Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Folklore, Food and Fun at Festivals

My introduction to Balkan cuisine was many years ago, in the small German town of Kastellaun. http://kastellaun.de/

My husband and I lived in this quaint little town for nearly four years. There were several restaurants that we frequented, but my favorite was the Balkan Grill. We often ate there with another couple, and the proprietor, Victor, always made us feel like family. He came from Croatia, which back in the day was a part of Yugoslavia.

The best thing on the menu was the Grillteller a la Fritz, a selection of grilled meats which included: ražnjići, which was meat on a skewer; a pork chop, ćevapčići (seasoned ground meat rolled into sausage shapes) served with salad and rice. It was delicious, especially when washed down with some excellent German beer. Oftentimes Viktor treated us to Croatian schnaps. My favorite was Birnenschnaps (made with pears). On cold evenings, he'd pour us each a shot of slivovitz and our international group (two Americans, a Brit, a German, and a Croatian) toasted each other in several different languages. By the end of the evening we staggered home, full from the delicious food and more than a little giddy from the alcohol.

Ever since, I've loved food from the Balkans. One thing that I've noticed is although the foods are similar from country to country, the names, and sometimes the recipes are different. For example: what people in Croatia call ćevapčići is known as kebapcheta in Bulgaria. Souvlaki is the Greek name for shish-kebab, which is called ražnjići in Croatia and Serbia.

Here in the States, I frequent ethnic festivals. Since traveling abroad is out of the question for me in this point in my life, the festivals are the next best thing. The most authentic festivals are those given by the ethnic groups who hadn't been here too long, or who have strong ties with the old country.

Here's a video from a Greek festival I went to last year, and the food and music at this one is top notch. The spanokopita (spinach pie) is to die for, and the desserts are fantastic, especially the home made baklava. (see picture #3 above). People come from miles around to buy food and desserts, and they have sometimes run out before the festival ended!

Balkan cuisine is heavy on the meat, especially lamb, which is usually cooked whole or on skewers, which most people know as shish-kebab. Lamb is sometimes prepared on a vertical rotisserie, sliced, served with yogurt sauce, lettuce and tomato on a pita, the Greeks call this a "gyro." (see picture #1)

Grape leaves stuffed with rice or meat are a common side dish at the festivals as well as various salads. The Greeks call them "dolmadakia."

Speaking of salads, the Shopska Salad is a very simple, and tasty side dish, made with cucumber, tomato, onion, and brined cheese (similar to the Greek feta), and vinegar and oil dressing. (see picture #2) I had one at an festival featuring the band Zlatne Uste, which was multinational in that it took place at the Hungarian House in New York, and the catering was done by Bulgarians. There was roast lamb, banitsa (made with fillo dough and cheese), stuffed grape leaves, the aforementioned Shopska Salad, and baklava, among other delicious foods.


Are you hungry yet? If not, you should be!

There's a Bulgarian folk band from the Washington DC area, "Lyuti Chushki" (hot peppers.) The name may have something to do with a concoction of peppers, tomatoes and oil, called liutenitza, used as a relish in Bulgarian cuisine. http://www.omda.bg/engl/cook/liutenitza_engl.htm

Here's some spicy music, played by Lyuti Chushki. It's a little hard to see, but the dancers are doing Pajduško horo. The group's signature song is at the end of the video.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Band from New York City Competes at Serbian Brass Festival

This band is one of a kind, a group of musicians from New York City who got involved with Balkan folk dancing many years ago. They liked the music so much that they taught themselves to play it, created a band, and called themselves Zlatne Uste (Golden Lips).

They held their first Golden Festival at the Folk Arts Center in lower Manhattan in January of 1985. This is the sound that compels you to get up and dance (or at least tap your feet). The ground beneath you shakes when they play, and the excitement in the room is a living thing.

Each year the festival grew larger and larger as word of mouth spread the news about these New Yorkers having a blast with music from Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Most of their repetoire, however, is Serbian and Roma (Gypsy). The music on this video clip is Roma.

Here's a link the 2010 festival, which also happened to be its 25th anniversary: http://www.zlatneuste.org/au25.htm

And a short history of the band with a photo:


They have become so popular that they have been invited to play at the Guča festival in Serbia, not once, but four times. The Serbs were intrigued by these Americans. What interested them most was that none of them had a Serbian background, and that they did an fantastic job playing Balkan brass music. As a result, they became celebrities in Serbia, and articles were written about them in the local newspaper. The festival, which is in its 50th year, turns a sleepy Serbian village into a party town.


Meerkat Media Collective is in the process of creating a documentary film featuring Zlatne Uste, called Brasslands . The actual filming of the festival, along with the band's participation in the competition, is going on this week in Serbia. This is a summary of what the movie is about:


The founder of the band and a couple of the members tell their story in the trailer:

As for me, I have a connection with Zlatne Uste, having been to their very first Golden Festival in 1985.

I have also had the privilege of listening and dancing to them twice this year: Balkan Music Night (in Cambridge):


and during a St. George Day festival in New York City:


I can't wait to see the movie about them. (It's due to be released next year).

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Bulgarian Singing Demystified.....

Many years ago, a Swiss music producer and ethnomusicologist, Marcel Cellier, discovered gold in Bulgaria.

This gold was a group of singers, who were known as the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. They have since changed their name to the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices.


This is their performance of the song: "Dilmano Dilbero".

Cellier created two albums titled "The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices", which introduced the beauty of Bulgarian singing to Americans who had never heard this kind of music before. This album put Bulgaria on the map, especially in the United States. Americans liked it so much that Volume II won a Grammy award in 1990. The group gave concert tours around the world in the late 80's and early 90's and also appeared on a late night TV show:

Although the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices was quite popular in America, there are different styles of Bulgarian singing that didn't become quite as popular here, except amongst folk dancers and fans of Balkan folklore. This is the stuff people either love or hate, like bagpipe (gaida) music. There is no middle ground. See my earlier post on bagpipe music for an explanation:


Here is something in a totally different style, from the Pirin region, located in southwestern Bulgaria. The performers are the Bisserov sisters. The video has subtitles, but I wonder how much of the song is lost in translation :)

My daughter's reaction to it was "plug in the headphones, and get me an Advil."

Here's another song from the same region, performed by Tatiana Sarbinska. It's her best known song, "Katerino Mome."

By the way, Ms. Sarbinska teaches Bulgarian singing in the Boston area, and the members of Divi Zheni (wild women) are not Bulgarians, but Americans who are crazy about Bulgarian folklore.

The Boston Globe has an article about them:


The next video is of Divi Zheni, performing with Zornitsa (men's choral group, also from Boston) at the Koprivshtitsa festival, Bulgaria, August, 2010:

This is an American group from the West Coast. They do an excellent job with the Bulgarian folk song Ergen Dedo. It's worth a listen, despite the background noise.

If you have neighbors who annoy you constantly with their obnoxious loud music, here is a way you can get back at them. Americans, in general, are not fond of singing accompanied by Rhodope bagpipes. For the best effect, use loudspeakers and turn the volume up as high as you can.

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