The Collection of musical instruments incorporates the gusle from Slavonia, Syrmia, Lika, the Dalmatian hinterland and the Dinaric Arc region, as well as Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania. Most of them come from Montenegro and the Dinaric hinterland.
Kuhač’s notes from his field research provide an insight into the distribution of fiddles and their role in the country life in the second half of the 19th century. In his work “Toward the History of Music of the South Slavs: Cultural-historical Study” Kuhač states:
“Throughout Serbia, Syrmia, Bosnia and Herzegovina one can find fiddles in every home; the young and the old, men and women, even children, play the fiddle – the priest and the soldier, the farmer and the mayor, the bandit and the beggar. The folk hold the skill of fiddling (guslanje) in such a high regard that they offer the fiddle to the guest (may he even be a foreigner), immediately after a short chat and some refreshments, telling him to play it and sing along. They turn to the fiddle as to their most loyal support, which they trust with all their joy and sorrow. Without the sounds of the fiddle no feast or celebration could go by; without it as their solace the Slavic people would neither be able to endure their suffering, nor preserve their nationality, nor keep their poetry and history for posterity” (Kuhač, 1877: 8).
The fiddle (the gusle) is generally made from wood and the fiddles from the Collection of musical instruments are mostly made of maple wood. They consist of several parts: the head (the very top of the neck) most commonly shaped like an animal’s head (of a horse, chamois or a snake) or human figures (such as folk heroes); the fretless neck with a string which is never pressed to it but instead the players’ fingers rather lightly lean against it; the body (called karlica, varjača or korpus) which is always made out of a single piece of wood and covered with tanned sheepskin, lambskin or kid skin. There are five to ten tiny sound holes (called glasnice) piercing the skin in order to obtain the best possible sound. At the top of the neck, just below the head, there is a perforated hole with an inserted peg (čivija) for tuning the string and there is a bridge resting on the skin stretched over the body, through which the string is strained. The bow is usually made from hardwood, in a curved shape and has about forty horsehairs taken from a horse’s tail.
The fiddle is most often lavishly decorated with various carved designs. At the bottom of the body there is most commonly an incised cross. The folk put an extraordinary symbolic value on the fiddle, thus Kuhač states that “...precious old fiddles are kept with great reverence and their owners would not sell them at any cost...” (Kuhač, 1877: 6).
According to Kuhač the degree of ornamentation indicates a fiddle’s value, therefore the most treasured fiddles are the ones most lavishly decorated. This claim is corroborated by a story he heard during the field research – that a fiddler beggar had a beautifully ornamented fiddle with plenty of “...carvings and adornments...”, which he inherited from his grandfather. Kuhač allegedly offered him a substantial sum of money hoping to purchase the fiddle, however, the fiddler “... admitted that although he could well use the money to repair his little house in Budimci (in Slavonia), he could never part with his fiddle, especially having in mind his dying grandfather’s words to always hide his fiddle from strangers and enemies, and to be wary of gentlemen in particular, paying close attention to all the sings of the latter” (Kuhač, 1877: 6-7).
The social function of the fiddle was especially pronounced at the end of a working day when everyday stories were recounted.
Historical events that had occurred “...between South Slavs and their bitter foe the Turk” were also narrated with fiddle accompaniment (Kuhač, 1881: 268). Even today, fiddles are used as an integral part of traditional Croatian heritage at certain celebrations and festivities in order to portray a war event, celebrate in verse war heroes as well as everyday life.
There is also mention of blind fiddlers in the literature. Blind fiddlers were travelling musicians who did not wander about aimlessly but had their itinerary. Kuhač writes: “…since blind people always take the same route, they set up regular lodging in foreign parts, in a sort of beggars’ inns. Such an inn known to me is the one frequented by Syrmian blind men in Lašćina, a village near Zagreb, at peasant Očić’s place. These inns are rather profitable because fiddlers spends more money than one might expect since the inn-keeper is also their agent who sells the eatables they gather by begging. In fact, it would be too great a burden to both the beggar and his horse to carry home all the gifts in kind” (Kuhač, 1881: 173).