Friday, January 28, 2011

Dreaming of Spring in the Middle of Winter: Flowers in Bulgarian Folklore

Living in the deep freeze is not easy. The temperatures have been so cold recently that you can throw boiling water from a container and it will freeze before hitting the ground.

Not only has it been extremely cold, we have been doused with large quantities of snow every week! According to the statistics for this region, we have had at least 40 inches (a little over a meter) of snow during the month of January alone.

Since I hate winter and can't wait for it to end, today's post is about flowers, springtime and Bulgarian folklore. I am dreaming of spring in the middle of winter.

Here's one of my favorite folk-pop songs from Bulgaria, Biala Roza (white rose). The dance is a Devetorka. A white rose is beautiful and symbolizes innocence, but watch out for those thorns!

Are any of you old enough to remember the "flower children" from the 1960's? I think the Bulgarians were the original flower children judging from the number of videos I've seen with them wearing flowers in their hair. This little girl has one of the most amazing voices I've ever heard. She has flowers in her hair, and is wearing a traditional Bulgarian folk costume. And it's springtime....

Here is a dance-song called Karamfil (Carnation.) According to the song, the red carnation is the symbol of the rebel (haiduk) who leads the struggle against Ottoman Turkish rule, the mother of the partisans and the leader of the Slavs. He is a true son of the Balkans, born in the Valley of the Roses. For some reason, the Chinese love Bulgarian folk music. Must be that connection they have with the ancient Bulgarian calendar, which is the same as the Chinese zodiac!

The Year of the Rabbit is just around the corner. Click here to read about the ancient Bulgarian calendar and the Chinese zodiac:

The rose is the national flower and a symbol of Bulgaria. In spring, the Valley of the Roses comes alive with the color and fragrance of millions of flowers. The Rose Festival is held in June. Rose oil from Bulgaria is exported all over the world, to be used as an ingredient for perfumes. In this video, girls in traditional dress wear flowers in their hair. They're dancing a Pravo Horo, which is the one of the most popular dances in Bulgaria.

For more on the Rose Festival, click here:

Unfortunately, there's more than 6 more weeks of winter left.....but I can dream, can't I?

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ten Reasons Why You Should Read My Blog :D

If you accidentally ended up here, welcome! You are in for a fun and enjoyable experience. If you have been here before, welcome back!

My blog is different in that it's unusual. I saw the need for a humorous Balkan folklore blog. It's a subject few people on the internet have written about, and I enjoy writing about it. Although a few bloggers have ventured into "alien" territory, I have decided to make it my home. You won't find E.T. here, although you will find Alf :)

The Blogosphere is a fascinating place. People share their most intimate thoughts and feelings, describe people and places, rant about dysfunctional families and politics, and write poetry on blogs. You can find a little bit of everything here, except for dysfunctional family situations and hard core politics.

Here are ten reasons why you should read my blog:

1. It's entertaining and it's funny. I write to make people think and make people laugh. Hopefully after reading a post or two, it will brighten up your day. And, best of all, it costs nothing!

2. You get to travel to interesting places via multimedia. So you have me to blame for your itchy feet. You can even visit Scotland and Bulgaria at the same time!

3. If you like music, especially music in odd rhythms played on exotic sounding instruments such as the gaida, the gadulka and the kaval, you've come to the right place. This is a rachenitsa, a Bulgarian folk dance in 7/8 meter, played on a gadulka.

4. According to the blog stats, American readers were in first place, and Bulgarians came in second. It's not easy to read my ramblings in a foreign language. Google Translate works well from Bulgarian to English, I don't know about the other way around. I'm honored that you stopped by to read, it means a lot to me.

The Germans came in third, is there a big interest in Balkan folklore in Germany? The fact that people all over the world are reading The Alien Diaries means that it's become a truly multi-national (as well as multi-media) blog.

5. If you've missed a festival or band performance and I've been there, you can be sure I've written it up and taken some videos of the event. This is from last year's Balkan Music Night, which takes place in the Boston area every March, featuring the Serbian dance group Grachanitsa.

For more on Balkan Music Night:

By the way, I was unable to make the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival this year, but I found some video on YouTube. I was at the very first one 26 years ago.

6. This blog will help you become physically fit. If you're out of shape try some ethnic dance and exercise.

7. If you're interested in a creative way to stop annoying neighbors from playing obnoxious loud music you will find the solution here.

8. You get to watch people in elaborate embroidered costumes performing complicated folk dances in strange rhythms.

9. We are all citizens of the world and are interconnected. Chauvinism and ethnic rivalry have no place here. The definition of "Balkanization" is a little different on my blog than it is in the dictionary.

"Balkanization: to divide (a country, territory, etc.) into small, quarrelsome, ineffectual states." from

"Where there is dancing and singing there is no fighting." Ciga, dancer from the Kolo Ensemble, Belgrade. This was his epitaph.

