Sunday, February 27, 2011

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Martenitsa (but were afraid to ask :)

What's red and white and has travelled all over the world? What do Bulgarians wear every year on March 1st to hasten the arrival of spring? Why is it important to make Baba Marta happy? (She's prone to mood swings). It's all in this video.

The custom of wearing the Martenitsa has become widespread outside Bulgaria, and non-Bulgarians, including myself, are wearing them in the hope that Baba Marta (Grandmother Martha) will bring an early spring, since this past winter has been especially cold and snowy. I saw a number of people wearing them at last year's Balkan Music Night, an event held in the Boston area in mid-March. The bands had them on their instruments, especially on their tupans (large double-sided drums).

There is no "right" way to make a martenitsa. They are an exercise in creativity. They come in red and white tassels, tied together. They can be made as bracelets or necklaces, ornamented with beads, or in the form of boy and girl dolls named Pizho and Penda.

I prefer to make the martenitsa as a bracelet, and I can do one in about 15 minutes. The custom is to give them as gifts to friends and relatives, for good luck and good health. One lady, at the Friday night dances, a native of Bulgaria, was quite impressed with the ones I made. She told me in Bulgaria nowadays, people are more likely to buy them from street vendors than to make their own. They are not difficult to create if you've been to summer camp, and I made the ones in the picture #2.

Making lanyards was an activity we engaged in on rainy days at camp and making a martenitsa is just like making a lanyard, except that you use red and white yarn, instead of that plastic lace used to make keychains. The colors, ideally, match the skeins of yarn in picture #1.

The Martenitsa has even travelled to the coldest place on Earth. Handmade ones have been mailed to Antarctica, according to this article from the Bulgarian National Radio.

The Bulgarian Antarctic Institute has a really cool website, and it looks like the people stationed there have been teaching the penguins to dance :) Wherever Bulgarians go, they take their traditions with them!

I grew up in the South Bronx, in a housing project. It was a rough neighborhood, and nowadays is one of the most gang-infested places in the United States. These dreary look-alike apartment complexes have counterparts in Eastern Europe, and this neighborhood is the setting for a pair of dueling Martenitsas. Note: Neither one was harmed in the taking of this video, which was done strictly in the spirit of fun.)

For more about the Martenitsa in Bulgarian folk tradition, click this link:

For last year's post about my fascination with this Bulgarian folk craft, click here:

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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Moon, the Stars and the Sun...a look at Celestial Objects in Bulgarian Folklore

(photo from Wikipedia commons)

Bulgarians are really into outer space judging from the number of references in their folklore about the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Here's a glimpse into their fascination with heavenly objects in folk songs and folk music.

Zornitsa means morning star and probably refers to the planet Venus. Although Venus is technically a planet, it looks like a star and is one of the brightest objects (after the moon) in the predawn/evening sky. (Venus can only be seen two hours before sunrise and two hours after sunset). Zornitsa is a popular female name, which is most likely given to girls born just before sunrise. The morning star must be something really special to the Bulgarians because there are so many folk ensembles with that name. Here's Zornitsa, from Sofia, performing at a festival in Luxembourg:

This beautiful song is Izgrejla e Mesechinka (the moon has risen). The moon is often seen as a feminine object; if you know a language in which nouns are considered masculine or feminine, for example, Spanish, the moon is feminine (la luna). What's really unique about this version of Izgrejla e Mesechinka is that there's only one female singer in the group, and it gives this "feminine" song an interesting masculine quality.

Fire rituals were used in the old days, before Christianity, to summon the sun back around the time of the winter solstice and to chase away evil spirits. Although modern people know that the the sun will eventually triumph over winter, the Surva celebrations are held in Bulgaria every year. Which is a good thing, because if they weren't, everyone would probably freeze to death :)

This video, depicting another ritual which takes place shortly before Lent, gives a new meaning to the term "fire dancing," and the brass band music accompanying the dancers is loud enough to wake the dead. That and the bonfires will certainly keep those evil spirits away, especially the cold ones that bring long, snowy winters. Lent falls at the very end of winter, and is the start of the 40 day fasting season before Easter.

For more on the Shrovetide (pre-lenten) ritual, read:

For more on the sun in Bulgarian folklore, here's a link to a broadcast from the Bulgarian National Radio.

For more on the Bulgarian connection with outer space, read:

For the Bulgarian take on astrology and folklore read:

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Monday, February 14, 2011

To Bavaria, Bulgaria, and Beyond....a Multicultural Look at Brass Band Music

Brass music is a multicultural and multiethnic phenomenon. The reason it's so popular around the world is that it's dynamic and exciting, and it's hard to sit down while listening to it.

Brass orchestras or bands are usually accompanied by a percusssion section, and often woodwinds, such as clarinets and flutes. They play music that makes you get up and move, such as marches and dances, unlike a symphony orchestra, in which the primary purpose of the music is to be listened to in a concert hall.

I grew up with the Latin rhythms of Tito Puente. He popularized salsa and mambo back in the 1960's and 1970's, to the point this music eventually became mainstream. His parents were born in Puerto Rico. Tito Puente himself was a native of New York City and grew up in Spanish Harlem. The world lost a great musician when he died in the year 2000. Check out the brass and percussion in this performance, it's great!

