Thursday, 19 May 2016

Klapa: The Rhythmic Heart of Dalmatia

Klapa singers on Vis 2016
One of my first experiences of klapa music during my stay in Split was wandering around the city late one cold March evening. I had only just arrived and I was feeling homesick. I turned a corner in the picturesque old part of town and heard singing to make my hair stand on end. A small group of young people had gathered in an ill-lit courtyard behind an iron grill, and they were singing songs a cappella. I stood and listened with tears running down my face. You didn’t need any knowledge of the language, they had absolutely nailed how I was feeling. I was missing my lost love, my home far over the water, and I was wallowing in – completely romanticised – nostalgia.

This wonderfully evocative style of close singing can be heard all over the town, on the radio, or accidentally as I found it, or more formally by the group which performs daily throughout the season under the cupola of Diocletian’s palace. Whole festivals dedicated to an exploration of klapa in all its forms are increasingly popular with Croatians and tourists alike, with klapa reaching new levels of exposure with Croatia’s 2013 Eurovision entry.

In this post which comes out of a piece of university writing, I want to bring together various sources and briefly explain what klapa is, explore the social and cultural context, touch upon the influence of religion and nostalgia, and differentiate between traditional, more spontaneous and intimate klapa and the so-called modern or ‘neo’ klapa, as exemplified by the Eurovision entry.

Klapa was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2012. It is identified by its multipart homophonic singing and is found in the coastal part of Dalmatia and its islands. The leader of the group is the first tenor, and he is followed by several other tenors, baritones and bass voices – usually between 5-10 people. During performances, the singers stand in a tight semicircle. The main aim is to achieve the best possible blend of voices, without the help of musical notation.

The songs usually deal with love, life situations, or a nostalgic reimagining of a historic environment in which the singers’ predecessors used to live. Practitioners are skilled amateurs who learn from their predecessors, a mix of young and old. In ‘traditional klapa’, this knowledge is transferred orally. ‘Festival klapa’ is more formally organized with a focus on performance and presentation. In ‘modern klapa’, young singers gain experience by attending performances and listening to recordings.

The musical part of this definition requires further explanation. Homophony describes the musical texture in which the melody is supported by one or more additional musical lines that provide harmony and rhythmic contrast. Where talented voices are involved it is normally unaccompanied so that the voices parts are emphasised, and if desired, harmonies can be improvised. Significantly to the history and development of klapa, homophony first appeared as one of the predominant textures in Western music during the Baroque period when composers began to compose simple harmonies – possibly with the musical directions of the Council of Trent in mind. In sacred music homophony began replace polyphony and monophony as the dominant form. Basically these simple harmonies put stress on words and emotions, whereas renaissance style polyphony with its two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, was more intellectual and complex. Hence why polyphony was accused by the Catholic church of obscuring biblical texts - and regulated.

But let’s go back to the term ‘klapa’. It is said to originate from Trieste slang, from the verb ‘capulata’ meaning to bind or to be fastened, which originally related to a group of animals in a herd or flock. In dialect it means a gathering of people linked by a group, or certain mutual relationships, but primarily by friendship. Apparently the word appeared in the 19th century, when there were many links between Trieste and the Croatian coast. Klapa as a folk phenomenon appeared at the end of the first half of the 19th century. Group or gang or gathering never had any pejorative connotations as singing was viewed as purely a leisure activity, and separate from any political or religious connections.

As the evolution of the name klapa from its Italian roots shows, Croatia is where many cultures converge. Klapa is an excellent example of the coexistence of the area’s different musical expressions because music doesn’t just consist of sound, but it’s defined by its living contexts. Music and therefore multipart singing is an important part of the social, political and cultural segments of contemporary societies. The mid-19th century was a turbulent period in the history of many European nations. Dalmatians, as well as other Croatians, started to become aware of their national identity. This national revival manifested itself in a variety of cultural events. Choirs, orchestras, mandolin orchestras, accordion orchestras and so on sprouted like 'mushrooms after rain'. All of these were important influences on klapa singing.

As I introduced earlier, three different types of klapa have evolved over time – traditional klapa, festival klapa and modern or neo klapa. Festival klapa's popularity began in the 1960s which led to the establishment of the first festivals of klapa singing and performance. After 40 years of existence, Festival dalmatinskih klapa in Omiš, is still "the Mecca of klapa singing" and the ultimate goal of every klapa group. It seems that the difference between the traditional or festival klapa, and the modern clapper is that of longevity. Many of the pop versions that you can find on youtube only last for a season, whereas the simple unaccompanied traditional songs are performed again and again.

