Ojkanje - the (multipart) musical system of the Dalmatian Hinterland; the social and emotional dimensions of the performance practices

Izlaganje o ojkanju kao zaštićene baštine pri UNESCO u Maison des Cultures du Monde, Pariz, listopad, 2012.g.


The inspiration for this presentation I found in my recent work regarding the question of registration of intangible heritage. Croatian Ministry of culture commision decided to propose some of the specific music phenomena to the newly established UNESCO Urgent safeguarding list of intangible heritage. Ojkanje was selected as a Croatian proposition for the UNESCO's list and I was assign to coordinate all the requested specifics - to fulfill an intricate bureaucracy procedure that includes pages of official akin questions. I accepted assignment furtively hoping that the official cultural politic efforts would finally recognize the significance of the musical tradition and initiate new cycle of life for this musical phenomenon.

Ojkanje is generic term for the type of archaic singing that characterizes a specific way of voice shaking achieved through a distinctive technique of singing 'from the throat'. The term ojkanje also reffers to the musical system of archaic (starovinski, starinski), traditional singing and playing of Croatian Dinaric regions. Various types of ojkanje singing, differently inherent, are distributed throughout the region. Ojkanje is fairly live tradition in the regions of Dalmatian hinterland - Ravni Kotari, Bukovica, Dalmatinska Zagora, Kninska, Sinjska, Imotska Krajina, Zabiokovlje i Radobilja. The peripheral regions such as Konavle, Župa or Primorje have already abandoned the old traditional types of singing and have adopted the new, tonal, multi-part types of singing such as klapa-singing. The situation is similar in the regions around Velebit mountain, Lika and Kordun where this type of singing is today rarely found. The above mentioned regions also belong to the Dinaric ethnographic area. It is interesting to mention that Karlovac region, a Central Croatian region peripheral to the Dinaric region, has been recently showing an increase in popularity of traditional ojkanje singing (rozganje), which points to a possible revitalization of this type of singing even in the areas where the tradition no longer exists.

The term ojkanje was defined by Antun Dobronić in his article 'Ojkanje': A Contribution to the Study of Genesis of our Folk Song (Zbornik za narodni život I običaje, Zagreb, Vol. 20, 1915:1-25). The basis of the term was shaking technique on the syllabus "oj" as well as the name of the local genre ojkavica. One of the first detailed descriptions of the performance of this musical phenomenon was given by Father Alberto Fortis, in his 1771-1774 travelogue on Dalmatia (Viaggio di Dalmazia). In the chapter describing the life of Morlacs, Fortis gave a very concrete description of the specific type of singing:
'When a Morlac travels, especially at night or through mountain wasteland, he sings on the heroic deeds of the past of the Slavic kings and aristocrats or of some tragic events. Should it happen that another traveler roams the peaks of a neighboring hill, he will repeat the line sung by the first singer and this intermittent singing lasts until the distance separates their voices. The long 'howling' is actually a long tone 'o' with the sudden change in the height of the tone and it always precedes the lyrics; the words forming the lyrical line are sung swiftly, without changing the tone's height, which happens at the last syllable and the line ends with long 'howling' in the form of a thriller, raised when the singer takes in breath' (Bezić 1968:69-180).

