected and written, I will post a new song from the book a few times a week. I’ll try to uncover the song’s origins and history, different recordings of the song, and any context, historical or contemporary, surrounding it. I may even record some of the songs myself!


If you know something about the songs I post, have any personal stories about them, or want to share your own versions, please leave a comment! I will update the pages as we collect new information.


In addition to the fun I’ll have, I intend for this to be a starting point for an online database of songs from Yugoslavia and the broader Ottoman ecumene. Eventually, we will be able to create a web to trace melodies and lyrics across time and space, all in one place. Simultaneously, I’ll be looking for other great anthologies of folk songs, specifically those from non-Serbo-Croatian languages in Yugoslavia, to continue this exploration and expand the database.