• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Counter-intuitive behavior

Common sense and agora-savvy would seem to indicate that the individual person who feels completely at home in more than one verbal marketplace must be rare indeed. Of course, the Pathways Project actively encourages citizenship in multiple agoras as a way to avoid agoraphobia and culture shock. But full fluency – full media-bilingualism or even -trilingualism – is another matter. Cognitive habits run deep, as we textualists can come to realize if we’re willing to look beyond our buried assumptions and conditioned reflexes about media.

Occasionally, though, we do encounter an exception that proves the rule: an individual who somehow manages to transact verbal business equally well in two different marketplaces. More than simply getting along in another, “non-mother” medium, such individuals fluently understand and fluently manage more than one cognitive technology. Because they live and act and communicate outside the mono-medium paradigms that restrict most of us, they truly do qualify for more than just multiple citizenship. Wherever they’re located at any given time, they have a foot in each of two worlds.

Nikola Vujnović

The famous expedition to study South Slavic oral epic in its natural setting, conceived and carried out by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, could not have happened without the invaluable and often underappreciated contribution of Nikola Vujnović. For Vujnović was that rare individual: a person with a foot planted securely in each of two worlds. A performing guslar himself, he sang a number of epics that were recorded acoustically or via dictation for the American scholars. But he also had enough literacy to be able to write down other poets’ performed epics from dictation.

Nikola Vujnović performing in a Dubrovnik coffeehouse, 1933

What did this native experience in both the oAgora and tAgora mean? Much more than a mere translator between languages, Vujnović served as a fully credentialed guide and intermediary between cultures and between agoras. On the one hand, he understood the South Slavic oral epic tradition from an insider’s point of view. After all, he was himself a member of that epic tradition. As a result, he was able to interview other guslari as a colleague whom they could trust and respect.

But there was another, complementary side to Vujnović’s crucially important role. To the oral world of the epic bards he could also bring inquiries conceived in the world of writing, reading, and texts, translating his employers’ questions about South Slavic epic, Homer, and oral tradition into terms the other singers could grasp.

Still another benefit of his serviceable literacy emerged later on, when Lord brought him to the Parry Collection at Harvard University to transcribe the oral epics they had recorded acoustically on large aluminum disks. Indeed, it seemed the perfect situation: a transcriber who was not only steeped in the epic register but also himself a guslar. And in many ways it was an ideal arrangement, although not in every respect. But that’s another story.

If there were ever any question of whether a single individual could acquire native fluency and profitably use it in more than a single agora, Nikola Vujnović certainly provides a “textbook” answer.

Nikola Vujnović playing the gusle
Photo courtesy of the Milman Parry Collection
of Oral Literature, Harvard University

Paolu Zedda performing in Sardinia, 2007
Photo by John Miles Foley


Paolu Zedda

The island of Sardinia boasts a vigorous tradition of competitive oral poetry that reaches back for many centuries. Similar in its general outlines to Basque bertsolaritza and numerous other contest-song traditions worldwide (including some conducted via the Internet), this genre of verbal dueling, called mutetu longu by the community, customarily involves from three to six poets. The duelers take turns “fighting” one another by improvising short poems, back and forth, on an assigned topic over a two- to three-hour period. The audience includes long-time aficionados who sit close to the action (often with recording equipment to preserve these improvised creations), as well as a cross-section of the community somewhat more removed, physically and interactively, from the central stage.

The rules for composition are forbiddingly complex, prescribing not only verse-form and vocal melody but also a complicated spatial arrangement in which the word-order within individual verses must be shuffled while maintaining rhyme. And all this while simultaneously responding cleverly to one’s competitors! Making a Sardinian mutetu, referred to as a cantada when it is sung, is truly a tour de force of oral poetic composition, usually requiring many years of listening and practicing. It emphatically puts the lie to the common ideologically based conviction that complexity in poetic composition must always involve writing.

Paolu Zedda accompanied by bass and contra singers
Photo by John Miles Foley

The foremost improviser or cantadori, as poets call themselves, in the southern Sardinian (Campidano) tradition of contest poetry is 42-year-old Paolu Flavio Zedda. His case is remarkable, and remarkably instructive for inquiries into inter-agora activities. For he is not only a respected and articulate citizen of the oAgora, highly skilled and widely admired for his performances in the oral marketplace, but also—and equally—a fully participating citizen in excellent standing in the tAgora.

And in what way, you might ask, does he keep a foot in each of these two worlds? Well, Zedda is a faculty member teaching ethnomusicology at the Università di Cagliari, with a focus on Sardinian oral traditions. And if that weren’t enough, he is also a practicing orthodontist with a substantial clientele in the Cagliari area. In other words, he isn’t only a leading oral poet in high demand (which would itself be quite an achievement) or a professor (again, a creditable position) or a dentist who specializes in straightening teeth (which of course requires advanced training). He is all three at once.

With his dual perspective of oral poet and trained academic/health care professional, and with his firsthand experience in both the oAgora and tAgora, Paolu Zedda is uniquely qualified to explain the oral tradition of mutetu longu.