Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Time to Ring in the New Year: A Tale of Two Composers: Johann Strauss and Diko Iliev

With January 1 just around the corner, it's almost time for the annual New Year's Concert from Vienna. While the rest of my compatriots park themselves in front of the TV watching the college football games, I'm enjoying music by the Strauss family and other composers who wrote dance music during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What few people are aware of is that the Johann Strausses, father and son, wrote music based on folklore themes. The Austrian ländler, a dance in 3/4 time, was the forerunner of the waltz.

Here's a demonstration of this dance, which is very popular in Austria and Bavaria:

Johann Strauss Sr., along with another composer, Josef Lanner, incorporated the ländler into many of their compositions and popularized the waltz, a more refined form of the countrified Austrian folk dance, in Vienna. Strauss Sr.'s most famous piece, however, was not a waltz, but the Radetsky March. There is a connection between Radetzky and Bulgaria's most famous poet, Hristo Botev. You can see a video of the Radetsky March, played as an encore in every New Year's Concert, here:

The Vienna of the Strauss family was, and still is, a multi-ethnic cosmopolitan city. It was one of the capitals of the great Austro-Hungarian empire, which encompassed most of Central and Eastern Europe. It included the two ruling countries of Austria and Hungary, and also what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, western Romania, northern Italy, parts of Bosnia, Serbia and Poland. This empire was home to people who spoke many different languages and were of different nationalities. They did not always get along.

Somehow the emperor, Franz Josef, managed to hold this polyglot empire together for nearly 50 years, until his death in 1916, when it started to break apart. Two years before, all hell broke loose in Austria-Hungary when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was to inherit the empire. This was the event that precipitated World War I, and the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918.

It's time for some music by Johann Strauss, Jr. This is a polka (a folk dance native to Bohemia, located in the present day Czech Republic) with a spicy Hungarian theme. This performance of Eljen a Magyar is from a telecast of the 2009 New Year's concert.

The German name for the Austro-Hungarian empire was "Die Donaumonarchie" (Danube Monarchy) after the river that held it all together. As for the color, Strauss got it wrong. The German language has a number of words for a person who's had a little too much wine (or any other kind of booze). One of them is "blau" (blue). So it's possible that when Strauss wrote this magnificent piece of work, he may have had one too many at the tavern, and in his alcoholic stupor, thought the Danube was flowing with wine. (By the way, the Wachau region of Austria, along the river, is an important wine producing area).

The footage, from the 2010 New Year's Concert, is amazing, especially if you've seen it on TV instead of that little YouTube screen. And if you have actually been there, like I have, the scenery is out of this world. The video is but a shadow of the real thing.

The Danube, the River of Many Names (read this for an explanation:) flows through a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, most of which are mentioned in the video. However, the Austrian TV, who produced this, omitted a few important ones. One of them was Bulgaria, the birthplace of composer Diko Iliev.

Diko Iliev was born in a small town across the Danube from Romania in 1898 (a year before the death of Johann Strauss the 2nd). He wrote music based on Bulgarian folk dances for brass and wind ensembles. His most famous work, Dunavsko (Danubian) Horo, begins the New Year all over Bulgaria, and everyone dances to it at midnight.

The next video from the Universe of YouTube celebrates Bulgaria's entry into the European Union on the first of January, 2007. The first piece is a choral rendition of the Bulgarian national anthem, which leads into Dunavsko Horo at minute 1.50, then concludes with the finale of the last movement of the Beethoven 9th Symphony, the end of which was unfortunately cut short. Notice how the fireworks are in time with the music!

For more on the life and music of Diko Iliev, click here:

Diko Iliev was a versatile musician. Not only did he compose music based on northwestern Bulgarian folk motifs, he wrote marches, tangos and waltzes. His music is well known and loved in Bulgaria, and always played during celebrations such as New Year's Day and national holidays. Unlike Strauss, who composed primarily for the aristocracy and the upper classes, Diko Iliev was a composer of the people. When he died in 1984, busloads of mourners travelled to Montana, a town in Northwestern Bulgaria, for his funeral.

Diko Iliev's music captured the soul of the Bulgarian people as much as the music of the Strauss family did in Austria. Give it a listen, and you'll understand why.

Happy New Year 2011 to all!

This post is dedicated to an old friend, Don, who passed away suddenly in September, 2010. He especially loved the music of Beethoven and the Strauss family. My husband and I spent New Year's Eve with him and his wife when we lived in New York in the 1980's. He left this world much too soon and we miss him very much.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Favorite Bulgarian Folklore Videos on YouTube (Part 2)

Have you noticed that year end is the time for lists? For example: the ten worst songs of 2010? Or the ten best movies?

Since there's a winter storm warning today, there's nothing better on a day like this than to write about one of my favorite subjects, Bulgarian folklore, while sitting at my computer, next to the radiator.

