Ojkanje is a traditional and increasingly rare type of polyphonic folk singing associated with wide swaths of rural, mountainous Croatia.
Women singing ojkavica songsCroatian National Tourist Board
Folk costume of SinjCroatian National Tourist Board
Ojkanje has a very distinct sound that results from a combination of melisma, or the stretching of syllables over several notes, throat singing, and singing at a very high volume. Because the folksong form is at risk of dying out, in 2010 it was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
Women preparing to singCroatian National Tourist Board
The sound that defines Ojkanje is produced by throat singing, also called overtone singing, where the singer manipulates the vocal tract to create a voice-shaking, or vibrating effect. Ojkanje can be performed by solo singers skilled at overtone singing, or by two or more singers singing polyphonically — meaning each one is singing a different melody at the same time. The latter two-part singing is today the most prevalent form of Ojkanje.
Group of women ready for singingCroatian National Tourist Board
Another dominant characteristic of Ojkanje is the very high volume at which it is sung. To listeners not accustomed to the song form, Ojkanje can sound like shouting.
Melisma — the singing of a single syllable over several notes — is also central to Ojkanje.
In typical Ojkanje singing with two or more singers, one voice begins to sing, then another joins with a different melody, which may consist solely of stretched-out syllables (melisma) rather than actual words. If other singers are present they will join in, usually singing in unison with the second voice but often in different melodies. Ojkanje singing is always a cappella, with no musical accompaniment. Lyrics are typically about love, faith and one’s geographic roots, and may touch on political and social issues.
Happy group of people in their traditional costumesCroatian National Tourist Board
Ojkanje is considered an archaic song form and possibly the oldest extant song form in the Balkans. Its roots can be traced to the pre-Slavic Illyrian culture, meaning it dates to before the 7th or 8th century CE. Illyria was the name the ancient Greeks and Romans gave to the region of Europe composed of what are now Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Kosovo. In the mountainous, sparsely populated terrain of these countries,
Ojkanje may have developed as a way for pastoral peoples to connect and communicate over long distances, which would explain the tradition of singing at a very loud volume. Geography also led to highly localized and regionalized variations in Ojkanje, with different forms of the folksong exclusive to towns, mountain ranges and even to areas between rivers.
In the Kingdom of Yugoslavia
In the early decades of the 20th century, Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but political factions were trying to create an independent Croatian state. This led to a renewed interest in rural Croat traditions and the organization of folk festivals focused on regional music, costume, dancing and singing. Thus Ojkanje was strongly linked to the burgeoning Croatian national identity.
Cute couple in festive costumesCroatian National Tourist Board
The homeland war of the 1990s, followed by high numbers of people migrating from rural to urban areas, resulted in an even more greatly reduced population in these rural areas and fewer practitioners of Ojkanje.
Today, Ojkanje performers are typically of older generations and, by attrition, their numbers are shrinking. The very real risk of the folk art form disappearing entirely is what led UNESCO to include it on its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
Male costume from SinjCroatian National Tourist Board
Ojkanje was historically an oral tradition passed down from elders to younger generations and without any written form. In the present day, video and audio recordings and interviews with Okjanje singers are not only preserving Ojkanje traditions, but allowing the folksong form to be more widely shared and learned.
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Regional cultural groups, called KUDs, practice Ojkanje and seek to preserve the tradition. They perform at folk festivals and events around the country, and appear on Croatian television and radio programs. The UNESCO designation in 2010 also helped to renew national focus on this declining folksong form.
The Ojkanje tradition is found in various parts of rural, inland Croatia, especially the Dalmatian hinterland, which is the inland, hilly, sparsely populated southernmost region of the country.
Biokovo top with a view to the seasideCroatian National Tourist Board
It’s also a tradition linked to central Croatia and some coastal communities, and variations of Ojkanje — with different names and idiosyncrasies — figure in the folk traditions of the neighboring Balkan states of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.