The Music of the Western Balkans (Guest post

Welcome back to guest writer AleahFlute/Aleah Fitzwater! In her last post, Aleah introduced us to “7 Strange Classical Composers”.

This time, learn about the music of the Balkan region of Europe – an area with many cultural, religious, and historic influences. While each country has its own unique culture, the shared historical experiences of the people in the region mean that they also have some shared elements. The stamp of Balkan folk/traditional music customs can be found in the art music (classical music) and contemporary music works of the Balkan countries and beyond!

About

Hey there! My name is Aleah Fitzwater. I am a classical flutist and music teacher gone rogue. I used to teach music in the public schools. I’m still a classical cat, but now I write blogs about niche music topics like weird composers and music digitising. I also arrange and record classical flute versions of alternative/pop songs, like those by Linkin Park and Panic! at the Disco.

Today I am going to teach you a little bit about the music of the Balkans. I recently discovered that one of my grandparents had Balkan ancestry. This wasn’t much of a surprise, though, because he was adopted into the family. Additionally, because of the war on Ukraine, I thought it would be interesting to delve into some of the music of South-eastern Europe. Let’s go!

The Balkans

The Balkans are a group of countries which lie on a peninsula, together bordering Italy, Ukraine, and Hungary. According to Britannica.com, not everyone agrees on the exact components of the region, though many can agree that the Balkans do include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. Historians also typically include Greece and parts of Turkey in the definition of the region (Britannia).

The term “Balkan” is sometimes considered to be negative due to the area’s turbulent history and the stereotypes that followed. Some experts say it is more acceptable to refer to this group of countries as “The Western Balkans” or “Southeastern Europe” (Ertan Munoglu). Others argue that the term “Balkan” is acceptable as it is, as long as you don’t insinuate it’s a separate entity from Europe.

The Balkans are rich in culture, combining Greek, Finnish, Turkish, and Slavic heritages together. As far as religion goes, Islam and Catholicism are both prominent. You can hear a lot of Jewish and Armenian influences in the music of this region today. (IEmed/ Maria Djurdjevic)

One thing that binds the Balkans together is the fact that these countries were all under the rule of the Ottoman empire at some point in time. Let’s delve into some of the folk instruments from this melting pot of a peninsula.

Note: This article discusses general elements found in the music of the Balkan region. Some features are particular to certain countries and areas, and found less in others. Here is a summary of elements mentioned and some of the places where they can commonly be found (in the Balkans and beyond):

  • Balkan Accordion – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia

  • Balkan Fiddle – Bulgaria (called the gadulka), Romania, Croatia

  • Tamburica – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary

  • Gusle – Dinarides Region

  • Cimbalom – Hungary, Romania, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia

  • Darbuka – Albania, widely used across most of the Balkans

  • Doumbek – Iraq, Iran, Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey

  • Giada/Balkan Bagpipe – Albania, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Turkey

  • Kaval – Albania, Romania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Serbia, North Macedonia, Turkey, Armenia

  • Balkan Brass/Truba – Serbia, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Romania

Balkan Folk Instruments

Accordions

One key feature of the Balkan style of the accordion is that it has a tone chamber. A tone chamber, or cassato, is a box that lengthens the path that the air takes inside of the instrument. The result is mellow and unique. In the context of a song, it sounds surprisingly like traditional Jewish music (Klezmer). Here is an example of an accordion being played in the Balkan style.

Bowed Strings and Lutes

Instruments from the bowed string and lute families used in this region include the mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. The Balkan fiddle is a violin-type instrument, but is a little different than what you may be familiar with. Rather than being composed of multiple pieces of wood, the instrument is often carved from a single large log, or even made from a gourd. The Balkan fiddle is often paired with end-blown flutes and other strings. Two unique and lesser-known string instruments include the tamburica and the gusle. The gusle is a chordophone (stringed instrument) with only one string.

