Friday, 10 July 2015

A day in the life of a professional accordionist in Sofia

Bulgarian accordionist Ivan Hanzhiev once wrote his address and phone number on a piece of paper for me while on tour with the band Kabile. I organized a concert for his band at Mayo Street arts in Portland Maine and they all stayed in my house. When he left he handed me the sheet of paper with the assurance that his address would never change.

Fast forward three years and I have freshly arrived in Sofia on May 13th. My gracious host calls Ivan that night at around 9:30. A female voice informs us he is in bed and that we should call tomorrow. We call the next morning shortly before 10am. Ivan picks up the phone, pulls over to the side of the road, and informs my host that I can meet him but I have to be at his place of work in 10 minutes. No problem.

10 minutes later we pull up in front of the National Dance Academy where Ivan works as an accompanist. We recognize each other immediately and give each other a brisk embrace and exchange some mutually incomprehensible banter. Ivan ushers me into the building which is spacious and full of right angles, what once might expect from a communist-era dance school. The halls are overflowing with honed teenagers in tight black dance outfits and dance shoes. Ivan introduces me to to a few adults who are also honed and wearing black, who I presume to be choreographers. We walk into a large, bright room with a wooden floor and tall windows. Ivan lays out 5-6 pages of handwritten music and starts to play. The amoeba of teenagers quickly cleaves into flanks according to gender, and a choreographed routine ensues.

As someone freshly arrived from the US who has been fascinated with Bulgarian folk music for several years, I feel like I hit the jackpot. Ivan is a seasoned and beautiful musician, and the dancers express a grace and awkwardness that teenagers around the world carry themselves with. This continues for a few hours, with different groups and different musicians coming in and out, all accordionists. At one point the choreographer stops the dancers and the musicians to ream out a few guys who are not up to snuff. Screams at them in a tone that says to me "were you born yesterday you fucking morons?" This goes on for a couple minutes and then rehearsal resumes. My first indication that although I like the music and admire the dancing, this might not be the context in which I find the music I'm looking for, i.e. music that serves as a natural expression of a community, not as a symbolic form of nostalgia, propaganda, nationalism, etc.

After several classes Ivan takes me to the break room. There are several other guys in the room, which is narrow and contains a few bulky PCs and a few pictures of Bulgarian accordion heroes Ivan Milev (currently living in Connecticut) and Petko Dachev (1943-2010). A few of them offer me coffee, and I comply. Others peer into monitors as they listen to folk tunes on the PC media players. Verbalized riffs are traded among colleagues and I marvel at the seemingly beautiful simplicity of these guys' careers. They play folk music for dancers at the height of their youth and trade musical phrases and ideas with each other on break. One of Ivan's colleagues adopts me as a listener and tells me a lot about his work and Bulgarian music, despite my successful delivery of my line, "I don't speak Bulgarian very well." One thing I do glean is the name of a dance rhythm we were listening to, Djanguritsa. It is the same rhythmic structure as the Daichovo 9/8 divided into 2+2+2+3 but it is slower and distinctive of the Pirin mountains of southwestern Bulgaria.

The day winds to a close and Ivan tells me he is going to get ready for his next gig at a restaurant in Sofia called Едно Време (Once Upon a Time), close to the Eagle Bridge. Ivan gives me a ride to another part of the city and on the way we listen to an Israeli singer whose sound is decidedly un-Bulgarian in character but employs some of the same modes used across all of the Balkans (including Bulgaria). Ivan tells me several times how much he likes the singer, and it calls to mind a concept I first heard articulated by Ross Daly in his TED talk, that cultures which embrace modal music have an aesthetic bond that is stronger than geography would imply, i.e. Bulgarian music may have more in common with the music of Israel than it does it's close neighbor Slovenia.