Brass music is very popular in Germany. When I lived there, I couldn't get enough of it, especially at the Munich Oktoberfest. This music is native to Bavaria, in southern Germany, and goes well with beer and pretzels :), the name of the song is The Happy Woodcutters.

After I returned to the States, I took up Balkan dancing. At the place where I danced, the Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band did one of their first gigs. Back in the mid-1980's this kind of music was virtually unknown in the States, although it's very popular in Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania. Here's a bit of their history from the trailer to their upcoming film: Brasslands: (Note, Brasslands was filmed in Serbia during the summer of 2010, and is scheduled to be released sometime this year.)

This is the first band from the United States to compete at the Guča Festival in Serbia. These New Yorkers have come a long way and Zlatne Uste is known way beyond the borders of the five boroughs. They hold a Golden Festival every January that's become so huge that that they had to move their venue to Brooklyn. The festival lasts for two nights, with bands playing simultaneously on four stages.

For more on Zlatne Uste, read:

The next video is that of a Balkan Brass Band workshop, led by the members of Zlatne Uste. Turn up the volume on this one, it will blow you away!

Diko Iliev, a Bulgarian composer, who lived from 1898-1984, popularized brass music in his homeland. His speciality was marches and folk dances,and his birthday falls on February 15. This piece is a Daichovo, a dance from northern Bulgaria.

For more on Diko Iliev and some of his delightful music, read:

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Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Blessed wine, cursed drinking" A look at St. Trifon, the patron saint of vintners

I lived in Germany for several years, in a wine producing region. The growing of wine grapes was important to the economy as well as the culture; after a good harvest, the people had much to celebrate. And celebrate they did: with festivals, lots of music and dancing, delicious food, and enough wine to float a ship on the Rhine :) They even lit up the river with fireworks during a festival called "Rhein in Flammen".

Wine is a very important part of the culture of many European countries, such as Italy, Hungary, Austria, Spain, and Bulgaria. Today's post is about St. Trifon Zerazan, the patron saint of wine, whose feast day falls in February.

Here are several proverbs just to give you an idea of the importance of wine in Bulgarian folk tradition:

Blessed wine, cursed drinking!

The first glass is for health, the second - for joy, the third - for fun, the fourth - for madness.

If the priest is used to get drunk, the people does not sober at all.

These proverbs are literal interpretations from Bulgarian, which is why something is lost in translation. For more on this subject read:

Here's a video taken in a Bulgarian wine cellar, with a peek at the final product.

Several weeks before the start of spring, there is prep work to be done in the vineyards. You can read about this here:

This is a folklore video of the St. Trifon's Day ceremony. Even if you don't understand Bulgarian you can see the vintners pruning the vines, sprinkling them with wine, and asking for God's blessing for a good year. A special bread is made for this occasion, everyone shares a piece, along with some roast chicken, and they wash it down with a sip of wine. Bread and wine are the symbols of communion, in this case, the communion of winegrowers. This ritual ensures the fruitfulness of the harvest, and once the ceremony's done it's time to dance!

St. Trifon's Day falls at about the same time as Valentine's Day in the States, on February 14th.

As for me, I'd rather celebrate the wine. Here are the reasons why:

Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.
Ben Franklin

Men are like fine wine: They all start out as grapes, and it is your
job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into
something you'd want to have with dinner.
(source unknown)

Wine is bottled poetry. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Na Zdrave!

For more on wine in Bulgarian folklore, read:

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

This Brings Out the Animal in Me...Critters in Balkan Folk Music

(rabbit photo from Wikipedia; cat photo is of "Fluffy" by K.D. Brown)

Happy Year of the Rabbit!

The Chinese New Year begins on February 3rd, 2011. The first New Moon in late January/early February starts another cycle in the Chinese Zodiac.

For those of you who follow astrology, the Chinese Zodiac is different than the Western, in that in consists entirely of animals. In the Western Zodiac, there is one inanimate object, Libra, the Scales, and several human figures: Virgo (the virgin), Sagittarius (half-human and half horse, and Aquarius, either a man or woman pouring water.

The word "zodiac" means a "circle of animals", and is of Greek origin.

Today's topic will be songs and dances about critters in Balkan folklore. Folk songs and folk tales often use animals to describe human qualities, both good and bad (without offending the humans!)

The first dance-song, from Macedonia, is about a rabbit, in honor of the Chinese New Year. The song is Zajko Kokorajko, the dance is called Arap.

Mr. Rabbit wanted to get married, but little did he know about the surprise that awaited him :) You can find the lyrics here:

Foxes are wily, clever creatures, and fortunately the rabbit in our story what the fox had in store for him before it was too late.

The next video is a dance from Romania called Vulpita (little fox). I've never seen a fox dancing, but I'm sure if they do it's fast.....

One of my favorite animals is the cat. One thing cats like to do is steal food, and Fatso, my current kitty is no exception. As a result, he weighs over 20 pounds, and he refuses to go on a diet. He thinks our food tastes better than his, this explains why he jumps on the table when nobody's looking.

The next dance is Ripna Maca, about a cat who steals sausage, much to the annoyance of his humans. Version one is from Serbia.

The lyrics are here:

The priest's wife in the song didn't take too kindly to the cat stealing food. In my house it's not a big deal because Fatso is spoiled. Besides, cats do whatever they damn well please, and there's no stopping them.

Version two is from Bulgaria.

May the year of the Rabbit bring everyone health and happiness!

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