Songs and sausages in Balkan backwoods


KOPRIVSHTITSA, Bulgaria — Bulgaria may be one of the worst places to visit in Europe if you’re looking for an advanced level of economic development, but it is a great place to go if you want a music festival where you can take off your shirt.

Bulgarian folk singers at the Koprivshtitsa Music Festival

One of the biggest and rarest of them is the Festival of Koprivshtitsa that happens once every five years, deep in the Sredna Gora mountains near the Valley of the Roses (in the center of the country, slightly to the west). It is a massive jamboree, Balkan-style: haphazard, political, natural and lots of fun.

Tens of thousands of people come from all over the country carrying their favorite instruments and dressed in traditional costumes with a bewildering array of adornments.

Estimates in 1995 put the crowds at around 100,000 over the three days of the festivities — yet who is really counting the people in the meadows, in the woods, and up and down the hills where the official competitions take place?

Certainly not the dubious-looking man who this year was taking the money from the cars arriving by the potholed mountain road. His entrance fees varied depending on your nationality, ethnic background, relationship to him and the number of dents in your car.

Perhaps their present economic troubles make the Bulgarians enjoy the moment even more. At the festival your senses are overloaded by manifestations of the brighter side of life. Scores of barbecues grill the national spicy sausage known as kebapche, from which there is no escape, and yogurt drinks are sold from the backs of mules. You can chug 60-proof grape brandy one second and run to join a dancing ring of merrymakers stepping left and right the next.

A confusing array of strummed and bowed lute-like instruments, played by virtuosos the world will never hear of, keep these circles in motion. Confusing instruments, unless you are from this part of the world. A gaida, for example, is a bagpipe with a goatskin sack and three pipes sticking out of it. Listen to 100 of them playing in unison and you will hear the bass that will accompany the Second Coming.

Or take the pear-shaped gadulka, with no frets and no fingerboard. Its bow and strings look simple, until you spend all day trying to pick a note out of it.

The unofficial diversions off to the side are as good as the official attractions in the center. Three older women dressed in their bright-green country best, with plastic roses in their hair, stand singing at the edge of the woods amid a pile of rubbish. They have just come from another music festival near Iskar Dam outside of Sofia. The dam was built by the communists around 1954, they tell me, and the Iskar Festival was started to bring together the small community that was forced to relocate because of the dam construction.

Eager to demonstrate their mellifluous vocal chords, the three sing in harmony until the smoke from a nearby kebapche grill sends them, one by one, into hysterical coughing fits.

For all of the wild outbursts of liveliness at Koprivshtitsa, the reminders of Bulgaria’s hard times are everywhere. This year the fields and trees looked ready to go up in flames after the worst drought in 116 years.

Sometimes the festival looks more like a political rally. Here and there are red-and-white banners of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, which wants Macedonia to be independent from its little-brother relationship with Bulgaria. There are booksellers offering communist literature (Bulgaria turned democratic in 1989), placards celebrating the 57th birthday of King Simeon II (who lives in permanent exile in Madrid since his father Boris III was run out by the communists) and easily recognizable pomaks — the descendants of Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the 500-year Turkish occupation.

With their oriels and carved wooden ceilings, the wooden cottages at the bottom of the hill date from the 1870s, a period of national revival when Bulgaria at last started shaking off the Turkish yoke.

Picnicking this year was a better idea than eating at one of the mehanas (traditional taverns) in the town, since the water stopped running halfway through the festival. Like Joseph and Mary seeking lodging, we were turned away from restaurant after restaurant. There’s no water to wash the dishes with, the waiters kept repeating. We finally decided to eat the unavoidable kebapche offered at one of the smoky food stalls.

At this festival, however, the music is more important than the food. Elena Ognianova was one of the many judges at this year’s competition. Strong of mind if weak of foot, the 70-year-old ethnologist has written 23 books on the subject of Bulgarian customs. Incidentally, 23 seems to be about the number of music festivals that she attends each year, with the help of her cane.

Festivals here have always been a time when people come together, she says. You can see in the old songs how the Bulgarians invited their Turk overlords to their houses. Celebrating culture is not the problem. The problems start at the political level.

Indeed, since the Ministry of Culture created the festival in 1965 to showcase Bulgarian traditions, a political cloud has seemed to descend upon the festival every five years. This year the festival was nationally televised, and politicians used the opportunity to appear against colorful, nationalistic backdrops.

The local traditions have been too festivalized by the communists, say the critics, and now that democracy is here, why put on an expensive government-sponsored event in a country where people make less than $100 a month and haven’t been paid their salaries in months?

Others, such as Ognianova the ethnologist, insist the festival is important to keep Bulgarian identity alive and to attract much-needed revenue from tourism.

Bred on five centuries of foreign domination and five decades of communism, it is in the nature of Bulgarians to be skeptical. One middle-aged man in a red fez with a samurai sword dangling at his waist observed the kaleidoscope of partying all around him with a critical eye.

“Oh, this is nothing,” he said. “Stick around. There’s a better festival at the end of August. It has better acoustics.”