Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Different "Flavors" of Macedonian Folk Music

I love Macedonian folk music.

The reason for that is that it's a blend of multiple cultures, and uses motifs from Greek, Turkish, Roma (Gypsy) and Bulgarian folk music to create a distinctly Macedonian sound, which is almost, but not quite, Middle Eastern. Macedonia was under Turkish rule from the 1400's until 1912.

One of my favorite folk ensembles is Tanec, from the Macedonian capital of Skopje. In this video, a musician plays the zurna (at 6.13) a double reed instrument which looks like a wooden horn with finger holes. It has a loud and piercing sound, and was used in Ottoman military bands (presumably for war dances and to intimidate enemies). Notice the "skirts" on the men (these are similar to the Greek folk costumes, and can be compared to the kilts worn by men in Scotland).

More information on male folk dress in the Balkans can be found here:

Some Macedonian folk music and dances are similar to Bulgarian and there is a bit of overlap in the border region of southwestern Bulgaria, Blagoevgrad Province, also known as Pirin Macedonia.

The languages of the two countries are very similar (much like the speakers of Spanish and Italian, they can understand each other), and both countries use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Here Tanec performs music from the Pirin region. The second song, Snoshti E Dobra, (at 1:45) is popular in Bulgaria, too.

Here is the same song performed by the Pirin Ensemble of Blagoevgrad.

In the next video, the Pirin Ensemble performs a very beautiful folk song: Glasat Na Pirina (Voice of Pirin). Pirin is a derivation of Perun, who is the Slavic god of thunder and lightning, and is also the name of the mountain range in this part of Bulgaria (remember, lightning always hits the tallest objects!)

There are several countries which include the name of Macedonia as part of their territory. Although I don't want to get too much into politics (and start World War III), there is a lot of contention regarding the use of the name "Macedonia". Back in the days before political borders, Macedonia included territory now in Bulgaria, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia. The area now in Greece is Aegean Macedonia, and the next video is a sample of the folk music of that region.

The Greek Macedonians and the Slavic Macedonians don't always get along, which is something I don't understand. But unfortunately the Balkans have always been a hotbed for ethnic tensions, even in modern times, and these disputes sometimes get played out on YouTube, which is why comments have been disabled on many Macedonian folk music videos.

As for me, I enjoy the music, and think that people should set aside their differences and get along.

If you enjoyed this you may also like Ten Reasons Why You Should Read My Blog

For a look at the Roma influence in Macedonian music read:

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Cyrillic Alphabet: cracking the code, and pondering why there is no such thing as Cyrillic Alphabet Soup....

(Saints Cyril and Methodius, photo from Wikipedia)

One afternoon one of my daughters came home from class, and I was sitting at my usual spot, in front of the computer.

What really puzzled her was that I had a webpage from Radio Bulgaria on the screen. It was not in English.

“Mom, can you read the acrylic alphabet?"

That malapropism was so cute, although it didn't come from a child, but from an intelligent young woman who just completed her third year in college.

“Marty, I can pick out a word here and there, but if I really want to read this I have to use Google Translate. It translates entire webpages into English (from over 50 different languages, although sometimes something can be lost in translation along the way). And by the way, did you mean the Cyrillic alphabet? I remember you guys learning that in elementary school."

When my daughters started school our town had a large influx of Russian immigrants, and their school offered, as part of the curriculum, classes in spoken and written Russian. I picked up a little Russian and a few words in the Cyrillic alphabet during this time, which helped me with Bulgarian later on.

My daughters have long since forgotten what they learned, and Marty, I remember, had a lot trouble with the “acrylic" alphabet." If you don't use it, you lose it.

I was always fascinated by the Cyrillic alphabet. Two brothers from Greece, Cyril and Methodius, devised a writing system based on the Greek alphabet during their missionary work in Slavic lands. Disciples of Cyril and Methodius, one of whom was St. Clement of Ohrid, created what is now the Cyrillic alphabet, named, of course, after St. Cyril.

Although most people associate the Cyrillic alphabet with Russia, Bulgaria was the first country to adopt it, and it is now one of the official alphabets of the European Union, along with the Roman and the Greek.

In Bulgaria, the Cyrillic Alphabet, or azbuka, has its own holiday on May 24, known as "Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavonic Literature Day." There is even a song about it:

Although I can recognize a number of words in Cyrillic, and can understand a few words of Bulgarian, this alphabet is still very much a mystery to me. I still have trouble cracking the code, and I don't know how many times I've resorted to Google Translate to decipher Bulgarian web pages.

