Thursday, September 06, 2007
The End of the Dancing Bears
The ascension of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU this year has resulted in some major cultural changes, most of them positive, especially if you are a bear. In July the last dancing bears in Bulgaria were bought from their owners and “retired” to a bear reserve in the Rila mountains. While fans of cute toothless bears rejoice I personally wonder about the fate of the families that led the bears. To be sure, the bears were not models of proper pet care. They often had their teeth pulled, were malnourished, and were taught to neurotically “dance” by making the cubs stand on hot coals while music played, strikingly similar to the training of Wal-Mart employees.Leading dancing bears had been a part of Balkan culture with roots going back to early Byzantine times, when bear leading Gypsies were a regulated guild in Constantinople. Dancing animals were required for Imperial processions. This was Byzantium, remember, where foreign policy practice often meant hanging ambassadors upside down over smokey fires before poking their eyes out. My how times have changed! Leading dancing bears is still widely practiced in India and it may have been brought to Europe by the migration of the Roma towards Europe from India sometime before the first millennium AD. Most of the bear leaders working in Bulgaria and in Istanbul were Romanian speaking Gypsies who lived in the east central hills of Thrace. These were Ursarii Gypsies, and they didn’t refer to themselves as Roma but as Romanii (Romanians) having lost the use of the Romani (Gypsy) language. In Romania proper the Ursarii still speak Romani and refer to themselves as Richinari. Nobody has led dancing bears in Romania for years, but the musical tradition of the Ursarii is maintained by Napoleon Constantin and the Shukar Collective, which is a world music collaboration between some Bucharest DJs and the Ursarii family that featured on the Taraf des Haidouks’ Dumbala, Dumba CD. Bear leading was banned in Turkey about ten years ago and about the only place it survived was in Bulgaria. During the summers Ursarii would bring their bears to the to the Black Sea resort towns like Varna and Balchik hoping to scoop some change from tourists taking photos of the dancing bears. Often an Ursar would lead his bear right into a café and people would throw money just to get the beast away from them. I mean, think about it... A trendy sidewalk café. A 350 kilo Carpathian brown bear. It works on so many levels.In Romania the bears danced to songs accompanied by drumming and wooden spoon percussion. In Bulgaria, however, bear dance music was always accompanied by the gadulka, a pear shaped fiddle with as many as twelve sympathetic strings which give the instrument a shimmering, ethereal sound. I dabbled a bit in bear leading about five years ago while traveling in Bulgaria. Everybody has a little “extreme sport” story somewhere – the time I bungee jumped or the time I parachuted on a dare. Mine is playing for the dancing bear. I was traveling from Ruse to Varna by train and had met a couple who were carrying a gadulka. They spoke Romanian and were going to play street music along the beach in Varna. Dimitru, the gadular, had sold his bear to the western bear protection agents and was now seeking to make a living… without a bear.We sat in the same compartment and Dimitru played for hours, and later in Varna I met them on the street and asked how business was. “Terrible. You have to have a bear.” The other alternative is a monkey, usually a rhesus obtained from a university lab. Monkeys are a definite step down from bears, and they are usually old and neither cute nor happy. And they really don’t dance well, compared to bears, causing their owners to fling them around by their chains while trying to play the gadulka. I saw one monkey actually break his owner’s gadulka bow. Dimitru’s competition in Varna had a monkey which would terrorize café patrons, snarling and pinching at their dresses and pants legs and showing off his pathetic little moneky thing until someone paid the gadulka player to get the horrible little primate away from them. Bears don't behave like this. Bears have a sense of dignity. In a whole day of bearless street playng, Dimitru had made about four Euros. “It doesn’t work without a bear.” Based on my own experiences with hip European café life, I suggested he try an act involving a dancing poodle… or maybe a parrot… but no. “It has to be a bear.” A few days later I saw another bear leader in downtown Varna… Fumie wanted to take a picture, but the bear leader’s wife wanted money. I was just interested in the gadulka, so when the bear approached I said in Romanian “Nu vine cu ursul!” (Don’t come with the bear!) “Are you a journalist” “No. I’m a musician.” Suddenly I was something they could understand, and this thing spoke Romanian… so the bear leader handed me his gadulka. And the the bear started coming towards me… so I played. And the bear stopped and began swaying. Finally, I had a truly captive audience. The end of bear dance leading in the Balkans, however, is tragic in its own way. What happens to the Gypsies who lived from bear leading? Most are given a few thousand Euros to hand in their bears and the press is told that they can use this money for job training, but to this day I have never seen an Ursar who has actually completed a course in computer networking systems… It seems a sort of historical watershed has been reached. 2007. The Year the Dancing Bears Vanished.