Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boozing it up in the Balkans, via Song and Dance

Part of the experience of visiting a foreign country has to do with the food and drink and the fun things you get to do while mingling with the natives. You can get into the heart and soul of a culture and it's a great way to make new friends.

Today's post is about folk songs and booze. In the Balkans booze is big, and there are many different alcoholic beverages: Greek Ouzo, Bulgarian Rakia, and Serbian Slivovitz to name a few.

Then there is the ubiquitious fruit of the vine. Wine is one of the oldest drinks known to man. When the ancient peoples discovered wine it opened up new horizons, especially when primitive societies found that grape juice not only tasted good after it was fermented, but that it made people happy and sociable. A few drunken individuals entertained the rest of the group by doing really stupid things, this became known as "partying."

An enterprising individual found that he could make the wine stronger by distilling it into brandy, from that, rakia was born. And a very clever woman discovered that by planting a few grape vines, she could create a beverage that could knock a man out. He drank the wine, the rakia and the horse!

You can read about rakia here:

Can you count backwards from ten after a few shots of Slivovitz (the national drink of Serbia)? Niška Banja is a drinking song from Serbia, and that is exactly what they do after a day spent at the thermal baths in town; sing and drink slivovitz. Slivovitz is plum brandy and its taste and effects are nothing like prune juice :) I tried some on an freezing cold day in Germany, it warmed up those insides quite a bit.

Here are the lyrics in case you want to sing along. Make sure to pick up some slivovitz at the local liquor store first. If you have a Serbian neighbor who makes the stuff, it's probably much better than anything you can buy.


Everything you always wanted to know about slivovitz can be found here:


Unfortunately too much of a good thing has its drawbacks. Poor Gino! Don't drink the wine! Now he has an enormous headache. Or is he in pain from the loss of the one he loves?

The dance to the previous video was a lesnoto (galloping-apple-apple), which is a rhythm common in Bulgarian and Macedonian dances.

When I die, drink some red wine and break the glasses. Now that would be a fitting tribute to a life well lived. This beautiful and poignant folk song, Ako Umram il Zaginem, is from Macedonia. This song is also in lesnoto rhythm.

Here are the lyrics (and the music score) in case you want to sing along. We often do Ako Umram as a sing-along at the Sunday night dances, the description, in Bulgarian, for singing while dancing is called "horo na pesen."


If you enjoyed this, you may also like Days of Wine and Roses, Balkan Style


The Bulgarians have a patron saint of wine. Read about St. Trifon the Pruner here:


Wine has a very important significance in Bulgarian folklore.


If you'd like something stronger, there's always Rakiya, the band from the Boston area who plays electric Balkan dance music.


If you're a teetotaler, this post may be more to your taste. Reading this will definitely stimulate the appetite.


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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Rebels (Haidouks) in Bulgarian Folk Songs

(statue of Raina Popgeorgieva, photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Better the grave than a slave. Bulgarian proverb

Today we're going to explore rebel songs in Bulgarian folklore, in honor of the April Uprising of 1876.

The Ottoman Turks occupied the Balkans for nearly 500 years. Religious conflict was a recurring theme in Eastern Europe and the Muslim Turks were at odds with the Orthodox Christian population of the Balkans who were subjected to what could be considered a form of slavery.

The Ottoman rule was quite harsh. The Turks taxed the population heavily and conscripted preadolescent boys into the Janissaries, the Sultan's elite army. These young men were taken forcibly from their families, sent to Turkey, converted to Islam, and subjected to extreme discipline when they were old enough to join the ranks of the Janissaries. The Bulgarians and other people of the Balkan countries got fed up with these injustices, and rose up against their Ottoman oppressors.

The April Uprising in Bulgaria was the start of a series of events which eventually led to the country's independence. The rebels, called Haidouks, the most renowned being the poet Hristo Botev, were ready to die for the cause and for their country. This song, based on a poem by Ivan Vazov, describes Botev's hijacking of the ship Radetsky from Romania to Bulgaria, and how the revolutionaries crossed the Danube to overthrow their Turkish oppressors. Not long after, on June 2, Botev died in battle near the town of Vratsa.

The translation for the song can be found here (although, as usual something gets a little bit lost....)


The story of a female freedom fighter who took part in the liberation of Bulgaria is very powerful and moving. Her name was Raina Popgeorgieva. Also known as Princess Raina, she was a teacher, midwife, and a revolutionary. She was a true feminist, in this respect she was way ahead of her time. She sewed the flag for the April Uprising and waved it with a fellow revolutionary, in defiance of the oppressors, who captured her and locked her up in Plovdiv prison. She subsisted on bread and water for over a month, and after she was released, she left Bulgaria and moved to Russia, where she studied medicine, and later became a nurse. Raina then returned to Bulgaria, married and had a family. There is a statue of her in Panagyurishte, Bulgaria, her home town. She died at the age of 61.

This song tells the story of Raina Popgeorgieva. The dance done to it is lesnoto, the rhythm is galloping-apple-apple.

You can read more about Princess Raina here.

The song, Karmafil, is about a hero who was born in the Valley of the Roses, and his symbol was the red carnation. He was a true son of the Balkans, born in the Valley of the Roses. The lyrics can be found here:


Karamfil is very popular dance-song, and it's from the Pirin region of Bulgaria.

The last song is Sokole,Siri Sokole. (Gray Falcon) The falcon is a bird of prey and used as a symbol in a number of Bulgarian and Macedonian rebel songs. The video accompanying the song portrays the capture of a rebel being subjected to torture by the Ottomans. It is not pleasant to watch, but will give you an idea of what the Bulgarians went through to overthrow Turkish rule.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like Hristo Botev, Poet and Revolutionary, the story of Bulgaria's most beloved hero.


