Shared Shrines Photo Gallery

Issue 2, Winter 2013

Photos by Robert Jankuloski

This gallery accompanies the article “Shared Shrines” by Elizabeta Koneska


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Makedonski Brod

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Shared Shrines in Macedonia


By Elizabeta Koneska With photographs by Robert Jankuloski Issue 2, Winter 2013

Figure 1. Romani woman lighting candles at Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista (Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother of God) in Kičevo. Muslim devotees visit the shrine to express their belief in the healing power of the miraculous water from the spring, and their respect for the Holy Mother of God.
Macedonia[1] is a country populated by various ethnic and religious communities with long-standing traditions[2]. Centuries back, these communities lived side by side, and they fostered and practiced their rituals in numerous temples and shrines. It is well known that in Macedonia, both in the past and today, there is a relatively high level of reverence and tolerance for religious shrines from various religious communities and groups. However, it is not as well known that certain shrines, locations, buildings, and moods or feelings associated with particular places in our country have been used by members of different religious and ethnic groups, both Christian and Muslim. The phenomenon of members of different religious and groups visiting, observing, and performing religious rituals in the same shrines is due to two main reasons. The first reason is the belief held by members of different groups that a certain shrine or building in use today belongs to their community and is associated with a patron saint of their particular religion. Similar to this is the belief that, in the past, a Christian temple stood where today a Muslim temple is in use (mosque, tekke, or turbe). The second reason is the belief held by the members of local Muslim communities and groups that certain Christian shrines, or saints associated with the shrines, possess miraculous healing powers.

Independent of the specific reason why these shrines are visited now, local people from the other religious group (to whom the shrines allegedly no longer belong) show a great deal of understanding and respect when visiting the shrines. Several examples of such shrines exist, the most important ones being the Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista (Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother of God) near Kičevo, Crkva Sveti Nikola (Church of St. Nicholas) / Turbe H’d’r Baba in Makedonski Brod, the Manastir Sveti Naum (Monastery of St. Naum) near Ohrid, and the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija (Husamedin-Paša Mosque) in Štip. Each of these shrines, as well as the relationship of religious communities and groups toward it, has its own distinguishing characteristics.

Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista stands out among them because its western section, the prothesis, where there is a spring considered to be healing water, is not decorated with frescoes. Therefore, Muslims believe (as well as some Christians) that it was actually intended for them. Crkva Sveti Nikola/Turbe H’d’r Baba has a dual function: in the southwestern part of the temple is the tomb the Muslims believe belongs to the Bektashi saint, H’d’r Baba. Christians, on the other hand, believe that in the past there was a church dedicated to Saint Nikola in the same location. The church in the Manastir Sveti Naum houses the tomb of Saint Naum, which the Muslims believe is the tomb of the Bektashi saint, Sar’ Salt’k. As for the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija in Štip, there is a widespread belief among Christians that, in the same location, there used to be a church dedicated to Saint Ilija (Saint Elijah).
Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista, Kičevo

Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista (Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother of God) near Kičevo is considered one of the most significant monasteries in Macedonia. For centuries, it has served as a pivotal center of Slavic literacy in western Macedonia, and has been held in high esteem by both Christians and Muslims.

According to an 1850 chronicle by the abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Theodosius, a book printed in 1553 in Russia stated that the monastery was founded in 1316. In 1558, the monastery was sacked and burned down, and in 1564 it was rebuilt. The chronicle then records that Saracen raiders destroyed the monastery in 1843, after which it was rebuilt in 1850, for the third time since its founding, on the place where the “self-migrating” icon was found. (Smiljanić 1935: 363–367). This legendary icon currently stands above the spring of water in the narthex. Legends about icons from destroyed monasteries that move on their own to new locations are plentiful in our region. Construction of the monastery was completed not only by the local Kičevo-area population, but also by people from the wider region of western Macedonia. The monastery’s church, which has been there longer than the monastery itself, was erected in 1848. The prothesis has three blind calottes and is not painted on the western side. In the northwestern part of the prothesis is the spring of holy water (Tomovski, Paskali, and Šentevski 1990: 52–56). One of the reasons a part of the prothesis, the narthex, was not painted with frescoes is probably the unstable circumstances and unfavorable economic situation the monastery found itself in during the second part of the 19th century (Tričkovska 1990: 67–95).

Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista near Kičevo is one of the few shrines in Macedonia visited by large numbers of both Christians and Muslims, not only during the festival of the patron saint of the monastery and during the more important church holidays, but also over the course of the year. This Christian church is often visited by Muslims from various ethnic groups, including Macedonian (Slavic) Muslims, Roma, and Albanians. The significant turnout of Muslim devotees is explained by their belief in the healing power of the miraculous water from the spring, and their respect for the Holy Mother of God and for her icon placed on the stone entrance above the spring, through which the worshippers crawl (Belčovski 1990: 134–145).


Figure 2. Icons for sale at the fair near the grounds of Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista. The church is one of the few shrines in Macedonia visited by large numbers of both Christians and Muslims, not only during the festival of the patron saint of the monastery and during the more important church holidays, but also over the course of the year.

The monastery’s festival day is Mala Bogorodica (Festival of the Birth of the Holy Mother of God), September 21. Observance of the festival starts the day before, on September 20, and from the afternoon until late into the night on that day, devotees, who are mostly from the town of Kičevo and neighboring villages, begin to gather. Others come from as far as Prilep, Bitola, Ohrid, Resen, Gostivar, Tetovo, and Debar, and some of the devotees attending spend the night at the monastery. In the evening hours there is a liturgy officiated by the bishop of the territorial diocese, who is assisted by several priests from Kičevo and the Ohrid bishopric. The number of worshippers at this stage amounts to several thousand people, including a significantly large number of young people who attend the festival for entertainment and socializing. During the morning hours of the next day, September 21, people arrive again in great numbers, though to a lesser degree than the night before. The bishop and several priests officiate at a morning liturgy. During this ceremony, the new “godfather” (kum) of the monastery is chosen, a volunteer who will help the nuns prepare for the festival the following year. During the monastery’s festival days, a fair also is held in the immediate vicinity of the site.3

On the night of September 20, Muslims, mainly from Romany families plus a few Albanians, are present at the festivities. All Muslims interviewed emphasized that they had come to pay their respects to the Holy Mother of God, and to the shrine, in order to ensure good health for their families. Most of them express the opinion that God is one and the same for all, and that all holy places, such as this one dedicated to the Holy Mother of God, deserve respect and reverence, and that it can only help to visit, no matter which religious denomination an individual belongs to. Some of these people visit the monastery several times a year.

The ritual practices the Muslims perform at the monastery are almost the same as the ones practiced by the Christians. These include walking around the church bearing kurbani [sacrificial gifts], candle lighting, bowing before the iconostasis and praying, crawling through the entrance below the icon of the Holy Mother of God (usually three times), washing with and drinking the holy water from the spring below the stone on the northwestern corner of the prothesis, tossing coins into the spring and water vessels, saying the rosaries (usually three times), leaving gifts, and performing various chores for the monastery.

The phenomenon of a massive Muslim turnout at the monastery in this specific fashion is reflected in the words of the abbess of the monastery, Angija, who speaks very openly about Muslims visiting the shrine. She says that at the beginning of her residence there, during the first half of the 1990s, she could not imagine that Muslims would ever have reason to visit a monastery. After a while, Sister Angija completely changed her stance, saying that if they keep coming it must be because the Mother of God allows it. Today, she even highlights the Muslims’ contribution to the maintenance and upkeep of the monastery.

The Christians generally show a great deal of understanding of and tolerance toward the presence of Muslims at the shrine. There is a widespread belief among ordinary devotees that the western part of the church was actually built for and belongs to the Muslims.

This faith in the miraculous healing power of the icon and holy water, as well as of the shrine itself, has been deeply ingrained in local lore and legends related to the monastery; numerous stories about miracles performed are told even today. The passing down and spreading of these legends and miracles are the main driving force that motivates the Muslims to demonstrate their special respect for the shrine and to visit it several times a year. The legends mainly refer to events surrounding the story of how the location for the monastery was chosen and of its construction.


Figure 3. Women standing by the holy water spring in Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista. The “self-migrating,” or “flying,” icon is the large work behind the cross.

The principal legend about the location of the monastery refers to the miraculous icon of the Holy Mother of God, which transported itself three times from the Knežinski Monastery near Kičevo to the present-day location, from where shepherds would always carry it back. Because of this miracle, in time the local residents concluded that a monastery should be erected nearby. However, since the soil was wet and marshy there, they tried to build the monastery near the village of Krnino. But the icon also kept returning from there to the present location, after which they finally decided to erect it where it stands today.

A second group of legends relates to a competition about whose faith is best, held either between a pasha and an abbot or between a master builder and a bey. For the test they used a glass of water that they dropped from a certain height, and every time the outcome of the contest ended up being in favor of the Christian competitor’s faith. There are legends in the Muslim community that assert that the unpainted prothesis is dedicated to them, because, when the Christians decided to build the present-day church and asked the Sultan for a permit, he granted it to them under the condition they build a mosque, too. Therefore, this part of the narthex–prothesis was built especially for the Muslims. Other legends purport that when the temple was about to be built, people could not agree on what kind of temple to construct, so they tossed a coin. The coin landed on its edge, neither heads nor tails, so they built both a church and a mosque.

Examples of miracles performed pertaining to the healing power of the holy water are numerous and refer to both the icon and the ritualistic practice of crawling through the stone entrance below the icon. Miracles chiefly relate to hopes for bearing children, healing mentally ill people, recovery from various physical handicaps, and for relief from other medical conditions. Some miracles are also connected to the punishment of those who steal from the monastery, and so on. Miracles mentioned in connection with the monastery have to do with both Christians and Muslims, since these stories have been disseminated equally among members of both religions.