Rather tellingly the history of modern klapa commenced in the 1990s with the beginning of the newly established Croatian state. Social and political changes at the beginning of the 1990s have changed the repertoire and created new occasions for Klapa performances. Songs from World War II or working songs of the Socialist period that had been an obligatory part of the repertoire of the previous political system are not found in the modern klapa repertoire. New compositions have been created for modern klapa which include Croatian patriotic and political songs. Given this, I wonder if klapa will maintain its original non-political purpose, especially with the rise of nationalism throughout Europe. The attitude towards religion has also changed and the modern klapa now has a number of compositions on sacred themes within its repertoire that they perform during mass, or in concerts in sacred sites.

In my opinion this brings the art form back almost full circle. I remain sceptical that klapa is an modern phenomenon, and purely a product of the 19th century folk revival. For instance, the church has always been a natural breeding ground for the development of music and talented musicians. Instances of a few members of a church choir gathering in a convivial drinking establishment, improvising with secular words and sacred tunes can be imagined. The influences on klapa singing style has long been a topic of discussion amongst Croatian scholars. The Omiš festival has been a wealth of information for comparison and classification. Influences include recurring folk melodies and songs of love and longing, the Gregorian chant and Glagolitic church traditions, Italian or broader Mediterranean melodies, marching and rousing songs, songs from the interior and northern regions of Croatia, and songs taken from old and contemporary pop hits.

I want to take a couple of examples from one of the most interesting influences - the Gregorian chant. With no immediate context, klapa for me is reminiscent of many religious chorals, because I’ve spent many years in a number of choirs which focused on early church music. For example many pieces begin with a tenor plainsong and then a small choir launches into choral homophony. Just as klapa does. The main difference is that modern church choirs are reliant on the musical notation, and less on improvisation. But it must be remembered that even something as iconic as Allegri’s Miserere mei deus was often improved and improvised by talented 17th century papal choir choristers

One scholar compared the melody of Lipa li si, Mare moja (Mary you are so beautiful) with a melodic line of a Kyrie I Gregorian chant from the 10th century and found similarities, and the second part of the song is based on another liturgical piece. He says that the melody of the klapa song is a consistent third - a musical third - over the melody of the liturgical song. Here are the lyrics:

Lipa li si, Mare moja, Lipja jesi od anðela, Jo, da mi je ka Danice, Zagledati tvoje lice

You are so beautiful my Mare, More beautiful than an angel, Oh if I could, like the morning star, Gaze at your face

However I would suggest that the motifs in the lyrics of this incredibly beautiful piece are almost entirely religious and it wouldn’t be out of place in a church context. ‘Morning star’ is a possible reference to Venus and the goddess of love, but is also consistent with Marian worship. The lilting, almost trilling, high notes on danice reinforces the sparkling beauty of the bright planet. Should a group of klapa gentlemen wish to serenade me with this song under my window romantically, then they would be welcome.

Another interesting religious influence comes from the Old Church Slavonic liturgy and also contains Gregorian chanting, as well as Croatian folklore and Byzantine church music. This type of church singing is still preserved on some Croatian islands around Zadar further up the Dalmatian coast. The earliest mention of glagolitic singing in Croatia was 1177, when Pope visited the area. In 1368 the Missal of Duke Novak has musical symbols above the Glagolitic text, as does the Hrvoje Missal, written in 1404 by scribe Butko probably in Zadar.

And finally the importance of nostalgia and the lyrics, no presentation on klapa would be complete without mentioning this element. As I have already suggested love and lost love are central, but there is also a yearning for the beauties of home and the natural landscape. These are intimately tied up with nostalgia, and this applies to all types of klapa,, but is more easily analysed in the modern or neo klapa which can be found on YouTube. Recent scholarship is focusing on the links between modern/neo klapa and the nostalgia industry.

Many of the music videos you can see act like adverts for the Croatian Tourist Board, with references to pre-industrial traditions, ancient streets with stone houses and taverns, stereotypically beautiful women, and wistful yet macho romantic men, as well as the singers themselves. The klapa singers trigger nostalgia on a different level than the people in the videos because they are telling the story, and their musical harmony suggests unity, community and sociability are key. There is much to be said here, especially against the aforementioned political situations and global economic issues.

Which begs the question, against all this tradition, what is the future of klapa, where is it going? A living art form like music is not set in stone? What happens when it is nearly Klapa? What about other musical forms in the region?

European Voices: Multipart singing in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. I edited by Ardian Ahmedaja, Gerlinde Haid
Longing Is Belonging: Nostalgia and Identity in Croatian Popular (Heritage) Music Eni Buljubašić, University of Split, Croatia
Caleta - various

1 comment:

  1. Excellent summary of klapa, thank you! I have fallen in love with this musical genre since discovering it after I returned from my first trip to Croatia last year...and especially after discovering Klapa Sufit (my favorite klapa group) on YouTube. I appreciate your historical info and am sharing a link to your article on the Facebook fan page I run for Klapa Sufit.