Ojkanje is regularly performed a capella, in solo individual and dialogical performances or more frequently, by lead singer accompanied by the one or more singers whose voices, in the moment of shaking, produces a longer, accompanying tone. Genres of solo ojkanje singing putničko, kiridžijsko (traveler's, horsemen's singing'), samačko (solitary singing),or rozganje are more frequent than ustresalica (shaking singing) or po svajski (wedding singing) from Konavle, Župa and Primorje regions around the town of Dubrovnik a rare reminiscence of past times.
Two-part ojkanje singing existing in larger area has been preserved in different musical genres some of which present the dominant type of traditional singing in the respective regions. This refers to ojkalica, ojkanje genre between the rivers of Krka and Cetina (regions of Drniška krajina, hinterland of the town of Šibenik, Kijevo and Vrlika). In the regions of Ravni Kotari and Bukovica, the traditional vocal style in which ojkanje singing is the dominant element is called orzenje (orcenje, orcanje or groktanje among the Orthodox population). In the region of Cetinska krajina, under the mountains of Svilaja and Moseč this type of singing, when preformed by men, is called treskavica (or today starovinsko), and when performed by women vojkavica (Bezić 1968:69-176). The same name treskavica is used in the hinterland of Trogir and Kaštela (or grgešanje in Grebaštica), while in the northern Poljica, the skillful singers still sing the two-part kiridžijsko pjevanje. Most of the above mentioned genres are characterized by lasting as long as the lead singer can hold his/her breath. The lead singer usually sings the first line himself/herself (inicij), and in the second line is accompanied by a group of singers singing the text or just a vowel (dark 'e' or open 'o'), supplemented with a characteristic thriller, similar to vibrato, sung with full voice on the syllables voj or hoj in order to achieve 'the perfect effect of acoustic unity'.
The basis of this musical system, i.e. the mechanisms on which this musical system is built, are unconventional (marginal) as compared to the musical systems based on West European musical tradition. Color, texture, group performance (dominant in respect to individual), the stability of non-beat tonal relationships, the elements that form the basis of this system, are completely different form their counterparts in West European musical harmony. Musical characteristics of styles and genres are recognizable through the melodies with small, limited number of tones. Intervals do not match the standard intervals neither by their size nor by their function. The melodies are based on limited tonal scales, mostly chromatic, with the intervals which do not match the standard musical intervals. Majority of styles and genres has major second as a dominant interval, most of the time in the final, cadenza tone, treated as a consonant interval. Local population uses local terminology to distinguish the specific characteristics of the singing. Local terminology is known to the singers best familiar with the forms they practice themselves or actively listen to as well as the forms from the peripheral regions they are in contact with. The terms they use mostly describe the activity occurring during the singing itself. Verbs like goniti, orcati, kockati, groktati, grgašati, krećati, tresti, ustresati, otezati, priginjati, sijecati, jecati, vatati, nazivati... refer to different techniques and procedures which the unaccustomed listener's ear can hardly differentiate, as they can have difficulties in recognizing numerous variations between melodies inside a single genre. Despite the fact that for an unaccustomed ear the audio image of this type of music creates an impression of sameness and repetition, there is a large number of various forms which make up specific genres and styles in different localities. The influence of the 'Western' culture – civilization and the system of values – seems to prevent this musical tradition from living its full existence. Changes are obvious in the selection of the musical styles. The concept of a structured musical piece adopted from the West has resulted in the disappearance of the open-ended and improvisational genres, the concept of the organized singing group substitutes informal music-making as well as disappearance of the solo singing genres. Not so long ago this type of singing people used as a means of everyday communication (calling out for someone by voice shaking), while doing their everyday jobs or traveling by horse caravans, as an entertainment around the open fire during long winter nights or a way to pass time while watching over grazing cattle.

