Music as representation of gender in Mediterranean cultures
Venice 11-13 July 1998

Svanibor PETTAN



Studies related to gender are rare and quite recent in ethnomusicology as well as in its relative-disciplines on the territories of former Yugoslavia. In Croatia, for instance, they discuss the role of women in the context of a traditional regional musical culture (e.g. Bezic 1982); center on distinguished female musicians, such as Dora Pejacevic (Kos 1982) and Lujza Kozinovic (Doliner 1991); or look for representations of gender roles in the context of the war in the 1990s (Ceribasic 1995). Meeting of the ICTM's study group Music and Gender in Croatia (Punat, the island of Krk) in 1995 stimulated Croatian scholars to consider a variety of other themes such as a regional female genre (Marosevic), regional female ensembles (Milin-Curin) and music and gender studies in relationship with sociology of music (Doliner).

The present paper searches beyond the specifically female and specifically male issues. Following Jane Sugarman's statement that in ethnomusicology "there is still a surprising dearth of articles documenting musical activities that inhabit the space beyond binary notions of gender: music specific to those who identify themselves as homosexuals or as a 'third gender' category, or of the many transvestite or transsexual performers who serve prominently as entertainers in many world areas" (1993:149), the Rom musicians seen as homosexuals by their audiences are included in the present discussion, too.

Kosovo is a politically turbulent region, which until 1989 had the status of an autonomous province within Serbia and Yugoslavia; in the 1990s it is an integral part of Serbia against the will of the majority of its population dominated by ethnic Albanians.(1) At the time of my research (1983-1991) Kosovo was home to seven ethnic groups (ordered according to the numerical strength: Albanians, Serbs, ethnic Muslims,(2) Gypsies, Montenegrins, Turks, Croats), three religions (Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism) and four languages (Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Romani).(3) This paper points to the importance of gender as the identity marker in a society which - from the 1980s on - has been increasingly polarized primarily along ethno-political lines.


Gender and Music in Kosovo

The level of sexual segregation in Kosovo is related to ethnic and religious affiliation of its inhabitants, to the very important rural - urban distinction, and to the regional and local folkways, among other reasons. It means that beyond the shared patriarchal and patrilocal cultural patterns, this segregation is more emphasized e.g. among the Albanians than among the Serbs, it is more strongly emphasized among the Muslims than among the Christians and it is more present in the countryside than in the cities.(4)

In music, one can in many cases distinguish between the male and female styles and determine their particular features. In his article from 1970s on the folk music of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo Lorenc Antoni distinguishes between the predominantly heroic male songs and the lyrical female songs (Antoni 1974:109), while Miodrag Vasiljevic who in the late 1940s collected and analyzed Kosovo songs other than Albanian, Romani and Turkish, distinguishes between "male" (epic, 4+6) and "female" (lyric, 5+5) decasyllabic models in text structures (1950:343). According to Antoni, "It never happened that e.g. men sang female songs and women sang male songs. This would be considered shameful... Singing together was exceptional; it may have occurred only in the cities and among the Catholics" (ibid). This is due to the traditional way of life in which the male (husbandUs) domain is primarily public - from traditional occupation (agriculture or cattle breeding) outside the immediate household within Kosovo to the widespread guest-work in the economically richer North-West of what used to be Yugoslavia, and further abroad in Western European countries, while the female (wifeUs) domain is mainly private, i.e. taking care of the household. While working far away from home, men from economically poorer parts of Kosovo use to leave their wives and other female family members at home for longer periods of time.(5) Consequently, they are those who supply the domestic environment with novelties and women are those who are widely regarded as keepers of the traditional folkways. In some rural areas in Prizrenska Gora(6) men - unlike the women - abandoned traditional costume and do not practice the traditional two-part vocal diaphony in narrow, non-tempered intervals.(7) A man in this area wears Western type urban dress and sings solo to his own accompaniment on a long-necked lute. The vocal quality is - unlike the harsh female singing - quite smooth and the musical idiom as a whole more closely reflects Turkish music. Since there is not much evidence about the Kosovo music prior to the Turkish period, there is a notion, shared among the local population and scholars alike, that the style here presented as "female, rural, and of the highlands" is in fact an old, pre-Turkish style.(8)