Crkva Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke, Makedonski Brod


Figure 4. Worshippers who live near Sv. Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke in Makedonski Brod collect branches and flowers called “herbs” to decorate the shrine for St. George’s Day in May. People also take the herbs home and decorate their gates, doorways, cradles, pillows, outbuildings, cattle, and barns

The shrine of Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke in Makedonski Brod is a special example of a religious shrine shared by both Christians and Muslims. The Christians believe that the shrine was originally built as a church of Saint Nikola and, after the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, was converted into a tekke, whereas the Muslims believe the shrine was founded as a tekke by the mythical Bektashi saint, H’d’r Baba.

There are no verifiable sources that confirm the existence of a church of Saint Nikola on the location of the shrine before the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. This belief is founded solely in legend. Referring to the collective memory of the local population, Jovanović (1935) states that in the wake of the Ottoman conquests, a number of towns, churches, villages, and cemeteries were sacked, and private property and even whole villages were seized. One village that became the fief of an Ottoman overlord was Brod, whose monastery was first captured by the Ottomans and converted into a tekke, after which the village itself was taken over. The author states that, at the time of his research in 1926, there was a Turkish tekke in Brod (Jovanović 1935: 309–310). Snegarov (1932) mentions “. . . a church of St. Elijah near the village of Brod (Poreče) that was torn down and turned into atekke, most likely during the Islamization of the villages of [the] Dolno Kičevo [area]” (450).

The oldest tale, which is a legend concerning the existence of a church of Sv. Nikola before the Ottoman conquests on these territories, was recorded by Cepenkov in the second half of the last century (Cepenkov 1972: 179–180), who mentions a monastery of Sv. Nikola that was converted into a tekke after the arrival of the Ottomans.4

The oldest written record is cited by Stojanovski, who quotes a census record from 1544 written in Ottoman Turkish. According to him, this historical document confirms the tale recorded by Cepenkov: “Zavie Hizir Baba, also known as Nikola Baba. Saidzavie was founded by a dervish known as Hizir Baba, near the village of Brod.” The fact that in this document the tekke/zavie of Hizir Baba (H’d’r Baba) is also listed as Nikola Baba further suggests the possibility that it was built on the place of an older church of Saint Nikola. Stojanovski states that, up to 1918 there was a tekke in Makedonski Brod, and that in its place in 1979 (when the text was written) only the turbe [tomb or mausoleum] was still visible. Local lore has it that the founder of the tekke,Haydar Baba, is buried there (Stojanovski 1979: 53–57).

What is certain about the shrine is that after the Ottomans arrived, they built the tekke of H’d’r Baba on the place of today’s shrine in the first half of the 16th century. The tekke most likely functioned as an active shrine until World War I, but it is not clear when it was turned into a church. One 1939 land-grant document for the construction of a parochial building records that the designated plot of land is located adjacent to a sanctuary listed as the “kapela Sv. Nikola” (chapel of Saint Nicholas). After the war, the temple fell into ruin and neglect, like many other religious buildings in our lands. Both Christians and Muslims strongly identify with this shrine, a fact borne out by the many legends about its founding. Since each community associates it with a saint from its own religion, it is venerated and visited by the members of both communities. If, per Stojanovski, we can deduce that in 1979 only the turbe remained, then it follows that at the beginning of the 1980s the shrine had still not been converted into the present-day Crkva Sveti Nikola. Facts about the immediate past of the shrine are difficult to glean from the local population, except for the fact that to this day many locals still call it a “turbe” or “tulbe.” The moment when the turbe was converted into a church can only be approximately determined, but most likely it happened by the end of the 1980s or the beginning of the 1990s. In 1994, the local bishop’s consecration of the facility took place, so it could have happened then.


Figure 5. The shrine of Sv. Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke has a square form and is modest in size.

The Crkva Sveti Nikola has a square form. On the east side is a small, semicircular apse, which was obviously painted later. The roof of the apse distinguishes itself from the roof of the temple as a whole. It is made from ceramic tiles and slates and has pronounced eaves supported by trimmed wooden consoles. This decorative architectural design is a feature of the architecture of 19th-century Islamic temples. On the south side, the temple has one extended rectangular window with iron grilles, and on the west side there is a small entrance into the temple. In the southwestern part is the tomb, according to the Muslims, of the Bektashi saint, H’d’r Baba. The interior of the church is very modestly adorned with a simple iconostasis and icons painted about ten years ago. The floor, made from flagstones, is coveredwith carpets and rugs. This is so because the shrine serves both as a church and a turbe. Carpets are placed around the tomb featuring Muslim designs (depictions of the saints Ali and Husein, as well as prayer rugs). Pictures of Bektashi saints are also hung on the west and south walls.

This film, Peace for All: St. George’s Day at a Shared Multi-Religious Shrine in Macedonia, by Elizabeta Koneska, shows Muslim and Christian rituals at Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke, including a celebration at the Shrine of Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke. This video ethnography documents the activities at the shared shrine of Sveti Nikola in Makedonski Brod on St. George’s Day. The shrine is shared by Orthodox Christians and various Muslim denominations to celebrate the birth of their respective saints, St. George and H’d’r Baba (Koneska 2009).

Despite the contradictory interpretations related to the origin of the shrine, they do not keep different religious groups from visiting the shrine throughout the year. The largest turnout is for St. George’s Day, also called H’derlez, on May 6.

The Christian customs and rituals practiced for the observance of St. George’s Day in the Crkva Sveti Nikola begin the day before the holiday itself, during the afternoon of May 5, when the largest number of visitors show up, after which a priest officiates at a holiday liturgy in the evening. Worshippers who live near the shrine collect branches and flowers called “herbs.” People take the herbs home and decorate their gates, doorways, cradles, pillows, outbuildings, cattle, and barns. They also leave the collected plants in several places within the area of the church: on the fresco of Saint Nikola, on the courtyard entrance gates, on the church door, on icons, and most of all on the tomb inside the church. Inside, people light candles and leave money and gifts (red eggs, cooking oil, t-shirts, socks, towels, etc.).


Figure 6. Dragina, the shrine caretaker at Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke, with traditional red-dyed eggs for the St. George’s Day celebration.

The gifts collected throughout the year are sold at an auction in the church courtyard. Those who believe in the healing power of Saint Nikola leave personal items by the tomb of the saint to sit overnight. This is done in the belief that personal wishes will be granted, such as the birth of a child, the curing of a disease, a marriage proposal, and so forth.

On St. George’s Day proper, May 6, the traditional morning liturgy is held in the church. There is a belief that whoever seeks to have a wish fulfilled, especially in the area of marriage, should be the first one to unlock the church in the morning. This is also the day for the celebrated practice of swinging on swings in the courtyard. In the past, primarily young unmarried people would use the swings, and older folks would do so only in jest. During the swinging, ritual songs are sung, mostly lyrical in subject matter, full of symbolism and allegory. The St. George’s Day songs and dances are mostly associated with natural phenomena, and the Macedonian songs are characterized by lyrical themes.

It is interesting to note that the Crkva Sveti Nikola/H’d’r Baba Tekke is covered with carpets and other textiles all year long. The carpets, as well as the Muslim pictures of saints and tapestries that are hung on the walls and around the tomb, are removed on May 5 and 6 and temporarily stored elsewhere. In the evening of May 6 or early on May 7, the custodial personnel of the church replace the rugs and other items (Muslim paintings, photographs, prayer beads, candles, etc.). The majority of visitors who come to celebrate the H’derlez festival in the turbe of H’d’r Baba are members of the Bektashi dervish order from the village of Kanatlartsi, near Prilep, and from the town of Kičevo.


Figure 7. Bektashi ritual during the H’derlez festival in May. The majority of visitors who come to celebrate are members of the Bektashi dervish order from the village of Kanatlartsi, near Prilep, and from the town of Kičevo. On festival days, the turbe is also visited by members of other dervish orders, including the Halveti and Sunni.

On those days, the turbe is also visited by members of other dervish orders, including the Halveti and Sunni. The ritual performed by the Muslims takes place around the tomb of H’d’r Baba with the recitation of various prayers and the leaving of gifts. The water from the vessels inside the temple is used by the worshippers for washing or to take home. A traditional religious custom still performed today, though to a lesser degree than in the past, is one of sitting in the courtyard of the turbe, eating and drinking, and singing spiritual songs.

The fact that this shrine was also used in the past by members of different religious communities can best be illustrated through notes made by the famous 19th-century Macedonian ethnographer, M. Cepenkov: “If someone fell sick at home, his caregiver would take a pitcher of water and place it on the tomb during the night. In the morning, he would retrieve the pitcher and make a small donation to the tekke, in the same manner as if he were making an offering to a monastery; then he would return home and wash the invalid with the water in hopes that Saint Nikola would restore the sick man’s health” (Cepenkov 1972: 180).

Research on the H’derlez or St. George’s Day festival at the shrine of Sveti Nikola/Turbe H’d’r Baba reveals that Christians observe the festival collectively, whereas Muslims do so individually.

There are several legends about the founding of the shrine that are ingrained in local lore of both the Christian and the Muslim populations of Makedonski Brod and beyond. These legends refer to the miracle-working feats of Saint Nikola in connection with the building of the church, or to H’d’r Baba and the founding of thetekke. Aside from legends about the founding of the shrine, there are others, related directly to those saints or to the shrine itself, concerning various miracles having to do with healing and other supernatural powers.

This shrine represents an extraordinary and landmark example as proof that in these areas a model of cohabitation and tolerance for different ethnic and religious groups is a centuries-old tradition still alive today.
Manastir Sveti Naum, Ohrid

Manastir Sveti Naum (Monastery of Saint Naum) is located on the south shore of Lake Ohrid, near the Macedonian–Albanian border. As a center of Orthodox spirituality and Slavic literacy, it has maintained an extraordinary importance for the region since its founding in the 10th century. An important place within the confines of the monastery is the tomb of Saint Naum, where devotees from all across the Balkans and beyond have come to worship the saint and pay their respects for more than a thousand years. Throughout this long period, belief in the healing powers of this Saint Naum has been expressed not only by the Christians, but also by the many Muslims who come to pay homage to his tomb.


Figure 8. The offering of kurbani, or sacrificial gifts, at Sv. Naum on Lake Ohrid is one of the most distinctive ritual practices of both Muslim and Christian believers at the Feast Day of Sv. Naum on July 3. The sacrificial killing itself is not carried out on monastery grounds, just the ritual procession around the church, which is accompanied by musicians, who are mainly Roma.

