Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Cat and a Dream

Fatso is my almost twelve year old tabby, and he's a big boy, weighing in at 22 pounds. He was born on April 20, 1998. My family adopted him from a shelter and he's been with us ever since. Although we've done everything we could to slim him down, it's an exercise in futility. He loves his food too much. His sun sign is Taurus, and they love to eat.

Although I don't speak Felinese, and he doesn't speak English, we understand each other very well. We share quality time listening to music.

He had a dream not long ago, and in it he tells the story of a visit to the town of Gabrovo, Bulgaria, to take part in their carnival parade.

The symbol of the town is a cat with its tail cut off. The story goes that the people of Gabrovo cut the tails off their cats to save money on heat. Here is some Gabrovo humor from the House of Humor and Satire's web site, including a picture of a mouse with a pair of scissors, cutting the cat's tail.....

Fatso actually lost a piece of his tail to the surgeon's knife years ago when he tried to sneak out the porch door. His tail was fractured and became infected, necessitating the removal. He gets bored sometimes and is jealous of the other kitties who freely roam the neighborhood. I keep him in the house, having seen too many felines who have become road kill. This is probably why he gets bored and eats all the time. He has made multiple escape attempts.

He likes it when I play Bulgarian folk music, and often sits on the chair by the computer. The music, combined with the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard, is what lulls him to sleep. It gives him a feeling of security, most of the time :)

Here is his story. It's called The Brotherhood.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Visit to Bulgaria by way of Mt Holyoke College and a little spicy music :)

On March 27th, the Bulgarian Club at Mt. Holyoke College hosted several events during their Day of Bulgarian Culture. The picture above is of the band Lyuti Chushki, which means hot peppers in Bulgarian. They certainly lived up to the name!

There were several workshops held during the day. I attended one, and arrived at the tail end of another, which was the the tupan (drumming) workshop. I wish I had left home earlier because the music coming from the room (several people had brought other instruments) was fantastic!

The workshop I went to was an overview of Bulgarian musicology, and the man who presented it had a great sense of humor. It was interesting in that he covered the history of Bulgarian folk and pop music. The two periods he covered were from 1944-1989 (the Communist era) and the post Communist period from 1989-2005.

During the Communist period, folk music and dance ensembles were supported by the State. This was the official folk music of the country. Other types of music such as that played by wedding bands (whose members were of Roma, or Gypsy origin), and pop music, were frowned upon by the regime.

All hell broke loose in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the Communist government deposed came freedom of expression, and a new genre, called Chalga, came on the scene. This was a fusion of pop with folk elements from other countries outside Bulgaria, and lots of videos with scantily clad women singing to computer generated music; their version of MTV! Wikipedia explains this in more detail:


and here is a video from YouTube:

After 1989, traditional Bulgarian folk music became associated with Communism and totalitarian governments. With the lack of government funding, the number of state supported folk ensembles dwindled and only a handful survived. Fortunately a group called "The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices" had their world tour around this time, and popularized this genre outside Bulgaria. People who knew little about Bulgaria fell in love with the music. Here's a performance which took place in the United States, on the Johnny Carson show circa 1990:

Fortunately, Bulgarian folk music has become popular again in its home country. Homesick expatriates were part of the reason, and the international folk dance community has always embraced Bulgarian dances. The younger generation of Bulgarians (born after 1989) are also getting involved in folklore and keeping it alive.

And finally, I took a few videos (see bottom of this post) of the group Lyuti Chushki, who gave a concert, workshop and dance party on Saturday night. This was the grand finale and I danced my feet off, at one point leading a bunch of dance buddies and Bulgarian students in a kopanitsa. The first piece is Pravo Horo, which is one of the most popular dances in Bulgaria. Horo means "chain dance" in English, and it's done in a line or open circle. It is a very basic dance, three steps forward, one step in; then three steps back, one step back. It has variations as well. See video below for a demonstration of the pravo:

The second piece is Dunavsko Horo. This is also a very popular dance, and a pravo variation. It is named after the Danube River, which forms the border between Bulgaria and Romania. There are other versions this piece, the most famous one by Diko Iliev, a Bulgarian composer who lived during the 20th century. Here is the Diko Iliev version, played by a brass band, which is typical of northwestern Bulgarian folk music. The dancers are a university group from Essen, Germany.

