If someone from a past century or another galaxy (resembling ours, of course) were to come to our planet and wanted to describe the main characteristics of Earth’s folk music today – one thing would be certain: the guitar would be qualified as Earth’s number one folk instrument. The guitar today is played everywhere, all over our planet in the most diverse countries as to culture and music heritage. The guitar is combined with the most diverse local and roots instruments.
In my opinion the reasons for this popularity of the guitar are as follows:
– It is an instrument easy to play because you don’t have to be a virtuoso in order to accompany singing or to be part of a band (even the most simple chords or single tones can be sufficient);
– It is not too expensive (many can afford it);
– It is easy to carry/transport (you can not carry a piano with you, even an accordeon is very heavy – too heavy for many);
– It is a very democratic instrument – the guitar does not impose its sound and overpower other instruments or the human voice and this makes it perfect for accompaniment in folk songs that usually tell some story – the human voice and the song can be the center of focus (this may not be so with other instruments that are loud and shrill and compete with the human voice, such as the violin, for instance);
– It may be used either as a solo instrument, to emphasize the melody, or mainly as rhythmic accompaniment;
– It is easily combined with other instruments;
– It is somehow universal – the perfect link between the past and the present. By combining the guitar with roots instruments there is often the feeling of both the past and the present, the old and the new, and new generations of young people are ready to accept old songs clad in new arrangements – most often it is the sound of the guitar that does not offend anyone;
– It allows you to be completely independent – you can sing and play music as you wish and not be influenced by others, and you can be self-sufficient for gigs;
– It allows you to be free in your choices when it comes to gigs: for smaller audiences in smaller premises you don’t need anything – you do not depend on any technical gadgets – you perform without any sound systems. This means that you can perform for free – allowing you even more freedom in making your choices.
– The guitar is great when people gather and want to sing together; it somehow provides good vibes for connecting everyone and is an inspiring background for everyone to let go and sing.
Although the guitar today is often thought of as an American folk music instrument (cowboy songs, country music, singer/songwriter’s basic instrument), and/or the instrument most often found in the Latin music regions, it has been the best loved instrument for accompanying folk singing in many other countries too, for instance in the countries of the former Soviet Union. I am not an expert but I know (I lived in Moscow for 12 years) that the guitar had been the favorite instrument of the gypsies and other performers in the 19th century Russia who sang gypsy songs, Russian folk songs and composed romances to a seven-string guitar accompaniment. Then it was the singers/songwriters during Stalin’s regime that often spent their lives in prison camps but, nevertheless, produced songs describing their lives and feelings . The most incredible songs come from those times, most often sung to a guitar accompaniment. In the second half of the 20th century there were Bulat Okudzawa and Vladimir Vysotsky (singers songwriters) who succeeded in producing songs that were known and sung throughout the former Soviet Union by millions of people (to a guitar accompaniment) even though they were mostly banned on TV and radio. The lyrics of many banned poets (Pasternak, for instance) were kept alive by people singing songs composed to their lyrics by unknown composers (thus qualifying to be “folk”), even though such songs were officially banned. In the Seventies there was a revolution in respect to folk song interpretation. For decades folk songs had been considered as music of and for the peasants, or they were performed heavily arranged for choirs, opera singers or very artistic official folklore companies/groups. Then came along Jeanne Bichevskaya singing Russian folk songs to a guitar accompaniment (this may have been under the influence of Joan Baez), and all at once there were different people as to age and background, intellectuals and the not-so-learned folks, the young and the old, all waiting in queues to get tickets for her recitals, with the general opinion being that her music was wonderful (I was there in the seventies when she was most popular). All at once folk songs were no longer qualified as music for peasants only.
And it was the guitar that supported it all and made it possible. It is somehow like a necessary link between the singer and the ones listening.
For a couple of centuries now, the unaccompanied human voice (a capella singing) is not something the regular average audience is eager to listen to and people shy away from single annacompanied singing. But even today, after being heavily exploited, a guitar can make the necessary difference, people gather around a singer, and the audience often participates and sings along. Of course, singers sing to many other instruments, but none of them are as popular as the guitar.