The present-day church of Sveti Naum was erected on the foundation of the Crkva Sveti Arhangeli (Church of the Holy Archangels), which Saint Naum had built around AD 900. Over the course of centuries, many changes have taken place, including a complete tearing down and rebuilding of the church. The fresco in the church was painted in 1806, and the fresco in the chapel containing the tomb of Saint Naum dates back to 1800. The three thematic units of the chapel fresco feature the life and miracles of Saint Naum (Grozdanov 2004: 8, 69). The massive turnout of Muslim visitors at this shrine, and especially at the tomb of Saint Naum, is due to their belief that in the painting entitled “Saint Naum Reins in a Bear Instead of an Ox,” the face of Saint Naum actually belongs to the Bektashi saint Sar’ Salt’k. The Bektashi believe that the harness also contains a lion and a deer, and that the tomb in itself belongs to their saint Sar’ Salt’k (Ibrahimgil 2001: 375–389).


Figure 9. Inside the church, visitors leave money and gifts, and each visitor seeks to bow before the tomb of Saint Naum. The ritual includes kneeling in front of the tomb, placing the head on the tomb, and asking for a wish to be granted.

The extraordinary popularity and large number of visitors at this shrine over the course of the whole year, especially on the Feast Day of Saint Naum (July 3), is due to the Christians’ unwavering faith in the miraculous and healing power of Saint Naum, which is also the same feature that the Muslims attribute to the Bektashi saint, Sar’ Salt’k.

Scholars write that one of the cult places of the Bektashi saint, Sar’ Salt’k is the Manastir Sveti Naum. Aleksiev states that the legends about Sar’ Salt’k describe a legendary figure very similar to the mythical immortal, H’z’r. Salt’k bore his name, performed the same miracles, appeared in the form of a Christian saint, and assisted Muslim armies in battle. The figure of Salt’k represents a synthesis of already established models: he is a holy dervish miracle-worker, an Islamic warrior (gazi), and an epic hero. His cult was not specifically associated with one location, and he appears in many places throughout the Balkans, such as Sveti Naum, where the aforementioned fresco in the chapel, according to the legend, represents this very Sar’ Salt’k. Thus, Muslims visit this monastery and bow before the tomb of Saint Naum believing that it is the tomb of Sar’ Salt’k. (Aleksiev 2000: 37–40).

Ibrahimgil writes that, for the peoples of the Balkans, the relationship they have toward Islam is to a large extent connected to Sar’ Salt’k. According to some, Sar’ Salt’k moved with more than 700 Ottoman families to the Balkans to carry out his missionary work. This is not confirmed by any written document, but instead only through local lore, narratives, and turbes. In the Balkans, Sar’ Salt’k is known not only as a historical and theological figure, but also as a legendary hero. According to legend, as a result of Sar’ Salt’k’s successful conquests in the 13th century, a dervish tekke was founded on the place of today’s monastery, Sveti Naum. However, aside from the tomb, there is no other material evidence proving that this is a tekke of Sar’ Salt’k. Yet, the fresco above the tomb, according to the interpretation of many authors, depicts a Bektashi dervish with a conical hat. The two-wheeled chariot in which the Bektashi dervish sits is pulled by a deer and a lion, which are traditional Bektashi animal symbols. Thus, it is assumed that this place is one of Sar’ Salt’k’s tombs (Ibrahimgil, 2001: 380).


Figure 10. During the festival, visitors camp out on the shore of Lake Ohrid, near the crystal clear springs feeding the Crni Drim River, and in other open areas on the monastery grounds.

The Manastir Sveti Naum observes its festival on July 3, with the celebration beginning the day before. The holiday is attended many people from different religious and ethnic communities from various parts of Macedonia. Believers arrive on July 2 to spend the night at the monastery. They scatter throughout the whole monastery property, mainly along the lakeshore, close to the Crni Drim River, as well as in the park-like areas along the springs and near the “little chapel,” that is, the holy well of Saint Petka. A large number of the visitors are Muslim Roma. Some of them speak Macedonian, others Turkish (from East Macedonia), and still others Albanian (from Struga).

Along with the usual festive evening activities on July 2 and the morning liturgy on July 3, other ritual practices are carried out in the broader monastery complex. In the courtyard of the church, visitors process around the church with a sacrificial gift, and light candles in front of the church.


Figure 11. In addition to the kurban procession around the grounds of the monastery, worshippers show their devotion by lighting candles in front of the church.

Inside the church, visitors leave money and gifts. Each visitor seeks to bow before the tomb of Saint Naum: the ritual includes kneeling in front of the tomb, placing the head on the tomb, and asking for a wish to be granted. Some worshippers spend the night at the monastery, or, at the very least, they sit until midnight by the tomb. This practice is considered the most effective for the successful granting of wishes. The majority of devotees sleep lakeside and in the open spaces of the monastery complex, and bring ritual sacrificial gifts. The most common reasons for giving a sacrificial gift are for the birth of a child, for good health, and for marriage. It is believed that Saint Naum especially helps the mentally and psychologically ill. The offering of sacrificial gifts is one of the most distinctive ritual practices of these believers, both Muslim and Christian. The ritual is accompanied by musicians, who are mainly Roma. It is believed that the animal sacrifice, the kurban, possesses a special power. It is interesting to note that a monk, the Archimandrite Nectarius, states that this practice is not a Christian but rather an Old Testament rite, and that it is tolerated because of the desires of numerous believers. In any case, the sacrificial killing itself is not carried out on monastery grounds, just the ritual procession around the church.

The belief in Saint Naum’s miracle-working and healing power is present in many testimonies of devotees whose specific wishes have come true. As these testimonies become known among other devotees, a deep faith in their truthfulness is intensified. Testimonies mainly refer to wishes granted related to the birth of a child and to the curing of various physical and mental diseases. Since Saint Naum carries the epithets “Miracle Worker” and “Healer,” the most significant part of his cult personality is connected with legends surrounding miracles associated with his name. Many people believe that Saint Naum is an “active,” or “live,” saint. This belief is confirmed by many stories and legends related to contemporary miracles performed by him (Risteski 2005). It is a matter of a living tradition of working miracles that has been practiced broadly by the local Muslim and Christian communities in the Ohrid region and neighboring countries. The fact that legends about this saint have existed for more than 1,000 years, dating from his death at the beginning of the 10th century, further enhance the strength of his cult.

All the folk legends about Saint Naum refer to his miracle-working and healing powers and differ only in subject matter and motif. Bearing in mind that the legends have constituted an important part of the oral tradition practiced for centuries in our lands, note that they are still present in many regions in Macedonia and beyond. Therefore, many legends about Saint Naum have nearly the same narrative structures or motif orientation as those that refer to H’d’r Baba Tekke in Makedonski Brod or to the Manastir Sveta Bogorodica Prečista in Kičevo.

These legends can be divided according to certain motifs that recur in several variants: legends about the construction of the monastery; legends about the blessing of tools and domestic animals; legends related to specific places in the vicinity of the monastery; legends about which religion is better and about how the monastery was not converted into a mosque; legends about the taming of wild animals; and legends about forbidden activities in and around the monastery.

Husamedin-Pašina Džamija, Štip

A somewhat more distinct shared shrine, as compared to the three previously described sanctuaries, is the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija (Mosque of Husamedin-Paša) in Štip. This shrine is venerated both by the Christians and the Muslims in the town. The mosque was built at the beginning of the 16th century. Several authors state that the mosque was probably constructed on the site of an older Christian temple, a church dedicated to Saint Ilija (Saint Elijah). Zirojević (1984) proposes that, at the time of the Ottoman conquest or some time later, the church of Sv. Ilija was torn down and the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija was built in its place. The neighborhood of the holy mosque of the late Husamedin-Paša is listed in the census records of 1570–1573, among the neighborhoods registered in the town of Štip, The mosque was new, and the census record lists the names of the employees working at the mosque (Zirojević 1984: 206).


Figure 12. The Mosque of Husamedin-Paša outside the town of Štip is venerated both by the Christians and Muslims. Built in the early 16th century, the mosque is a typical example of the Early Constantinople style of Ottoman sacred architecture. It is speculated that it was built on the site of an older Christian church dedicated to Saint Ilija.

One of the most prominent travel writers of Ottoman times, Evliya Çelebi, writes that, during the second half of the 17th century in the town of Štip there were 24 Muslim shrines, among which he mentions the mosque of Husamedin-Paša. About this shrine, he writes: “. . . an artistically built mosque with a stone minaret. It is covered with lead and sits on the top of a hill.” It is interesting that the author does not mention that the mosque was built on the place where there was a Christian shrine previously, although he states that another mosque in the town of Štip, Fetije Džamija, which at the time of the Ottoman conquest was a church, was later converted into a mosque, to which a mihrab was added (Çelebi 1967: 339–344).

The mosque was active till the end of World War II. In 1953, the building was restored and for a while it served as gallery space for the Štip town museum. After 1956, the edifice did not have any particular function (Pavlov 2005: 170). In recent times, the town’s Christians have visited the mosque to celebrate the festival of Saint Ilija’s Day on August 2.

Husamedin-Pašina Džamija is a typical example of the Early Constantinople style of Ottoman sacred architecture of the early 16th century. The northern side of the mosque is dominated by a simple porch with a three-domed construction and a partially preserved octagonal minaret is on the western side. On the same side in the courtyard is the grave of the sheikh Muyhudin Rumi Baba. The turbe has been completely restored, such that its original construction cannot be determined (Pavlov 2005: 175).

