One thing you should know about Seattle's Balkan Night Northwest is that there will be dancing—not like American dancing, where there's a chance maybe you won't look cool doing it, but folk dancing, where all you need to do is hold hands with the next person you see and be swept away.
There will be food, drink, and traditional dress—that is, layers of aprons, tunics, vests, and belts with dazzling embroidery and eye-catching primary colors. If you're like me (cynical, shy) and get a little grossed out by costumes and rituals, think about it this way: For thousands of years, the fertile, mountainous peninsula known as the Balkans (which includes Eastern European countries mostly ending in "uh"—Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Macedonia) has survived with their culture intact because they value it above all else.
Since pre-Christian times, they've passed down music, dancing, and even pagan traditions, carefully, to every generation—preserving it through Roman and French occupation, the Venetian Republic, brutal wars with the Ottoman Empire, WWI, WWII, and their own civil wars. In fact, during the Communist dictatorships, Bulgarians held on so tightly to what's called svatbarska and kyuchek music (Bulgarian- and Roma/Turk-influenced wedding music, respectively) that it became the rock 'n' roll of their culture. Under fascist rule, it was considered impure and antigovernment, but musicians played anyway, and stories of Balkan greats running from the police, scattering from weddings into the woods, are still going around. This resulted in the underground movement that birthed some of the music that will be heard at the 2014 Balkan Night Northwest. Additionally, March 1 marks the coming of spring in Balkan culture, a time to celebrate, and Seattle is home to some of the best Balkan-music bands around right now.
A new supergroup—made up of members from festival stalwarts Orkestar Zirkonium, Nu Klezmer Army, and Lonely Coast—called Eurodanceparty USA will be appearing this year. Their music combines Balkan instruments and sounds like gaida (bagpipe), kaval (flute), tambour (lute), and davul (two-sided drum) with more modern themes like disco and funk. Synth, keyboard, trumpets, and Western drumbeats turn the traditional sound into frenetic pop whose color, volume, and swirling singing and dancing properly match Balkan dress. "Those elements are present in lots of pop and folk bands in the Balkans—I think for as long as they've been present anywhere else," says Anne Matthews, who sings in Eurodanceparty USA along with Valerie Holt; the two learned to play at the Balkan/klezmer camps taught in Mendocino every summer. "In Bulgaria, as one example, there's chalga music that combines traditional instruments and styles with electronics and dance-floor beats," Matthews continues. "So in that context, our band's approach isn't new—other than the fact that we're Americans, and have toddler-grade pronunciation when we sing in Albanian."
The project was the idea of Ivan Molton of Orkestar Zirkonium, and the history of Eurodanceparty USA is as inspiring and rebellious as Balkan folklore. As Matthews tells it: "Val and I met as members of the Infernal Noise Brigade [a political/street theater band] back in 2004; one of the first times we sang together as a duo was to pass the time in jail after getting arrested at the Republican National Convention. I remember thinking, 'Hmm, I like singing with this person! We should do this more.'" The band combines the group's in-depth knowledge of traditional music and their own history. Matthews admits, "I grew up on a steady diet of 1980s music videos and the TV show Dance Party USA, and that aesthetic definitely informs the band—the large hairstyles, the moves, the gold lamé, the tight pants and exposed male chests..."
Other bands playing the Balkan Night are the Bucharest Drinking Team, the "juggernaut of sports-themed drinking, weird jokes, costumes, and dance music," more traditional groups like Dunava, and world-renowned acts like singer Dragi Spasovski and flute maker/kaval player Alexander Eppler. Local musicians Ruth Hunter and Christos Govetas even have a brassy Greek/Macedonian band with their children called Drómeno.
The party begins early in the afternoon with the fascinating Kukeri and Babouyeri rituals, which involve handcrafted costumes that are mesmerizing works of folk art to behold. The Kukeri wears headdresses of fur and horns, and the Babouyeri wears an eight-foot-tall mask protruding from the top of its head; they both wear belts fitted with giant brass bells designed to scare away winter and all its implied evils. The Seattle Balkan Dancers will lead line and circle dances to the music of the zourna—a double reed wooden oboe made from apricot wood that makes a sharp, hypnotic sound. The instrument itself is a symbol of the region's history, a rich mix of European and Middle Eastern influence.
Eurodanceparty USA won't be the only supergroup involved in the festivities. On March 2, a separate event at the Russian Community Center on Capitol Hill, the Bulgarian Dance Party, will feature the band Bulgarite. "[Bulgarite are] a kind of supergroup made up of Bulgarian master musicians who now mostly live and teach and perform in America. Rumen Sali Shopov, who I learned to play davul from, will be playing as part of that—he's a monster player, as are the rest of the musicians in the band," says Matthews. "The thing I love most about these events is that they're these really warm, friendly, occasionally off-the-hook parties for people of all ages—little kids, old people, everyone in between. And whoever you are, you're welcomed and invited to join hands in a big dancing circle and do your best to keep up with the complicated dance steps as the line undulates. It's a beautiful thing to see. And it's incredibly fun, even if you're like me and fear holding hands with strangers because they'll discover how sweaty your palms are."