Although not all of these are this year's videos, here are some more of my favorites from the Universe of YouTube, and most of them are funny, in keeping with the holiday spirit. By the way, this is part two in a series, for part one, click here:

This is a delightful rachenitsa (folk dance in 7/8 time) from the Pirin region of Bulgaria, Myatolo Lenche Yabuka. It's the story of a young girl who throws an apple, hoping for it to land on a handsome young man, and instead it falls by a man old enough to be her grandfather. The old man is thrilled, the young lady is upset, and the mom plots to get rid of the old man. This enthusiastic group is from Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.

More humor, this time a spoof on bad behavior in the classroom. Notice that the students, as well as the teacher, are all male, and that they get a little bit wild. In the Bad Old Days, teachers had no qualms about using corporal punishment. Fortunately no dancers were harmed during the creation of this video :)

The resolution on this is not the greatest, but I'm partial to videos with kids and teens, especially when they sing and dance. The song is Nazad, Nazad Mome Kalino. Not a happy song, although you wouldn't know it from watching these young ladies.

Although this is more pop culture than folklore, the female singer wears this beautiful elaborate embroidered outfit, while the rest of the crew, including some guys dressed up in soccer uniforms, sing and dance a rachenitsa about Paul the Prophetic Octopus, who went to Pulpo Heaven a couple of months ago (he died from natural causes). He predicted the Spanish victory in the 2010 World Cup. And he was right, to the chagrin of the Germans....

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

A "Bulgarican" Christmas - A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Christmas Celebrations

This year's holiday post is a cross-cultural comparison of Christmas celebrations.

Unfortunately, Christmas in the States nowadays is associated with lots of shopping, too much to do and too little time to do it, and obligatory gatherings, such as the work holiday party, and the visiting of relatives with which you have little in common.

Especially in these difficult financial times, families overextend themselves with buying more presents than they can afford.

This time of year would be so much more fun if people got together and sang, danced, and played music instead. Holidays are about family and friends having fun, not worrying about who to buy for and "can we afford it?"

The canned music coming from the loudspeakers in stores and malls is enough to make me want to jump off the nearest bridge. There is only so much of "Let it Snow" and "Frosty the Snowman" that I can take. By the way, I hate winter and I hate snow even more. Sometimes I feel like Oscar the Grouch this time of year.

Now, lets see how people who actually know how to have fun celebrate the holidays.

I come from a culture that loves to celebrate Christmas with lots of music and dancing. My family originates from Puerto Rico, where holiday partying can get quite lively. There is a tradition of musicians, singers and their friends going from door to door, eating and drinking at each home, called parranda.

The celebrations last for about two weeks, from Christmas Eve until Epiphany (January 6th), which is the day the Three Wise Men, who followed a star rising in the East (they were astrologers) found the baby Jesus and came bearing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Here are some wild and crazy Puerto Ricans in action during Christmastime. Back in the day, the parranderos used to go to every house in the neighborhood, unfortunately due to the crime situation in Puerto Rico nowadays, the party is usual held in someone's home, with family and close friends.

This is group of musicians from Mayaguez having a song fest outdoors in the plaza. What I love about these songs is that they're lively, upbeat, and yes, you can dance to them. Not to mention that the weather in Puerto Rico in January, when this was taken, is a comfortable 75 degrees. With the weather we've been having I've contemplated selling my soul to spend the holidays in the tropics....

By the way, my step-grandfather was a musician, played the guitar, and went on parranda every Christmas. My grandmother, unfortunately, never joined him. She missed out on all the fun.

This video from the Universe of YouTube shows Bulgarians in Tampa, Florida, having a blast at Christmastime, doing one of their favorite dances, the rachenitsa. There is a sizeable Hispanic population in Tampa, and if they had crashed this celebration while doing their parranda, they would have fit right in!

For more on cross-cultural connections between Puerto Rico and Bulgaria read:

Here's another Bulgarian Christmas celebration, complete with falling "snow" amd folk dancers strutting their stuff. The stamping of the feet and the ringing of cowbells is supposed to drive out evil spirits, and the army of bagpipe players certainly helps :)

Wherever Bulgarians are at Christmastime, there is bound to be a party going on. This one takes place in St. Louis. This is a family affair, and the kids get to dance too!

I would like to wish everyone a stress free holiday, with lots of music and dancing. Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, and Весела Коледа!

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Folklore, Food and Fun with Divi Zheni and Zornitsa

(photos: K.Brown & S. Ward)

On the 3rd of December I went with one of my dance buddies to Arlington, a town near Boston, to see a performance of Divi Zheni (Wild Women), a women's group, and Zornitsa (Morning Star), the men's group. Both groups sing and some of the members play traditional instruments, such as the gaida (bagpipe), gadulka (fiddle), and tupan (drum).

What is unusual about Divi Zheni and Zornitsa is that everyone is American except for the music director, Tatiana Sarbinska. They performed at the folk festival at Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria in August of this year. They were very well received.

Bulgarian music has a magical effect on susceptible individuals, and it has been known to bewitch them so much that they throw themselves fully into this folklore thing, to the point that they learn to play folk instruments and wear traditional costumes. Then there are those who take up dancing; they can be recognized by their accessories, which are belts (to hold on to the dancer(s) next to them) and handkercheifs for twirling.