The shrine, called the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija by the Muslims and the Crkva Sveti Ilija (Church of Saint Elijah) by the Christians, is revered equally by both religious groups in the town, and each group claims priority for its use. The representatives of the Islamic religious community in Štip, as well as local Muslims, consider the mosque their holy place of worship, arguing that the edifice possesses all the necessary features of any mosque. The Muslims of Štip are predominantly followers of the Halveti dervish order; they attend mosque and also practice Sunni rituals. Most of them declare themselves to be Turks and they speak Turkish among themselves. However, members of the other ethnic and religious groups in the town (Macedonians, Turks, and Albanians) call them Roma. These Muslims visit the tomb of Medin Baba several times a year and perform the prescribed ritual practices. The turbe is also visited by members of other religious groups, including Sunni Muslims and followers of other dervish orders, as well as some Christians. In 2006 the Muslims in the town reopened the mosque and began to hold religious services there. The Muslims’ position regarding the right to use the shrine is best expressed by the local mullah of the only active mosque in Štip, who claims resolutely that the shrine belongs to the Islamic religious community and that it should be used exclusively by Muslims. He believes that the Christians in the town already have enough religious temples, and that they can observe Saint Ilija’s Day at one of these other places. However, he is also willing to concede that the Christians could observe the festival of Saint Ilija in the mosque’s courtyard if it means so much to them. Despite this view, some of the local Muslims call the mosque and the whole tract of land it is situated on “Sveti Ilija.”


Figure 13. The observance of Saint Ilija’s Day in 2007 took place on the porch in front of the entrance to the mosque. Various wooden props, candleholders, and other items (icons, censers, baptismal fonts, etc.) were brought in from another church. Clergymen conducted their rituals in this improvised ambience, and worshippers lighted candles before the icons and brought gifts.

The Christians in Štip visit this shrine once a year, just to observe of the Festival of Saint Ilija. Until 2006, rituals were performed inside the mosque. The majority of worshippers present at the Festival of Saint Ilija in 2006 and 2007 confirmed that the shrine had been used for decades for the observance of the holiday; however, there were different opinions as to when the rituals began to be enacted inside the mosque. Some believed that the practice dated back to the period between the two World Wars, others claimed it started in the aftermath of WWII, and a third group of people said that it all started at the beginning of the 1990s. The observance of Saint Ilija’s Day in the shrine stems from the belief that the shrine actually is the Crkva Sveti Ilija, despite the obvious fact that the building is a mosque. Some current worshipers believe the shrine in the past was only a small church (of Saint Ilija) and that after the arrival of the Ottomans, it was converted into a mosque. Another view is that a completely new mosque was built on the same location, and after the Turks left these areas, the shrine was reconverted into a church.

During the afternoon of August 1, the observance of Saint Ilija’s Day at the Husamedin-Pašina Džamija begins with the arrival of the worshippers from various parts of town but mostly from the immediate vicinity of the shrine. The observance of the holiday in 2007 took place on the porch in front of the entrance to the mosque. Various wooden props, candleholders, and other items (icons, censers, baptismal fonts, etc.) were brought in from another church. Clergymen conducted their rituals in this improvised ambience, and worshippers lighted candles before the icons, crossed themselves, and brought gifts. On the second day, August 2, festival observances resumed, but with a much smaller crowd.

The Christian believers present at the 2006 and 2007 festivals interpreted the issue of who has the right to use the shrine in different ways. Some thought that a new church should be built in the same location because the existing facility is very much damaged and deformed, and therefore does not resemble a church at all. Others thought that the best solution for the shrine would be to restore the existing mosque and use it as a museum. The majority of them suggested that the shrine should continue to be used by all, and that a common solution that would suit all the town’s residents could be reached in the spirit of tolerance.

Shrines used by members of different religious communities are quite common throughout Macedonia. Most of them are located in western Macedonia, because of its highly ethnically and religiously mixed population. The centuries-old tradition of sharing the same shrines on Macedonian soil in practice refutes the superficial belief in the exclusive nature of ethnic identity and the inevitable separateness of religious communities. On the contrary, these shrines, as well as other similar examples throughout Macedonia, assert the existence of a culture of interethnic and intercultural cohabitation in the best possible manner, and reflect the cherishing of mutual, civilization-based values created through centuries on these territories.


bey: an Ottoman lord or provincial governer
calottes: concave, dome-shaped indentations
mihrab: a prayer niche in the wall facing Mecca
narthex: a vestibule leading to the main part of the church
prothesis: in an Eastern Orthodox church, the part of a sanctuary where bread and wine are prepared
tekke: a lodge for Sufi dervishes
turbe: Macedonian турбе: tomb or mausoleum
zavie: small religious cloister

Selected Bibliograaphy

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Belčovski, D. 1990. Sveta Bogorodica vo svetlinata na svetoto otkrovenie, pravoslavnoto bogoslovie i kultot [Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother in Light of Its Holy Revelation, Orthodox Theology, and Cult. In Manastir Sveta Prečista Kičevska [Kičevo Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother of God]. C. Grozdanov (ed.). Skopje: Eparhija Debarsko-Kičevska, Republički zavod za zaštita na spomenicite na kulturata. 134-145.
Bowman, G. 2009. Identification and Identity Formations Around Shared Shrines in West Bank Palestine and Western Macedonia. In Religions traversées: lieux saints partagés entre chrétiens, musulmans et juifs en Mediteranée. D. Albera and M. Couroucli (eds.). Arles: Actes Sud.
Celakoski, N. 1990. Kon istorijata na Manastirot Prečista [On the History of the Monastery of the Immaculate Mother]. InManastir Sveta Prečista Kičevska. 40–51.
Çelebi, E. 1967. Putopis: Odlomci o jugoslovenskim zemljama [Travel Writings: Passages about the Yugoslav Lands].Sarajevo: Svjetlost.
Cepenkov, M. 1972. Makedonski narodni umotvorbi [Macedonian Folk Creations]. Skopje: Makedonska kniga.
Grozdanov, C. 2004. Sveti Naum Ohridski [Saint Naum of Ohrid].Skopje: Kultura.
Ibrahimgil, M. Z. 2001. Balkanlar’da Sarı Saltuk Türbeleri. InSempoziyum Bildiriler kitabı, Balkanlar’da kültürel ve Türk Mimarisi Uluslararası Sempozyumu Bildirileri 1. Ankara: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi Başkanlığı. 375–390.
Ivanov, J. 1970. Bŭlgarski starini iz Makedonija [Bulgarian Antiquities from Macedonia]. Sofija: Bŭlgarska akademija na naukite.
Jovanović, P. 1935. Poreče: naselja i poreklo stanovništva [Poreče: Settlement and Population Origins]. In Srpski etnografski zbornik 28 [Serbian Ethnographic Anthology]. Beograd: Srpska akademija nauka.
Koneska, Elizabeta. 2006. Dilemi okolu istorijata na crkvata Sv. Nikola ili H’d’r Baba turbeto vo Makedonski Brod [Dillemmas Surroundig the History of the Church of St. Nicholas or H’d’r Baba Mausoleum in Makedonski Brod]. In Glasnik 50(1). Skopje: Institut za nacionalna istorija. 161-168.
Koneska, Elizabeta. 2009. Peace for All: St. George’s Day at a Shared Multi-Religious Shrine in Macedonia. Practical Matters 5. Available at (accessed December 6, 2012).
Ḱornakov, D. 1990. Rezbite vo manastirot Sv. Bogorodica Prečista-Kičevska [Woodcarvings in the Kičevo Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother]. In Manastir Sveta Prečista Kičevska. 96–110.
Mikulčić, I. 1996. Srednovekovni gradovi i tvrdini vo Makedonija [Medieval Towns and Fortresses in Macedonia]. Skopje: Makedonska civilizacija.
Netkov, V. 1964. Položba, prirodni uslovi, naselenie, topografski razvitok i tip na gradot Štip [Situation, Natural Conditions, Population, Topographical Development and Patterns of the Town of Štip]. In Zbornik Astibo-Štip I-XX vek [Anthology Astibo-Štip in the 1st through 20th Centuries]. Skopje: “Trudbenik.” 15-20.
Nikolovski, A., K. Balabanov and D. Ḱornakov. 1980. Spomenici na kulturata na Makedonija [Documents Related to the Culture of Macedonia]. Skopje: Misla.
Pavlov, Z. 2005. Husamedin Pašina džamija [Mosque of Husamedin Paša]. In Zaednički rehabilitacionen proekt-plan/procena na arhitektonskoto i arheološkoto nasledstvo na Jugoistočna Evropa (2003–2006) 1 [Collaborative Rehabilitiation Plan/Assessment of the Architectural and Archeological Inhertitance of Southeastern Europe (2003-2006). Skopje: Uprava za zaštita na kulturnoto nasledstvo.
Petković , V. 1950. Pregled crkvenih spomenika kroz povesnicu srpskog naroda [Review of Church Monuments through the History of the Serbian People]. Beograd: Srpska akademija nauka.
Risteski, S. 2005. Čudata na Sveti Naum [The Miracles of Saint Naum]. Ohrid: Makedonska pravoslavna crkva.
Smiljanić, T. 1935. Kičevija: Naselja i poreklo stanovništva [Kičevo Area: Settlement and Population Origin]. In Srpski etnografski zbornik 28 [Serbian Ethnographic Anthology]. Beograd: Srpska akademija nauka.
Snegarov, J. 1932 (1995). Istorija na Ohridskata arhiepiskopija-patrijaršija 2 [History of the Ohrid Archbishopric-Patriarchate].(Photo reprint ed.) Sofija: Izd-vo “Prof. Marin Drinov.”
Stojanovski, A. 1979. Edno potvrdeno predanie [A Confirmed Legend]. In Muzejski glasnik 4 [Museum News]. Skopje: Istoriski muzej na Makedonija. 53-57.
Stojanovski, A. and D. Ǵorǵiev. 2001. Naselbi i naselenie vo Makedonija: 15 i 16 vek [Settlements and Population in Macedonia: 15th and 16th Centuries]. Skopje: Institut za nacionalna istorija, Državen arhiv na R. Makedonija.
Tomovski, K., T. Paskali, and N. Šentevski. 1990. Manastir Sv. Bogorodica Prečista: Arhitektura [Monastery of the Immaculate Holy Mother: Architecture]. In Manastir Sveta Prečista Kičevska.52–66.
Trajčev, G. 1933. Manastirite v Makedonija [Monasteries in Macedonia]. Sofija.
Tričkovska, J. 1990. Živopisot vo manastirskata crkva Bogorodica Prečista-Kičevska [Paintings in the Kičevo Monastery Church of the Holy Mother of God]. In Manastir Sveta Prečista Kičevska.67–95.
Vražinovski, T. 2002. Rečnik na makedonskata narodna mitologija [Dictionary of Macedonian Folk Mythology]. Skopje: Matica Makedonska.
Zirojević, O. 1984. Crkve i manastiri na području Pečke patrijaršije do 1683 godine [Churches and Monasteries in the Area of the Peč Patriarchate until 1683]. Beograd: Istorijski Institut u Beogradu.