The tamburica is a lute with a long neck. This instrument originated from a Persian lute called the tanbur. You can see a picture of it below:

Hammer Dulcimers

Hammer dulcimer-type instruments came from ancient Persia and spread far across the world. The cimbalom is an example of one of these instruments that evolved from Persia and are often played in the Romani style. It originated in Hungary in the 1800s. You can listen to an example with those quintessential rolled strings here.

Doumbek and Darbuka

The darbuka is a goblet-shaped drum that is very similar to the djembe. This drum is the essential percussion instrument in Balkan music. You can also find the more commonly known doumbek in this area. While many people associate doumbeks and darbukas with Egyptian/ African music, these instruments are also prominent in the music of the Balkans. According to Darkbukaplanet, the darbuka was originally from Albania and the Middle East and spread to the rest of the Balkans and to Asia through trade. Here is an image of a goblet-style drum:

Bagpipes

Think bagpipes are only found in Scotland and Ireland? Think again! The giada is a type of Balkan bagpipe which is only found in SE Europe. Check out the unique sound of this instrument in this TED talk.

Clarinets and End-Blown Flutes

End-blown flutes from this area are hand-carved and often look very ornate. There are many iterations of fipple flutes throughout the world. Fipple flutes are end-blown flutes with a plug (also known as a fipple) inside. The most common fipple/end-blown flute in the Balkans is called the kaval. It is very similar to the nay from Egypt and Persia. The kaval is traditionally made from horn or wood and was originally played by shepherds.

The Ney:

The Kaval:

Clarinets played in the Balkan style sound markedly different from clarinets in the Western classical context. There are more glissandi (sliding sounds), and the instrument sounds very voice-like. The plethora of bends and ornamentation in this video will give you a good idea:

Brass Instruments

Balkan brass is a huge part of the culture. It is a unique combination of folk music that was fused with military music. This type of music is called “Truba”. Truba ensembles include the following instruments:

  • Trumpets

  • Flugelhorns

  • Tubas

  • Baritones

  • Wagner tubas

  • Percussion

Of the instruments in Truba, the least commonly known is the Wagner tuba. These brass instruments combine features of the French horn and the tuba, which makes them sound mellow and unique.

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Other unique features of Balkan music

Epic/Epos Poetry Set to Music

The gusle has an important place in Balkan cultures. It is the instrument that accompanies traditional epic poetry and legends. A person, titled the guslar, is both the accompanist and storyteller. The guslar must also know how to improvise.

Both stories and historical events were told through this style of playing. Albanian songs about heroes and valour are one example. Serbian epic poetry is notably different from other Balkan poetry, as it only consists of shorter epos, rather than epics. The Serbian tradition tells love stories in the form of ballads and recreates historical events. According to Wikipedia, many of these songs detail Serbia’s struggle for liberation from the Ottoman empire. One famous example is the life of Janko Mitrović (Јанко Митровић), a fearless leader from Croatia. His death was the start of the Serbian revolution. (Wiki/Wikimili_Janko)

Harmonic Language

Gusle music is largely chromatic (uses tones that do not belong to the diatonic/ major scale), and sometimes the vocals are microtonal (In-between notes). Turkish melodic structures – Makam and Ayak – are sets of rules for music performance. According to Turkishmusicportal, Makam is the most important concept in Ottoman-Turkish music. Makam could be compared to classical modes (scales) in Western music theory. There are rules for rhythm (usual), melody (seyir), and intervals (cinsler). Ayak, on the other hand, is more related to folk music. Pentatonic (five-note) scales are also used in Balkan folk music.

Here is an example of improvisation on one of the Makams on an oud:

Aksak Rhythms

Aksak is the Turkish word for “limping” and refers to the combination of uneven sets of beats: 2+3. Aksak rhythms can be found in Turkey, the Middle East, and many of the surrounding regions. You can hear Aksak rhythms in Balkan dance music; time signatures such as 5 /8, 7 /8, and 11/8 are all common. In comparison, Western music typically uses time signatures such as 4/4, 3/ 4, and 6/8.

