Monday, August 09, 2010

Koprivshtitsa: Like Burning Man... for Bulgarian Music.

We are in Koprivshtitsa, a mountain village in the heart of the Balkan Mountains in central Bulgaria, and we are surrounded by music. Literally – music on every street corner, in every café, and music sprawling over the mountain slope behind us. Think of it as the Burning Man of Bulgarian folk music. Every five years Koprivshtitsa hosts a folk festival unlike any other, a weekend filled with folk musicians, dancers, and singers from all regions of Bulgaria, none of whom are professionals.None of the prancey, choreographed showbiz routines that usually plague national folk festivals. These are village folks, or representative regional groups that may meet weekly to practice singing or dance, competing in annual regional festivals and eventually reaching the level of being sponsored to perform in Koprivshtitsa every five years. The village fills up each evening as buses arrive to unload some of the best Bulgarian folk dancers and musicians in an army tent camp set about mile outside of the center. Some of the best music happens here, without an audience, around the tents and beer pavilions as the groups relax and visit and dance late into the night.
During the day the action moves uphill to seven stage areas on the mountain above town. The performer to audience ratio is something like 1:1, and for the Bulgarians it is as much a chance for them to meet foreigners and shower them with gracious Bulgarian hospitality, which means being offered drinks, food, and having a gaggle of grannies decked out in full Thracian folk costumes grabbing Fumie and her friend from Tokyo, Rieko, to have their picture taken with them (for some reason Rieko gets more attention than Fumie…)I’m amazed at how well these folks hold up in the heat, dressed head to toe in layers of heavy folk costumes, some part of which is always made of raw wool, but there were no casualties that I know of during the festival.I play Macedonian and Bulgarian music, although less these days, but I’ve been able to fight off my compulsive acquisition of folk instruments. It isn’t easy. There are gaida vendors up on the hill, and I was thinking of picking up a new bagpipe, but the instrument has been subtly changing over the last twenty years. Except for the players of the large Rhodope kaba gaida, almost nobody performs using the drone pipe anymore. Plugging the drone makes it easier to play with accordions and other orchestral instruments, but it’s a bagpipe, fer chrissake, you need a drone.Also, gaida reeds have become harder, making a much louder instrument better suited to playing for larger crowds, but the cost is a loss of the buzzy warmth that one hears on older gaida recordings. I bumped into UCLA ethnomusicologist Tim Rice last night, who has been studying Bulgarian folk music and its sociological dimensions for four decades. We commiserated about soulless composite gaida reeds a bit, but he pointed out that that is the way folk music adapts and changes. Nothing you can do ‘bout it.
Dr. Rice is the author of “May It Fill Your Soul” a fantastic book and CD set examing the development of Bulgarian folk music through the experiences of two master musicians – Ivan and Todora Varimezov – whose lives spanned the changes of the twentieth century. If you are interested in Balkan bagpipes, Bulgarian music, or how humans learn music, get this book. Rice focuses on the concept of how Bulgarians learn their devilishly complicated music, which traditionally was “learned but not taught.” It is an eye opener to anyone who has ever tried to learn a folk musical form or instrument from a culture other than their own.We’ve been to the last two Koprivshtitsa festivals, in 2000, and 2005, and at the last one we discovered a tradition that I had not known of before, the Koleda dancers of Yambol.These are troops (literally in Bulgarian “cheta”) of young men, often Gypsies, who do a marching and dancing routine each Christamas and New Year and compete against each other for the title of best of the year. The dances are related to the ancient ritual dance tradition in the Balkans such as that of the Calusar in Romania as well as the moresca dance of southern Europe and even the Morris dance of England.
And these are some heavy masculine dudes, tattooed up the wazoo, bayonets tucked in their boots, knocking back buckets of beer before each performance and dancing non-stop in between sets – often dancing in feminine belly dance styles. Really tough tattooed muscle guys are allowed to do that. The Koleda troops are so fascinating that I will write more about them later in the blog, but Koprivshtitsa has almost no internet access – there are a couple of hotels up the hill, but we can live without wifi for a week, can’t we? Can’t we?In fact, Bulgaria is pretty well wired and internet savvy – anybody who finds themselves with some time to spare in Europe should make the effort to take a detour to Bulgaria. For tourists, it is about the most affordable place in Europe. Face it – regarding tourism, Hungary is rip-off city, Romania has gotten expensive, leaving few places where one can just relax and spend time without feeling like you are being milked for cash. Bulgaria – which has a fantastic traditional culture, a beautiful Black sea coast, and lots of stunning mountain scenery – deserves more travel attention. Food, internal transport, lodgings are a fraction of the western or even Eastern European price and you will never feel ripped off ( except if you take a taxi that waits in front of the Sofia train station. Use the taxi stand in front of the neighboring bus station instead.)
Our next stop is Istanbul, the city that stole my heart and made me start this blog back in 2006. Music? Food? Tradition? Istanbul has it all in spades. I will miss Bulgaria, but the Ottoman influence pervades Bulgarian culture in many of its more positive ways – the hospitality, the pursuit of pleasure in food and music. I’ll be back. The next Koprivshtitsa Festival is only a half decade away.


zmkc said...

What were the reeds made of before? Were they home-made and now mass-produced?

dumneazu said...

The older reeds were carved from a single piece of river reed. The newer ones are built from a composite plastic material with a bit of reed - often cut from a saxophone reed - attached to the base. They are home made.