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Traditional Storytelling in Europe

Storytelling traditions vary all over the world, yet have many things in common. This section is an attempt to gather information on customs of the oral tradition world-wide. Many people today are rediscovering the pleasures of telling stories, after their culture has lost most of its traditional storytelling, yet cannot easily find out much about the countless millennia of oral traditions with all their wisdom and techniques. I hope this site will help you discover and appreciate something of the central role which traditional storytelling has played in most cultures, and in some places still does.

Your help will be welcome if you know or come across any facts or resources to add, current or historical. To begin with I'll be adding bits and pieces as I can, mainly from the perspective of musical commentators. Later on we'll have overviews and this page will split into various areas - this is a big subject!

One thing to bear in mind is that in many old traditions storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry, especially in the bardic traditions. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. Therefore some who would be called folk musicians by foreign music enthusiasts are just as accurately called storytellers - their true roles are more profound, as their names reflect: bards, ashiks, jyrau, griots amongst many more. Their roles in fact are often as much spiritual teachers and exemplars, or healers, for which the stories and music are vehicles, as well as historians and tradition-bearers. For instance bakhshi, the term for bard used in central Asia, means a shaman / healer who uses music as a conduit to the world of the Spirit. You can see photos of some of the above people in the Gallery and hear some of them on world music recordings. Also see the Musical Instruments for Storytelling page, for descriptions and discussion.

For genuine initiates of these bardic disciplines, they draw directly on the conscious creative power of the Divine and transmit it through the words they speak and sing. This is not the same as merely 'being creative' or 'feeling inspired', and involves considerable spiritual training. Different cultures and religions have different ways of describing this, though in general the practice is highly secret. For example, for the West African culture of the Manding, who call this power nyama,

“It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe. While nyama molds nature into its many forms, the nyamakalaw (handlers of nyama) can shape nyama into art. The nyamakalaw spend their entire lives perfecting special secret skills that are passed down from generation to generation. The nyamakalaw are the only people in Mande that can use magic and are often skilled as sorcerers, blacksmiths, leather workers or bards.”

The World of the Mande: History, Art and Ritual in the Mande Culture, and Caste Systems in Mande Society, Anthropology/Africana Studies 269 and Anthropology/Africana Studies 267, Prof. Mandy Bastian (Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA) 1997-1999

But this section isn't only for the bardic traditions of storytelling - all other less formal traditions are part of the picture too, from hearthside informal telling or street tellers engaging passers-by, to traditional dramatic presentations, so if you can offer any details at all send them to me, Tim Sheppard.

Many traditions have spread across neighbouring countries because of old patterns of migration, empires, or religion, so this site is organised by geography. An alphabetical list of countries covered so far is also provided, but for the full picture do read the regional introduction on each page.

Other areas:

Africa
Asia and Middle East
Australasia and Oceania
North America
South and Central America

Europe

Europe contains a great many distinct cultures and traditions, and has been crossed by diverse others, so its traditions of storytelling reflect that variety.

Troubadour: One of a class of lyric poets and poet-musicians, often of knightly rank, that flourished from the 11th through the 13th century, chiefly in Provence and other regions of southern France, northern Spain, and northern Italy. They wrote in the langue d'oc of southern France (see Languedoc) and cultivated a lyric poetry intricate in metre and rhyme and usually of a romantic amatory strain reflecting the ideals of courtly love. Favoured at courts, troubadours had great freedom of speech and were charged with creating around the court ladies an aura of pleasant cultivation. Their poetry, often set to music, was to influence all later European lyrical poetry.

"Troubadour." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica. 08 Oct, 2003.

Trouvère: One of a school of poets that flourished in northern France from the 11th to the 14th century. Trouvères were the counterparts in the language of northern France (the langue d'oïl) to the Provençal troubadour. Of either aristocratic or humble origins, they were originally connected with feudal courts but later found middle-class patrons. Noted for such forms as the chanson de geste, their works are generally narratives; their basic subject was courtly love. Trouvères pleased their audiences by combining stylized themes and traditional metrical forms rather than by originality of expression. The lyrics were intended to be sung, by the poet alone or accompanied by a hired musician.

"Trouvere." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica. 08 Oct, 2003.

Minnesinger: (from German, Minne: “love”) Any of certain German poet-musicians, c. 1150–c. 1325, parallel to the troubadours and trouvères. Like their French counterparts, the minnesingers' subjects were not limited to love but also included politics and ethics. Originally members of the high nobility, minnesingers later came from the emerging middle class and had an economic as well as social interest in singing.