On The Alien Diaries, Balkanization means everyone holds hands, dances, and gets along, unlike in the real world. Maybe one day that will actually happen.

10. You will find a little bit of everything here, including poetry and a short story featuring my cat, who has a very strange dream:

You can also read about about Hristo Botev, poet and revolutionary.

If you've enjoyed what you've read here, please let me know in the "comments" section. Thank you!

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Clarinet in Bulgarian Folk Music (third in a series on "instruments of torture")

(photo from Wikipedia)

"Clarinet: An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments worse than a clarinet – two clarinets."
Ambrose Bierce

My parents and my younger brother would have certainly agreed with that.

Many years ago, when I was in the 7th and 8th grade, I took a music class in school which was mandatory. Over 40 years later, I'm glad I had the experience. It gave me some basic grounding in music theory. My best friend and I had a blast poking fun of the music teacher, who was a bit eccentric.

There were two types of instrumental music offered at my school: orchestra and band. I was assigned to band; my instrument was the clarinet. Little did I know that many years later I'd develop a passion for Bulgarian folk music, much of which is played on the clarinet.

If I had known now what I knew then, I would have continued taking lessons. Would I have been good at it? I don't know.

No one in my family was musically literate. There just wasn't any money for music lessons or any of that stuff when I was growing up, so when my parents heard I was assigned to a music class, they were dreading my bringing home the clarinet that I had to practice for a half hour every day. They complained constantly about the squeaks coming from the bedroom, and my brother couldn't hear his favorite TV shows. In my family, the clarinet was considered an "instrument of torture", except when played by Benny Goodman, whose music my mom danced to during World War II.

I did fairly well with the clarinet after the "squeaky" phase, when I was struggling to learn the upper register. I considered it an accomplishment when I was able to play Greensleeves without peppering it with squeaks.

When I went to high school, there were no instrumental music classes, and I developed interests in other things. Many years later, when I discovered the clarinet was an essential part of Bulgarian folk music, especially in wedding bands, I wanted to take it up again, to the point of trying to bribe one of my daughter's friends to give me lessons in exchange for favors. She wasn't buying. My daughter didn't want her to teach me. The last thing my daughter wanted to listen to was me practicing narodna muzika on the clarinet.

So I may take it up sometime in the future, when the kids are out of the house.

Here's a band from Greece who do an excellent job with Bulgarian rachenitsa. The clarinetist is amazing and the accordion player is good too!

Ivo Papazov, a Bulgarian of Roma descent, is a master of the clarinet. His speciality is ethno-jazz and wedding music. Listen to him and his band here:

Wedding bands usually have a clarinetist. Here's one of my favorite bands, Kabile, who have been on a couple of U.S. tours.

And finally, here's one of my favorite combinations, a clarinet and an accordion. If you know someone who hates either one or both of these instruments, you will be subjecting them to some wicked musical torture. This is payback for my daughter when she plays that awful country music on her computer.

If you are interested in other instruments of torture and their use in Bulgarian folk music, these posts are required reading :)

The human voice is also a considered a musical instrument, and in the right situation can be used to torment annoying neighbors.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dancing to the Rhythm of a Different Drummer, or Why I like music in odd time signatures

Part of the fun of Balkan dance is learning the rhythms. People who are accustomed to "western" music often find that Balkan dancing and the assymetrical rhythms take a little getting used to.

Many years ago, I took a band class in school. Nearly all the music was in common time signatures, such as 4/4, 2/4, 6/8, and the occasional waltz (in 3/4 time). I found the waltz intriguing because it has an odd number of beats in each measure. When I first heard a rachenitsa from Bulgaria, I was totally smitten, by both the sound and the rhythm. It was beautiful and different!

In the Balkans, musicians like pieces with odd meters, such as 7/8 and 11/16, although in the villages, they played by ear, and sheet music to them was a foreign concept. They didn't let little things like quick-slow beats concern them, and the dancers had a lot of room for improvisation. If you're into music theory you may find this link of interest.

One of my favorite dances is the kopanitsa, popular in Bulgaria and Macedonia. It has 11 beats to the measure. It's one of those rhythms that's a little tricky to internalize. The accent is on the 4th beat.

I have internalized the kopanitsa to the point that at a Bulgarian event I went to last year, no one got up to lead the dance. Whatever possessed me at the time commanded me to lead, and I did. Before I knew it I had about 50 people dancing in a line behind me, many of them exchange students from Bulgaria. The song lasted about 10 minutes, and I was exhausted when the music ended. This is the poem I wrote about the experience:

Dances often cross borders. Here are two dances from Serbia in 7/8 time which look and sound like Bulgarian rachenitsa. There are two versions of 7/8 rhythm: the rachenitsa is "apple apple galloping."

The drummer is amazing, he's playing and dancing at the same time. How many people can do that?

