“The young people can’t sing that way!” (….can they??)

Here is a story that seems particularly appropriate right now.  It comes in several parts:

Dolen, Blagoevgrad region

Part 1 happened in the winter of 1980-81, when, together with Dick and Peter, we wanted to visit the village of Dólen (some 17 miles east of Gótse Délčev), because we knew there was a very special kind of singing done only there, and in the neighboring town of Satóvča.  One of the things we learned is that there is some pretty fierce rivalry between the towns as to who stole it from whom! but that is not part of this story.

The first thing that happened, when we arrived in Dólen on a wet and icy 14th of January (the roads were closed later in the day, so we felt lucky to even get there), was that the ensemble director Silvéta Mánčeva greeted us, but told us that the women didn’t want to come.  They’d promised to come when she’d asked them the day before, but today it was so icy that they did not want to come out at all….  So she went to try to round them up.  We waited in the warm Cultural Center (I still remember watching steam rising from our wet coats and jackets as they warmed up from the heat of the stove).  And they did come!  But before I go any further, let’s listen to an example of this kind of singing:

Слага се слънце, надведа (Slága se slântse, nadvéda), recorded in Dólen (near Satóvča) in the winter of 1980-81  (song texts at end of post)

When we recorded this, all of the singers insisted that none of the young people in the village could do this “high singing (na visóko)”; even Silvéta herself, born in 1947) could not do it.  “It takes a special voice.”

I was lucky enough to be able to record several examples of just the “high singing”, without the lower part, which stood me in good stead later.  Here is a little sample:

Лесни се, горо (Lesní se, goro), recorded in Dólen


Part 2

After I came home in 1981 with my treasure (about 75 hours of village singing and discussion — almost 900 songs, including a few instrumental melodies!), I gradually started to assemble some “favorites” — songs I especially liked, good songs for sharing, songs that I thought local singers might like to learn…  Among these was “Slaga se, Slântse” (above).

So, sometime after 1985 I sang for awhile with one of Boston’s earliest ensembles that did Bulgarian music, Evo Nas.  We singers decided to try and see if we could do this na visóko singing.  To our considerable amazement, we found that once we wrapped our heads around the notes we were trying to sing, and took that “leap of faith”….IT JUST FLEW!  I think we were sitting on my livingroom couch when that happened the first time.

After another year or two Evo Nas folded (too many members had moved away, but by 1989 a couple of us die-hards had formed the ensemble Zdravets, which is still going strong in the Boston area — and the singers continue to sing this song to this day.

Part 3
Moving on to the summer of 1988, I was in Bulgaria on another recording expedition for three months, during several weeks of which my husband Dick, my son Peter, and my long-time singing partner Erica Zissman joined me.  We were offered the services of a car and a driver for a few days, and decided that one of the places we would like to go was Dólen.  We cherished the hope that we could get the na visóko singers to come — even if only for a few minutes — to listen to our na visóko singing and tell us if we were doing it “right”.  We arrived in the village just about 6pm, which is a TERRIBLE time for village women – at that time of day their flocks are coming home from pasture and need to be greeted, milked, and bedded down for the night.  But we found Silvéta, and asked nicely, and once again, she managed  to round up four of the women who did this singing.  Interestingly enough, Erica and I found that we could not sing with them, because in the eight years since I had recorded them, there were tiny changes in timing and possibly even pitches.  But what do you know?  If they sang, and we answered them (in the traditional style)…  it worked just fine!  But at that time young people in their own village still could not do it.

Part 4
Fast forward to the summer of 1991, when the big national folk festival was held in Koprívštitsa.  (Dick and I led a tour, and nearly all of Zdravets came, but again — that is another story.)  We narrowly missed the performance of the group from Dólen, but caught up with them afterwards, and they sang a little for us.  Who sang?  Who sang na visóko?  Everyone — the older women, the younger women, I think there were kids there who sang — and Silvéta sang!  I guess that if two crazy Americans (of all things) could learn to sing this way….!