The difference between the male and female domains in Kosovo is evident in the use of instruments, too. Men perform mainly on aerophones and chordophones. Aerophones include shepherd flutes (e.g. fyell/frula, kavall/kaval) and accordion (harmonika), while chordophones include plucked lutes (melodic iftelia and accompanying sharkia among the Albanians, tambura among ethnic Muslims,(9) saz among Turks) and a bowed lute (gusle among the Serbs and Montenegrins). In general, it seems that the Islamic men of Kosovo prefer plucked lutes, while the Orthodox Christian men a bowed lute. In areas of closer long-time contact between the two religions this speculation is supported to a lesser extent (e.g. the Albanian Muslims in Rugova do play the bowed lute - lahuta). Men may be seen playing membranophones only within the ensembles.

Women traditionally do not play any melodic instruments. If they use instruments at all, they just provide rhythmic accompaniment for (female) singing either on a frame drum (def, daire, dahira) or on an ordinary household copper pan (tepsia, tepsija). The tepsia is used either as a drum substitute or is spun on a low round table (sofra), producing a low rumbling-sounded accompaniment for singing.; this specific musical practice is known as tepsijanje. In his detailed study of tepsijanje, Tatomir Vukanovic points to tepsia as a female instrument per excellence, which is used by women of all ethnic groups in Kosovo (Vukanovic 1956).

Children of both sexes engage in music and dance in certain traditional contexts and at school. In urban settings and to a lesser extent in the countryside they also perform within the amateur ensembles. Girls' performing exposure in the public domain is likely to end with marriage, except for some of those talented female singers who already achieved recognition. Shkurte Fejza and Shyhrete Behluli are among the most respected Kosovo Albanian recording artists in general.


Roma, Gender and Music in Kosovo

Unlike some other parts of Europe with gypsy-like people who do not want their distinctiveness to be encompassed by the denomination "Roma" (for the reasons as different as of the Sinti in Germany or Travelers in the United Kingdom), Kosovo does not accommodate such population. "Gypsies" in Kosovo consider themselves either Roma, (mostly the Arlija and Gurbet branches) or members of the other ethnic groups (for instance, quite a numerous Roma group that shows tendencies at assimilation with the Albanians is known as Ashkalis). Therefore, I am avoiding the corrupted term "gypsies" in this paper and consistently use the politically-correct and widely-accepted denomination "Roma".

Music considered in the paper encompasses all music performed by the Roma. Results of my own field research in Kosovo, mostly among the Arlijas, led me to the opinion that the sharp dividing line between "their own musicS and Rthe music they just performS as suggested by some authors (e.g. Gojkovic 1982) exists either in attitudes nor in musical content. Results of my research do not confirm indications that Roma predominantly sing their own tunes and use musical instruments for performance of non-Rom tunes (Djordjevic 1910:39, Gojkovic 1982:63). Perhaps unlike on some other locations, Roma in Kosovo both sing and perform on musical instruments tunes of different origin aimed at both Rom and non-Rom audiences. Consequently, just like some other authors (Silverman 1981), I feel inclined towards studying the Roma's (manner of) performance of any music.

Similarly to non-Rom ethnic groups and musicians in Kosovo, sedentary Rom men are oriented towards the public domain, while women dominate the private one. Their private domain is, however, extended in comparison to most Kosovo non-Rom women in a specific way, similar to Rom women in the neighboring Macedonia (Silverman 1996). At some feasts related to the annual cycle (e.g. Saint George's Day) and life cycle (circumcision, wedding), Rom women take part in communal dancing in the street. Women associated with the nomadic Rom branches are much more publicly exposed, in a way more than the men, through activities such as fortune telling, selling herbal medicines and - in some cases - begging.(10)

Male musicians perform either instrumentally in a shawm-and-drum ensemble which is associated primarily with a rural setting or sing to the accompaniment of the urban chalgija ensemble, which may include some of the following instruments: clarinet/saxophone, violin/electric guitar, banjo/electric bass, accordion/synthesizer, (frame or goblet shaped) drum/drum set. Shawm-and-drum ensembles do perform in the cities as well, while the chalgija is more seldom heard in the countryside; in some regions rich weddings require both ensembles in alternating performances. Within the realm of chalgija, acoustic instruments are used for processions and the amplified ones accompany the dance at banquets. The term chalgija is nowadays rarely used. The audience of male ensembles may be male, female or both, separated or mixed, depending on the specific location and community.