For more on the rachenitsa (the national dance of Bulgaria), read:

Here is the other version of 7/8 rhythm, which makes for a completely different dance, the Lesnoto or Pravoto. This dance is from Macedonia. The beat is "galloping apple apple."

One of the first dances I learned many years ago was this lively Serbian number, Niska Banja, which is in 9/8. (This time signature is also used in the Bulgarian dance Daichovo Horo).

Niska Banja is a very catchy drinking song. This link will take you to the lyrics, and an English translation, so you can sing along :)

This is a Daichovo, also a 9/8 dance, (quick-quick-quick-slow). Although the first beat has the accent, the fourth is the longest.

Since music is related to math, and since many people who take up Balkan music and dance are often math and physics people, here is an unusual take on that subject:

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Some Electric Balkan Music: Rakiya

This post is not about booze. It's a writeup about one of my favorite Balkan bands. If alcohol is what you crave, click here:

On January 2nd, I went to a dance party featuring the band Rakiya. Their high energy electric music was very intoxicating, and the endorphins generated by dancing to them more than made up for the fact this was an alcohol-free event.

The first time I saw them perform was at Balkan Music Night in Concord last March. I was so taken by their dynamic musical style that I took this video, which is also on their web site. The song is Zajko Kokarajko from Macedonia.

For more on Balkan Music Night, which takes place in Concord, Massachusetts every March (this year the date is March 19), click here

Last year's recap of Balkan Music Night can be read here:

The band is from Boston. Most of their gigs are in New England, except for the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival in New York City, which is a huge Balkan event with numerous bands, now celebrating its 26th year. The festival will be held in Brooklyn on the 14th and 15th of January. It is definitely worth a visit.

This video of Rakiya is from a recent party in Wethersfield, CT. Here they perform a Serbian pop-folk song, Gori Mori. I love the way the singer dances and gets into the music, is she having fun yet?

Besides Balkan, Rakiya plays Roma (Gypsy) and Middle Eastern music. This is a mellow Armenian song: Sweet Girl.

It was an enjoyable event. I was tired and a little sore the next morning, with happy memories of the night before.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Some Interesting New Year Rituals and More Cross-Cultural Celebrations

(photo from Wikipedia)

Today's post will be about some interesting New Year rituals.

In Bulgaria, the New Year is welcomed with a ritual called Surva. According to the Bulgarian National Radio website, "very early in the morning on 1 Jan. boys (survakari) tour the community with best wishes for the New Year. They use decorated cornel twigs gently beating neighbors on their backs, for the sake of health, endurance and prosperity."

The noise and the cowbells in this video serve to frighten away the evil spirits and the fire symbolizes the return of the sun in this very noisy Surva celebration. The fun doesn't end on New Year's Eve, at least not in Bulgaria!

Jumping into a frigid body of water in January seems to be the thing to do to stave off the boredom of winter, and in my humble opinion, you have to be either drunk or out of your mind to think about it. If you live in New England, like I do, the ocean is freezing cold even in mid-July, and I've compared it to taking the Kneipp Cure.

Sebastian Kneipp, a monk from Germany, was one of the first to popularize the cold water treatment. He claimed it cured him of tuberculosis, which was a very common ailment in those days. He may have been on to something.

The Polar Bear Club, founded over 100 years ago in Coney Island, New York, was one of the first organizations to begin the New Year by taking a dip in the icy ocean. Any hangovers from the previous night will certainly be obliterated in that 38 degree water.

For more on the Polar Bear Club, read:

The Christian holiday of Epiphany falls on January 6th. In Latin America, Epiphany is Three Kings Day. It is said that this on this day the Kings arrived at the manger of the infant Jesus and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Three Kings Day celebrations involve lots of singing and dancing as you can see in this video from Puerto Rico.

Epiphany takes on an interesting twist in Eastern Europe. There, the focus is more on commemorating the baptism of Jesus. Another name for the holiday is St. Jordan's Day, and it involves a group of men plunging into freezing cold water to retrieve a cross thrown into it by a priest. This custom is practiced by those of the Eastern Orthodox faith, which is the predominant religion the Balkans and in Russia. In Russia, where lakes and rivers often freeze solid, a hole will be cut into the ice.

The cross throwing ritual accomplishes two purposes: the first one is to bless and purify the water, the second is for health and good luck, especially to the person who retrieves it. Here's a group of men (notice that all the participants are male) taking a dive into the icy Danube near the town of Svishtov. Snow flurries fall from the sky and the audience on the riverbank is bundled up in heavy winter coats.

In this clip from a news program, a bunch of people dance in the Tundzha River and several men play the gaida!  Either they have been endowed with supernatural powers that overcome the effect of frigid water, or they have been hitting the rakia :)

For more about water in Bulgarian folklore read:

For more cross cultural celebrations read:
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