This article was originally published in book form by the Macedonian Centre for Photography in 2009. The book,Zaednički svetilišta / Shared Shrines, by Elizabeta Koneska, with photographs by Robert Jankuloski, was published in Macedonian and English, with original translation by Dijana Obradović. Revised translation by Rachel MacFarlane, for Forum Folkloristika.

The study and research of “shared shrines” in Macedonia is inspired by the fact that certain sacred places and buildings are, or have been in the past, shared by devotees belonging to different religious groups and ethnic communities. The current research has been enhanced by participation in the “Inter-Communal Interactions Around ‘Mixed Shrines’ in Macedonia” project, initiated by anthropologist Glenn Bowman from the University of Kent, England, with research carried out in 2005 and 2006. Additional research on the subject was conducted in 2007 independently of that project.

Before 2004, when the fair was held in the courtyard of the monastery, sacrificial gifts (kurbani) were carried around the church accompanied by live music (zurla and tapan); today the procession around the church is silent, with no musical accompaniment.

“In the olden days there was a monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas. After the Turks came to Kičevo, a Turk became a dervish, and he went to the monastery and turned it into atekke. All well and good, but no man stepped inside to bring Ad’r Baba, the dervish, something to eat. Finally, Ad’r Baba built a hut close to the road and sat inside. He placed a donation box there, and whenever a wayfarer passed by on his way in or out of Kičevo, he would tap on a small drum and ask for alms. In this way no one could see what he really looked like. Soon the dervish order started multiplying, but still no man had laid eyes on the old dervish. When it was his turn to die he was buried in the tekke, where his grave still stands, covered with stout green cloth. And thus the Turks came to venerate the tekke of Ad’r Baba, and the Bulgarians the old temple of St. Nicholas ever since it was a monastery.” (Cepenkov 1972: 000)

About the Author

E. KoneskaElizabeta Koneska is an ethnologist who was born in and lives in Skopje, Macedonia. She studied in Belgrade and in Istanbul. Since 1985 Koneska has worked at the National Museum of Macedonia. Her research interests include coppersmith and tinsmith crafts, traditional food, the Slavic Orthodox community in Istanbul, and Turkish and other Muslim communities in Macedonia. She has researched and directed thirteen ethnological film projects in Macedonia and Turkey. These projects include: The Iron Church Above the Water (1993), The Sound of the Hammer (2000), The Belgrade Coppersmith (2002), and Macedonians in Istanbul (2011). Peace for All has been screened at film festivals and universities in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Great Britain.

About the Photographer

JankuloskiRobert Jankuloski, from Prilep, Macedonia, is a photographer and director of the Macedonian Centre for Photography. In 1996 he graduated from the Faculty for Dramatic Arts in Skopje (Camera Department). He is the founder of the Macedonian Centre for Photography. He teaches photography at several programs in Macedonia, and has held 18 solo exhibitions in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Austria, and Serbia.

Jankuloski has participated in numerous group exhibitions including Manifesta, European Biennial of Contemporary Art (Luxembourg, 1996) and Context: Europe—Artistic Impulse from Southeastern Europe (Lyon, 2003). He has received many awards for photography and has worked as still photographer and director of photography on several feature and documentary films.

Beat That Drum!

Beat That Drum Alex Markovic

Exploring the Politics of Performance among Roma Brass Musicians in Vranje, Serbia

By Alex Marković; Forum Folkloristika, Issue 2, Winter 2013

Roma from Vranje1 are arguably most famous in Serbia (and, increasingly, worldwide) as superb brass band musicians. Because they monopolize the professional performance of brass music, Roma musicians are essential to important ritual celebrations in Vranje. Why are Roma—who are otherwise stigmatized in local society—so central to these performances? Certainly, highly skilled Roma musicians provide superb music for these events, earning them popular acclaim in a region of Serbia known for its culture of music and dancing. However, musical events in Vranje are also spaces where locals use music and dance to display other elements of their personal, family, and social identity. It is these aspects of musical events, particularly the ways that Rom musicians engage with their non-Rom patrons, that I explore here. I examine how perceptions of the low status and “otherness” of Roma structure the typical interactions between Serb patrons and Roma entertainers at celebrations, and consider how these ideas are variously manipulated by Serbs and Roma trying to claim status under changing conditions in Vranje.

The Roma as a Supremely Musical People

In Vranje, Roma have specialized in professional musical entertainment for at least five centuries2. Ironically, it was the historically marginal status of Roma that de facto contributed to their control of this profession; in the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, entertainers often came from nonruling classes and ethnic groups precisely because public performance and musical livelihoods were considered too shameful for higher-status Muslim communities3 (Silverman 2003; Sugarman 2003). Roma thus specialized in the stigmatized practice of performing music and dance for pay because it was one of the limited number of occupational niches to which they had preferential access, and so the highly developed musical skills that Roma maintained are linked to their political and economic marginality in society.

As a result, popular stereotypes even today in Vranje closely associate Roma with music and dance. More importantly, both Serbs and Roma in Vranje explicitly describe Romani musical talent as something “innate” in their “Gypsy” identity4—something “in their blood.” In contrast to stereotypes of the “lazy,” “dirty,” or “deceitful” nature of “Gypsies,” praise of their talent for music implies that Roma are uniquely—and perhaps only—suited for careers as professional entertainers. This commentary naturalizes the position of Roma as musicians, while at the same time ignoring the very real power inequalities and economic motivations of Romani performances. Ironically, these perspectives make Roma musically central while simultaneously referencing their otherwise marginalized place in majority Serb society5. It is precisely this paradox that structures the interactions of Roma musicians and Serb patrons at local celebrations, allowing celebrants to use Roma entertainers to facilitate their own performances of self and status for the community at large.

Performing Joy, Performing Self: Music and Celebrant Participation at Musical Events

Roma brass musicians are essential for both the ritual actions and jubilant atmosphere that are so important to successful celebrations in Vranje. Significant events like weddings are put on by locals to mark important transitions in family life, and most such celebrations are highly public so as to prominently show family happiness, wealth, and pride to the wider community.

Vranje weddings in particular practically require Roma brass bands to accompany the elaborate proceedings of typical celebrations. Brass bands specialize in the songs and dance melodies that are closely tied to specific rituals and key figures in the wedding ceremony. For example, Serbs and Roma alike in Vranje begin the three-day wedding ritual with a dance called Svekrvino Kolo [the mother-in-law’s dance]. In this dance, the mother of the groom leads assembled family and guests in a slow, dignified line dance while holding a decorated sieve in her right hand, thus invoking fertility and prosperity for the couple. This moment in the wedding ceremony is extremely emotional, and many women eagerly await the opportunity to marry off a son just to perform this dance with motherly pride in front of the assembled guests.

Svekrvino Kolo, Romani wedding in Vranjska Banja. The groom’s mother leads Svekrvino Kolo with the decorated sieve, followed by a long line of female relatives, neighbors, and friends. The large numbers of dancing guests and bystanders illustrate the highly public nature of these wedding celebrations. Note the particularly long line of dancing women accompanying the groom’s mother.

Such is the importance of Romani brass that even the specific sounds of these ensembles are closely tied to locals’ emotional responses during ritually charged moments. Many women in Vranje enthusiastically comment that they instantly feel butterflies in the stomach and have the urge to dance upon hearing the heavy beating of the large goč drum during Svekrvino Kolo. Locals even ask young people about impending wedding plans with the phrase “Je li, be, k’d će čuka goč?!” (Hey you, when will the drum beat?!), indicating how central the sonic, instrumental, and performative characteristics of Roma brass bands are for important wedding rituals.

Despite the officially joyous character of these celebrations, however, participation in musical events in Vranje is also often a highly “political” activity6, and this is reflected in the ways that celebrants interact with Roma musicians. Music and dance are central to these rituals not merely because they provide a high-energy, emotionally charged atmosphere for guests, but more importantly because it is through requesting music, singing, and dancing that attendees actively participate in the event. Much like Skopje Roma (Seeman 1990) and other communities throughout the Balkans, the host family in Vranje pays for professional musical entertainment to honor their guests and create the appropriate atmosphere for the celebration; when the hosts dance and sing at the event, they vividly display their family pride as well as their goodwill towards the community members in attendance. Requesting songs, leading dance lines, and celebrating with emotional gusto are also ways that guests show their hosts that they share in their happiness, and this reaffirms the bonds that tie them to the host family. Even as celebrants show their happiness in this way, their engagement with the musicians also temporarily places them at the center of attention. As they make requests and take their turn “holding the music” (drže muziku), guests actually take control of the course of the event’s proceedings. During these moments, celebrants are also perfectly positioned to publicly display status, wealth, and power by interacting with the musicians in distinct and evocative ways.

The groom’s parents dance together here in front of the musicians, who are constantly close to them while playing. The happiness of the groom’s parents is evident in the way they dance. As onlookers watch, members of the groom’s family lavishly tip the drummer to emphasize their extreme joy—and perhaps status—during this emotional dance.

The way that host families structure celebratory events like weddings illustrates the importance of requesting songs and dancing for communicating prestige. Guests are informally ranked according to their closeness to the family, ritual position, age, and other markers of community social status such as economic standing. Those guests and their families considered “most important” in the host family’s circle are expected to receive greater privileges, and in particular should enjoy priority access to the musicians during the event. As such, significant guests (like the kum7, the stari svat8, or the immediate family of the newlywed couple) are called to dance earlier in the evening’s proceedings, and may expect to “keep the music” (da drživ muziku) to themselves for longer periods of time (and repeatedly) during the course of the celebration.