"Minnesinger." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica. 08 Oct, 2003.

Such minstrels accompanied themselves on the vielle (fiddle) or lute. It was traditional to make one's own instrument. Troubadours, trouvères, minnesingers and so forth were eventually ousted by the Roman Catholic church, and then persecuted by the Inquisition, dying out around the 15th century.

Resources

Minnesang. A short article from the Wikipedia, on the art of the minnesinger, with helpful links to further articles on relevant aspects.

Troubadours United: Road of the Troubadours. A CD available on Enja 94362. There are many theories about the origins of the troubadours and their other European equivalents. Peter Pannke is convinced that these, and the Sufi lyrics of North Africa and the Middle East, and the Bhakti poetry of Hindu India, all had a common source. Pannke has brought various top traditional musicians together to play bardic material from these traditions, producing a CD reviewed as 'stunning'. A 26-page booklet gives plenty of historical information.

Alphabetical order:

Albania
Armenia
Azerbaijan
Finland
Herzegovina
Iceland
Jewish
Montenegro
Romania
Serbia (Yugoslavia)
Turkey
Turkmenistan
Transylvania
United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Wales

Albania

“Albania still retains certain elements from its past as a tribal society and Albanian concepts of honour, hospitality and family duty are immensely powerful... The population [is divided] into northern Ghegs and southern Tosks and Labs, separated by the River Shkumbin. Gheg music is rugged, heroic and single voiced while Tosk and Lab music is softer, more lyrical and polyphonic...

What unites all these styles is the weight that both performers and listeners give to their music as a means of patriotic expression and as a scaffolding for their oral historical tradition. Many composer-performers quite openly say that this is their main purpose...”

“The most serious musical form of north Albania is the epic poem. The oldest type, known as Rapsodi Kreshnikë (Poems of Heroes) and accompanied by the singer on the one-stringed fiddle, the lahuta, sounds very similar to the music of the Montenegrin and Serbian guslars [epic-singers using the one-stringed gusle], and is the province of old men. Indeed, Albanians describing this sort of music will sweep their fingers across their upper lip with a flourish to express the luxuriant growth of moustache thought necessary for the singer.

This tradition is particularly identified with the inhabitants of the northern highlands, but another ballad tradition is found throughout the Gheg area, with particularly important schools in Dibër (Debar) and Kerçovë (Kicevo) in Macedonia. Here the singer is accompanied by the çifteli, a two-stringed instrument related to the saz. One string carries the melody while the other is used mainly as a drone. The tales tell of heroes such as the fifteenth-century warrior Skanderbeg, leader of the struggle against the Turks, and their semi-historical, semi-mythical events are bound up with the constant Albanian themes of honour, hospitality, treachery and revenge... The performances can be highly emotional with compelling shifts of rhythms and tempo quite unlike the epics of their Slav neighbours.

Both traditions serve as a medium for oral history in what was until quite recently a preliterate society (there was not even a generally agreed alphabet until the early 1900s) and also preserve and inculcate moral codes and social values. In a culture that retained the blood-feud as its primary means of law enforcement until well into the twentieth century such codes were literally matters of life and death. Song was one of the most efficient ways of making sure that each member of the tribe was aware of what obligations he or she was bound to.”

Kim Burton, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Armenia

Ashugs are troubadours who appear also in Turkish and Azerbaijani music (where they're called ashiks). The word comes from Arabic (meaning 'lover') and describes someone who is a musician, poet and storyteller. The most famous of these troubadours was Sayat Nova (1712-1795) who lived in the cosmopolitan world of Tiflis (Tbilisi), the Georgian capital, and became court musician to King Heracles II. Some of the repertoire of Sayat Nova and more recent Ashugs has been recorded by Ocora with traditional ensembles of kamancha (3-stringed fiddle), kanun (zither), tar (lute) and duduk [a reedy woodwind]. All these instruments belong to the world of Turkish and Persian music and Armenia, as a Christian country right on the fringe, is unique in absorbing them so intrinsically into its culture.”

Simon Broughton, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

The sound of the duduk is tremendously evocative, plaintive, and beautiful. Its acknowledged master today is Djivan Gasparyan, who often sings an ashug song during his concerts, though he is not an ashug himself. He has various recordings available.