The basic way in which this musical genre is presented and explained is the performance itself. The performance is the final result of learning process - listening and imitating of their predecessors. Performance is the symbol of life of certain genres. Those which are not performed are destined to oblivion not because there is no one who can perform them, but because they are not attractive enough for the audience. In this way, a number of genres of solo singing have disappeared. Some of the older genres, for example treskavica in the region of Sinjska Krajina or Dalmatinska Zagora, are called starovinski, which marks them as something that still exists but is no longer in the prime light; they are usually performed only by older people and therefore not attractive enough for the 'contemporary' performance, which will probably cause them to disappear in the near future. Today this practice is most commonly performed on different public events in the local communities. The carriers of this tradition are numerous newly established folklore groups.
Since the mid 1990s, after the Homeland War ended in Croatia, the atmosphere of national revival yielded a significant increase in the number of organized folklore groups (Kudovi), especially in regions directly affected by the war. For example, in the region of Ravni Kotari in Zadar County there was not a single organized village KUD before the war, while today there are about seventy of them. Their agenda is to preserve and/or revive old repertoire and performing styles typical of their immediate community. However, it is important to mention that the tradition of amateur organizations presenting rural traditions is much older. Among the "significant changes" which have marked European traditional musics since the 1950s, namely "festivalization, orientation toward public performance, professionalization, internationalization, institutionalization, and mediaization" (Ronström and Malm 2000:149), processes of festivalization and the related institutionalization of traditional musics and musicians have an unquestionable primacy in Croatia. Since the 1930s, the production of folklore festivals—the most important site for the application of ethnomusicological, ethnochoreological, folkloristic, and ethnological scholarship in Croatia—played a major role in the canonization of traditional music, that is in configuring particular genres and styles as legitimate traditions, and in distinguishing particular performers as legitimate bearers of tradition. In Croatia, the beginnings of this tradition were linked to the first half of the 20th century and the period between the two World Wars. Croatian Peasant Party, motivated by the contemporary disputes between the members of Croatian political intelligence founded a cultural, educational and charitable organization Peasant Union. In the period between the two World Wars, Peasant Union was organizing folklore festivals on which, during the 1920-ies and especially from the 1930-ies, rural traditions (music, dance, folk costumes, playing traditional instruments) were presented. The above mentioned ojkanje singing genres were frequently performed on those first festivals because, already at that time, they were considered valuable examples of the old archaic culture which had to be preserved and emphasized in every possible way. Those organized groups, founded in many villages at that period have, in some regions, preserved their continuity up to the present day and today remain the main carriers of their rural tradition and identity and represent their villages on numerous folklore festivals in Croatia and around the world. In their local setting, in cooperation with the local tourist offices, those groups are the main initiators and organizers of village cultural life in general. Majority of the population in the above mentioned regions are Croats of Roman-Catholic faith, even though there are some villages where the population is mixed or villages populated exclusively by the Orthodox population. Irrespective of the confessional background of the inhabitants, ojkanje singing is a joint tradition of the people inhabiting these regions. In this case, the music is not determined by ethnicity or by nationally 'pure' identity, but is a unique characteristic of the Dinaric area.
Owing to the modes of public presentation of folklore heritage established at the beginning of the 20th century, Croatian public managed to acquire a certain positive attitude towards archaic forms which presented the local tradition. As a result of those public performances, some forms of singing have managed to extend their life span. Many festivals organized today on the local, regional or state level are trying in their programs to promote the same values. One of the more important festivals which helps promote this type of singing is the Folklore Festival of Dalmatia titled Na Neretvu misečina pala, which is being held in the town of Metković since 1984. The festival gathers numerous folklore groups and ensembles from Dalmatian local communities (islands, coastline and Dalmatian hinterland), and reveals the differences in traditional music, dance, folk costumes and customs. After the performances, the experts in different aspects of traditional culture organize discussions. The prize for the best groups is participation on the larger regional and state festivals. The most prestigious of all festivals is International folklore festival in Zagreb with thematic concerts featuring traditional music and dance. This attempt to encourage folklore groups to participate in the festivals involves a number of experts. Through regular monitoring of the groups, conducting research and preparation of always novel festival programs emphasizing the differences in the traditional heritage of respective villages, the prerequisites are created for the protection, preservation, revitalization and, if necessary, reconstruction of intangible heritage. Besides the festival in Metković, it is important to emphasize many county folklore festivals organized in these regions (Šibenik, Muć, Polača, Otočac, Ogulin, Cetingrad). In the past few years, the local tourist offices have also recognized the importance of intangible traditional culture and have themselves become initiators of some of the festivals of traditional singers, especially those targeted at foreign tourists.
The main reason for proposing the urgent protection of this musical phenomenon is the current break in the chain of transmitting this knowledge to new generations. In the past, ojaknje was learned only through oral tradition. The younger generations were, through listening and imitating the elders, adopting, performing and improving the tradition and then transmitting it to new generations. Today's carriers of tradition are mostly older people who are carrying to their graves specific styles of singing. Globalized and standardized way of life in rural regions prevents the younger generations from learning this type of singing actively, as integral part of their lives. Media (audio and video) and organized folklore groups are today becoming the methods and places in which the contemporary generations have the possibility to acquire knowledge of this style of singing. Long term education of the leaders and organizers of folklore groups, especially from the regions in which ojkanje is part of the tradition, would contribute to the survival of musical phenomenon for the future generations.
All the UNESCO forms are filled with the information about ojkanje and we are now patienly waiting for the voting results. This "game" started to look more and more like Eurovision song contest. The recognition would have bring better future for the destiny of the archaic singing. The next step will be monitoring of the reaction of the singers, do not forget – they are the main actors in this story!