This heightened access to the musicians and ability to control the musical entertainment of the event indicates the hosts’ respect for the guests in question, but also allows these same celebrants to monopolize the most public space of the event for their own social displays. As each guest is allowed to “hold the music” he or she9 is in the center of public scrutiny, leading dance lines and ostentatiously tipping the musicians while the remaining celebrants at the event look on. Through exaggerated singing, exuberant or dignified dance movements, and the dynamic ways they pay the musicians, guests communicate more than mere abandon to the emotional tide of the event: these performances also attempt to display the degree of status, wealth, and moral standing of celebrants and their families to the watching audience.

Dancing čoček, Romani wedding in Vranje. One of the groom’s close female relatives takes her turn leading the dancing accompanied a young male relative. With all attention centered on them, and the musicians close at hand playing up to them, the two display their complete abandon and revelry not only through dancing but also the ostentatious throwing of money.

Because the services of professional musicians are integrally connected to guests’ abilities to perform in this way, the right to engage the musicians for a time at celebrations is a coveted privilege that is a common source of tension and competition among celebrants. Wedding revelry in Vranje is often disrupted by disgruntled guests who are angry because they have not been able to “take the music” (da uzimav muziku) for an appropriate period of time—or early enough in the course of the celebration—for their perceived importance to the host family and the wider community. In such cases, the discontented guests feel insulted or even shamed, particularly because of the highly public nature of these large events. One woman in Vranje passionately described her deep shame at being mistreated in this way by her son’s in-laws at one of the wedding events hosted by the bride’s family; contrary to custom, the groom’s party was not offered access to the musicians and the opportunity to lead dances until the tail end of the evening, after all of the bride’s invited guests (even far less important ones, such as distant neighbors) had taken their turns. The groom’s mother was visibly upset as the evening wore on, and later bitterly commented to me that the bride’s family “turned us into shit!” in front of all the assembled guests. She felt that the bride’s family behaved this way because they were wealthier than her own family, and thus held them in far lower esteem and felt no remorse at breaking accepted conventions of respect. Vranje locals’ wedding stories are full of accounts of altercations and even physical violence between men who felt insulted because others at the event were granted greater access to the music than they were themselves; in some cases, even important ritual figures like the kum or the stari svat may storm out along with their guests because the party of the other was allowed to “hold the music” for a longer period of time.

Taken together, these vignettes illustrate how important access to Roma musicians becomes at local celebrations. In this specific performance context, celebrants are able to competitively claim power and prestige through ostentatious celebration and engagement with the entertainers. As one Serb woman commented to me, people fight over the music at these events “because they are trying to show off; that’s how we are here—why should he have the music right now, or for longer, instead of me? That’s why they fight!” Roma musicians and their services thus function as critical “foils” for performing status at Vranje celebrations, providing both an accepted context and a set of ritualized practices that allow community members to publicly compete for prestige.

Performing Power: Ritualized Interactions at Musical Events

Importantly, it is the legacy of Romani marginality in Vranje that in part shapes the standard practices of celebrant–musician interactions. Celebrants demonstratively use the bodies, instruments, and performance conventions of Roma musicians to facilitate their own displays of importance and wealth. While performing, Roma musicians are positioned squarely in front of the guest whose turn it is to “celebrate” (da se vesele). Musicians are supposed to remain in solicitous proximity to these patrons for as long as they are performing their requests. In the case of dancing, in particular, this very proximity to the musicians visibly draws attention to the dominance of the guest at this specific moment.

Roma entertainers are also centrally positioned in the physical space of the celebration event, with dance lines usually revolving around musicians who stand or stroll in the middle of the dance space. When a particular patron commands the services of the musicians, he or she usually takes a turn leading the dance line and pays a tip to the performers in return.

Groom’s father dances, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. At this Serb wedding, the groom’s father takes his turn leading the dance line after Svekrvino Kolo has ended. The Roma musicians bend low while playing to him, emphasizing his status as a key ritual figure, and even coach him through the dance at the urging of the groom’s mother. Always, their focus is on him as the leader of the dance.

As such guests dance, however, the Roma musicians also play “to” them, moving constantly to keep themselves and their instruments directly in front of the celebrant in question. This keeps the eyes of the audience fixed on the patron, as the most exciting activities of the evening are audibly and visually cued by the actions of the professional musicians.

In addition, however, these practices suggest a dynamic inequality between the commanding roles of celebrants and the ways that Roma musicians must oblige them. Even the musicians’ body placement and gestures often serve to emphasize the preeminence of their current patron; as they perform, musicians may bend forward from the waist while straining their torsos upward to play toward the face of the celebrant, place the bell of their instrument in the person’s face or alongside their ear, or even bow or kneel dramatically in front of them.

Guests are very aware of the import that these performance conventions have for their public display of pomp and prestige. This is illustrated when lead dancers command the drummer to reposition himself10 directly in front of them while they are dancing, often also emphatically yelling for him to truly “beat that drum!” At other times, a celebrant may forcefully pull the bell of a trumpet to his ear while closing his eyes, raising his hand in the air, and shouting out loud in an evocative display of complete abandon. The solicitous, even obliging, demeanor of Roma musicians at these events thus dramatically bolsters the privileged status of the guest whom they are “serving” by simultaneously highlighting the less powerful position of the entertainers themselves.

Stari svat’s wife dances, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. Roma musicians play up to the stari svat’s wife, who is leading a dance line upon arriving at the celebration with the stari svat and his guests. In order to heighten the moment for her, the musicians come even closer, bend deeply, and play into her face while performing improvisations, and she responds by dancing with even more gusto.

Nowhere is this ostentatious performance of power more evident, perhaps, than in the ways that celebrants “pay” or “tip” musicians for their services. When making requests of the entertainers, it is understood that an appropriate tip should be offered to the musicians in return. In this way, all of the guests also contribute financially to the musical entertainment at the event and convey their respect to their hosts. At the same time, though, the act of “rewarding” the musicians allows for the celebrant to publicly demonstrate his or her wealth and magnanimity. Styles of tipping are often flamboyantly ostentatious, and may underline competitive attempts to obtain prestige between celebrants at the same event. The bodies and instruments of Roma musicians become the primary “mediums” for these evocative displays. Patrons regularly choose to display their tips by placing them in the shirt collars of musicians, on the pegs or rims of instruments, or by placing them onto the musicians’ bodies themselves. Musicians usually leave bills in place for a time so that the watching audience is able to see the amount that was given by a specific patron before tucking them away; locals at events regularly exclaim in admiration when individuals give large amounts of money to the musicians, noting in particular when exorbitant sums of 20, 50, or 100 euros are ostentatiously handed over to the entertainers for prominent display. Lavishness is also displayed when patrons choose to “make it rain” over a musician who is playing for them: celebrants hold stacks of cash in their left palms and flick bills out with their right hands, showering the musicians with a fluttering cloud of multicolored paper money while others around them scramble to collect the cash and hand it over to the entertainer himself11. A patron who performs this strategy often shows deliberate nonchalance, as if indicating to the watching audience that such a sum is “no skin off his nose” in order to claim superior wealth and status. In this way, celebrants use tipping as a means to powerfully perform their status for the assembled guests through direct engagement with the Roma musicians.

Certain more explicit conventions of tipping, however, specifically illustrate the unequal relationship between celebrants and Roma musicians. Throwing money to the musicians, for example, can also be interpreted as a degrading gesture. Patrons will at times casually toss bills to the ground instead of handing them to musicians, even if they are directly in front of them. In these instances, musicians are forced to stoop and pick bills up as they land. Sometimes celebrants will deliberately draw the process out, crumpling bills and tossing them over musicians’ heads or dropping them one by one as they dance down the street with a wedding party, thus making the musicians repeatedly bend and rise as they follow. Celebrants usually do this in a playful or exuberantly joyful way, simultaneously performing their own boisterous revelry while casually ignoring the very musicians they are paying. In this way, the guests’ abilities to force the musicians to pay heed to their whims, no matter how inconvenient, reference expectations that they are supposed to be compliant. In another example, guests often choose to wet bills with sweat or saliva, and then slap them into position on the foreheads or cheeks of performers; one brass band leader commented that people often hit the musician hard when tipping in this way, “so your brain spins for the next five minutes!” This forceful gesture again allows for the amount of cash being “gifted” to the musician to be displayed prominently on his face for all to see. As in previous examples, though, this specific way of “rewarding” musicians with money also emphasizes the perceived power of the celebrant over the Rom musician.

Power and Anxiety in Practice: Debating Patron–Client Interactions

Popular ideas of Romani “low” status and “inherent” musicality are therefore fundamental for shaping the ritualized interactions that illustrate these power dynamics at musical celebrations. Particularly demonstrative ways of tipping Roma musicians highlight the power play involved in the patron–musician relationship, and most in Vranje recognize the implications of these conventions. However, notions of marginal status are also strategically employed by both Serbs and Roma when discussing the power structure of musical events. Older town residents are especially aware that tipping conventions reference perceptions of the lesser status of “Gypsy” entertainers12, and comments by Serbs and Roma variously reflect their positions on the issue. One elderly Serb man in Vranje called these practices playful “harassment” (maltretiranje) of musicians; he felt that demanding certain services of Roma musicians and paying them in “innovative” ways makes the patron feel special. He commented that he even enjoyed instilling an element of “fear” in his interactions with musicians, often threatening Roma musicians “not to shame [him]” with mediocre performances as a precondition to receiving any tips. Many local Serbs describe these kinds of sentiments as being another part of the “game” at celebrations; the majority, though, also associate these dynamics with the lower economic and social position of “Gypsy” musicians.