Finland

The traditions of Finland are concentrated around the Kalevala, the national epic which is sung in its strict trochaic tetrameter, accompanied by the kantele. Although the epic was put into its current form in the 19th century, the story-songs it was compiled from date back perhaps thousands of years.

“The zither-like kantele is the national Finnish instrument and dates from ancient times. In the Kalevala saga, Väinämoinen, the mythical hero, subdues his foes by playing on his kantele, made from the jawbone of a giant fish strung with a maiden's hair. The instrument was originally five-stringed - you still find these today - but it has developed variants over the years that range up to giant chromatic kanteles that can be used to play western classical music; the melodies and accompanying chords are plucked on the rows of strings. The kantele appears in various forms all along the Baltic coast. In Estonia it is the kannel, in Latvia the kokle, and in Lithuania the kankles. It has a magical, silvery tone that seems to carry both the listener and the players away in to the vast forest of Karelia or the depths of the Baltic sea.”

Magnus Bäckström and Philip Page, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Resources

The Kalevala metre goes into great depth about the ancient rhythm of the epic. In storytelling traditions all over the world, there has been a sophisticated understanding and use of different metres to achieve different qualities of trance in the listeners.

Herzegovina

Resources

A Performance of The Wedding of Mustajbey's Son Becirbey. Halil Bajgoric, a South Slavic guslar of central Herzegovina, performs the 1030 lines of the oral epic The Wedding of Mustajbey's Son Becirbey. This audio recording was made in 1935. The site also gives a full text translation and details of a whole book about this early recording and the performance.

Iceland

In the eleventh century there were professional sagamen, who recited the sagas - oral histories and tales.

Rímur, a traditional form of narrative Icelandic epic, [is] chanted in a very specific way. Rímur were often passed from farm to farm by agricultural labourer, who would spend nights performing and listening to the stories... The rhythms and intonation are incredibly hypnotic.”

Fiona Talkington, Songlines #23, March-April 2004

Resources

Rímur, Steindór Andersen. Naxos World 76031 2 (2004).

Raddir, Various Artists. Smekkleysa SMK7 (2004). Rímur, hymns, and thulas (free-form narratives), with notes and information on the rhyming structures.

Jewish

Jewish culture has strong traditions of storytelling, some of which are common to all Jewish communities, and others which are more localised.

In the schtetls (Jewish villages) of Russia and eastern Europe, a traditional wedding - khasene - lasts for days, as a communal festival. The master of ceremonies is the badkhn - the wedding jester. He performs at each stage of the event, singing, making up rhymes, parody and wordplay about the bride and groom, and telling stories. For instance, at the end of the kale besetzn (seating of the bride - a ceremony after the bride's day of fasting) the badkhn aims to reduce the bride, and audience, to tears with a sad serenade, as her atonement and to mark her sadness at leaving her family and perhaps hometown.

The badkhn dates from the 13th century, deriving from the mediaeval jester troubadour and the ancient Jewish leyts, or fool. He is part of the klezmorim, the itinerant troubadours who play klezmer music at all joyful events.

Groucho Marx's maternal grandfather, Levy "Lafe" Schoenberg, combined the skills of the schnorrer and the badkhn:

“Technically, the schnorrer was a beggar, moving from community to community in search of funds. But he was neither as foolish nor as indolent as the big-city layabouts. Outrageous, funny, daring, he worked for baksheesh by circulating stories, jokes, gossip. At times he made himself the butt of jokes, pretending to be shocked by his own chutzpah: "A schnorrer knocked on the door of a rich man at 6 a.m. The rich man shouted, 'How dare you wake me this early?' 'Listen,' the schnorrer replied, 'I don't tell you how to run your business. Don't tell me how to run mine.'"

As for the jester - badkhn in Yiddish - he, too, was a favorite of the Jewish communities. Badkhns first appeared in the Middle Ages, irritating the rabbis with their impudence and boisterous humor. A scholar of the Jewish past notes certain modern parallels: "The merry maker did not occupy a prominent social position. He was feared on account of the rhymes which he freely utilized to his own purposes an frequently caused embarrassment. People exploited his friendship for their personal advantage, they were amused by his apt parables, paraphrases and merry songs and then proceed to censure him as a sinner." By the 1870s in Germany these Jewish sinners enjoyed some delightful compensations for the risks they took: their hours were their own and they answered to no boss except the public.”