Female musicians, usually two together, sing to the frame drum accompaniment for female audiences The exception is the context of a bar, in which a female singer is accompanied by male amplified ensemble. The male audiences generally regard the morals of such singers as being very low, in some cases comparable to those of prostitutes.

Male ensembles usually perform in public - outdoors (on an improvised stage, e.g. a terrace of a house) or indoors (in a hotel or a large city hall hired for the specific feast). Women perform in a private setting, in a closed female circle - indoors (in a room) or outdoors (in a garden). Gardens in Kosovo are usually  divided from the streets by high walls. Therefore, the fact that performance may take place "outdoors" does not imply its public character at all.

As with the non-Rom ethnic groups in Kosovo, engagement of Roma in music and dance within the school or amateur ensembles usually ends with marriage. This is more strict with the female part of the Rom population than with its male counterpart. I know of a young Gypsy woman, Sofije Hyseni, who used to sing at weddings with an amplified ensemble and became a recording artist. Marriage ended her publicly exposed musical career, so she continued to sing only in a private domain for family and friends.

In their adolescent years many male Rom musicians neglect their duties related to school and free-of-charge musical involvement in amateur ensembles for the sake of paid music-making at weddings and/or in bars. Their public exposure is widely regarded as engagement in a regular public domain occupation. It is acceptable that female Gypsy musicians get paid for their music making, too, but their exposure is expected to be decent, i.e. related to female circles only.(11)


Roma, The Third Gender and Music in Kosovo

It was in the city of Djakovica (Gjakova) in 1986 that I saw for the first time the two male musicians accompanying their singing on frame drums. They performed outdoors in a Rom town quarter in the context of a wedding. Unusual lyrics in the Albanian language were accompanied by various well-performed and elaborated rhythmical patterns. The audience members mysteriously smiled when I asked questions about the musicians and did not allow me to take pictures of the two. In the forthcoming years, I was in a position to experience the development of the obscure music practice described above into the dominant Rom genre in Kosovo, which became known as the talava (telovas, taleva; lit. translation from Romani is Runder the armS).(12)

For the present discussion it is important that talava originates in the traditional female domain (singing to the frame drum accompaniment), while by 1990 it started to dominate the male - public domain (singing accompanied by amplified instruments). How did the two, otherwise largely separated musical domains come into contact? I would speculate that the connection was provided by the alleged homosexual musicians mentioned above. Their physical appearance (long hair, sometimes in the past also a specific kind of dress), behavior (somewhat feminized gestures, specific verbal expressions) and above all musical preferences (performance of female repertoire in a female medium - singing to the frame drum accompaniment) made their audiences think of them as homosexuals. Their regional center was the city of Pec (Peja) and their popularity was limited to the Western part of Kosovo. The lyrics they sang were in most cases in the Albanian language, more seldom in Romani. Local Rom audiences sometimes commented that these men were indecent and impolite, but on the other hand they gave them credit for their capability as frame drum players and especially for their excellence in creating lyrics on the spot.

The talava found its best representative in Tafa, one of the two musicians I met in Djakovica, when he abandoned frame drum and took microphone instead in order to sing with the amplified ensemble of the famous male Kosovo Rom singer Mazlum Saciri, better known as Lumi. Lumi, who never sang to the frame drum accompaniment and who was never assumed to be a homosexual, had certain affinity for the fmale songs he heard from his mother (personal communication, 1990). His and Tafa's joint project meant not (only) further broadening of the repertoire, but, which is more important, it caused stylistic switch which altered the roles of the specific ensemble instruments to make them resemble frame drum accompaniment. The amplified talava quickly earned popularity Kosovo-wide and earned recognition outside of Kosovo as the Kosovo Rom music. Consequently, the other Rom singers and instrumentalists had to learn to perform talava in order to meet expectations of their audiences. And so the shift from the female and private to the male and public domain was completed.

