Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Balkan Folk Dancing and its relationship to...Math?.......

(picture from Wikipedia Commons)
Math was not my favorite subject. Algebra, to me, was torture by letters and numbers, variables and coefficients, a crazy balancing act of equations that left me totally unbalanced. It was a course I despised.

Math was just one of those things you had to endure to graduate. Although I did pass my algebra course, I wasn't particularly good at it.

Math is for left brained people, who thrive in the world of abstractions and symbols. Some of the people I dance with are left brained and teach science and math. Oftentimes I've wondered how they got into dancing, which for the most part is a right-brained activity. However, as this post shows, there is a relationship with Balkan dancing and math, which is why some left brainers like it so much.

Would you believe that the Massaschusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) has a folk dance club? Many years ago I went to a Bulgarian folk dance workshop there, with all those math and physics fans. The ways they taught the dances was actually quite good. They emphasized the physical aspects of the dance, and some of the history and folklore behind them. Maybe the dance instructors were right-brained like me.


Although I hated algebra in high school, geometry was another story. It was something in which I excelled, because it involved pictures of actual objects, such as circles, rectangles and triangles. It involved an intuitive sort of reasoning that made a lot of sense, once I got the hang of it.

The past few weeks I had been watching and learning several dances from my favorite dance resource, YouTube, and my current favorites are Pravo variations. The Pravo is the basic Bulgarian dance, done in an open circle or a line, but there is more to it than that. There is a geometric pattern it that I never noticed while dancing, but came right out at me when I watched the videos.

This is Sapril Dobri. If you watch it closely, the dancers move in and out of the open circle at an angle of approximately 60 degrees.

I learned Maricensko with my group on a Friday night. It, too, is a pravo variation, with the same 60 degree pattern. The person who taught it described the dance movement like cutting a wedge of pie (not π, which is symbol for a crazy never ending number discovered by a Greek mathematician who was fascinated by circles....)

The Serbs dance something called the kolo, which translates into circle in English. Their interpretation of a circle is quite loose, and sometimes a kolo is danced in a line. A line is also a geometric figure.

The last dance, Pinosavka, done in a line (instead of a circle) has that wedge pattern. Want some pie with that?

Now I know why all these math and physics people go dancing. Between all that step counting and the crazy irregular rhythms of the music (with time signatures that resemble top-heavy fractions), they are right at home.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Bulgarian folklore travels to China and Japan....

This is based on personal experiences, observations, and forays into the universe of You Tube.

For some odd reason, I've noticed that Chinese people have an avid interest in Balkan dance. The group I dance with on Friday nights has at least five Chinese members, they love the music, and they are excellent dancers.

There are a number of videos on YouTube of people in China performing Bulgarian dances. They belong to informal dance groups, much like mine. The videos they post on YouTube are instructional in nature. Here is a Chinese performance of Jove Malej Mome from the Shoppe region of Bulgaria. It's a popular dance all over the world, and they do it very well!

Here is some information about the dance, which is in the complex time signature of 18/16:


There is no explanation that I am aware of why the Chinese like this music so much. My Chinese friends at dance are very interested in Bulgarian culture, and often ask me questions about it. There may be an Asian flavor about it that speaks to them. Eastern Europe has always been the crossroads between East and West, and cultures and people traveled back and forth across the Eurasian land mass. Another possibility is that somehow Bulgarian culture made its way to China, and some Chinese might even be descendants of Bulgarians and have this in their genetic makeup. After all, there is a connection between the ancient Bulgarian Calendar and the Chinese Zodiac!

For more on the Bulgarian Calendar and the Chinese Zodiac:

If there is such a thing as reincarnation, which I believe there is, there is the possibility that their liking for Bulgarian music may be related to a past life experience.

The Japanese have an interest in Bulgarian culture as well. Here is one of the strangest videos I've ever watched, of a group of Japanese, costumed, in a botanical garden, performing a Bulgarian folk dance, which somewhat resembles Daichovo Horo. See my previous post for an exceptional rendition of this dance:


Unlike the Chinese group, which has a feel for the assymetrical rhythms of Bulgarian folk music, their counterparts in Japan have it all wrong. They mince their steps and are very stiff. Someone from Bulgaria needs to give them some dancing lessons! It looks more they're performing some odd martial arts moves, using sickles instead of swords. Is there something lost in translation here?

The Bulgarian National radio mentioned this on its website about Japanese culture and its connection to Bulgaria: “The first statues of Buddha were created under the influence of the Greek culture on the Balkans. The cultures of Bulgaria and Japan are related since ancient times.”

It's fascinating to see how Bulgarian culture travels around the world.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Having a Blast with Diko Iliev.....

Today we're going to have a blast with the music of Diko Iliev, a Bulgarian composer of dance music for brass bands, who lived from 1898 to 1984.

The first time I heard a piece by Diko Iliev, I was blown away (literally) by this fiery and passionate music. While exploring the Balkanfolk website, I heard some samples of his work and decided this CD was something I absolutely had to have. http://www.balkanfolk.com/.

It so happened that the CD took nearly two months to get here because I ordered it during the festive season in Bulgaria. Everyone there must have been celebrating Diko Iliev's 110th birth anniversary. In the photo above it reads (translated into English, for the Cyrillically challenged): "Masters of Bulgarian Folklore, Diko Iliev, Dunavsko Horo."

Who was Diko Iliev and why is he the soul of modern Bulgarian folk music? Not many people in the United States have heard of him, but everyone in Bulgaria knows who he is, and holidays and festivities would be unthinkable without the lively and vibrant music of this composer.

Brass band music is a common element in many cultures; for example: Germany (Bavaria), Serbia, Macedonia, Turkey, Romania, and even in the United States and Latin America.

