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Mirko S. Dobricanin

The Gusle Player Petar Perunovic

Petar Perunovic
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Petar Perunovic was the greatest and the most popular gusle player known in the history of epic poetry and gusle players. The tumultuous times of the first couple of decades of the present century were an extremely significant turning point for our people, especially for the Serbians and Montenegrins. Balkan Wars, First World War, legendary retreat through Albania, Thessaloniki Front, and finally the reliberation and union of the fatherland were the events that could be, in a way, understood as a pendant to those of 1389 at Kosovo, since they, by all means, represent their final episode.

At that time, besides great military leaders and statesmen, the unsurpassable gusle player, Petar Perunovic, also emerged as one the famous personages. Petar was born in 1880 in the village of Drenovstica, in Pjesivci. Montenegro. He began to sing at the very early age. Often he sang sitting on an elm tree in front of his house; he was usually late for school because he would stop by Ilija Kontic, the gusle player and successor of the style elaborated by the celebrated hero, priest Milo Jovic. After he had completed his elementary-school education, Petar moved of Serbia, to Sabac, where his friend, Stanislav Vinaver, welcomed him warmly and offered him unconditioned hospitality. Under the influence of Ruza Vinaver, the famous pianist, and Stanislav's mother, Petar learned to appreciate music and decided to take her advice and go to Belgrade to attend the Mokranjac Music School. However, there he was advised to stick to his gusle and to go to a teacher-training school.

Since he had no means to support himself while attending school, he found a job us a clerk in Valjevo. There he used to visit his friend's homes and sing accompanying himself with gusle. In Valjevo he made acquaintance with two Chetnik voivodas, Vuk Popovic and Voja Tankosic. At one gusle player's concert held in Valjevo in 1908, Dobrivoje Nenadovic presented him the gusle, formerly the gift of knjaz Nikola to Jaksa Nenadovic. On the occasion Dobrivoje said: "Good gusle, but to better hands I give them, so hew the Turks". From that time and until his death. Perun (Petar's nickname) never let go of this very instrument, and today it is kept in his nephew's home in Cetinje.

That night Valjevo Perun became a professional player. He left his job, bought folk in Valjevo and set on a tour, singing at gatherings and in schools. On St. Vitus Day in 1908 he sang "The Battle of Kosovo" seated at the Monument dedicated to the heroes of Kosovo in Krusevac, while a company of soldiers fired a gun salute in his honour.

At the meeting protesting against the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Perun, attired in rich Montenegrin folk costume, mounted the statue of Knez Mihailo in Belgrade and sang several folk songs and his own improvisation "Oh, Bosnia, you poor, unfortunate one", in a strong, ecstatic voice.

He won the attention of Belgrade audience, and his photograph appeared in the papers the following day. At the meeting of the Drina detachment volunteers, he sang in front of the royal palace, and when presenting, in the name of the people, a sword to price Alexander, heir to the throne, he said: "People give you this sword to break the chains of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and gusle will praise your glory". After that, volunteers carried him on their shoulders to the Parliament, where he sang again and called people's representatives to fight for their brother's freedom. He also performed in all Belgrade advanced schools, and then he continued his tour in Serbia, and via Zlatibor, he crossed over to Sanjak. In Priboj he was imprisoned because of his singing, and knjaz Nikola was the one who interceded for his release. After that he went to Montenegro and sang at various places. In Cetinje he performed at the Zeta Center. Knjaz Nikola received him the following day and, after his singing, decorated him with Danilo Cross order. When he was leaving Marinic for Spuz and Niksic, a group of horsemen, firing their guns, saw him off, which demonstrated best of all how Montenegrins were enthusiastic about Perun's gusle playing and singing.

In 1910 he sang to the subjects of Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: in Sremski Karlovci, at the celebration of the "Prosveta" (Education) Society in Sarajevo. At the "Bulgarian hero's " jamboree in Sofia he had great success with his poem about "Slavic Brotherhood". In the following year he revisited the Vojvodina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Zagreb.

Among the most successful Perun's tours was the one to Herzegovina. "You cheered and inspirited wherever you were" are the words written in his Commemorative volume commenting this tour.