SINGING CROATIAN FOLK SONGS TO A GUITAR ACCOMPANIMENT
My primary goal after more than 20 years is the same – to sing and record Croatian folk songs that I find in books ; folk songs that have never been recorded and are not sung today. This was the impulse that made me begin performing at 47 and is still the main reason for continuing today. I can not bear the thought of so many folk songs having survived in times when they were handed down from generation to generation by oral means only, whereas today, when we have overcrowded our planet Earth with technical means to preserve information of all sorts (often trash), – thousands of folk songs are hidden in books, never to be performed again because people have forgotten about them. What I do hope is that after hearing my recordings, more people (in Croatia) will try to sing and play the forgotten songs, arranging them in their own style.
When I began singing in public in 1993, the most logical and natural way was to accompany myself on the guitar. It was the instrument I had with me all my life when I sang to my friends (throughout my life singing had been a hobby) and the most natural thing was to continue in the same manner. I began singing unknown Medjimurean songs arranged on basis of notes and lyrics from various books, – never having been in Medjimurje before (Medjimurje is a region in northwest (continental) Croatia. I was not trying to follow any tradition. I was not even thinking about form. My only thought was to sing the songs in such a way as to make people listen and feel how incredible and beautiful they were – the way I felt about them. I had no plans to become a singer, nor could I foresee what the future would be for me.
Therefore, I do not consider my singing to a guitar accompaniment as the best way to arrange and interpret Croatian folk songs. However, it is my way and in doing so I am true to my feelings and myself. (In the meantime the number of musicians playing with me has grown through the years, and in 2013 my band Kololira was formed, making the songs I sing sound more interesting to many).
Of course there were reactions to the guitar used in reinterpreting ancient songs. Although I was never an overnight success (to many I am still the queer, not-so-young lady singing strange songs in a strange manner), there were reactions and all at once I had to give reasons for doing this or that. So, why am I singing Croatian folk songs to a guitar accompaniment? Why not play the tamburica, the instrument considered as the traditional one in Croatia?
The first reason is the following one: when I began performing in public I just continued doing what I had been doing all my life – I continued singing songs to a guitar accompaniment. But if I consider this issue in more detail, I can give more reasons for doing things my way:
- The songs I most often sing (coming from continental Croatia) are old, even ancient songs that are not in the major and minor scale system most often heard today, but are in the pentatonic scale or they are modal tunes.
- Until the middle of the 20th century the tradition in Medjimurje had been to sing the songs unaccompanied (there are a considerable number of singers today who still keep to this tradition – in Medjimurje only). And respectively, if the band played, it was the band playing – no singing.
- Due to the narrative character of many songs coming from Medjimurje and the tradition to sing the songs unaccompanied – the rhythm is not set throughout the song but follows the lyrics. It often changes during the same song.
So you are faced with several problems when you wish to sing Medjimurean songs. If you want people to listen to you – (I do, because I want to spread the knowledge about forgotten songs), you must have some instrumental accompaniment to your voice. When the tamburica (a string instrument brought to Croatia from the East) was proclaimed in the 19th century to be a Croatian traditional instrument (for political reasons – as a means to unite music and people), it was implemented throughout Croatia. According to my opinion, it is just the right instrument to accompany three or four note songs coming from some parts of Croatia, but it is an instrument that does not do justice to subtle, gentle, beautiful songs coming from Medjimurje. The strings sound too harsh and the only Medjimurean songs that sound well sung to a tamburica band are the jolly, funny, and generally major scale songs (this is my opinion and there are those who do not share it).
Along with not sounding as the right accompaniment (to me), there are practical problems too. One tamburica is not sufficient to accompany oneself – you must, therefore, have a band. The musicians are taught to play in one style only – the style approved by the leading tamburica orchestra conductors/leaders based on tradition. When I began singing in 1993, most people did not understand what it was about. What in the world was I trying to do? Compete with younger singers? There was no chance to perform the songs my way and to have other musicians participate (among other problems there was no money anywhere around).
But when I began thinking about how I wanted the songs to sound, I realized that the guitar did the job (for me) in the right way. It is an instrument that can really be very gentle and by the way I play it (very simple), the guitar accompaniment does not impair the beauty of the melodies I sing but enhances it.
So the wonderful, universal, self-sufficient guitar was just the right instrument for me, and still is when I perform alone.