Musical analysis suggests that this shift resulted in several changes within the genre i.e. in reductions of expressive means within particular musical elements. This reduction is most obvious in melody, meter, rhythm, and tempo. The variety of these four musical elements found within the otherwise limited medium of (both female and male) singing to the frame drum accompaniment gave place to a rather limited number of standardized patterns within the medium of singing to the amplified ensemble accompaniment which objectively has greater expressive capacity. Instead of several melodies (of both Rom and non-Rom origin) - often connected within the form of a medley - there was a shift to few melodic patterns, or - as some informants suggested - "to a single tuneS. Instead of a rich variety of meters and rhythms, the amplified talava was reduced to just a few rhythmic patterns in the standardized 4/4 meter. The former variety in tempo was reduced to one steady standard tempo with customary acceleration towards the end of a block of music. The lyrics of particular tunes with occasionally improvised parts gave place to the largely improvised lyrics addressing individuals in the audience. Instead of a female solo dance, the dance standard to the amplified talava became the communal round dance (horo).

The following table shows talava in relationship to the three domains: the female domain (female singers to the frame drum accompaniment), the Rthird genderS domain (male singers to the frame drum accompaniment) and the male domain (a male singer to the amplified ensemble accompaniment):




MEDIUM: 2 singers w/drums 2 s. w/drums 1 s. w/ens.

FORM: Medley, open Open Open

MELODY: Variety Variety Standard

METER: Variety Variety Standard

RHYTHM: Variety Variety Standard

HARMONY: None None Drone

TEMPO: Variety Variety Standard

LYRICS: Of songs, improvised Improvised Improvised

DANCE: Solo Solo/none Communal

PLACE: Indoors In- and out. Outdoors

AUDIENCE: Female Female, male Fem., male

FUNCTION: Ritual, entertainment Entertainment Entertain.


Male Rom musicians from Kosovo, except for those with the alleged homosexual background, evaluate the amplified talava very low. Hamza Veckolari, clarinetist from the city of Prizren says: RTalava is dead music for a clarinet player - nothing for feelings, nothing for fingersS. In the sentence RThey perform the same tune all night longS the bugarija lute player Hadi Bajrami from Djakovica points to the predominance of the lyrics in talava. Milit Kryeziu, percussionist from Prizren, criticizes the attitudes reflected in lyrics: RIt is enough that somebody from the audience mentions his or her sick child and the singer is ready to sing about itS. According to Fadil Sulejmani, singer from Urosevac (Ferizaj): "These are nonsensical Taman aman songsU using Albanian words and Romani rhythm just to extract money from the audience. Is it Rom music? Yes, it is our music here in Kosovo, but somewhere further away from here people would probably laugh at it". The statement of Naser Saciri, saxophonist from Mitrovica, that talava is Rcorrupted music enormously loved by womenS points to the female audience which is largely responsible for such considerable popularity of (the amplified) talava.

A scholar - on the basis of listening, comparison and analyses - is likely to understand the above concerns of the male Rom musicians in Kosovo about the amplified talava. It does reduce the performance to two basic elements: the lyrics and the rhythm which is suitable for dance. On the other hand, Rom women enjoy the situation in which the music widely considered as being related by origin to the female domain has found its way out to dominate the general Rom music scene in Kosovo. In a way, the success of talava means their own success in the public domain. The fact that it is not women but men, i.e. the carriers of the public domain, who perform the talava further emphasizes this success.