Later that evening I find myself crossing the Eagle Bridge and I realize I can't be far from the restaurant where Ivan plays 5 nights a week. Sure enough tune my ears to accordion detection mode and follow the sound across another small bridge to find Ivan and his band playing for a crowded patio of diners. The band consists of Ivan flanked by two female vocalists in high heels and short skirt versions of traditional Bulgarian costumes. One of them plays the zills, or finger cymbals more or less to the beat. There is a guitarist and a tupan player but they are standing several feet behind Ivan and the ladies, perhaps to give a clear line of passage for the waitstaff or for some other reason unknown to me. On set break Ivan sees me and invites me backstage with the musicians to drink beer and Menta, a bright green minty boozy drink that's full of lemon slices. Nobody in the group speaks English so we have a few humorous words and charades about who I am and what I'm doing there. I drink more beer and look for the bathroom. A bartender sees that I'm poking around and offers me directions which clearly don't help me. He then gives me directions in fluent English and I realize that if an emergency arose that evening I would know who to talk to.

The band plays on to a generally ambivalent dining audience, I drink more beer and get more comfortable hanging out with the band. It turns out that a workplace implosion had recently taken place involving a manager running off with several weeks of unpaid salary to the staff. The English-speaking bartender joined us for drinks and it turns out he knew a Bulgarian friend of mine in New Orleans and her dad was his Godfather. Small world.

The bartender is the first of many characters I get to know on the trip. He is skinny with dark shoulder length hair. He's wearing a t-shirt that says, "This is not a beer belly it's a gas tank for a sex machine." He told me he designed and had it made himself. He has traveled widely and had thought about leaving Bulgaria several times, and got close on three different occasions. I asked him what kept him coming back to Bulgaria. "Girlfriends." Like many Bulgarians I met, he felt despondent about the state of life in Bulgaria. He told me that if you try to do anything without political connections, the mafia will eventually either want a piece or show up with baseball bats to shut you down. Now it seems this story is told so widely (and it may well be true) that few people bother to start businesses or initiatives on their own. As the night dragged on into the early hours of the morning, he told me about a joke that's common among Bulgarians. "We are just waiting for it to end," he said. For what to end, Bulgaria?" I asked. "Yes."

Soon after the restaurant got locked up and we all headed our own ways, but his "joke" haunted me for the rest of my time in Bulgaria. How is it that a country with such a beautiful and unique folk tradition and seemingly high quality of life be so depressed, economically and spiritually? I was reminded often of the damage that communism inflicted on Bulgaria, or more specifically the way Bulgaria used communism to damage itself. Any understanding of Bulgarian culture must be put through the lens of what it means to live as a colony, first under the Ottoman Empire, and then under communism. Now people are free from colonizers but not free from problems. As my host Vasko told me, "you ask people about freedom and they answer you about the price of salami."

Monday, 12 May 2014

A Master is Gone

Turkish Romani clarinetist Selim Sesler died on May 10, 2014 at the age of 57. After two years of waiting for a heart transplant, his heart failed in a hospital in Istanbul.

I never got to meet Mr. Sesler, although his music has enriched my life more than I could ever thank him for. He had a touch on the clarinet that was simultaneously powerful and sweet, mournful and driving. The world is a poorer place with his absence.

Here is a small clip from the film Crossing the Bridge, which features Selim Sesler in his home town of Keşan, in Turkish Thrace.

At my weekly gig on Saturday night we were playing the Ukrainian dance tune Trombon Hora, sourced from the fantastic group Konsonans Retro. The solo section consists of a vamp on a single chord similar to what is heard in the Turkish taxim, an improvisational form in which the soloist works through the steps of a musical mode before returning to the melody. I was passed the solo and immediately starting thinking of Selim Sesler, what music would be without him, and what he did while he was here. I thought of the darkness he trimmed with light, the friction in sound he used to generate heat. More than any other experience I've had since I started playing with the band, I felt like I touched on something real while I was playing, something that is more fundamental than technique or style - a conversation with - for lack of a better word - spirit. 

My solo ended, my awareness came back into the room and the song ended with the intoxicated applause and hoots from the room. As we launched into the next song a small dark-haired woman with glasses approached me and tapped me on the arm even though I had already started playing. I stopped playing and leaned in as the band went on. She told me her father, Al Matos, made his living playing Klezmer accordion, and that it would have made him so happy to have been there. 