For more on Americans Bewitched by Bulgaria (yes, there are quite a few of us out there), read:

Tatiana Sarbinska is a world renowned singer, who in another life, was a soloist for the Pirin Ensemble of Blagoevgrad. Nowadays, she's the music director of Divi Zheni and Zornitsa in Boston, and another ensemble, Orfeia, in Washington, DC.

Here's a sample of some delightful Pirin Ensemble music from the Universe of YouTube:

This is Tatiana Sarbinska performing her most famous song: Katerino Mome:

My friend and I got to the place early, and a lady there had brought some hula hoops. I couldn't resist and placed one around my waist, twirling it around for a minute or so. Tatiana saw me and asked to try it herself. She kept that hoop spinning for at least a minute, maybe more! Too bad it was the day I forgot to bring my camera.

The evening wasn't just about hooping, there was plenty of dancing. Most of the songs and dances were from the Pirin region of Bulgaria, where Tatiana is from. This is the region of southwestern Bulgaria which borders Macedonia and Greece, which has a distinct musical style.

You can read more on the folklore regions of Bulgaria here:
There was also plenty of delicious home made food. Several people had brought Bulgarian specialties: banitsa, spinach banitsa (which tasted like Greek spanokopita), tarator, and tikvenik.

Tikvenik is the autumn version of banitsa. This particular one was spiral shaped, and it was very tasty! It's made with pumpkin, walnuts, phyllo dough, and other tasty things and brushed with butter. Here's a link to the recipe if you're feeling ambitious:

By the end of the evening, the food was all gone.

For more on Balkan food read:

I couldn't resist buying a small Bulgarian cloth which now hangs in my kitchen, along with my Dutch windmills and German woodcuttings. If you look closely, you can see little eyes going across it. I have protection against the evil eye now and no bad luck will befall me :)

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Ethnic Dance and Exercise

(photo from Wikipedia)

Exercise is good for you, but so many people hate to do it. And they always give excuses. Here are some of them:

"Gym memberships are too expensive."

"I get my exercise walking to the donut shop."

"I'm in shape. Round is a shape."

"Exercise is boring."

I can understand why many people hate to exercise and have to agree that most physical fitness programs are boring. Who wants to spend an hour or two at the gym at 5 a.m. working out on exercise bikes, treadmills, StairMaster or swimming laps? Not me.

I don't like soccer, basketball or softball, or anything else that involves a ball. Team sports have too many rules, the coaches yell at you when you screw up, and they're not done to music.

I have a problem with the American emphasis on team sports in schools, and the fact that gym classes don't offer alternatives to athletics. A creative teacher in the South Bronx, who was homesick for Ireland, decided to teach Irish step dancing as an after school activity. It went over really big with her students.

It would be nice if more schools offered ethnic dancing as an extracurricular activity or as an alternative to P.E. class. It would be a great solution to the obesity problem plaguing America's kids. I'm sure lots of them would jump at the chance to learn something fun and different, and keep the weight off at the same time!

According to WebMD, in 2009, 63.1% of Americans are either obese or overweight. That's a pretty sad statistic.

Isn't it ironic that a nation with such a large number of obese people loves Dancing With the Stars?

What if they actually got up and danced instead of watching it on TV?

People who dance on a regular basis seldom have to worry about keeping in shape. The aerobic exercise we get after two hours of strenuous dancing is equivalent to about a week of workouts. And it's much more fun than going to the gym.

On Radio Bulgaria's website recently, it was mentioned that only 12% of Bulgarians participate in sports, but I'm under the impression their definition of sports was a little narrow. There was no mention of the folk dance clubs in Bulgaria that meet on a regular basis, to practice, perform and compete. Here's one of them in action on the Universe of YouTube. After I watched this energetic group, I came to the conclusion that dancing is a sport.

According to, a sport is: "an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc."

Why should dancing be considered a sport? It keeps you in shape and it's a social activity, the fact that most of the time it's non-competitive may have something to do with the fact that people don't consider it a sport.

I've noticed that Zumba classes are very popular. Their motto is "Ditch the workout, join the party." The only reason I haven't tried it yet is that it's usually offered early on Saturday mornings. After the Friday night dances, I'm just too exhausted to even watch a Zumba class. It looks like fun, though. Check this out.

Now this Zumba thing is a step (pardon the pun) in the right direction. However, I'm not giving up the Balkan version of aerobics any time soon. Are these dancers having fun yet? You be the judge. Of one thing you can be sure, no grass is growing under their feet!

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Friday, November 26, 2010

The Bulgarian Connection to Latin America...via Dance

Last week when I went to the Kabile event at Mount Holyoke, a young Bulgarian student asked me if I belonged to a dance club. She remarked that Americans knew the Bulgarian dances better than they did!

I described our group, which meets in the town of Amherst. There are five colleges in this area. Students from all over the world attend school here.

I explained to the young woman that our group meets on Friday nights and that we do dances from all over the world, with an emphasis on the Balkans.

She mentioned that she and her boyfriend go to a Salsa class on Friday nights. Was there another Balkan group nearby that met on a different night?

I told her that the only other group, which met on Sundays, was over an hour away.

