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."

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