Kaicho Kumenov, the singer of Sokole, Siri Sokole, also made a recording of a more lighthearted folk song, Kune Mome. Here you can hear it along with a more modern version.


If you love flowers, this post is for you. Our hero, Karamfil, came from the Rose Valley, read more about it here.


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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Yet Another Country Heard From: The Bagpipe in Greek Folk Music

“Men are like bagpipes. No sound comes from them until they're full.”
Irish proverb

Bagpipe music is prevelant throughout Eastern Europe. Since one of the main occupations in these countries (back in the old days, before industrialization) was sheep or goat herding, when an animal was slaughtered or died from natural causes, the first thing on the mind of the pastoral peoples was "what use can I make of the hide?" The gaida was a logical as well as a creative use for what was left of the dead critter.

When the shepherds created bagpipes and found they could make music with them they were delighted. Of course, not everyone appreciated the sound, but then the bagpipe is one of those instruments people either love or hate.

Most people don't associate Greek music with bagpipes. They are actually quite popular in that country, especially in the northern regions bordering Bulgaria and Macedonia.

The Greek bagpipe, or gaida, is similar to the bagpipes in the other Balkan countries, made from the hide of a sheep or goat, and fitted with chanters, a blowpipe, and a drone.



The first video is of a Greek dance which looks and sounds Bulgarian, Troiro, from the region of Thrace. (The dance Triti Puti from Bulgaria is very similar to this one.) By the way, there is a Thrace in Bulgaria, too.

Zonaradikos, a traditional Greek folk dance, is also from the Thracian region and related to the Bulgarian Pravo Horo. These dancers performed at a Greek Festival that I went to during the late summer of 2010. You can hear the gaida loud and clear here.

The next video is a dance from Greek Macedonia, also played on a gaida. I noticed comments have been disabled for this particular video. Unfortunately, there is a lot of contention among the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Macedonians over what constitutes "Macedonia." If everyone realized how similar their music and dances were they wouldn't be fighting so much.

For those who want to know why the name Macedonia has been contested, here's some food for thought from Wikipedia.


If you liked this (and I hope you did :) you may also enjoy Bulgarian Folk Dances and Their Greek Relatives.


If you like the gaida as much as I do these posts are must reads:

The Bagpipe and Bulgarian Folk Music (it is, after all, the national instrument of Bulgaria)


The Bagpipe in Macedonian Folk Music (you will see some interesting bagpipes here, including one with the head still on!)


Another Country Heard From: The Bagpipe in Romanian Folk Music


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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Variations on a Theme by Petko Stainov: Rachenitsa Travels to Guatemala

Today's post is another cross-cultural adventure, in which the Bulgarian folk dance, rachenitsa, travels to Guatemala.

When I was a teen, my mom's best friend was a fixture at my house. Marta was from Guatemala, and she and my mom often danced our living room. Their favorite record was an album of Guatemalan folk dances played on the marimba and they never tired of it.

The marimba is a percussion instrument which looks a lot like a xylophone, and is the national instrument of Guatemala.

For more on the marimba check out this link from Wikipedia. This instrument is believed to have originated with the Maya Indians, who live what is now the Yucatán in southern Mexico, and in the countries of Guatemala and Honduras. Unlike the indigenous people of the Caribbean, who were nearly wiped out from European diseases, the Maya Indians have survived to this day and so has their culture. The Spanish were never able to completely suppress it.


My mom and her friend especially loved this piece, Chichicastenago, written in honor of a town in Guatemala, and played on a marimba.


You may be asking "what do marimba and Chichicastenango have to do with Bulgarian rachenitsa?"

You will find out why when you watch this video, taken in the studio of the Bulgarian National Radio, where you will see Petko Stainov's most popular piece, Rachenitsa, played on three marimbas, with drum and tambourine accompaniment. By the way, the rachenitsa is the national dance of Bulgaria. The national dance of Bulgaria is being played on the national instrument of Guatemala. How cool is that?

Petko Stainov wrote music based on folklore themes. (The rachenitsa is subtitled "Thracian Dance.") In that respect, he had something in common with another Bulgarian composer, Diko Iliev. Stainov went blind at the age of eleven, Diko Iliev (1898-1984) lost his eyesight not long before he died. It is said that the blind depend more on their hearing than people who can see.

The main difference between the two is that Stainov was classically trained and wrote music for orchestra, whereas Iliev was self-taught and his primary focus was on Bulgarian folk dances. Stainov lived from 1896 to 1977, so he was a contemporary of Diko Iliev. Stainov was a native of the folklore region of Thrace (famous for the dance Pravo Horo). His home town was Kazanlak, in the Valley of the Roses.

The next video is of the original Stainov orchestration. The date celebrates the liberation of Bulgaria on March 3, 1878.

And finally, the Stainov Rachenitsa played on an instrument very popular in Bulgaria, the accordion. The accordion is not native to Bulgaria, but supposedly was created in a German-speaking country. The Bulgarians loved it and integrated it into their folk music.

If you enjoyed this you may also like The "Flavors" of Bulgarian Rachenitsa.


There is a connection between folk music from Bulgaria and folk music from Latin America.


If you like the accordion, read about The Accordion in Bulgarian Folk Music.


Have a Blast with Diko Iliev. I guarantee you'll enjoy it.


This post is dedicated to my mom's Guatemalan friend, Marta, who passed on in 1998 of breast cancer. She was only 57 years old.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.