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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