First of all, here's his most famous piece: Dunavsko Horo (Danubian Horo) which has become the unofficial national anthem of Bulgaria. Both are in this New Year in Sofia 2007 video. After the countdown they play Mila Rodina (the official Bulgarian anthem), and right after, Dunavsko Horo. (note: this was a very special event celebrating the admission of Bulgaria to the European Union, the fireworks are in perfect time with the music!)

And here is the actual dance:

A celebration in Bulgaria would be unthinkable without a group of people getting together to dance horo and rachenitsa. Horo is a dance done in an open circle or a line, and means "chain dance" in English. The dancers hold hands or each other's belts and are linked like a chain.

This group dances Svatbarska (wedding) rachenitsa,composed by Diko Iliev, (as part of a medley of several dances, including kopanitsa and pravo, the first one is the rachenitsa).

For more on the rachenitsa, read: http://katleyplanetbg.blogspot.com/2010/07/flavors-of-bulgarian-rachenitsa.html

Diko Iliev had an interest in music and dance from a very early age, especially the brass band music popular in northwestern Bulgaria, where he grew up. At the age of 13,he left home to study music with a military brass band. He composed his first piece at the age of 19, the Iskarsko Horo.

Diko Iliev lived in Oryahovo, a town on the Danube, for many years. He was the bandmaster of a regiment in nearby Kozloduy. Aside from that he composed music for various events, and taught music to the children of the town. The people of Oryahovo thought so highly of him that they named a square in the center of town in his honor, and his house is now a museum.

Here is the river that inspired him, at sunset, as seen from Oryahovo, from a site called "Bulgaria in 360." What is amazing about it is that you can zoom and rotate the picture, and almost get inside it. The view is magnificent!


Here is a video of the Danube as seen from Oryahovo on YouTube. The surreal music adds some charm to it, although it's not by Diko Iliev.....

The Bulgarian National Radio featured a segment on him recently (in German), with lots of music.


Diko Iliev composed about 70 works. Most of his music is based on Northern Bulgarian motifs such as the elenino, the daichovo, and the pravo. The majority of his work consists of marches and Bulgarian folk dances. He did, however, experiment with other genres, such as waltzes and tangos but his real love was horo and rachenitsa.

This is why the people of Bulgaria love his music, and it became the soul of a nation.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bulgarian Folk Music Travels Abroad......

Bulgarian folk music is so good they have a difficult time keeping it inside the country. It undergoes some interesting transformations when foreigners borrow it. For example, check out this performance of the Hungarian group, Besh O Drom, who used a Bulgarian folk tune and kicked it up a notch. The result? Something so dynamic that you can't sit still while listening to it.(For some reason this performance ended up on a Spanish TV program).

And here's the original music and dance, which is Graovsko Horo, performed by a Balkan folk dance group in Israel:

The Pravo is another dance that has been around. It is supposedly the most widespread dance in the world. Variations of it have turned up in Greece, Macedonia and Albania. Here is a group of dancers at a Greek festival that I went to last summer performing Zonaradiko, the same dance as the Bulgarian Pravo. By the way, the Pravo is the most popular dance in the Thracian region of Bulgaria. The ancient Thracians were a people who lived in what is now Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, so there was a lot of cultural cross-pollination in that part of the world.

A little on the history of Thrace can be found here:

The Valle, a dance from Albania, is also similar to Bulgarian Pravo:

The Rachenitsa has been around, too. It has migrated as far as Armenia, in a dance called Laz Bar. A Laz is a dance in 7/8 rhythm (apple apple galloping), and although the music is Middle Eastern, that Rachenitsa rhythm is in there. Notice a rhythm change near the end, and the dancers doing something similar to Bulgarian Pravo:

Compare it to the Bulgarian Rachenitsa seen here:

Back in the 90's, there was a series called "Xena, Warrior Princess." It had been brought to my attention, since I never watched it on TV, that Bulgarian music had infiltrated this particular miniseries. I checked it out for myself, on YouTube.

Hope you enjoyed this multi-cultural journey to Bulgaria and beyond.....

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Bagpipe in Bulgarian Folk Music

(photo from Wikipedia)

This is the musical instrument some people love to hate, and my daughter calls it music from Hell. The bagpipe is strident and loud, and you do not want to hear one the morning after a night of drinking! Most people associate the bagpipe with Scotland, where it is called the Great Highland Bagpipe. It takes a lot of lung power to play one.


Here's a traditional Scottish tune played on the Highland bagpipe:

Bagpipes are common to a number of cultures: the Scots, the Irish, the Bretons of northwest France, Macedonians, Greeks, and Bulgarians, to name a few. Here's some information about the Eastern European gaida (bagpipe) with some pictures, from Wikipedia:


An ad for Bulgarian rakia (brandy) cleverly combines Scottish bagpipes and kilts with Bulgarian music and dance:

In Bulgaria, the bagpipe is called the gaida. It is the predominant instrument in the Rhodope Mountains, near the Greek border, but common to all the folklore regions of Bulgaria. Most folk ensembles have a gaida player. You can really hear it in this performance of Kabile, a Bulgarian wedding band that toured the United States in 2008 and 2010.

This is what happens when 100 Bulgarians play the gaida at the same time. You will either be totally delighted by the performance or running to the medicine cabinet looking for a headache remedy. The fireworks add a nice touch!

When a female voice accompanies a gaida, you have a formidable combination. The song is Izlel e Delyu Haidutin, performed by a young lady named Nevena on the show Music Idol (the Bulgarian counterpart to American Idol). Her performance is on a par with that of Valya Balkanska, whose version of the song was launched into outer space in 1977.

There is no middle ground with bagpipes. You can love them or hate them, but they are pretty damn hard to ignore!

I love gaida music.
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