Music, as perhaps the most ephemeral art form, only exists in the people who make it and those around them. Scores and recordings point to the music but should not be mistaken as the real thing. Selim Sesler's death is a reminder of the fragility of music as an artform and the nobility of its pursuit while we are alive. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Tone shift

It's been just over a year since my last post on this blog and a lot has happened in that year, the most significant of which is a new job working as accordionist for New Orleans' Panorama Jazz Band, and a full uproot from Maine, which has been my home base for the past several years.

Now living in one of the richest musical hubs of North America, I find myself surrounded by music and musicians, in a culture and economy that make it all possible. As strong as the culture of musicianship is here, there is not much in the way of Romani music with the exception of the band I play in, and it's carnival formation, the Panorama Brass Band.

Nevertheless, a lot of the ideas and issues I thought about in my musical travels in Serbia are resurfacing, and I would be remiss not to flesh some of these ideas out if only because it doesn't fit into the department of Romani or Balkan music. So, for those of you who have followed my posts over the past few years (and I'm kind of surprised how numerous you are) I am going to revive this blog in the coming days and will be writing about life and music as I experience it here in New Orleans, and hopefully catch up on some lapsed posts from the past busy year.

Stay tuned, more from my perspective on music and life coming soon.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Muzika Balkana, the Balkan music blog to end all blogs

It's been a while since my last post and I hope to catch up on the past few months of backlogged posts. The first thing that warrants attention is a recent discovery introduced to me by my friend Connell, perhaps the largest trove of free Balkan music on the Internet. Digitized LPs from across the Balkans, Romania and Greece.

There are ethical issues at play here, as some of these albums are available commercially and some of the artists are still living. Downloading music from a living artist without paying for it is akin to stealing food from his plate, lest we forget that musicians labor for their art.

That said, here it is, the link that may change your life.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Some thoughts about music

While not directly related to the scope of this blog, I have recently begun playing with a 17 year old violinist with a great ear and burgeoning interest in Balkan and Eastern European music. In an effort to help her get some orientation, I wrote a brief brain-dump on this music as I have encountered it in the past few years. This description is by no means authoritative, and far from comprehensive. It's more a whimsical introduction to music I have grown to love. If anyone reading this has something to add or refute, the comment field is at the below. 


Dear S,

There is a lot out there on the Internet about Balkan music, but I thought I would pass on some info and thoughts that I have gathered over the past several years of learning and playing this music. I hope this at least offers an introduction into some of the similarities and differences between the variety of styles in Eastern Europe. There is a lifetime of musical exploration in this often-forgotten corner of the world, full of challenges and reward to those who jump into it.

Below are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts about different styles and musicians from the area, I hope this opens some doors for your exploration of this music.

My approach to this music, in general, is one of an outsider learning a new language. The music exists apart from my participation in it, and I think it's important to acknowledge, if not recreate, the subtleties and norms that support these traditions. I realize this is contrary to a more contemporary approach to music as 'I play what I feel like playing' but it's the adherence to tradition that makes this music so awesome. It's also much more exciting to me to funnel creativity into the constraints of a musical language than to play something free of context and meaning. That said, I'm all for violating traditions once I learn them, but I think it's super important to learn them first.

Enough of my manifesto, here is a break down of the different styles we play, and a few examples or youtube leads for each:


I first got into Balkan music, like many Americans, through Klezmer music, which is the music of Jews in Eastern Europe (which in itself is not music from the Balkans). While it’s had an increase in popularity since the 70’s especially in the US and Western Europe, Klezmer music was effectively uprooted from Eastern Europe starting in about 1920, from waves of immigration of Eastern European Jewry to Israel and the US. On top of that, what remained of the culture that supported Klezmer music it was fully wiped out in the Holocaust.