On the Universe of YouTube, I have noticed that Bulgarians love Latin music. There must be something in it that speaks to them, just like the Bulgarian music speaks to me, a descendant of Puerto Ricans.

Here is a Bulgarian couple dancing salsa to rachenitsa music. Now this is an interesting combination :)

These two young Bulgarians are excellent dancers. They really have a feel for Latin rhythms. (I think this dance is a cumbia from Colombia).

It's time for a cultural exchange between Bulgaria and Latin America. We have a lot to learn from each other :)

For more on the Bulgarian and Latin American connection read:
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Friday, November 19, 2010

An Unforgettable Evening with Kabile at Mt. Holyoke

On the 18th of November, Kabile made its second apprearance at Mt. Holyoke College. The first appearance was in November 2008. I was at both events, and both were fantastic. You can read about the band here:

Back in September they performed in Wethersfield, CT for the Always on Sunday folk dance group. I was at this event as well, and here is the recap:

The great thing about Mt. Holyoke is that it has a sizable number of international students and an active Bulgarian Club that organizes events on campus, which they share with the community. So far they have had sponsored two wonderful events this year: Lyuti Chushki and Kabile. For more about the Bulgarian Club, visit their webpage:

Lyuti Chushki performed at Mt. Holyoke back in March of this year. This was another dynamic event with workshops during the day and a dance party in the evening. Click here to read about it:

And finally here are some videos from the second Kabile performance at Mount Holyoke. Part one was a concert on stage; part two was a dance party.

Here's a very poignant and beautiful folk song.

Two members of the band perform Trite Puti on a gaida accompanied by a tupan. This was part of the concert before the dancing. Trite Puti is a dance from the Thracian region of Bulgaria, where the band is from.

A rachenitsa (the national dance of Bulgaria) performed on a gadulka, a traditional folk instrument:

When the musicians play in the center of the circle, the energy gets transferred to the dancers. The dance is Daichovo Horo.

A slow pravo gives the dancers time to catch their breath. The song is Devoiko Mari Hubava.

I would like to thank the Bulgarian Club for making this all possible and Kabile for an unforgettable evening of music and dancing. By the way, the banitsa at the snack table was delicious!

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Monday, November 15, 2010

A Dance by Any Other Name...

Today's topic is a dance by any other name.

Many Balkan dance names originate from a town or region, such as the Macedonian dance Bansko (named after a town), or Eleno Mome from Bulgaria (named after a person). The Greek Hasapiko is a butcher's dance and has counterparts in Macedonia and Bulgaria where it's called Kasapsko. There's even a Serbian dance named after the Orient Express, the train that once traveled through central Serbia in its heyday, on its way to Istanbul. By the way this one is very popular in the United States, and was one of the first dances I learned :)

The following dances have not been given a name aside from the generic term "folk dance." Here are three examples from three different Balkan countries.

The first one, Narodno Horo, is from Bulgaria. There are several dances combined here; Dunavsko Horo and Chichovo Horo. There's a third one in here, but I don't know the name, so I call it the swishy-swishy grapevine dance.

The Macedonians, not to be outdone, have their own version, Narodno Oro. This performance is by a group on California. A Macedonian who saw this on the Universe of YouTube commented he was delighted to see Americans dancing to Macedonian music, however, he mentioned that they do it somewhat differently at home.

Narodno Kolo is the Serbian version. Kolo means wheel or circle in Serbian. It's a bunch of people dancing in a circle. Notice the large display ad for a brand of bottled water and the number of women wearing high heels and pointy shoes. With all the jiggling of a certain part of the female anatomy, the marketing of sports bras instead of bottled water in hourglass shaped bottles might be a better choice. Or could it be that Moja Voda has the side effect of enlarging a woman's mammary glands? Sure looks like it here.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bulgarian Folklore and Pop Culture

Today's topic is Bulgarian Folklore in Pop Culture. It has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it.

Video #1 of consists of several excerpts from a chick flick...(you know the kind of movie that women love and guys love to hate). The movie is The Prince and Me 3. After I read the synopsis, I noticed it was set in an imaginary country called Belavia. Those of us who know and love Bulgarian folklore were not so easily fooled. The dance sequences were probably the best part of the film.

I have never seen an octopus dance. With the number of legs they have, it would probably be a difficult feat at best. Here is a delightful blend of folklore and pop culture in a song about the prophecies of Paul the Octopus during this past summer's World Cup. It's called the Oktopod Rachenitsa.

Paul lived in an aquarium in Germany and his claim to fame was picking the winning teams that the Germans played against at the 2010 World Cup. German soccer fans went ballistic when Paul picked Spain as the winner in the final; they were ready to sentence him to death by frying.,,5775630,00.html

Fortunately for Paul, his life was spared, and he died of natural causes in late October. On a clear night you can see him in the Great Celestial Ocean as the constellation Pulpo, where, rumor has it, there is a possibility of extraterrestrial life. Don't be surprised if you meet an alien who looks like an octopus one of these days, he is probably one of Paul's friends :)

The song Sadi Moma is about a girl who plants grapevines, and a young soldier who gets drunk from too much wine. The one who plants the grapevine is the one who rules the world :) There is also a dance done to this song.