Older Roma musicians, too, often relate abrasive interactions and tipping practices to the historically low status of Roma. They emphasize that musical performance has always been a difficult, stigmatized profession, and that this work was effectively foisted onto “lowly Gypsies” because no other group would take it. As a result of their status, entertainers also had to put up with practices that were frankly shaming. When I asked one Rom musician about the slapping of bills onto entertainers’ foreheads, he commented that this was an “old holdover” from times when patrons sought to “humiliate” Roma during performances. Roma also consider dramatic twists to conventional tipping styles to be ways for patrons to show power over “Gypsy” entertainers. Many older performers explained that patrons could employ a variety of tactics to show tips to musicians but not hand them over until the patron had been “sufficiently satisfied.” One musician recalled a time when a man impaled paper bills one by one onto a fork, which he then stuck into the ceiling of the family home in which the musician was performing; he was told by this patron that he had to play as long—and as well—as the man desired before he could receive his money. Many musicians seem resigned to these kinds of practices, often saying that it is “the way things are done” and adding that at least these acts still bring in money. This explanation, though, further highlights how perceptions of Roma musicians’ lower status are critical for the successful demonstration of power by celebrants. During “customary” conventions of tipping, solicitous Roma musicians must accept and participate in humiliating interactions whereby celebrants boost their own displays of self-importance by imposing certain practices on the entertainers.

Because Roma are aware of the power play embedded in these “customs,” many have ambivalent attitudes toward negotiating the patron–musician relationship. Specific practices may be interpreted in very distinct, sometimes shifting ways by different Roma musicians depending on their local status and prestige. One particular tipping convention illustrates this anxiety on the part of Roma entertainers. Serb celebrants at Vranje weddings may choose to twist bills into cone shapes, stack them in the open mouth of an empty alcohol bottle, and eventually force them inside. This bottle sits on the table or ground in front of the patron, who alone decides the moment when he is finally satisfied enough to turn over the accumulated cash to the musicians. In this way, the Roma musicians are teasingly shown the money that they will potentially receive, but are forced to cater to the patron’s whims for as long as he desires. Musicians in Vranje have varying takes on this practice. The leader of a renowned brass band from Vranje angrily told me that he immediately breaks off any performance if he sees a Serb celebrant begin this tipping style. When I asked him why, he commented that this is done to “provoke [the musicians] . . . to make us play better, supposedly”; according to this musician the real message, though, is “if he puts the money in the bottle, he still hasn’t actually given it to us.” He contrasted this with the “more cultured” tipping style where money is simply and directly given to the musician “in [his] hand.” In this way, the “bottle technique” represents an exercise in power on the part of the Serb celebrant that this musician (whose band has a long-standing reputation and widespread popularity) refuses to have imposed on himself.

Another brass musician in Vranje, though, commented that this aforementioned colleague was “stupid” to refuse this practice. He insisted that this was a tipping custom specific to Serbs from the Rudina neighborhood of town, and as such should be embraced and used. As the leader of a smaller, less popular band whose living is based on maximizing the number of local events they play, however, he also indicated that Roma musicians often need to accommodate such demands from patrons in order to maximize earnings and maintain clientele. By downplaying the implied power play of the bottle scheme, this musician attempted to shift the frame of the discussion. In this way, pressure for Roma musicians to fulfill patron expectations by “playing along” is reduced to “honoring local custom” while avoiding discussion of the unequal power play that Roma must navigate. In justifying this convention, however, this entertainer also simultaneously drew attention to implications of Romani powerlessness in these scenarios. Roma musicians’ need to satisfy Serb celebrants’ whimsical demands means that they are closely tied to the performances of power that mark celebrations in Vranje, and notions of the marginal position of these “Gypsy” entertainers are essential to the strong impact of these displays. This is not to say that the interactions between celebrants and Roma musicians are always or only about showing power.

As we’ve seen, many of these actions are also established conventions, local ways of being happy, of reveling in music, and of expressing the emotions one is feeling at special occasions. Serbs and Roma alike have grown up observing others in the community behave in these ways “out of happiness” at events (throwing money, or bringing musicians closer to them while they lead a dance), and certainly these interactions have become part of the way locals express their joy and abandon at musical events that have special meaning for them.

Musicians entertain the groom, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. Here, Roma musicians perform a song request for the groom and a few of his companions. The lead musicians lean close in tandem in order to play into his face, heightening the atmosphere and drawing attention to his status and celebratory gusto at this specific moment.

However, at times these interactions are not merely local “customs” or “ways of being” accepted by all, devoid of the potential for additional meanings and implications. Musicians and singers in Serb wedding bands, for example, are also tipped in “customary” ways by Serb celebrants they are entertaining; however, their tips are never placed in a bottle, nor are they dropped in front of them to force them to bend and pick them up. In Vranje, Serb patrons can push more elaborate—but also forceful or degrading—interactions on Roma musicians to a degree that is not possible with Serb entertainers. It is this difference that informs locals’ discussions of the role of power in the relationships between patrons and musicians. In the end, it is the specific status of the Roma locally that allows celebrants to display prestige and status powerfully through musicians at musical events. Happiness and revelry are thus closely tied to social status and personal pride at these events, and it is the Roma musicians and the services they provide that allow for this connection to be evocatively demonstrated in front of the assembled community.

Manipulating Stereotypes: The Politics of Musical Interactions under Crisis

Interestingly, stereotypical ideas about Romani identity and marginality are currently being used by some Serbs in Vranje to drastically reinterpret performance conventions at celebrations. As a result of political crises and economic collapse since the 1990s, increasing tensions between Serbs and Roma in Vranje have begun to color even the “customary” practices of musical events. Younger generations of Serbs are increasingly ambivalent about Romani brass bands, and many comment disparagingly on typical Romani interactions with celebrants. Some Serbs argue that Roma are now called less frequently to entertain at Serb functions because of their “insistence” on receiving tips while playing for specific patrons. As a result of growing poverty in the area, many guests now find themselves unable or unwilling to tip with the necessary flourish to maintain public prestige at weddings. In light of this new source of anxiety, some locals comment disdainfully that Roma “beg for money” by employing otherwise standard conventions of interaction with patrons. One Serb man (a musician himself) insisted that many Roma are not genuinely interested in performing well for guests at events. Instead, he claimed that bands “faćav na galamu” (they emphasize loudness), playing “quick and dirty” to try and get as many tips from as many different celebrants as possible.

Commentary also often focuses on the specific practices of Roma musicians, saying that entertainers embarrass patrons reluctant to give tips by “playing in their faces” or “going down on one knee to beg.” Hosts, too, these days are uneasy about these practices because they are worried about offending guests who cannot uphold their obligations to musicians entertaining their requests. Significantly, Serb criticisms of performance practices often stress the so-called “Gypsy” behaviors of Roma entertainers, thus reinterpreting customary performance practices as the “shameless, selfish bad manners” of the musicians themselves. Stereotypical images of the “poor,” “low-class,” and “dishonest” nature of “Gypsies” are used to deflect attention away from the inability of patrons to adequately display their own prestige by engaging with the musicians. The very practices shaped by the legacy of Romani marginality vis-à-vis non-Rom patrons are thus recast in order to reject them as inappropriate; critically, though, these debates actually re-embed Roma in power plays that yet again emphasize their marginal, low status in response to the increasing social and economic anxieties of local Serbs.

Roma musicians respond to these criticisms by highlighting other elements of the “Gypsy” stereotype, emphasizing the exceptional musical talents that developed out of Romani marginality in order to try to reclaim status within performance contexts. Musicians complain that the “deterioration” of Serb interactions with musicians is actually a result of today’s impoverished levels of “culture” and “morality,” not their own practices; overall, Roma claim that contemporary generations are generally ignorant about good music and musicians’ skills. In response, Roma emphatically refer to popular stereotypes that link their musical skills to their marginal, “exotic,” identity. “Gypsy fingers are unique,” one middle-aged Rom musician in Vranje assured me, pointing out that as a result Roma have monopolized professional musical performance for centuries while claiming that Serbs could never produce musicians of the same caliber. Many Roma musicians reject present-day criticisms from Serbs by invoking their preeminent position as “natural” entertainers, arguing that no one can know better than the Roma how musical performances should be enacted. Furthermore, musicians bring up the renown of the Guča Brass Festival and the Boban Marković Orchestra to show that their “Gypsy” musical talent and practices are also validated by international acclaim. In contrast to forced resignation to power plays, then, some Roma musicians today attempt to combat growing local discrimination against their musical practices by playing on the romanticized “uniqueness” of their otherwise marginal identity. “Gypsyness” is thus portrayed as a privileged position instead of a stigmatized one, a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985) granting superior musical skills and authority to Roma musicians as a direct result of their historically peripheral—and thus, special—existence on the edges of majority society. It remains to be seen how successful these strategies may prove for bolstering the professional prestige of Roma musicians in the midst of economic and social crisis in Vranje.

Works Cited

Milovanović, Krsto, and Dragan Babić. 2003. Srpska truba [The Serbian Trumpet]. Beograd: Narodno Delo.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Seeman, Sonia Tamar. 1990. Music in the Service of Prestation: The Case of the Rom of Skopje, Macedonia (master’s thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, WA).
Silverman, Carol. 1996. Music and Marginality: Roma (Gypsies) of Bulgaria and Macedonia. In Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by M. Slobin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 231-253.
Silverman, Carol. 2003. The Gender of the Profession: Music, Dance, and Reputation among Balkan Muslim Rom Women. In Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean. T. Magrini, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 119-145.
Sugarman, Jane C. 2003. Those “Other Women”: Dance and Femininity among Prespa Albanians. In Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, T. Magrini, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 87-118.
Vukanović, Tatomir. 1987. Muzička kultura u starom Vranju [Musical Culture in Old Vranje]. Vranje: Nova Jugoslavija.


Vranje is a town located in far southeastern Serbia, near the borders with Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the disputed territory of Kosovo. Its current population is roughly 80,000, with a population of Roma estimated at anywhere between 7,000 and 9,000, depending on sources and how much the surrounding communities are included. Roma live in several mahale (neighborhoods mostly made up of Roma) in the area; there are three main mahale and two recently established ones in Vranje itself, four mahale in nearby Vranjska Banja, one mahala in Pavlovac, and a few very small communities in several other local villages. Almost all of the main mahale mentioned above have at least some professional musicians in residence, and some communities (like those in Banja, or the main mahala in Vranje, Gornja Čaršija) are popularly known to contain large numbers of musicians and multiple orchestras of various musical genres.