The third dance is a kopanitsa. Here is the group Lyush, a Bulgarian folk ensemble from Texas, performing a kopanitsa:

Assymetrical rhythms are common in Bulgarian folk music. Odd time signatures are the norm: 7/8 (rachenitsa and lesnoto), 9/8 (daichovo), and 11/16 (kopanitsa) to name a few. They are a combination of quick and slow beats. For example, the rhythm for rachenitsa, the national dance of Bulgaria, is "apple apple galloping."

For more information on Bulgarian folk dancing and the "flavors" of horo and rachenitsa:


And finally, the Lyuti Chushki videos! (1) Pravo (2) Dunavsko (3) Kopanitsa

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Bulgarian Fascination with Water: Evidence From Folklore, Music and Proverbs

World Water Day was a few days ago. Although I'm a little late for it, being a procrastinator, I'm going to share some musings about water and Bulgarian folklore.

Bulgarians are fascinated with water. They are almost as fascinated with it as they are with Outer Space. Why, I don't know, because there is certainly no lack of it in their country. Maybe it's the overabundance of this element in the form of lakes, rivers and the Black Sea which has influenced their folklore. There is certainly plenty of evidence of this on the Internet. Here's a link to one of their broadcasts (in Spanish) about the personification of rivers in Bulgaria, and the three sisters, Maritsa, Trunjzda and Arda, who constantly fight. Even rivers have sibling rivalry and bad days, just like people! If your Spanish is a little rusty, you can cheat and use Google Translate.


This gives a new meaning to the possibility that water has memory, and even personality. This idea has yet to be proven.

Back in the day, before there was modern plumbing in Bulgaria, women, especially, were given the task of fetching water from the well. This was a strenuous job (water is heavy!) and the women had to do this a number of times a day in order to clean, cook and wash dishes and laundry.
The village well was a meeting place for the women to gossip while they fetched the day's water and the men often eyed the young ladies (who were fit and strong enough to do this), while they performed this task. As a result, there were folk songs about men falling in love with a particular young lady as she carried water from the well to her house.

Here is a performance by Tatiana Sarbinska, of a folk song about a young woman bleaching a cloth that she had been working on for three years, in the river, only to have it swept away, forever. The audience joins in and they're having a good time!

The translated lyrics can be found here:


The dance which is done to this song, Pajduško horo, has relatives throughout the Balkans: http://katleyplanetbg.blogspot.com/2010/09/travels-of-pajdusko-horo.html

There are a number of Bulgarian proverbs connected with water. Here's the website where I found them. Sometimes something is lost in translation. You can read about this here.

"Water washes away everything but shame."

"Draw water from the new well, but do not spit in the old one."

"If you are going to drown, do not try it in shallow water."

Since Bulgarian society in the old days was so conservative, and young men and women were not allowed together unsupervised, the men would sometimes watch the women when they fetched water at the well, and would sneak a peek at them while they did their wash in the nearest river or lake. Since the women often got soaked in the process (think wet T-shirts), this was probably an interesting diversion during work breaks.

Back in 2007, a Bulgarian entry made fifth place in the Eurovision Song Contest, a pan-European competition for the best European pop song. The Bulgarian entry for that year was Water (Voda) sung by Elitsa and Stoyan:

This song was exceptional in the way that it combined African and Bulgarian folk elements in a beautiful and unusual way, with a bit of techno added. The lyrics describe a young woman bathing in a mountain river (singing all the while), while rain pours down. A young man sees her falls in love with her, and they ride away on a horse during a thunderstorm. The rest can be left to the imagination.

This song was a big hit with the Bulgarians, and the video, with flashes of lightning, and pouring rain, was exceptionally good. Elitsa has a powerful voice, and sang in the Shoppe folklore style. For more on Bulgarian singing click here: http://katleyplanetbg.blogspot.com/2010/08/bulgarian-singing-demystified.html

Here is what the singer, Elitsa Todorova, said about it:

"Our folklore is like water. We've chosen the title Water because in Bulgarian folklore there are very slow beautiful songs which are like a lake. But we also have songs with very fast rhythm which are like a waterfall. And my wish is this song to be like Water, a gasp of fresh air for the human spirit and soul. When we recorded the promo video of the song, they poured lots of rain on us, and I felt purified."