Someone out there was feeling a little creative (probably after several glasses of wine) and used the music to write a little ditty about free software.

For more on Bulgarian folklore, pop culture, and the travels of Bulgarian folk music around the world, read:

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Monday, November 1, 2010

The "Flavors" of Bulgarian Horo and the Diversity of the Different Folklore Regions, Part 2

If you missed part 1, click here:

The Rhodope region, in southern Bulgaria, which shares the border with Greece, has a relatively sedate style in comparison, as you can see in this performance of Svornato Horo. The music tends to be a bit heavy on the bagpipe (gaida).

Dances from the Pirin region are very similar to those of neighboring Macedonia. They are characterized by leg lifts, hands held in a "w" hold, and the music speeds up as the dance progresses. The Pirin people love the gaida almost as much as the people of the Rhodopes. This dance is called Arap.

As a contrast, here's a non traditional version of Arap, performed by the group Rakiya, from the Boston area, during Balkan Music Night this past March. The song, Zaiko, is about a rabbit who barely escapes the hunters....

You can read more about Balkan Music Night, a yearly event in the Boston area, here:

The most well-known dance from the Shope region is Jove Malej Mome. What's unique about is that it's the combination of two assymetrical rhythms, 11/16 plus a 7/16. If music theory's not your thing, there's a much easier way to get the rhythm down. Clap this to the music: Slow-Quick-Quick-Quick-Quick-Slow-Quick-Quick.

Dances from the Shoppe region (near Sofia) usually consist of extremely fast and complex footwork with the use of belt holds. If one person screws it up it's like knocking down a line of dominoes :) Jove Malej Mome is relatively easy.

By the way, if this blog has whetted your appetite for Balkan music and dance, check out my YouTube channel.
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The "Flavors" of Bulgarian Horo and the Diversity of the Different Folklore Regions

Bulgaria has a lot of diversity for a country its size, and has six folklore regions. Today's post will explore three of them, by way of music.

The rachenitsa is the national dance of Bulgaria and you can discover the different "flavors" of it here:

Horo means "chain dance" in English. The rachenitsa, on the other hand, can be danced solo, in couples or in a group. This is the group version, "na horo."

The first region is northwestern Bulgaria (Severnjasko) which borders Romania and Serbia. The dances of this area are characterized with exuberence, feet hardly touching the ground, arm swinging in time with the steps,and are often accompanied by brass band music. By the way, Diko Iliev, who composed the famous Dunavkso Horo, was from this region, and was a master of music for brass bands. You can read about him here:

This is a performance of Chichovo Horo by Berkovska Duhova Muzika mixed with a little tequila. This is from a Bulgarian TV show and fun to watch!

The next video is that of three ladies from the United States performing Dobrudjanska Reka, a very popular dance that just about every international folk dance group has in its repetoire. Dobrudja is in the northeast part of Bulgaria, bordering Romania, and the dances there are characterized by stamping, bent knees and strong hand movements. As the man in the video remarks, "that's the way to do it!"

The next video is of the dance Bucimis, from the region of Thrace in central Bulgaria. The footwork is tricky, and so is the rhythm, especially when you're holding the belts of the people next to you. The time signature for this dance is 15/16 (for you music theorists out there, 15 beats to the measure, 16th note takes the beat.) In English translation, that means quick-quick-quick-quick-slow-quick-quick. Bucimis is very popular with international folk dance groups, probably because of its complexity, and its speed. These dancers make it look easy.

The three other regions (Rhodope, Pirin, and Shoppe) will be covered in part 2.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Favorite Bulgarian Folklore Videos on YouTube

One of the greatest ideas around has to be the creation of YouTube. It's amazing what you can find there.

Some of my YouTube videos are shown on this blog, and you can find them here:

Here are some exceptional videos from the Universe of YouTube. What makes them so good is the amazing choreography, the colorful costumes, the beautiful scenery, and in two of them, the cute little kids.

The first one is of an adorable little girl singing Jovano Jovanke, as mom proudly watches her (in the background).

I'm partial to kids, and I love it when they sing and dance in traditional garb. The setting is charming, and the adults are dancing rachenitsa. The second song, Snoshti E Dobra, is a very well known song (and dance) from the Pirin region.

The Bulgarian Folk Dance Masters is a series produced by . (This webpage is also available in English if you click the word "English" in the upper right hand corner). This particular video is of the Filip Kutev ensemble performing dances from the Shoppe region of Bulgaria. There are about 15 videos in the series, and they're all worth a look.

One of the videos from the series From Dunav to Strandja was featured on this blog recently. This is part two. The gadulka player at the very beginning plays a beautiful solo with the Danube as a backdrop, and shortly afterwards is the Thracian Dance, which is one of my favorites.

The dance with spoons is pretty cool, too, performed by the Dunav ensemble of Vidin. No boat to distract you this time!

If you have a favorite folklore video or two, please post a link to it in the "comments" section. There is a lot of good stuff out there, and feedback is always appreciated :)

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Accordion in Bulgarian Folk Music (another instrument some people love to hate....)