According to my mom, I taught myself how to read before I started school, and by the time I entered the classroom, I was already ahead of the other kids. I found school boring since a lot of what was taught was stuff I already knew, and I had a knack for getting into mischief.

By the time I was in 6th grade, passing notes to my friends got me into trouble on many occasions. Since part of the problem with the teacher was her ability to read the notes, I invented a code, with a symbol corresponding for each letter of the alphabet, gave my friends each a copy, and we committed it to memory. From then on we were able to write notes that the teacher found impossible to read......

Back in the day, I probably could have learned Russian, or Bulgarian, or any language with a different alphabet, but they weren't taught at my school and I didn't plan to work in the CIA, where I'm sure they had classes in Russian for those considering a career in espionage.

As for the "acrylic" alphabet, for the most part it's still "Greek" to me, and I'm a big fan of Google Translate.

For more on "lost in translation" read my post on Bulgarian proverbs, a humorous take on what happens when folk sayings are translated from Bulgarian to English:

The webpage for Google Translate can be found here:

If you're interested, you can read about the history of the Cyrillic alphabet on Wikipedia.

And a final thought: Has anyone ever come up with the idea of Cyrillic alphabet soup?

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Days of Wine And Roses: Balkan Style

(photo from Wikipedia commons)

The expression "days of wine and roses" was originally used by Ernest Dawson, a British writer of the 19th century. It's from a stanza in his poem Vitae Summa Brevis:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

There was also a movie from the 1960's Days of Wine and Roses, a drama about alcoholism. I don't watch depressing films like these but here's the link if you're interested.

Since The Alien Diaries is about fun, there will be nothing on this blog of a sobering nature. Here the Days of Wine and Roses will be entertaining and enjoyable. You can even drink a toast to me while you read this :)

Wine and roses are popular themes in Balkan folk music, as you will see here.

The first video is of a Bulgarian song set to Greek music. These men are ready for a serious evening of wine and dancing; the song is Give Us Some Wine. Notice the women dancing the Hasapiko, which was originally the dance of the butcher's guild in Greece during the Middle Ages.

For more on the Hasapiko and other butcher's dances from the Balkans read:

The next song is a satirical one from Macedonia, Imate Li Vino. Bring on the wine, the money, and the young women. But you can keep the old ladies!

The lyrics can be found here:

Roses are beautiful flowers, and they are everywhere during late spring and early summer. The rose is the symbol of Bulgaria, and rose oil is a very important export for this country; it's used as an essential ingredient in perfumes. The next song is A Bulgarian Rose. The lyrics are included, so you can sing along :)

The Days of Wine and Roses would not be complete without a short film clip of the Rose Festival which takes place every June in the town of Kazanluk, Bulgaria. The celebration includes dancing Pravo Horo in the town square, it's a simple dance that everyone can do.

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Saturday, May 7, 2011

How Bulgarian Folk Music Induces Altered States....

It's not unusual to get into a trance when listening to certain types of music. If you click this link you can get an idea of how that happens. Although the article is primarily about modern techno and house music, people have gone into trances while dancing long before electronic music came into existence. Shamans in primitive societies have beaten on drums and performed ceremonial dances as a means of communicating with the spirits.

It is very easy to escape reality while dancing and listening to Bulgarian folk music. Some of it, especially pieces with bagpipes and drumming, borders on the hypnotic. The rhythms are ancient and transcend time and space.

In the first video, a group of dancers in traditional dress, with live musical accompaniment, perform in the town square, with the townspeople joining in. The piece that the musicians play has a mesmerizing quality, and you could very easily go into a trance while dancing to it. (I couldn't help but notice the flashing signs from the spa hotel. If you stare at them and listen to the drumbeats long enough, you will get hypnotized, or at the very least, have this uncontrollable desire to find the nearest casino and gamble away your life's savings.) Is there a subliminal message here?

The Nestinari ritual involves dancing in a pit of hot coals which have been burning all day. Hypnotic music is especially important to the performance of this ceremony. Although modern science has proven that just about anyone can walk on coals if they use the proper technique, many believe that the Nestinari have magical abilities and can communicate with God and the saints by going into a trance while dancing. The music used in the Nestinari ceremony is very primitive, the wail of a gaida and the beat of a drum (tupan). Even the little kids have no fear, they hold their arms out so the woman can carry them over the fire!

You can read last year's post on Nestinari, see the Myth Busters video, and learn about the science behind fire walking here:

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