At the Panslavic Sokol gathering held in Prague in 1912 Perun performed before 60.000 participants, and then he placed his gusle on Palacky's monument as a symbol of Slavic glory and greatness.

At the outbreak of the Balkan Wars Perun joined the Montenegrin voluntary troops. During the First World War, 1914-1918, he fought with the Serbian army and he was wounded several times, first on Gucevo. His commander noted: "That the VI Regiment could endure all the strain and suffering on Gucevo, was largely made possible by the gusle player and hero, volunteer sergeant Petar Perunovic". For his accomplishment at Gucevo he was promoted to the rank of officer and decorated with the Takovo Cross order. He also passed through the Albanian Golgotha. After the Serbian army had landed at Corfu, Perun continuously sang to the thinned regiments. Old Serbian warriors always remembered Perun's song "Maiden from the Morava". On April 6th 1916 when this already famous gusle player sang "Flight to the Fatherland", the supreme commander, prince Alexander Karadjordjevic, decorated him with St. Sava order of the V degree. Soldier's impressions were unforgettable. Sreten Vukosavljevic, remembering Perun, wrote among other things: "I also remember the day when we saw you off to the boat... and we cried because we were afraid of submarines. We believed that God will guard you, because you are a God's man ... you left for America and we went to the front".

With his tireless voice, that like a crystal mountain spring poured into his listener's hearts and souls, Perun managed to gather about 10000 volunteers in America for the Tessaloniki front. When they had gathered in Chicago before their departure for Europe, a ceremony was held at which Dr. Biankini in the name of the American government gifted Perun with a sword as a token of recognition. A unit of soldiers paid honour to volunteers leaving to fight for their conquered homeland.

At the end of the war Perun had the rank of a I class captain and numerous decorations, including Karadjordje's Star.

After the war, as a gusle player, he visited almost every corner of his united fatherland. He sang the well known epic poems but also his own improvised refrains on patriotism, moral and brotherly life in harmony. Everywhere he was eagerly welcomed and cordially seen off.

Years between 1924-1934 he spent once more in America. There was not a single immigrant's colony or respectable home that Perun and his gusle had not visited. He was also Tesla's and Pupin's guest and he filled them both with enthusiasm. From many compliments we cite the one uttered by Dr. Marinkovic from Washington: "Petar Perunovic holds like a lit up torch out of which warmth and light sprout, it becomes a torch of the entire nation's genius."

On his way back he was invited to visit Paris. There, at the Sorbonne, he gave a performance with introductory lecture by professor Omanne, a great admirer of our nation. When he returned to the country, he was not pleased at all with the state it was in, very different from what he hoped for and aspired. He was overwhelmed with disappointment and bitterness. He sang rarely.

Two prominent features of the gusle player, Petar Perunovic, maybe discerned from what has been said so far: he was a zealous national missionary and he hand his own poetic and singing individuality Radoslav Medenica says about Perun: "He is a God given artist who lives with his art, who is completely saturated with it, and who is its very personification: that is why Perun could penetrate into the soul of every man and establish permanent ties between people and their past".

Living with the Vinaver family helped him develop enthusiasm for music and "accomplish the highest standards among all Yugoslav gusle players... reform and modernize both the epic and lyrical singing, adapting cautiously to the European musical idiom, without any radical disturbance of the folk tradition", as Jovan Vukmanovic put it. "The gamut of his singing was very broad: heroic high tones, some melancholic, soul-stirring grief, and ghastly tragicalness, lyrical ardour and ecstasy. Pero could masterly conjure up all that for his listeners", says Stanislav Vinaver.

He had gentle and meek personality, feeling no envy, or a desire to impose or distinguish himself. He soon gave away all of his fortune earned in America. He spent years of occupation in scantiness. He rejoiced when the liberation came but, alas, political slogans had replaced the gusle. Soon he left for his village, where he slowly, withdrawn to himself, waned away.

He quietly passed away in the Zeta River on June 10th 1952.

From Mirko Dobricanin's book "Guslar Perun", Belgrade 2001