The accordion, along with the bagpipe, is another musical instrument that people either love or hate. No one is sure if it was Damian in Vienna or Buschmann in Berlin who invented it, although its idea was most likely conceived in a German-speaking nation. Musicians have been using it as an "instrument of torture" ever since.

Much of the folk music around the world is played on the accordion. It is a multiculturally friendly instrument, popular in the United States, Germany, Poland, Serbia, Bulgaria, France, some countries in Latin America, among others.

By the way, if you hate the accordion, you should not even be here, because these videos will want to make you want to jump off the nearest bridge :)

This is the kind of music most commonly associated with the accordion. Here is one of the strangest polkas I've found, it's a Austrian gem called the "Sauerkraut Polka." I have never seen polka musicians wearing kilts, and two of them have bagpipes! With instruments of torture such as these, they can easily take over the world... (by the way if you want to know more about bagpipe music, click here )

There are people I know who detest both polka music and sauerkraut. This is for them :)

The reason the accordion is so popular, especially with folk musicians, is that it's easily portable and loud enough to be heard in a large room full of dancers, despite a lot of background noise.

Boris Karlov was a Bulgarian musician of Roma descent. Unfortunately he departed this world at the age of 40, in 1964. He was a virtuoso of the accordion. Folk music was his specialty, and his recordings are still popular at dances many years later. Here's his version of the Kyustendilska Rachenitsa:

Just about every folk dance group has this Karlov recording. This is a tune from the Shope region of Bulgaria.

One of my favorite musicians on YouTube is a lady from Holland (who must have lived in Bulgaria in a previous lifetime, she plays this music so well.) This is a dance tune from Dobrudja.

By the way, I happen to like accordion music, but don't worry, I will not take it up, since my dexterity is terrible, and my family would probably evict me. They nearly threw a fit when I mentioned taking up the clarinet again( which was the instrument I played in 7th and 8th grades). With winter just around the corner, that would not be a good idea....

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Monday, October 11, 2010

The River of Many Names (part 2) The Danube in Bulgarian folk music

(photo by Preslav, from Wikipedia Commons)

If you missed part 1. click here:

In part 2, we explore the Danube in Bulgarian folk music. By the way the Bulgarians are fascinated by water for some reason I have yet to figure out. One singer even compared water to their folklore. For more on this subject, click here:

There are a number of songs and dances written about this legendary river. It is mentioned in the Bulgarian national anthem and frequently in folk songs. The composer Diko Iliev wrote a dance piece, well known and loved in Bulgaria, and played on festive occasions. It's called Dunavsko Horo, and is considered by some to be the second national anthem of Bulgaria:) For more on Diko Iliev, along with some of his delightful music, click the link below:

The lyrics for the Bulgarian national anthem can be found here:

Now it's time to check out the Universe of YouTube, where you can find almost everything :) The first video features a folklore group from the city of Vidin. The ensemble is named after the river, which in Bulgarian is called Dunav. You can see them in performing in the first 2 1/2 minutes (the rest is worth looking at as well, with dances from different folklore regions of Bulgaria). By the way this is beautifully done, especially the introduction with the dancers superimposed on the water, accompanied by a kaval solo. That ship behind the dancers is a bit of a distraction, though....

The next video features a folk ensemble performing two dances from northwestern Bulgaria, which borders Serbia and Romania. The first is Krajdunavsko Horo, the second is Dunavsko Daichovo Horo (at 2.04). Daichovo is lively and spirited dance native to this region. It has an odd number in the time signature, which is 9/8. The rhythm is quick quick quick slow, with the accent on the first beat.

I couldn't resist yet another version of Dunavsko Horo, since it's so popular in Bulgaria.

The Danube is often mentioned in love songs. Here is a particularly lovely solo by Nelly Andreeva, accompanied by the Filip Kutev choir. The song, Malka Moma, describes a young girl, praying to God, asking him to help her find a boy she can love. (See English translation below).

"Please god give me eyes of a dove,
please god give me wings of a falcon,
so I can fly over Dunav river,
so I can find a boy that I love.

And god gave her wings of a falcon.
And she found a boy that she loves."

Radio Bulgaria (BNR) had an article recently about Danube cruises, and also about a bike path along the river from the source to the end. Something I would like to do one day is combine the two. It would be a very interesting journey indeed.
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The River of Many Names: A Musical Journey

That old and faded picture of one of the most unusual boats I've ever seen was taken about 10 kilometers downstream from the Danube town of Passau, on the border of Germany and Austria.

I would have liked to have spoken with the crew, but they cast off shortly after I took the picture. The name of the boat was "Stadt Wien" (city of Vienna) and my guess is that they had started in Ulm, a German town about 200 miles upstream.

This unusual watercraft, I found out years later, was an Ulmer Schachtel, (Ulm Box) a boat used to transport people and goods downstream from Ulm to Vienna and even as far as the Balkans. They had no motors and could only go with the current; they were steered with rudders and paddles and when the boats reached their destination, they were taken apart and the wood re-used.

