Festival season is upon us, and the next great one coming up is Seattle’s own Balkan Nights Northwest. Last year it was a one-day affair that overflowed the Russian Cultural Center, encouraging promoters to make it two nights this year: March 15th and 16th (three nights if you count a special Triple Door performance on the 17th).
Believe it or not, the swirling orchestral sounds and hypnotic vocals of the Balkan region are something we specialize in right here in Seattle with great bands like Bucharest Drinking Team, and Orkestar Zirkonium. Seattle is also home to ambassadors and Balkan folk music heroes like Dragi Spasovski and Alexander Eppler. This year there are over 30 traditional and comtemporary Balkan bands performing. Get your tickets here.
If you’re like me and wondering what to expect from a Balkan Music festival, check out my interview below with the charismatic and kind Dragi Spasovski himself.
“A Night When You Will Forget Who You Are”
I consider myself a connoisseur of roots music, but when Hearth Music brought to my attention that Seattle’s 2nd Annual Balkan Nights Northwest was coming up, I must admit I realized I knew little about the genre. The Balkans are that region on the peninsula east of Italy: Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Bosnia, etc., and it just so happens that some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are from that region. I’ve feasted with Greek sailors, shared borscht and taught Windows software to Russians, and once bonded over roast beef and potatoes with a Romanian ship captain while we talked about raising our children; so when I saw the opportunity to meet with Macedonian folk singer Dragi Spasovski, I asked to meet him and talk over some Balkan food. “There are not so many places to get Balkan food” Dragi replied to me in email, but we agreed to meet at Sarajevo Lounge in Belltown.
When we arrived, Color Me Badd and H-town played on the speakers. Dragi didn’t seem to notice. The constant performer, he immediately asked the waiter where the band set up, where the people danced. He was eager to talk about Balkan music. A person raised in the ethnic and political tumult of such a region, he had no problem jumping into conversation with me about the differences people overcome through music. When I asked him what people who have never been to a Balkan fesitval can expect he looked at me and smiled “people you’ve never met will take you by the hand, and you’ll be swept into the current of happiness, singing and dancing” because, he said “it’s a night when you will forget who you are”.
“I have been described as an Izvor (translated: wellspring) of music, this is also how I describe my mother”
Dragi is heir to a great tradition of Macedonian folk singing. Songs date back to the times of Byzantium, and his mother was perhaps the greatest living library of those songs during her life. Rajna Spasovska possessed an ebulient, natural voice that fit perfectly with traditional Balkan instruments like the stringed tambur and kaval flute “She always worked, and she always sang,” Dragi told me. “As a child, I’d stand behind my Mother’s chair as she embroidered and worked on my sister's dowrys, I would stay quiet as a fish—in America you say quiet as a mouse, but you see, a mouse can make noise, a fish cannot—and I would listen to her sing songs that at times made me cry, I can still hear them echoing in my soul”. At a young age Dragi received the opportunity to become an Oro dancer, and record with Macedonian National Radio. It was then that he met some Seattlites in Europe who first encouraged him to come here. Dragi doesn’t dance anymore, but he’s internationally renowned for his deep, pitch perfect voice, and despite his one regret —that he didn’t learn more from his mother before she passed—he is now the wellspring, the izvor, of Macedonian traditional music.
“Music is never how I made a living, but it is how I have survived”
After ordering some “traditional” Bosnian food which Dragi did not appear to approve of (American size portions!), he described for me his longevity and success. It was with deep conviction and the piercing eyes of a father that he leaned over his meal of lupijna bread and chevapi and met my gaze for the most heart stopping moment of the conversation “I have only ever sang for the love of the song.” Dragi is a singer in his soul. “I sing when it is not time to sing, there is no off switch for me, I sing in the break room at work sometimes” he said laughing. Dragi relayed for me the passion he had for Macedonian music, and I saw a glint of a tear in his eyes describing for me the loss of his brother, how it stopped his Mother from singing, and the unexpected loss of his Mother, but like Balkan music, there is a happy side to the struggle.
“I’m not being very humble, am I?”
The questions I had to interview Dragi with were worthless. He's an expert at reading the people he entertains, and he knew instantly I didn’t know much about his music, but he humored me just the same, because the story of Macedonian traditional music is his passion; it’s crystal clear in his descriptions that it’s an emotional journey for him and the people who bring Balkan Nights to Seattle. He even holds yearly educational camps on the East and West coast for young singers (players and dancers too) who desire to learn the traditional songs. He teaches the complicated lyrical works, and people like Stefce Stojkovski teach lessons on woodwinds, stringed instruments, and even gajda, a type of Balkan bagpipe, and he’s delighted by what he sees in both American and Macedonian youth. Like Seattle’s Balkan festival, the desire to learn the traditional songs and dances is overflowing with people, people who desire to have what we have right here in Seattle: Dragi Spasovski.
“It’s never the culture is it? It’s the love that drives the world around.”
Dragi has done several very intimate podcasts that describe and help to translate some of the lyrics of traditional songs at Izvor music. I listened to them and heard some familiar themes developing: love, perseverance, triumph; I asked Dragi about the idea that one may not even need to understand the words to be drawn into a singers tale in a different language (a lesson I learned reading a Eugene Hutz [Gogol Bordello] interview as he described his love for Brazilian Tropicalia in interview). Dragi pointed out to me that as long as the singer understands the tale, and feels it in his soul, he can capture any crowd and sweep them in, that he’s seen grown men overcome with emotion in Balkan cabarets, drop their drink and be moved to tears. These are the kind of performances Dragi seeks to give. Relaying the time honored tales of Macedonia even brought one DJ to refer to him as the Macedonian Johnny Cash. “It’s quite a compliment, I think”. I had to agree.
“This coffee was definitely not made by a Bosnian”
Despite our differences with American/Bosnian style of food at Sarajevo Lounge, we ordered some Bosnian coffee after our meal. It met neither of our standards and the poor Turkish delight that accompanied it was “hard as a stone” (to their credit the waiter and chef offered free dessert, which we declined). We laughed and drank our coffee just the same, overcoming differences, bonding through love of music. Dragi assured me that acts like Alabanian singer Merita Halili and master accordionist Raif Hyseni, who will be flying in for the show from New York, were the real deal. He let me know that musicians were flying in from California to accompany him, that Bucharest Drinking Team and Orkestar Zirkonium were more contemporary bands, but he approved of them too, because their music brings people together, to sing, to dance, to be happy, if only for the night, no matter who they are or where they are from.