Stefan Kanfer, Groucho - The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx, Penguin 2001

Montenegro

“The romantic figure of the blind travelling minstrel accompanying his tales of past heroes on the gusle, a type of one-stringed fiddle, features prominently in Serb art and literature as a symbol of national identity and culture unbroken by five centuries 'under the Turkish yoke'. Like all nationalist myths there's a fair amount of truth in it and, although even this particular epic tradition, the most developed in Europe, may only stem from the sixteenth century in its present form, it deals with legends from the remote past as well as historical events dating as far back as the fourteenth century.

Although the tradition of the sung epic flourished throughout Croatia and Bosnia as well as Serbia, it was particularly identified with the tiny mountain kingdom of Montenegro, which in its remote independence and old-fashioned patriarchal society retained the conditions in which it could flourish. It is in Montenegro that most present-day (rarely blind) guslari are still found.

The poems, which many be thousands of lines long, are intoned in a strained and pinched voice rather than sung. The melody is more a set of patterns to carry the words and aid the performer's memory than it is a tune, and a listener who doesn't understand the words will come away with the impression of unvaried and wearisome monotony. But it is in the words that the interest lies. They speak of entirely legendary subjects; or historical figures become legendary, like the prince Kraljevic Marko whom they transform from a minor nobleman of doubtful loyalties into a mighty warrior against the Turks, aided by his horse Sarac, who could speak and drink wine like a man; or the hajduks, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social bandits who took to the hills and swept down to rob and murder rich travellers, at the same time providing an unofficial resistance to Ottoman rule. The most important of them is a loose cycle of poems that cluster around the battle of Kosovo Polje when the Serbians were conquered catastrophically by the Turks in 1389. These tales of fate, heroism and treachery set the agenda for much of Yugoslav literature.

Even now epic poems are still composed about contemporary subjects. They are normally about trivial subjects, such as the untimely death of a promising young footballer, but in 1991 a tape by Djordjije Koprivica appeared on sale with a new epic called 'Devil's Kolo on Goli Otok' (words by Zarko Sovic) which deals with the infamous prison camp of that name.”

Kim Burton , 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

The monotony of epic-singing referred to above is of course from a musical perspective and is a common factor in most epic traditions because it is deliberate. The storyteller puts the audience into a deep trance by the use of poetic metre, and repetitive voice and music. In such a state the audience receives the story deeply, and the teller, who also is entranced, can better remember the thousands of lines of poetry.

Resources

Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Albert Bates Lord. Cornell University Press 1991. ISBN 0-8014-9717-5 (paperback). Chapter 4 is devoted to Avdo Mededovic, the great Montenegrin guslar (1870-1955), telling his life story and his epic achievements. He knew 58 epics, each several thousand lines long. When challenged to repeat an epic of over two thousand lines that he had just heard for the first time he immediately did so while expanding it to three times the length with descriptive poetic ornament. The book also covers the Kalevala, South Slavic, Homeric, British, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Central Asiatic and Balkan epics. Five video clips of a lecture by Lord on the themes of Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song, along with detailed text extracts from another of Lord's books, can be found here.

Romania and Transylvania

“As in Transylvania most village bands in Wallachia are comprised of gypsies: the groups are generally named Taraf and then their village name. The lautari (musicians) are professionals who play a vital function in village life at weddings and other celebrations. In Romanian the verb cînta means both 'to sing' and 'to play an instrument', and the lautari of Wallachia usually do both. Whereas in Transylvania the bands play exclusively dance music, the musicians in the south of the country have an impressive repertoire of epic songs and ballads which they are called on to perform. There might be specific marriage songs or legendary tales like 'Sarpele' (The Snake) or exploits of the Haidouks, the Robin Hood brigands of Romanian history.”

Simon Broughton , 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Serbia (Yugoslavia)

[See Montenegro entry for more details on guslars and Serbian traditions.]

Epic narratives in verse are called epske pesme, and are performed (often in cafes) by guslars - epic singers who accompany themselves on the one-stringed gusle.

The following description is from a children's educational book of 1913 (follow the link for an illustration):

“...he ushered in a blind minstrel (Guslar). There were loud and repeated expressions of pleasure at this unexpected arrival, for the Guslar was no stranger to the members of this settlement. [...] He was followed by a boy of about twelve years, who acted as his guide as he made his way from village to village, reciting the great national songs and accompanying them on the musical instrument (Gusle) which he carried with him. The children clamored at once for songs; but this was not permitted until the singer had partaken of food and drink. After these were placed before him and the youth with him, the young married women of the Zadruga continued to hover near, to anticipate any wishes and thus show him honor.