Kosovo is for more than a decade being represented world-wide as a region where the criterion of ethnicity (due to the conflicting inter-ethnic relations) deserves particular attention. This paper emphasizes gender as a particularly important criterion. Namely, in the course of my research in Kosovo I found (male) Rom musicians very adaptable towards the demands of their non-Rom audiences. This adaptability relates to their repertoire, to the instruments they use and ensembles they form, and even to the dress they wear at certain (non-Rom) feasts. Consequently, it is intriguing indeed to learn about so many negative attitudes related to the musical choice of their own stock in ethnic terms, of Rom women.

The clear chronological order of the three stages within the transfer of talava from the female indoor music performed by women for female audiences to the outdoor music performed by men for the general audience, does not imply that the initial and transitional stages are now obsolete. To the contrary, female musicians who accompanied their singing with strokes on their frame drums were still in demand for female festivities in early 1990s. Though some of the alleged homosexuals adopted accompaniment by amplified ensembles as superior to self-accompaniment on frame drums, there were still individuals among them who continued singing to the frame drum accompaniment. Within the realm of amplified performances most musicians were men with no alleged homosexual background who performed the talava simply because this genre was in great demand among the Kosovo audiences of the early 1990s and therefore a sine qua non for Rom musicians in Kosovo.

Nevertheless, the present study indicates that a distinctive Rom genre aimed at Rom audiences may be in a language other than Romani (namely, in Albanian), may be accompanied by musical instruments not specifically associated with the Roma (amplified pop-band instruments), and may be aimed at profit-making from the own ethnic group, the Roma.

Commercial potential of music associated with Rom women in Kosovo was fully realized and explored thanks to the active involvement of the representatives of the third gender and their change of the performance medium associated with one gender (female) to the medium associated with the other (male). This evidence can be used as a reminder of the need for ethnomusicological research to go beyond the binary gender division. The third gender exists in several parts of the Mediterranean world; its impact on shaping of local musical practices awaits scholarly consideration




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1. The current Serbian government names this territory Kosmet (shorter form of Kosovo-Metohija), while its predominantly Albanian inhabitants use the term Kosova. Kosovo is the term most often used in literature in English.

2. A distinctive Slavic ethnic group (its sub-groups in Kosovo include Goranci and Torbesi) related to ethnic Muslims (Bosnjaci) of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

3. Presently, Serbian and Croatian, as well as Bosnian, are widely recognized as separate languages.

4. My fieldwork experience confirms these opinions expressed by the Rom musicians in Kosovo.

5. This kind of situation in the region of Opolje (Opoja) has been well-described by Janet Reineck (1986:35-39).

6. The mountainous South of Kosovo, populated mostly by ethnic Muslims and ethnic Albanians.

7. Danish researcher Birthe Traerup found only traces of this diaphony in the male songs during her study in Prizrenska Gora that started in 1959 (1974:213).

8. The evidence in the music of the Dinaric Alps of Bosnia-Herzegovina presented by the ethnomusicologist Ankica Petrovic (1987, 1988/89) supports this notion, though she found no such distinction in terms of gender in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The stylistic distinction between rural and urban music has been pointed out in several writings on music in the wider area. For instance, Radmila Petrovic distinguishes between "old ruralS, "new rural" and "urban" music in a region in Serbia (1961) and Cvjetko Rihtman describes "old Bosnian" and "small city" music in a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1963).

9. Unlike in e.g. Croatia, where tambur(ic)a is a distinctive plucked lute, the term in Kosovo nowadays often refers to the Turkish saz, modified and played by ethnic Muslims.

10. Useful comparison between the sedentary and nomadic Rom women in Kosovo has been provided by Vukanovic (1961).

11. Regional cultural patterns allow certain variations of this stereotype. For instance, in the city of Pec (Peja), female musicians wait at the market place (next to male musicians) for potential patrons who will hire them to perform at a feast, while in the city of Prizren this would be considered indecent for women

(though not for men), so the patrons have to make arrangements at the female musician's place. In the area of Pec it is customary that female musicians perform for a short while for male guests, and one of the musicians sometimes even dances. In the area of Prizren, female musicians perform exclusively for women and do not dance.

12. Talava in the context of the music market in Kosovo is presented in detail in Pettan (1996/1). There, the discussion on musical features is supplemented by a music transcription and recordings on an accompanying compact disc.