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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.

Kaval Basics

After two months in Bulgaria, it’s about time I post a bit about the thing that brought me here: kaval. The kaval is a traditional Bulgarian flute that is somewhat similar to the Turkish ney, which makes me think it may have its roots in the Ottoman empire. (Don’t trust me on that, though, since I haven’t yet verified this hunch.) It is one of the most popular folk wind instruments in Bulgaria, the other being a bagpipe called a “gaida,” and it can be found both in folk orchestras and wedding bands. For some reason kaval isn’t particularly popular with the street musicians in Plovdiv, but I have no explanation for that…

On The Radio

One of the most powerful things about music is the way it brings people together. Some people call it a “universal language,” and though I don’t 100% agree with that for several reasons, there is no denying that music can truly facilitate positive interactions between people and groups that might otherwise never see the other beyond a passing glance. I had a wonderful experience of this phenomenon last night at a live radio broadcast of the Bulgarian National Radio – Plovdiv. I had been invited by a host, Misho Grablev, while doing an interview for him earlier in the week about the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence” campaign that the organization I have been volunteering for is participating in. Friday’s event was part of a music festival, Trimontiada, directed and moderated by pianist and Plovdiv native Galina Vracheva.

Restaurants are for Dancing

​Shortly after beginning the dance class that I wrote about back in October, I decided to continue searching for a supplementary amateur class outside of the Academy. The first one I checked out, which meets Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Cultural Institute of Plovdiv, is organized by the Chanove Club. Though it is right down the hill from the Academy, which would have been a perfect location, and though it was definitely geared towards beginners, the group was quite large and the atmosphere seemed more like what I would expect from an exercise class at a gym than at a social dance. I had several neighbors squeeze my hands uncomfortably tightly in the horo line, and one man who insisted that men’s hands are always both underneath their neighbors’ rather than in the over-under pattern I am familiar with. (Have any of you ever heard of this “rule”? Since I am fairly novice, and the majority of my horo lines have always been women, there’s a chance I’m wrong.)

Musician Profile: Valeri Georgiev (kaval)

This summer, I had the lucky opportunity to learn the basics of kaval from Valeri Georgiev at the EEFC Mendocino Balkan Camp. I recently spoke with him over Skype to learn a bit about why he came to play the instrument and the role music has had in his life. 

Georgiev grew up “a city boy” in Ruse, a city along the Danube on Bulgaria’s northern border with Romania. He was not raised in a musical family, but rather came upon folk music almost by accident. There was a building he would pass on his way home from school that often had interesting sounds coming from inside. One day, toward the end of 6th grade, his curiosity got the better of him and he walked up the steps to see what was going on.

Election Day

Today’s mayoral election in Plovdiv is a big deal, at least to somebody. Maybe elections are always welcomed here with great fanfare, or maybe it’s because whoever is selected today will serve during 2019 – the year for which Plovdiv has been named European Capital of Culture – but regardless, for at least the past two weeks it has been impossible to walk down the main pedestrian boulevard without being bombarded by campaign lit. Pamphlets, fliers, newspapers, and even balloons with party numbers printed on their sides have been distributed to passersby from tents and stands big and small. With 16 different tickets in the running, the candidate pool is even bigger than that of US Republicans currently vying for nomination.

Welcome to Plovdiv

So, what’s the deal with Plovdiv? Bulgaria’s second-largest city, and according to some, the country’s cultural capital, has had a long and complicated history. So long, in fact, that many sources site it as the oldest continually extant city in Europe. Despite its population of almost 350,000, the downtown has a small town feel (though, coming from several years in NYC, I may be biased). Like many parts of the Balkans, the number of residents has declined in recent years as people have migrated to other parts of the EU in search of more opportunities.

Dance Class, 8:00 am Edition

​Today I had my first dance class. As a musician, I find dance very important - how can you play music if you can’t feel it in your body? Having attended a few pan-Balkan social dances in the US and Germany, and having been raised on contra dance, I thought I knew what to expect. When I first arrived and opened the door, almost 10 minutes late (thanks to the tribulations of foreign-language transit navigation), I thought I was in the wrong place. Yes, there was an accordion player with his back to me producing strands of Bulgarian tunes, but the 30 or so dancers were dressed in classical dance attire (ie: black leotards for women and sweatpants for men) and standing around the barre that lined three of the room’s walls.

Bulgaria Lenses

​I arrived in Bulgaria almost a week ago, but for the past month or so I have been brainstorming how to describe in a post what my goals are here (and later in Romania). Of course, the central tenet of this phase of my project is to learn to play kaval, a traditional Bulgarian flute. You will certainly hear a lot more about the (wonderful and challenging) instrument in the coming months, so I won’t say too much about it here.

In learning to play the instrument, from a formal standpoint I will also learn Bulgarian folk songs and get a better sense of the modes, colors, and rhythms involved. I will gain skills to be able to share this music and perform in different ensembles and contexts. Plus, my understanding of music and performance as a whole will be enriched. However, playing music is, to me, only the tip of the iceberg for what it means to be a musician. It was not until after my 2013 work with Andean flutes in Peru that I realized that, in addition to loving music from an aesthetic and emotive perspective, I am also completely fascinated by its social and historical (and consequently political) context.


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