Overcoming Adversity with Humor & Traditional Balkan Gusle Music

National Geographic grantee Riley Arthur is documenting the Erased of Slovenia- 200,000 non-ethnic Slovenian residents who were not automatically granted citizenship after the country split from Yugoslavia in 1991. Without legal documentation, these people could not legally travel, own property, obtain medical care, vote, marry, attend school or work without a visa. A decade later, the community is still fighting for documentation.


Expedition Journal: Izbrisani

The Erased are a diverse group of people ranging in age, nationality, education, political background, and class. These former residents of Yugoslavia have little to nothing in common on paper, from enduring the Erasure and sharing the history of a now divided region. As people who spent over two decades marginalized and mistreated, I was surprised to discover that many of them accept the ethnic stereotypes prevalent in the region. As someone who grew up an ethnic minority overhearing continuous racial generalizations, I try not to use these clichés. However, it is socially accepted to do so in Slovenia.

One popular stereotype in the region for Montenegrins is that they are tall, gregarious, funny people. The day I spent with Erased Montenegrin Bubatlija Stoyan showed that at least in his case these buzzwords are true. He is tall, hilarious, and friendly.

Bubatlija Stoyan
Bubatlija Stoyan Playing a the traditional Montenegrin gusle. Photo by: Riley A Arthur
Montenegrin Gusle Photo by: Riley A Arthur

Stoyan, whom friends fondly call Buba, welcomed my team into his home with warm hugs a mug of Turkish style coffee and shots of aged whiskey. Not being a coffee or whiskey drinker, I have learned from experience that it is futile to decline this hospitality.

He began and ended the interview with a serenade by gusle. The Gusle- the national instrument of Montenegro- is a hand carved wooden instrument native to the Balkans and most common in Croatia, Montenegro and Albania.

A gusle is typically maple with stretched animal hide, strung with nylon strings and is played by bow. The neck of the gusle are decoratively painted and carved patterns indicate origin. The typical songs played on a gusle are oral histories, folklore, legends, and long form poetry. Stoyan’s gusle was a gift from his grandfather who taught him to play and past on the oral tradition.

Close up of a Hand Carved Gusle. Photo by Riley

During his time as an Erased person Stoyan overcame the loss of his business, ability to claim paternity for his own children, cancer, harassment by police and once being arrested seven times in one day for simply being in Slovenia. Rather than be defeated by these challenges he turned to humor, music and satire.

“It’s my weapon. It’s stronger than an atomic bomb, because only this weapon can get to deaf and blind politicians.” he said firmly holding the neck of his gusle. Then proudly placing the gusle between his knees he sung an epic history of his hometown. By playing this instrument Buba was able to maintain his dignity and through his indomitable spirit he shared a few songs with us. In the warmth of his home I couldn’t help but agree that he is a quite the pleasant Montenegrin, and as I listened to the song, somehow the cliché no longer bothered me.

NEXT: Roman Ruins in Modern Slovenia


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Meet the Author
Photographer, islander, environmentalist, gelato eater.