When he had concluded, he told something of his journeying and then began the welcome evening entertainment with one of the never-old stories [...] He could not have desired a more attentive audience, as he slowly chanted a couple of lines, then paused, and gave a few strokes on the Gusle from which he got his name, then proceeded. This Gusle, like all of its kind, was a very primitive instrument, made of maple, the cavity covered by a tightly stretched skin, and the strings formed of horse hair. Its dull tone had something strangely pathetic about it, and added a particular emphasis to the words chanted.

When he finished, and had had time for rest, he proved his wonderful memory by giving the long Servian poem--considered by many the finest in the language--of Ban Strahinya and another wonderful horse, and the victory of the two over the terrible Turk, Vlah-Ali. "But the just God was with Ban Strahinya; His grey horse was trained well for the combat; Such a war steed to-day there is nowhere; Neither the Servians nor Turks now possess such!" This last poem contained over eight hundred lines, and the old minstrel was plainly exhausted at the end. As the last line was said all arose and expressed their hearty thanks, one or two almost reverently kissing the old Guslar's hands, and then all separated for the night.”

Clara Vostrovsky Winlow, Our Little Servian Cousin, 1913.

Resources

Udovica Jana - or "The Widow Jana," an epic performance by Aleksandar Jakovljevic accompanying himself on the gusle, recorded in 1954 in the village of Orasac, 80 km. south of Belgrade. The audio clip is an extract just five minutes long. There are also pages of informative commentary on this epic and on the traditions of the guslars of the region who sing such epske pesme.

Avdo Kino - In the years 1934-35, Milman Parry's ethnographic research in the former Yugoslavia yielded over 3500 aluminum disks of recordings of South Slavic heroic songmaking, plus a wealth of transcripts. There was also this one short "kino" [film] recording of Avdo Mededovic, whom Parry considered the "most talented" of all the singers he worked with. This two-minute video clip is sufficient to see and hear the nature of epic-singing, but not to give the full sense of the magic and entrancement that the rhythmic chanting is designed to cause in the audience.

The Serbian Oral Tradition - long essay, mainly on epics - their nature, contents and prominent place in the history of Serbia and its culture. It notes that there are references to the guslar tradition going back to the fifteenth century and before. The Encyclopaedia Britannica only refers to it dating from the seventeenth. Oral traditions are often impossible to date, as in general they began long before writing anyway and have not always been valued by literary chroniclers.

Serbian Epic Poetry - nine examples of traditional epics, mostly fragments, with some background information and a glossary.

Turkey

“A very old folk tradition that thrives to this day is ozan, the music of the folk-poets of Anatolia, who are usually referred to as ashiks, meaning 'the ones in love' [with the Divine]. The ashiks have wandered the plains of Anatolia since around the tenth century, putting music to the words of legendary poets like Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal and Sefil Ali, as well as writing their own songs. Ashiks belong to the Bektasi / Alevi faith, which combines wisdom with warmth, and stresses unity, understanding and equality between men and women. Despite this - or perhaps not surprisingly - many ashiks have been the subject of mistrust and contempt from orthodox Sunni Muslims and secular authority...

Ashiks accompany themselves on the saz, a long-necked lute, with three sets of strings, said to represent the fundamental trinity of the Muslim faith: Allah, Mohammed and Ali. There are flourishing Ashik cafes in Erzurum and Kars, in eastern Turkey where the spontaneity and wit are nourished by appreciative audiences. The ultimate experience... is a contest between two good ashiks where they both play a song and compete with alternating lines, improvising witty jibes and mixing them with sayings from ancient poetry. The audience judges the players on humour, the beauty and aptness of the poetry, and instrumental improvisation. But the judgement is never conclusive.

Today a large number of ashiks make cassettes, and even more play the villages and towns of central Anatolia.” [See the book for specific details and recommendations.]

Ferhat Boratov & David Muddyman, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

“Asiks are Turkish bards, bearers of an ancient tradition of minstrelsy that includes singing, storytelling, poem making and inspired verbal duelling. Traditionally, a youth destined to be an asik would have a dream in which he receives a cup of sweet drink (bade) from the hand of a beautiful girl. From that moment on the young man is an asik and wakes up divinely inspired to make verses and sing songs in praise of the beautiful young lady who is his muse.