My husband and I found this very beautiful campground on the way to Vienna and had pitched our tent here for several days. The owner, not having met Americans before, was thrilled to talk with us, and absolutely delighted that we spoke German. He gave us a site with the most magnificent view of the river.

The Danube has been in the news lately with the recent environmental disaster in Hungary, since the toxic red sludge flood (by-products of aluminum production) occurred in a village on one of its tributaries. Between the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and now this, our environment is under assault (again). What's really tragic is that these events were man-made, and possibly could have been prevented.

I've said my piece and it's time to get off the soap box. Today's post is a musical journey down the River of Many Names, which are: Danube, Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, and Dunărea.

The Danube starts in southern Germany and flows through some interesting territory (including the Balkan countries of Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania), and there is music all along its banks.

This pop-folk song from Germany celebrates the city of Passau, which I visited many years ago. The architecture is magnificent, and some of the buildings date from the Middle Ages. Passau is at the conjunction of three rivers, Danube, Inn, and Ilz, and it is here that ships can travel all the way to the Black Sea.

The next video is of the Eva Quartet from Bulgaria singing a folk song. They are on a boat passing through Vienna, the Donauturm TV tower is in the background. I went up to the top of the tower, and on a clear day, you can see Slovakia, Hungary, and looking south, the foothills of the Alps.

This was taken during the Danube Music Festival, back in 2007, which was the brainchild of Bulgarian film maker Zlatina Rousseva. For more about it, click on the link below.

Now, these guys are really having fun and making music on a beautiful spring day. So they decide to take a boat on the river and sing a folk song (in English translation the title is "Danube, My Sea.") My guess is that they are somewhere in Serbia or Croatia, where it is quite wide.

This quote from Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows sums it up: "There is nothing--absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Let's hope the recent disaster in Hungary doesn't destroy the River of Many Names. (so far it hasn't although it has destroyed part of the Hungarian countryside, caused the death of 8 people, and killed a tributary stream, which is certainly bad enough, although a Hungarian friend told me things could have been worse).

Here is the link to part 2: The River of Many Names in Bulgarian folk music: Commons License
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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sometimes Lost in Translation: Bulgarian Proverbs

You can get insight into people and culture from their proverbs and Bulgaria is no exception. The problem sometimes is that translations from one language to another can change the meaning of the original!

Many of these are connected with farming, since Bulgarian society was primarily agrarian until the 20th century.

The chicken teaches the hen to lay eggs.
Do not put all eggs in one basket.
He that wills not to feed a cat, feeds the mice

The proverbs quoted here are literal translations taken from this Bulgarian website, a rich source of folklore
and history as well as wise sayings. The proverb about not placing all your eggs in one basket is a familiar one. And on farms, cats were kept so the mice wouldn't eat the grain, so it was a good idea to keep them happy. And what came first, the chicken or the hen (perhaps it was the egg, but who laid the egg?)

The 500 year Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria must have been connected with the following proverb, although it could have described slavery and oppression anywhere in the world:
Better the grave than a slave.

The next two are variations of Pride goes before a fall.
He that flies high falls low down.
A haughty person will not even reach down to take his own nose if it had fallen to the ground."

If you attempt too much, nothing gets done. This is as true in Bulgaria as it is in the rest of the world, and multi-tasking is frowned upon:
He who undertakes too many jobs does none.

On the farm, people had to work hard, otherwise they wouldn't eat. However, the next proverb gives you the idea that the men have something else on their minds besides work:
It is easier to fondle lassies, than to cut timbers.

Men have had difficulty resisting temptation since the time of Eve:
Money tempts women, women tempt men.

This is a variation on the devil made me do it.
What the devil is unable to do, he asks a woman to do.

Giving up smoking is difficult, if not impossible, and rationalization is a common defense mechanism:
I gave up smoking, smoking would not give me up.

If you don’t watch where you’re going bound to fall:
Watch your step when you walk: you may find nothing but you will not stumble.

Many people wish they had young bodies with the wisdom that comes with age. If there's a Fountain of Youth in Bulgaria, no one's ever told me about it :)
If only youth had knowledge and old age ability!

Here is a musical take on health proverbs from the Bulgarian National Radio:

This final proverb from the Bulgarian Radio website shows a proven connection with anger, heart disease, and death:  He who gets angry gets old quickly.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

People are afraid of what they know little about....

For a number of weeks the deportation of Roma (Gypsy) people from France to Bulgaria and Romania has been in the news.,8599,2015389,00.html

Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners, is not unique to France. Racism and intolerance have long been issues the United States as well. Not so long ago, in the American South, blacks and whites were segregated. It was frowned upon for a white person to associate with blacks as friends, and there were seperate facilities, such as schools, for blacks and whites.

Even in the so-called enlightened 21st century racism and xenophobia are alive and well here in the States. The issue these days has to do people from Latin America, specifically, Mexico, who come here illegally looking for opportunity. There is a lot of discrimination against brown skinned people who speak Spanish, and a fear amongst some that they are taking over the country, and stealing American jobs.