In Bulgaria, splashing water on someone before an important event is good luck. The very last entry on the following web page explains why. It can be compared to a christening of sorts on the new enterprise.

A custom, not limited to Bulgaria (it's an Eastern Orthodox church thing, done in Greece and other Balkan countries) has to do with the custom of young men jumping into bodies of water in the middle of winter to retrieve a cross thrown into it by a priest. This is done on the 6th of January (the Christian feast of the Epiphany), and connected with St. John the Baptist, the man who bapitzed Jesus. The ritual may have started out originally as a pagan ceremony, to drive away evil spirits, but is now sanctioned by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Bulgarian National Radio had an article on it this past January.

The ceremony eliminates unclean forces from the water and makes it holy. The first man to retrieve the cross from the water will have health and good luck that year (if he doesn't freeze to death first :) As far as I know, this has never happened. It could be a combination of mind over matter. I have seen Polar Bear Club members jump into the ocean in the middle of winter, and it's always fascinated me how they never succumbed to hypothermia (although the ambulances and the EMT's are there, just in case.)

The last item is a video, from Bulgaria, of the Epiphany ritual. There is an EMT boat in the background. Notice the snow on the shoreline, and the flurries falling from the sky. The spectators are wearing heavy winter clothing, and the swimmers are NOT wearing wetsuits. And they are all male.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Outer Space: The Bulgarian Connection: "We are not alone"

Many years ago I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a science fiction movie from the year 1977. I was captivated by the main character, Roy Neary, who happened upon a UFO during a shift at work. Life was never the same for him after that.

His fascination with things extraterrestrial got him into big trouble with his family, who thought he had gone crazy. His wife and family left him, and he eventually lost his job.

Neary's obsession eventually led him to Devil's Tower, where he and another woman find the mothership and meet the Aliens. He boards the spaceship and supposedly lives happily ever after.

Aliens are often portrayed as evil in science fiction movies, but Close Encounters portrayed them as benign creatures, not wanting to take over Planet Earth, but simply curious about it and its people. They were musical as well, as shown by this excerpt from the movie:

I have often wondered if Bulgarians are aliens from outer space, there is certainly enough evidence on the Internet to prove this :) They have an affinity for the extraterrestrial; and have even blasted a golden record containing one of their folk songs into space, with the help of NASA. They are hoping somebody somewhere in the universe will find them. We don't know for sure if anyone in the Milky Way has located this small Eastern European country, but I'm sure one of these days an odd looking creature resembling E.T. will stop by the building of the Bulgarian National Radio in Sofia, holding a flat, gold object, and asking "Does this belong to you?" He will probably be welcomed like a long-lost relative.

The record, titled "Voices of Earth", went up with other artifacts of our civilization on the Voyager Spacecraft in 1977. For all we know, it may still be out in the galaxy, with a lot of other space junk. On the other hand, it may have been found without our knowledge. Maybe the Bulgarian National Radio knows and isn't telling....

According to an old post on the Bulgarian National Radio's website: "30 years ago a Bulgarian folk song performed by Valya Balkanska was flown into outer space as a musical message from the Earth." The name of the song is Izlel e Delyu Haidutin, sung by Valya Balkanska.  

There is even an asteroid named after a city in Bulgaria. The House of Humor and Satire, located in Gabrovo, posted this on its web site:

..."the humour capital of Bulgaria has already secured its future reserving an extraterrestrial piece of land - just in case. It is Gabrovo planet, a small asteroid discovered on April 1st, 1976 and named after the town that has become famous for folklore humour and traditions."

The motto of the Humor House is: "The world lasts because it laughs." I guess when we stop laughing, the end of the world will come, and the Bulgarians will launch a spaceship to their new home in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A movie, titled Alien Apocalypse aired some years back on the Sci-Fi Channel. The plot involves astronauts, who after a long journey in space, have found the earth taken over by alien termites who have devoured the trees and enslaved the inhabitants. Wikipedia mentions that:

"Most of the shooting for this film was done in Bulgaria, and according to the DVD commentary, many of the actors in the film were Bulgarian and spoke little English........"