Seref Tasliova is one of the leading asiks in Turkey - and one of the last of a rapidly declining number. His name means 'honourable'. An Azeri shepherd from Kars in Eastern Turkey, he has won many gold medals at bardic festival competitions through his skill in spontaneous verse making and story-making contests. He is also hugely respected for his ability to perform sections of the great Turkic epic of Koroglu, accompanying himself of the saz (the traditional long-necked six-stringed lute of Turkey).

As a skilled exponent of atisma (tests) Seref Tasliova frequently takes part in improvised verbal bouts with fellow asik Murat Cobanoglu. These tests involve ritualised verse insulting (flyting) and the spontaneous composition of verses with a needle between the lips.”

from the programme of Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival 2003

I have been present at such a contest between Seref and Murat - they are breathtaking. The purpose of the needle is that one has to therefore avoid including any words that contain consonants that make the lips close. Naturally, one's lips close instinctively when they need to and most people could not stop themselves in time to avoid being pierced right through. But the asiks cannot afford to concentrate simply on avoiding those consonants because they are simultaneously composing verses beautiful enough to outdo the other, in strict metre, and on a subject chosen by the challenger. Murat's own name contains such a problem consonant and he must invent other ways to refer to himself.

“Such trials of skill are most notable among the Kyrgyz, Kazaks, and Mongols. The contests follow strict rules of versification, musicality, and procedure. Often the loser must pay a forfeit to the victor, who receives acclaim from the audience and gifts from wealthy patrons; a singer's reputation may be made or broken in a single afternoon. Frequently a contestant will vilify the clan championed by the opposing singer and laud his own faction.”

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2000.

“After the Seljuks, during the Ottoman Period, a court marriage, the birth of a new prince or a circumcision, the ascension of a new ruler, the triumph of a warrior, departure for a new conquest, the arrival of a foreign ambassador or guest provided occasions for public festivities where dramatic and comic shows and dances were performed. The Meddah or Story teller, a clever impersonator reciting a dramatically presented story with appropriate gestures and voice modulation suggesting more than one person, was one of the elements of Folk Theatre.”

Traditional Folk Theatre, Turkish Government website

The Kurds

“Of Turkey's population of some 55 million, around ten million are Kurds. Their folklore and national identity are preserved with the help of the dengbej (bards), stranbej (popular singers) and cirokbej (storytellers). A dengbej is a singer with an exceptional memory, effectively the guardian of the Kurdish national heritage, since he must know hundreds of songs for which there is no written notation. Dengbejs sing the Kurdish myths and legends, sing about the struggle for freedom, and also have in their repertoire love and entertainment songs. Sadly some of the best Kurdish dengbej, like Sivan Perwar and Temo, now live in exile abroad.

The main instruments used in Kurdish music are wind instruments, such as the blur and the düdük, found in the mountainous regions where they take advantage of the echo from the hills, and string instruments such as the tembur and the saz, used in the towns.”

Ferhat Boratov & David Muddyman, 'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994.

Turkmenistan

A country of 4,400,000 people, speaking mainly Turkmen, with a few Russian and Uzbek. The religion is Sunni Muslim.

Epics and their singing are known as dastan, a Persian term, and the performers are called bakhshi.

“In Turkmenistan, the tradition of dastan recitation has survived mainly around Tashauz and in the Yolatan region (Merv province in south-eastern Turkmenistan). The northern and southern styles of dastan recitation differ markedly. In Tashauz, two instruments are essential : the customary dutar and the ghschak In Yolatan the bakhshi sing to the accompaniment of one or two dutar. Tashauz performances, where many features of the ritual narration of myths can be found, also include theatrical aspects (mimicry, gesture, change of place to illustrate the plot, and so on) which are not present in Yolatan performances.

Northern and southern dastan recitations differ, moreover, from the standpoint of their repertories: whereas more recent productions, mainly of a religious kind, are common in Yolatan, in Tashaur numerous narratives are recited, the most popular being the celebrated Köroglu tale, the earliest Turkic heroic epic that has survived.”

