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Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and Neo-Nazis in Bulgaria

I started counting the swastikas sometime in December. Most days I would see at least one, but usually there were more. There were two between my apartment and my favorite bakery, and four on the way to my dance class. More than five visible through the bus window on the ride between Sofia and Plovdiv. Eleven in the first two hours of the drive north through the mountain pass toward Veliko Tarnovo. There are other neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and ultra-nationalist symbols, too. At an international folk festival I encountered a man wearing a Nazi jacket with impunity, police presence be damned. In February, I began to take the long way home to avoid the swastika that was freshly painted on my own building. The paint was red like the blood of history.

Kukeri, Part II: Pernik

​Two rows of masked figures brandishing bell-belts and torches marched down Pernik’s pedestrian boulevard as tourists and journalists leapt away from the flames. It was a Friday in late January, unseasonably warm but still chilly and damp with fog. The torchbearers passed a collection of food booths, many with a smattering of tables and chairs outside, which sold snacks and meals like döner, pochivki (fried donuts), crepes, sausages, and cotton candy. They did not stop at a small stage that materialized on their left, but instead continued to weave through the narrow aisle left between sellers of tchotchkes – miniature masked kukeri figurines, Bulgarian flags, cheap imitation musical instruments, balloons, knives with ornate wooden handles, candles, pink stuffed dogs that bark and walk, you name it. The final destination was a large stage set up in front of the municipal building, where the opening ceremony for the 25th International Festival of Masquerade Games “Surva” took place.

At the Plovdiv Philharmonic

Many of the cultural and musical ideas that have fascinated me in Bulgaria collided in the Plovdiv State Philharmonic concert hall last weekend. The performance, themed “Game in Bulgarian Rhythms” (игра в български ритми; неразделни в класиката и фолклора), represented a collaboration between the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra and folk musicians from AMTII, along with several featured soloists. The hall itself is unassuming, closer to what might be found in a high school auditorium in the States than the ornately decorated concert halls of many major cities.

Shiroka Luka

In the Rhodope Mountains, you can find small villages where the men gather in those tucked away pubs above tourist restaurants, shuffling cards and cigarettes as weekday dusk turns to night. Shiroka Lŭka is one such mountain village, located not far from the popular ski resort town of Pamporovo along the road to Devin. As I have mentioned before, it is also the home of a folk arts high school. Late last week, I made the trip south to visit the kaval teacher there for a lesson.

The village itself has only about 500 residents, plus the 100 or so students at the school. Only five of those students study kaval; apparently, gaida is much more popular in the region. The main road runs alongside a small river, which might be more appropriately labeled a stream or creek, on one side of which the houses climb the hillside. Walking up the weaving stone streets and braving the aggressive dogs that most homes seem to have, eventually you encounter the smell of sheep and chickens in the small barns along the village edge, before the buildings are replaced by evergreens.

Kukeri, Part I: Blagoevgrad

The bus arrived in the Blagoevgrad station earlier than scheduled. The city of about 70,000 sits just over an hour south of Sofia, near Bulgaria’s western border with Macedonia. Blagoevgrad was to be the location of the first of three kukeri festivals I attended in January and February. Though I didn’t encounter a single kaval at these events, observing them and doing some additional reading helped clarify for me certain elements of Bulgarian history and culture as they relate to folklore. The three posts in this series will discuss my experiences at each of these festivals and how they relate to issues like political structures, gender, music, race, and nationalism. Though I arrived at many of the observations and questions described here on my own, my understandings and analyses have been greatly influenced by Gerald Creed’s excellent book on the subject, Masquerade and Postsocialism: Ritual and Cultural Dispossession in Bulgaria (2011).


A few weeks ago, I went out to Kotel to work with a kaval player who taught at the National School of Folk Arts "Philip Kutev". The school is the oldest of its kind in Bulgaria and has graduated 1100 musicians in the half century since it was founded in 1967, according to the school’s website. It serves as an example of the government’s mission at the time to promote strictly controlled versions of tradition as a way to evoke nationalism and socialist ideals while also ridding the folk arts of their apparently “primitive” and “ritualistic” elements by blending them with practices derived from the “high culture” of the West. During that era, traditional melodies were arranged and harmonized so they could be performed by a new type of ensemble, the folk orchestra.


​January is the perfect time of year to strip and jump into a river, wouldn’t you agree? Jordanovden, which takes place on January 6 each year, is a particularly holy name day in the Orthodox calendar. At least in Bulgaria, the traditional ritual for this day is for those males whose name day it is to go into a river (water = baptism?) and to catch a cross that a priest hurls into the water. It is a great honor to be the one who gets the cross. Somebody told me that, beyond its religious value, in some villages the “winner” rents out the cross on a weekly basis to other households and thereby earns some spare change. I have not confirmed this rumor.

Christmas in Sokolitsa

​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.

At the Produce Market

It was past 17:00 on a Sunday evening, so the produce market was quiet and nearly empty. Most of the stands were covered with tarps of forest green or grey to protect the standard bounty of зеленчузи, плодове, орехи and следи (vegetables, fruits, nuts, and spices) from the night. I had come to find some apples and tomatoes for my next two meals and was grateful o pass the flower booths and see a few lingering produce sellers. It’s nice to be able to avoid the Billa supermarket, open until 22:00 but imported from Austria.

Spotting some apples that looked appealing (as a New York native, I can be a bit picky), I pulled an old plastic produce bag out of my purse. I handed my apples to the man behind the stand, and he placed them in the tin bowl on a scale to calculate my total. He was maybe in his early 70s, with grey hair and a rounded face. I couldn’t recall having seen him here before. As I thanked him and passed him some coins, he noted my accent and asked where I’m from.

Thracian Ornamentation

So far, I have encountered eight or nine standard ornaments used in Thracian kaval playing. I say “eight or nine” because one of them, форшлаг (vorschlag or grace note), serves two distinct purposes depending on context. To better understand the ornaments, I have developed a classification system over the past couple of weeks that divides them into three general categories: pitch, color, and articulation. The ornaments are used individually or in various combinations to give Thracian kaval playing its distinct sound.


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