In the 70’s, a handful of Americans, mostly of Eastern European Jewish descent, started hanging out with ‘old world’ musicians in New York. The most notable of these old world musicians were Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, two clarinetists who performed in New York and beyond from the 20s-70s. They both were performers in the Ukraine and Moldova, the area which is considered to be the heartland of Klezmer music . When they came to the states their styles quickly evolved to be more swinging, aggressive, and cosmopolitan.

The musicians who studied with them started what is generally accepted as the ‘Klezmer Revival.’ In some ways, this was not so much a revival as an invention of the term ‘Klezmer’ as a genre of music. Up until then, it was considered to be Yiddish music played by and for Jews, at life-cycle events like births, brisses, and weddings. By calling it Klezmer, it became marketed for the first time to non-Jewish audiences in the US and abroad. This was primarily a North-American movement.

Bands to check out from this era are Zev Feldman and Andy Statman, the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World, and Kapelye. There is an album that came out in 1996 called ‘In the Fiddler’s House,’ which features Itzhak Perlmen playing with some of these groups, definitely worth checking out.

There is a newer generation of people playing Yiddish music that I find a lot more exciting than the original ‘revivalists.’ An excellent violin player named Jake Schulman-Ment, who just spent a year in Romania and Moldova on a Fulbright Fellowship, Benjy Fox-Rosen, a bass player and Yiddish singer/poet, Pete Rushevsky, a cimbalom player, and David Krakauer and Michael Winograd, clarinetists. All of these guys are based in NYC or Brooklyn. Two fiddle-led groups in Europe to check out are Di Naye Kapelye, led by Bob Cohen, and the Hungarian group Muzikas with Marta Sebastian.

Another very interesting group is the ‘Other Europeans,’ led by Alan Bern, who was my accordion teacher for 2 years in Germany. They are reconstructing and evolving Yiddish and Romani music that coexisted in Moldova in the early 20th century. Sounds academic and crusty but it’s amazing music.


I love Romanian music. In my opinion it is the strangest and most beautiful of all Eastern European music forms, and anything that can be said in music can be said in the format of the small Lautar (Romanian Gypsy) ensemble, which consists of cimbalom (hammered chromatic dulcimer), accordion, violin, double bass, and voice.
    Many people think that Romania is not part of the Balkans, even though it’s music is often clumped in the overarching genre of ‘Balkan.’ There is a lot that sets it apart from the countries that surround it. First, the language is a Romance language, not a Slavic one. There are a lot of linguistic similarities to French and Italian, and the music, in general, is more melodic than the music of its neighboring countries. There is one dance form, the Geampara, that is in 7/8, but other than that rhythms stick to 3/4 and 4/4, unlike neighboring Bulgaria and Serbia where rhythms can be in 5,9,10,11,15,25 etc.

Romanian ornaments art typically understated, legato, and deceivingly complex. There are a lot of great videos on youtube of Lautari musicians, here are a few names to check out:

Marin Bunea
Taraf De Haiduks (very famous and awesome band from Clejani, Southern Romania)
Ion Dragoi
Ion Petre Stoican
Florea Cioaca
Nicu Bela

Faramita Lambru
Marcel Budala
Ionica Minune
Vasile Pandelescu

Toni Iordache
Iani Ciuciu

Gabi Lunca
Romica Puceanu
Dona dumitru siminica


Bulgaria doesn’t have the same down-tempo, heart-wrenching vocal tradition of other countries in the Balkans, but it makes up for it in it’s insane polyrhythmic dance-your-face off music. Bulgarian music combines the microtonal and compound rhythmic elements of neighboring Turkish music and sets it to the fast tempos and harmonic structures of Serbian and Macedonian musics. The result can be disorienting and may at first seem unlistenable, but as soon as you find the downbeat and can figure out the meter, it’s incredible.
    A typical Bulgarian ensemble consists of a gajda (bagpipe), tambura (like a small guitar/mandolin), kaval (open bore flute), tapan (drum), and accordion. Roma bands in Bulgaria may also include saxophone, clarinet, keyboards, violin, darabuka or dumbek.
A good place to start with Bulgarian music is with Boris Karlov, an accordionist from the 30’s-50’s who in many ways defined modern Bulgarian music. We play a number of his tunes, including Sedi Donka and Gankino Horo. I’ll send you some other tracks to check out of his.