The Mexicans, for the most part, are migrant workers, and do jobs most Americians shun. Poverty is rampant in Mexico, and when you're starving, you'll do almost anything to survive. And unfortunately, there are a number of them who are involved with drug smuggling. You will find a bad element in every ethnic group.

A much more humane solution would be for the U.S. government to offer temporary work permits to migrant workers. And of course, Mexico, and the other nations of Latin America need to do more for their own people.

The point I'm trying to make is that people are afraid of what they know little about. Racism, xenophobia, and intolerance stem from ignorance. During hard economic times, the illegal Mexicans make convenient scapegoats.

Deportation is seen as the answer to the problem.

The Roma situation in France is similar in some ways to the Mexican situaion in the States. People in Europe see the Roma as people with a bad reputation, who live in poverty and get involved in criminal activity. There are good and bad people in every ethnic group,and the Roma are no exception.

Despite the poverty and discrimination these people suffered (Hitler tried to exterminate them in concentration camps), somehow the Roma managed to survive. They found they could make a decent living as musicians. And they were very good at what they did, to the point that Roma music has very much become a part of the musical fabric of the Balkans.

Here are several stellar examples of the musical contribution that the Roma people have made to Balkan music. The first is a song by Esma Redzepova, from Macedonia:

Esma is well known for her involvement in advocacy programs for her people and humanitarian work:


Here's a song I really love, a very catchy tune from Bulgaria called Karavana Chajka. The dance for it is called Čoček (pronounced cho-chek, a dance of Romani origin, and the words are in the Bulgarian language). You can sing along with the lyrics and read the translation here:

Romani brass music has had a strong influence on Balkan bands in the United States as well, who have fallen in love with this lively and spirited genre. Here is the Raya band from New York City playing Ciganko.

For more on the Roma influence in the Balkans read:
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Monday, September 13, 2010

To Greece and Bulgaria and one weekend!

It was a "beautiful day in the neighborhood" for Balkan music and dance. There was a Greek festival and a Bulgarian band performance within a 30 mile distance from each other. Seldom do such enjoyable events happen in the same weekend :)

First was the annual Glendi, a celebration of Greek culture, food, music, and dance. The St. George Greek Orthodox Church hosts a three day festival every year on the second weekend of September. It draws people from miles around, and the biggest attractions are the food and the costumed folk dancers. Saturday, especially drew a huge crowd; parking was difficult to come by, and from what I was told they ran out of food sometime Sunday afternoon.

Here are several videos of the church's youth group performing on Saturday night:

The next video is of a Pentozali, a dance from Crete. The prefix "pento" means five, which means it has five basic steps. The Greeks contributed much to our knowledge of math, especially geometry (a pentagon is a five-sided figure.) Balkan dancing tends to appeal to math-minded people, as I mentioned in a previous post:

This is a dance called Tsamikos, which goes three steps to the right, and one to the left, a very common pattern in folk dances.

Now it's time for some music from Bulgaria, performed by Kabile. They are a band from the Bulgarian region of Thrace (there is a Thrace in Greece, too!) and have been playing together since 1980. When the band members were all living in Bulgaria, they played at weddings and other celebratory events.

Two of the members, a husband and wife, emigrated to the United States 15 years ago, and now live in New York City. Every so often, they have a reunion tour. I was at their final 2008 performance in the States, which was at Mt. Holyoke College.

And here is Sunday night's performance of a beautiful lesnoto. In musical notation it has the same time signature as rachenitsa but the accents are different, the rhythm being "galloping, apple, apple." The time signature is 7/8. Notice the band performing in the center of the circle instead of on the stage. It draws its energy from the dancers and vice versa, this is done at village dances in the Balkans.

For an explanation of rachenitsa read:

The final video is a dance from the Thracian region of Bulgaria. It's called "Trite Puti" which means three times. The Greek fascination with math must have traveled to Bulgaria, too :)

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Monday, September 6, 2010

Is this small, quiet New England community prepared for a Bulgarian invasion?

A small, quiet new England community will become an unlikely venue for a group of Bulgarian musicians. One of the oldest settlements in Connecticut, Wethersfield was founded by the Puritans, who would have totally disapproved of this kind of entertainment. They will be looking on from Above, shaking their heads as they behold all the wickedness going on. Men and women joining hands and dancing is the Devil's work and must be stopped :)

The Temple Beth Torah, where the event is being held, is pretty cool about the idea, since the event is being held in one of their community rooms.

Kabile, a wedding band from Thrace, has been invited to play at a dance party held by the Always on Sunday Folk Dance Group.

The quiet residential neighborhood, which folds up the sidewalks after 7 p.m. will become a hotbed of activity and resound with the rhythm of horo and rachenitsa. Parking will be almost impossible to find, and hopefully the local police have been notified that things will be a little crazy in town the evening of September 12.

The residents of Wethersfield, who have most likely have not been exposed to this kind of entertainment (except for folk dancers who live in the Hartford area), will probably wonder if an alien invasion has occurred when they see the musicians dressed up in elaborate embroidered costumes carrying their "instruments of mass destruction." And yes, that includes a bagpipe (gaida) and a formidable female voice.

It will be an interesting evening :)

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