Aksak is part of something called Ottoman music theory, which greatly differs from traditional Western classical theory. In Turkey, Aksak is the combination of 2+2+2+3 only (Wiki/Aksak) whereas Aksak in other countries refers to uneven sets of rhythms as a whole.

You can still hear the Aksak rhythmic influence in many genres, such as in this original jazz tune by Dave Brubeck titled ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’ and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’s ‘Finale Medley’.

Karşilama and Other Dances

Folk dances are an integral part of the culture of the Balkans. And, as you’ve probably already noticed, the music of Turkey had a huge influence on the Western Balkans as a whole. Because of the Aksak rhythms and rhythmic ornamentations, dancers listen to macro beats (The larger, overarching rhythm) in order to keep their time.

Karşilama is a dance originating from Turkey, which spread throughout the surrounding regions, particularly to Greece. Karşilama means to welcome, or a greeting, in Turkish. It is a couple’s dance that is often performed at festivals (Karsilamas/Wiki). Ken Shorley gives an excellent demonstration of the drum beat of this dance here:

Another popular dance from this region includes the circle dance called The Horo, which used to be a way of courting (TheCultureTrip). It is now considered the national dance of Bulgaria. It sounds and looks shockingly Irish. This is actually because Bulgarian rhythms made their way into Celtic culture, rather than the other way around. Take a listen here:

Modern Balkan Music

Truba has made its way into the world of electronic music, where traditional-sounding melodies get mixed in with beats. The 2015 hit song “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony features elements of Balkan music.

Muni Long (Priscilla Renea) is a producer from Florida who wrote and produced the song “Worth It”. Her trademark is integrating Balkan elements into her R&B and rap songs. In addition to this, they welcomed saxophonist Ori Kaplan, who played the saxophone riff.

Kaplan is actually a member of the group Balkan Beat Box, a fusion group that combines elements of Jewish, Balkan, Middle-Eastern, Electronic, and punk music together. Take a listen here:

Some other bands that have Balkan influences include:

  • Gogol Bordello

  • Beirut

  • A Hawk and a Hacksaw

  • Amsterdam Klezmer

Conclusion


The music history found woven in the cultures of this region is far too expansive to capture in just one article. But I hope you learned something today!

You can follow Aleah on social media or listen to her flute covers here:

References


The Balkans https://www.britannica.com/place/Balkans

Balkan Instruments https://eefc.org/balkan-culture/instruments/#:~:text=Many%20different%20instruments%20are%20played,combinations%20and%20numbers%20of%20instruments.

Labeling the Balkans https://www.helvetas.org/en/eastern-europe/about-us/follow-us/helvetas-mosaic/article/September2018/Labeling-the-Balkans#:~:text=The%20term%20’Balkan’%20has%20developed,move%20away%20from%20its%20use.

Aksak Rhythm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aksak

Blue Rondo / Piece https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Rondo_%C3%A0_la_Turk

Darbuka Drum https://tribune.com.pk/story/51389/darbuka-a-little-known-percussion-instrument

https://www.iemed.org/publication/the-balkans-past-and-present-of-cultural-pluralism/#:~:text=The%20Balkan%20Peninsula%20is%20usually,Ugric%2C%20Greek%20and%20Turkish%20origin.

Gusle Music/ Guslar https://www.britannica.com/art/guslar

Dance: Karsilimas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karsilamas

Horo

https://theculturetrip.com/europe/bulgaria/articles/horo-the-history-behind-bulgarias-national-dance/

Balkan Brass

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkan_brass

Makam http://www.turkishmusicportal.org/en/types-of-turkish-music/turkish-classical-music-the-makam-phenomenon-in-ottoman-turkish-music

Serbian Epic Poetry https://www.byarcadia.org/post/serbian-epic-poetry-101-an-element-of-oral-tradition

Accordion Tone Chambers https://www.lamalleauxaccordeons.fr/en/content/9-voices-in-tone-chamber

Balkan Map

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geographic_map_of_Balkan_Peninsula.svg

The Darbuka

https://www.darbukaplanet.com/pages/darbuka-history

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