Ibro Lolov and Petar Ralchev are also great. There is also a cool video of Petar Ralchev explaining the difference between Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian ornaments here:

If you want to hear some modern Bulgarian Roma wedding music, which is way beyond our means at this point, check out Ivo Paposov and Yuri Yunakov.

Serbia/Bosnia/Croatia - Former Yugoslavia

These countries basically all speak the same language, but have a huge variety of musical styles. Music from Croatia and Northern Serbia (Vojvodina) consists mostly of Tamburica (plucked guitar) and violin bands:

Southern Serbia is home to Brass bands:

Western Serbia focuses on violin and accordion. Most of the Serbian music we play comes from western Serbia, where I was this summer. This is a video of my teacher Ljuba and his brother, Misha:

Here is a short video I took of another violinist teacher a kolo to a violinist from Long Island:

another video of him and the grandmother who made me coffee every day:

Romani Music

Roma, aka Gypsies are the most prolific, accomplished, and creative group of musicians in Eastern Europe, but there is no singular ‘Gypsy’ music that captures the diversity of musics that Roma play. There are, however, common characteristics in Romani musics across Europe that you can see in Flamenco, Manouche (Django-style jazz), Lautari, and the Serbian Roma clips above. ‘Gypsy music’ is a problematic term on a lot of levels, and we should talk about it more if you’re interested.

ok, I think that’s my brain dump for this Tuesday morning. Let me know what strikes you on your Youtube trawling, I’ll put together a fuller repertoire list with mp3s to send to you soon.

Monday, 7 November 2011


Below are two haikus I wrote in Romanes. These were written as rewards for people who helped fund my trip to Serbia. I still have one accordion-gram, 2 house concerts and 11 commissioned songs to write. As a note to self regarding my work habits, I am much better at completing tasks in a timely manner before I get paid.

Purane prne
achen te adzhukaren
jekh phabray perel

Old legs
sit and wait
one apple falls 

Tumen bashalen
putarav mure jakha
amen dzivdinas

You play
I open my eyes
we are alive 

Serbia via Queens

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting accordionist Peter Stan at his home in Queens, NY to catch up and share some of the music I had learned in Serbia this summer. Peter is a extremely accomplished musician in Serbian, Romanian and Romani styles. A series of lessons I had with him last year were formative in my understanding of the importance of ornaments and feel in this music.

Last spring, Peter introduced me to the music of the two current superstars of Serbian Romani accordion, Aca Cergar and Dejan Kostic. There are dozens of videos on youtube of these two duking it out under wedding tents, ripping unbelievable lines in rapid-fire to an exhausted bride and groom. I was fortunate to see both of these accordionists play together at a wedding in Grabovica. Unfortunately I left the wedding around 1am, long before the action really got hot, but even in the early hours of the celebration I knew I was in the presence of overlords.

Peter plays with Slavic Soul Party, Brooklyn's premier Balkan-plus brass band, as well as several other musicians in New York's Balkan and Eastern European music scene. Despite the recent frenzy for Balkan brass bands in New York and beyond, Peter described a general decline in interest in the music he plays. Where weddings and kafana sessions were once the norm, now only a few bars feature live music, and if they do it is usually comes in the electrified form of Manela or Turbo-folk.

In any case, Peter is an accordion virtuoso with a deep knowledge of several Balkan styles, and is an extremely innovative player. He knew all of the music I learned in Valjevo and for a while I felt like I had been transported back to Serbia by way of the L train.

Here Peter is showing me a Romanian tune that can be combined with another one he taught me last year. You can hear me playing a super slow version of it here.

Whatever New York's level of interest in Balkan music may be, shortly after my visit Peter's music was featured on Google's front page as the soundtrack to a giant pumpkin carving video. In an era in which one's degree of recognition is measured by view-counts, I think this puts Peter and his music pretty high up there, and for good reason.