“No bakhshi, present or past, has known the entire text of the Köroglu epic. Their repertory contained one, two or, at most, three or four shaha [chapters, literally twigs or branches]. One brilliant exception was Palvan-bakhshi (1890-1939) from Tashauz who performed all the shaha except the final one. The performance of this final shaha has always been strictly banned and is to this day death, symbolized by black, is a sign of impurity and is associated with the spirits of the underworld with which no bakhshi may enter into contact. The ninth chapter of the Köroglu epic, whose subject is Turkmen reverses, is hardly ever performed in Turkmenistan.”

Turkmen Epic Singing / Köroglu - CD liner notes

Resources

Turkmen Epic Singing / Köroglu - a fairly detailed page on Turkmen epic, and on the Köroglu epic in particular, from the notes to a CD. The whole of the CD audio is downloadable here for free - fourteen tracks of excerpts from the epic, recorded by various bakhshi. (Beware the numerous spelling errors - from OCR - on this page.)

United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Wales

Scotland

Much more of traditional storytelling survives today in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, partly because of the Scottish Travellers. These people, sometimes mistakenly called gypsies but of a different origin, have recently largely abandoned their nomadic lifestyle but there are still some giants of storytelling that grew up on the road and bear the traditions of their people, including Duncan Williamson, Stanley Robertson, and Sheila Stewart. Their storytelling is often interspersed with folksongs and especially ballads - the sung stories that are as much part of the storytelling tradition.

Resources

Scottish Traditional Tales - Various Artists, Greentrax CDTRAX 9017D double CD: From the School of Scottish Studies Archive. These are masterly storytellers from the tight-knit traveller families; there's Betsy White, Bella Higgins, Davie Stewart, Stanley Roberston and his famous auntie Jeanie. Cathie, Sheila, and Andrew Stewart, children of Belle and Alex Stewart who made extensive concert and club appearances. Others are from the lesser-populated Shetland islands. Full transcriptions of the stories are in the booklet along with introductions to the Shetlanders and the travellers.

From the Heart of the Tradition, Sheila Stewart. Topic TSCD 515. CD of stunning recordings of songs and ballads of the Stewart family of Blair, performed with emotional intensity, from a mammoth session in Blairgowrie. Informative booklet. More of the same session - stories and songs - was released as And Time Goes On, by Sheila Stewart, on Offspring.

Resources

The World of Storytelling, by Anne Pellowski.

This book is a prime source of information on storytelling traditions around the world, and includes a useful multilingual dictionary of terms. The revised second edition has extra material. The book covers types of storytelling, including bardic, folk, religious, theatrical, library, and campfire; styles of telling, including gesture and voice, musical accompaniment, use of pictures and objects, openings and closings; the training of storytellers, including inherited positions, apprenticeships, and informal training. All these elements are compared and contrasted in cultures around the world, to give an excellent overview with lots of detail.

'World Music: The Rough Guide', ed. Simon Broughton et al, 1994. [Now available in a new revised edition.]

A very large and thorough celebration, by many experts, of the musical traditions and styles of the world. As noted in the introduction above, storytelling traditions are often intimately bound up with music, so this is also a treasure trove of hard-to-find and up-to-date information on the keepers of the oral tradition worldwide.

'The Singer of Tales', Lord, Albert Bates. 2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00283-0 (paperback). Also Epic Singers and Oral Tradition, Lord, Albert Bates. Cornell University Press 1991. ISBN 0-8014-9717-5 (paperback).

Academic studies of epic-singers, bardic storytellers, and the nature of the oral tradition, covering the Kalevala, South Slavic, Homeric, British, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Central Asiatic and Balkan epics. You can view on-line five video clips of a lecture by Lord on the themes of Performance and Performer: The Role of Tradition in Oral Epic Song, along with detailed text extracts from The Singer of Tales and The Singer Resumes the Tale, here.

'Traditional Epics', Guida M. Jackson. OUP 1994.

A huge book covering 1400 epics from all over the world - definitely the most comprehensive reference available, though the entries are mainly confined to the history and summary of the epics themselves rather than the traditions of telling them. Includes useful geographical, chronological, and genre indices, plus a long bibliography.

See the Cultural Traditions of Storytelling section of my storytelling web-links page for sites giving information on various specific places.

There is one place you can usually see oral tradition-bearers from various cultures around the world. Beyond the Border International Storytelling Festival, in south Wales in early July each year, makes an effort to bring such people who are still practising ancient traditions of storytelling. Ashiks, griots and many more have graced the lush green fields of Wales, itself once the home to great Bards.

© Tim Sheppard 2003-4. Last updated 13/1/04.

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