I wonder if the producers of this movie were onto something. Why did they go to Bulgaria to film it? Another one of those unsolved mysteries, I suppose.

The Bulgarian Radio had an article on its website about a year ago, complete with music, which described the role of astronomy in Bulgarian folklore. It stated "The sun, the moon and the stars dot the imagery of Bulgarian folk songs, tales, proverbs and rituals." Hmmm...a nation of stargazers!

Here's an article from a British newspaper, that was published last fall. According to this, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences claims that aliens are already living on Earth and have made contact with humans. I'm sure they are the same guys who wear elaborate embroidered costumes, dance horo and rachenitsa, and play that haunting and beautiful music that some people find annoying. I know my kids feel that way about it, and have bought me several pairs of headphones.


And here is some recent evidence from the Bulgarian National Radio Website that proves that a number of famous people believe in aliens, including an astrophysicist from Bulgaria:


One of these days the Alien spaceship will land in front of my house and take me to Planet Bulgaria. My family will wonder why I've disappeared. And I may never come back.

"We are not alone." Trust me on this one.

And finally, a couple of links from the Bulgarian National Radio about astronomy, time keeping and space exploration for you doubters out there:



Friday, March 5, 2010

In the Beginning: How I developed an interest in Bulgarian folklore

I grew up in New York City, and lived there until my 20's, until I got married and got to do a little traveling.

Growing up in New York, I was exposed to other cultures that were different than my own, however, I did not take up Balkan folk dancing until much later. One reason for this was that I didn't know it even existed! The second reason was that my husband was in the Air Force. At the time we were married, he was stationed in one of the coldest places on Earth (during the winter anyway), which was Minot, North Dakota.

There was no Balkan dancing, or any international folk dancing in Minot. There was, however, a square dance group, the Hicks and Chicks, who met at the base snack bar on Wednesday nights. I worked there several nights a week and watched them when business was slow. I came to the conclusion: square dance is not for me. First of all, I don't like country music, and secondly, I couldn't see myself wearing gingham and petticoats. Check out the square dancers below:

When my husband got orders to Germany I was ecstatic. I had always wanted to go to Europe and have always had a case of itchy feet.

When we lived in Germany, my husband and I visited a number of countries (besides Germany), Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. I really wanted to go to Hungary and some of the Eastern bloc countries, but he was in the Security field, and it would have been extremely difficult hiding that from the Communist officials. So Vienna was as far east as we got.

Since we lived in German wine country, south of Koblenz, we became regulars at the numerous festivals that were held every summer and fall. I became familiar with the folk music of the region and watched a few dance performances at these events.

We also travelled quite a bit in Bavaria, which has a completely different culture than the Rhineland and a very strong folk tradition. This was one of the things that fueled my fascination with folklore.

Another aspect of German, oops, I meant Bavarian culture that I enjoyed were the beer drinking songs and schuhplatter dances. Bavarian folklore, I found was quite cool as you can see from these video clips from YouTube.

On top of this blog entry is a picture of me at the Oktoberfest, Munich circa 1977. No, I did not drink both mugs of beer by myself! By the way, beer at the Oktoberfest is served in one liter mugs (ein Mass, bitte!) The photo is a little fuzzy but that's what happens when you scan old pictures.

Now, inquiring minds may want to know: how does this relate to my interest in Bulgarian and Eastern European folklore and how did I get involved with it in the first place? Turns out I had always had an interest in this subject, since I owned a shortwave radio when I lived in Germany and often tuned in to broadcasts from Radio Budapest, since they played Gypsy (Roma) music, which I enjoyed very much.

Fast forward, mid-1980's. We returned to New York. I was going through a difficult period in my life and happened to see a flyer about folk dancing. It was something I wanted to try but I knew very little about it. A close friend who was also a co-worker, (who died in 1989), steered me to some Balkan folk dance classes which took place in a second story dance studio on Varick Street in Manhattan. I have been hooked ever since.

I had found what I was looking for all those years, and although I love music from the Balkans in general, Bulgarian music and dance satisfied something in my soul. For all I know I may have lived a previous life there. Who knows?