The Christmas season is a busy one for musicians. Celebrations, festivals, special events… everyone wants a wedding band. Last Saturday evening I caught a ride to one such event in Sokolitsa, a small village about an hour’s drive north of Plovdiv. If I understood correctly, it was a Christmas party for the agricultural workers in that rural district. The village roads were dirt and pockmarked as if a giant had decided they looked tasty. The drive had been a bit nerve-wracking; tailgating, getting lost, and warnings that the car was running out of fuel put me a bit on edge. But finally we arrived at the hotel/spa/restaurant complex and stationed the car on a grassy incline just off the road. It was almost 19:30 and quite dark.
We shut the car doors and I regretted that I had left my apartment without a scarf. On the way to the gate, we passed a man peeing against a wall, a cock in each hand. Only one was the feathered kind, grey and quite dead, swinging by its ankles. My breath glowed white in the lamplight.
The interior of the restaurant was quite crowded. I would guess there were over 150 people, mostly at large tables seating anywhere from 8-20 guests each. V., the name I will give to the woman who had given me a ride, walked with me over to the musicians’ table. I knew she was a singer because she had shared her recent CD with me in the car, but I wasn’t sure if she would be singing tonight or if she was just friends with the band. The table was piled high with food; the musicians had been served first so they could eat before playing. The men wore blue jeans and matching white shirts with a black design across one shoulder. Their matching jackets were draped over the backs of their chairs.
Plamen is the band’s accordion player, and he had invited me after Valeri put the two of us in contact. I hope to do a profile on him once the holiday season is over and he has more time to do an interview (with the help of an interpreter). For now, I know that he, like Valeri, is from Ruse, and that the two met at AMTII when they were both students there. He used to dance, which is how he became interested in narodna musika. He played Serbian music with a band in Switzerland for a while before returning to Ruse with his wife, the primary singer with the wedding band. I tried to ask him some other questions, but particularly with the background clatter, we were unable to find a meeting point between my Bulgarian and his English.
Somebody passed me a salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, and two kinds of a soft white cheese) and a glass of rakia. “Did you bring your kaval?” Plamen asked. I blushed and said no, that I am new to the instrument and not very good yet. I had considered bringing it, but I’m still quite shy about playing for people and I have a feeling that they might have asked me to perform. Maybe that would have made for a better story, but I have to set my anti-humiliation boundaries somewhere ;).
A woman in a black dress with some kind of authority over the event came over and gave a signal. The band abandoned their half-eaten food (I have never seen a Bulgarian person rush their bites) and, with barely a mic check, began to play. And play, and play. For just shy of seven hours they performed, almost nonstop. I had read about such Herculean feats, but they are less astonishing in the abstract. There is actually a Bulgarian word, надсвирвам (“nadsvirvam,” roughly “to play above” or “to outplay”), that refers to the idea that music played louder, longer, and faster is better. As the evening progressed, they boosted the amps, and though it wasn’t as overpowering as that event in Trud, I still wished I could put in my earplugs without appearing rude.
The only real break the band got was about two hours in, during a Christmas skit. Two men emerged, one dressed in a red cape and hat that reminded me a bit of Santa Claus, though his mask was a bit bulbous and creepy and had no beard, and the other wearing a wedding dress with a padded-pregnant belly. The latter had a red scarf with fake coins sewn into it tied about his waist, and a tulle veil was drawn over his face in disguise. Guests were instructed to look under their chairs for a piece of neon pink tape. Those who had tape were given a present from a large plastic bag. These gifts ranged from thongs, given to middle-aged men amongst deep peals of good-natured laughter, to chocolate for the children. The band’s clarinet player got a washcloth. After this 20-minute interlude, the band was back out of their seats and behind their mics.
The dancing got off to a slow start, probably because the guests were still eating and had not yet consumed enough alcohol. Most of the dancing was a basic horo step, though there were three or four tunes to which a smaller group of people knew other dances. At first, most of the dancers were woman. Even when there was only one man on the dance floor, he would usually lead the line and often wave a Bulgarian flag while they weaved between the tables. In this way, through my [foreign] eyes, dance seems to be a ground for displays of nationalism and male power. At one point, the line was being lead by a young girl of about 10, until a man joined in and usurped her. After a few rounds of homemade rakia and wine, supplemented with beer from the bar, the men became more active in the dancing. Whereas the women in their heels had a fairly upright dance style, the men’s hips were quite engaged in the sway of their footsteps.
Sometime after midnight, I think I saw that rooster being waved around above everybody’s heads, but when I did a double take it was gone. Maybe the night was playing tricks on me? As 2:00 am transitioned into 3:00, there were only four dancers left, men. One of them was quite drunk and could barely walk, let alone keep time with the music. The remaining table guests stuck bills into the folds of the accordion or the front of the singers’ dresses to request specific songs. The going rate for a song seemed to be 20 lev, or just under $10, but a few smaller and larger bills were also passed around. I’m not sure whether the band received a set rate or only these tips, but regardless, their bounty at the end of the evening appeared to me to be enough for each to pay a month’s rent.
It was almost five in the morning by the time I tumbled out of V’s car beside my apartment building. I don’t remember the last time I stayed up that late. College? Though I would have been satisfied if the event had been a few hours shorter, it felt as though I had truly experienced a taste of Christmas in Bulgaria. Happy holidays!