Tatomir Vukanović (1987) notes Ottoman records from the reign of Sultan Selim II (1566–1579) that describe tax breaks extended to a džemat, or community, of some 30 Roma households in return for their professional musical services in Vranje’s Ottoman garrison. He further indicates that Roma were the most frequent performers of a wide array of musical genres and instruments in Vranje and the surrounding area, and notes that even local Roma women were often professional singers, dancers, and dajre (frame drum) players in town. Several authors (Vukanović 1987; Milovanović and Babić 2003) argue that the brass band genre, too, has been exclusively dominated by Roma in the area ever since a Rom musician in Vranje began to experiment with the trumpet sometime around the Balkan Wars (1912–1913). Locals claim that the first brass musician was Fejza, the father of the legendary Bakija Bakić who put Vranje on the brass band map through years of participation in the annual Guča Brass Band Competition in western Serbia. The descendants of this family continue this brass band tradition, five generations and 100 years removed from Fejza Bakić’s first orchestra.

In the late Ottoman period, therefore, most professional musicians and dancers were Greeks, Armenians, Jews, or Roma. The stigma of providing music and dance performances for pay was in a way similar to negative evaluations of other uses of the physical body for profit, such as prostitution, and so professional entertainers (particularly women) were often marginalized even though their services were required and thoroughly enjoyed by patrons.

Roma (pl.), Rom/Romni (sing.), and Romani (adj.) are the politically correct names for communities popularly known as “Gypsies” in Serbia, and in many other regions worldwide. Romani speakers use these terms to describe themselves in their own language, and since the 1970s, Roma activists and intellectuals have encouraged the use of these proper names instead of the various forms of “Gypsy” because of the negative connotations associated with them by outsiders referring to Roma communities. While this official usage has spread widely and is often embraced by Roma trying to escape the stigma of “Gypsy,” many communities also continue to use derivations of various “Gypsy” names among themselves. In Vranje, Roma often alternated between using the words Roma and “Gypsy(ies)” (Ciganin/Cigani in Serbian). Roma would also often use the term “Gypsy” to refer sarcastically to behavior or situations they considered to be backward or in poor taste, especially when critiquing their own community; at other times, they consciously used the word “Gypsy” when referring to the disparaging or disrespectful ways that non-Roma, like Serbian patrons, interact with (and think about) Roma. Much like other minority or marginalized groups (such as African Americans), Roma are often not offended when other Roma use derivations of “Gypsy” among themselves, but are sensitive to its use by non-Roma when addressing/talking about the Romani community. For this reason, and in recognition of the negative associations inaccurately attributed to the term “Gypsy” by non-Roma historically, I have always used and continue to use Rom(a) in order to privilege the proper names (and meanings) used by Roma to refer to themselves.

Similarly, Carol Silverman (1996) argues that Roma musicians generally have been (and remain) musically powerful even as they are politically powerless.

I use the term “political” here not to refer to government but rather the dynamics of social relationships, indicating personal, family, and other forms of strategic competition and performance in social interactions within the wider community. (Back to article)
The kum is the man who acts as the sponsor (or best man) of the couple for their church wedding, and who will eventually christen any children of the union. Moreover, his family and that of the newlyweds effectively become “blood relatives” through this relationship. Much respect is owed to the kum and his family, and this is part of his great status at weddings. In Vranje, the kum even brings his own retinue, usually up to 20 guests of his choice who will be wined, dined, and respected nearly as much as him and his family at the event.

The stari svat (or starejko) is literally “the elder witness.” Traditionally, this position is delegated to the groom’s maternal uncle. In Vranje, this ritual figure is also sometimes called pobratim, a term that otherwise indicates an unrelated person who has become a ritual “blood brother” to the family. In Vranje, the stari svat is just as important as the kum and also brings his own retinue of up to 20 guests, but has a slightly different and more dynamic role. While the kum remains withdrawn and dignified, the stari svat is expected to manage and direct all the events at the wedding; he determines when the wedding party should move on to the next phase of the event, and ensures the appropriate treatment of all guests. Musicians indicate that they must pay special attention to his directions for the entertainment as well, especially in the wee hours of the event when alcohol and high emotions lead the starejko to demand specific practices, joking rituals, and other activities with musical accompaniment to entertain the guests in general. Traditionally, weddings are not “over” until the stari svat decrees and until he and his guests choose to leave the celebration. Yet again, the musicians are often expected to coax him out of the groom’s courtyard and to play for him as he leaves, sometimes even performing for him all the way to his home. (Back to article)
In Vranje, women (both Serbs and Roma) are also able to “take the music,” make requests, and pay musicians for songs and dances. Despite this “equality” with men, however, they do so less often and may defer to husbands or brothers if they are present, particularly when paying musicians. In the end, they are also representing their entire family when they do so, just like the men. Generally, men exaggerate their interactions with musicians to a greater degree than women, performing more ostentatiously and making stronger demands of entertainers. Women request songs, lead dance lines, and celebrate in more demure ways, often stressing their dignity and calm composure in front of watching audiences in ways that are held to be more appropriate to their “feminine” nature. (Back to article)
Professional Roma musicians in Vranje are exclusively men—and brass bands in particular are all male—so these celebrant–performer interactions always involve male entertainers. In general, the playing of instruments is considered inappropriate for women, so while Roma families often encourage young boys to play around with instruments in order to keep them out of their parents’ hair, young girls are instead directed to practice their dancing, often while being coached by others. Today these dance skills are only exhibited at social events and never used professionally because of the stigma associated with public performance for paying patrons (often male). Very few Roma girls in Vranje become professional singers because of this concern for their moral reputations. This is in contrast to the somewhat more indulgent atmosphere in the local Serb community where Serb women may sing with Serbian wedding bands. This is an interesting reversal of conditions typical in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Vranje, when Serbs of either gender were almost never paid entertainers while Roma women were often hired as professional singers, dancers, and frame drum players alongside (or instead of) male Roma musicians. For more information about how gender norms from the late Ottoman period to the present have affected the viability of professional performance for women, see Sugarman (2003) and Silverman (2003).

Showering musicians with money is often done with large quantities of less valuable currency, like dinar notes, or else smaller euro or dollar bills. While very wealthy patrons may be able to drop a bunch of larger bills, rarely can patrons afford this exuberance. Moreover, it is the showing of very large quantities of paper money that is most important for making the display effective. Some people in Vranje recognized the irony here (showing wealth with less valuable currency) and often joked about it; one man once told me that he had to make sure and convert a certain amount of dinars into dollar bills for his son’s wedding in order to make a show of throwing US money around in clouds. Since he considered himself to be relatively poor, the joke was that he could show off valuable (non-dinar) currency in this performative display, while still not breaking his bank. Note that, of course, any local audience would easily recognize the difference sizes and colors of various denominations of euros, US dollars, and Serbian dinar notes. Everyone present laughed at the “ingenuity” of his solution, being able to make a statement about wealth and celebratory abandon despite not being among the richest in the community. (Back to article)
In this section, I use the term “Gypsy” in quotes to show how the locals I was speaking with brought the term into use, usually to emphasize the disparaging or humiliating ways that non-Roma engaged with Roma musicians. Many (mostly Roma) were using the word ironically, mimicking the disdainful way that Serbs might think about them as “lowly Gypsies” in order to be able to subject them to displays of power and even humiliation during performances. See footnote 4 for a more detailed discussion of the use and meanings of the word “Gypsy” vs. Roma.

About the Author

Alex Markovic | eefc.orgAlex Marković is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He spent a total of 17 months conducting field research with Romani brass musicians in the Vranje region of southeastern Serbia, working with local Serb and Romani communities and documenting myriad musical celebrations such as weddings. His dissertation looks at ethnicity and identity politics in the context of musical performance, investigating how musical practices shape ideas about—and performances of—Romani (“Gypsy“) identity in society. Alex’s research interests in anthropology and ethnomusicology are focused on the relationships between processes of identity, socioeconomic change, cultural performance, ritual, music, and dance in the Balkans and in Balkan diasporas.

Alex’s academic writings include a chapter titled “Brass on the Move: Economic Crisis and Professional Mobility among Romani Musicians in Vranje,” in Labour Migrations in the Balkans, edited by Biljana Sikimić, Petko Hristov, and Biljana Golubović; and published by Verlag Otto Sagner in Berlin. Several journal articles stemming from his doctoral research with Vranje’s Romani musicians are currently in preparation, and Alex intends to publish his full dissertation as a book upon completion of his doctorate. He anticipates obtaining his Ph.D. in 2013.

Alex is also an avid researcher, instructor, and dancer of Balkan folk dance, specializing in Serbian, Greek, and Romani dance traditions. Born and raised in a Serbian family in Chicago, he has been a performer of Serbian dance for nearly 20 years and has taught at several Serbian youth dance ensembles in the Chicagoland area. As part of his extended dissertation fieldwork, Alex is particularly well versed in the dance repertoires and styling of Roma and Serbs in the wider Vranje area; he has also researched the dance repertoires of various regions in southeastern Serbia, Kosovo, and eastern Serbia. In addition to his work with Serbian folk dance, Alex has been involved in Greek folk dance for over a decade. He is particularly drawn to researching the diverse dance traditions of Pontic Greeks, having begun his work with the Chicago Pontian community in his teens. He is also interested in the dance repertoires of various regions in Greek Macedonia, Western Thrace, Anatoliki Romylia (present-day Bulgaria), and Asia Minor (Turkey). Alex is currently co-instructor of the Chicago-based Greek folk dance group Ellas Dancers of Chicago and guest instructor with Chicago’s Orpheus Hellenic Folklore Society.

Alex enjoys sharing his research in the context of lectures, presentations, and workshops throughout the States. He has been an invited speaker for specialized conferences and guest lectures at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and New York University. He has also given public presentations and dance workshops for educational events at the Chicago Serbian-American Museum “St. Sava“ and the Balkan Spring Festival at the International House of the University of Chicago, among others. With Ellas Dancers, Alex also regularly performs Greek folk dances throughout the Midwest at museums, schools, festivals, family celebrations, and Greek regional society events.