Coda
Unfortunately there are two sad parts to the coda.  One is that by 2010, when on a later tour we stopped again in Dólen, there was no singing group there anymore, though there was a strong one in Satóvča, who sang for us, and persuaded me to do some singing with them (I had no partner on that tour, though).

The other sad part is that my dear friend Erica, with whom I started singing in 1971, succumbed to a cancer she had been fighting for six years, at the end of February.  The tiny sliver of silver lining is that Zdravets had sung this song in a coffeehouse two days before she died, and I had shared this story — and I did manage to visit Erica the day before she died, and remind her of this adventure.  We shared a moment of gratitude for the way our lives were intertwined.

Erica Zissman (1951-2018)


Song texts:




Турското циганче (The Little Turkish Gypsy)

Here is a little story I heard in the village of Govedártsi, south-west of Sámokov, Bulgaria, in 1988.  I’ve been saving it, but I think the time has come to share it:

tursko-ciganshe-mapDobrínka Spásova Kalpáčka was born on the 28th of November 1918 in the village of Raduíl, some 20 kilometers to the south-east of Sámokov. I met her on the afternoon of August 2, 1988, in Govedártsi, a village about the same distance from Sámokov but to the south-west.

This was a bright sunny afternoon relatively early in my two-month stay in Govedártsi (I had a Fulbright grant to do in-depth research into old songs in four villages in the Sámokov region) and I was a bit at loose ends. I thought I’d look for a woman I’d met and recorded a few days earlier—we had found her out tending her cow and she told me some pretty interesting songs, and said she was usually at home in the afternoon. So I had knocked at her door, but, finding no one about, I started down the road, hoping to find someone who knew where she was. But it was noontime, and no one but me seemed to be out and about. Soon I came upon a little grassy patch with a woman sitting in the midst of it in a little patch of shade. Her legs were stretched out straight in front of her the way village women sit (you can see this in the picture at the end of this post), her shoes were off, and she was crocheting. She looked up, and I asked her if she had seen Tina. “No,” she replied, “what do you need her for?” I mumbled something incoherent about looking for old songs, and she said, “Oh, I can tell you one….”

Dobrinka
Dobrinka Spasova Kalpačka

Thus began a delightful session which I remember with great pleasure to this day. My new-found friend was Elénka Ilíeva Mírčeva, herself born in 1921 in the village of Govedártsi. We chatted for a few moments, and her friend Dobrínka walked by. “Dobrinka, come on over here!” she hailed her. Dobrínka replied something that I couldn’t catch, and her friend repeated, “Come over her and we’ll tell the young wife some songs”—and she turned to me to confirm: “Are you married?” When I assured her that I was a married lady, she launched into the song about Krali Marko and Filip Madžárin (not one that, by my lights, would be inappropriate to tell a maiden, but perhaps she was just checking). Dobrinka helped her out a bit, and then it was Dobrinka’s turn. Before she began, I asked the routine information: her full name, when and where she was born. When she mentioned the village of Raduíl, I told her that I had recorded there several years ago. She was excited about this, said I must have recorded her cousins (I could not at the time remember their names, but later checking proved her right). Then I asked her how long she had lived in Govedartsi….

“My father was killed in the war in 1918, and I was born after that, three months later. My mother had been pregnant, and she had me three months after he was killed. After that–my mother came here, she married someone from Govedártsi, and she brought me here when I was eight months old. Trouble was, the people here didn’t want me, and they sent me back. So I lived with my grandmother and my uncles in Raduíl. And—but when I was born, my mother didn’t want to nurse me. She wanted me to die. Y’ know, a child with no father, you know how much that costs. And her breasts got infected. They started to hurt. OK, but it wasn’t like it is now, there wasn’t anything you could buy to feed a baby. And so I was hungry, and I cried and cried, and somebody said to my grandmother, ‘Maria, there’s this Turkish gypsy woman nearby, she has a little one. Go talk to her, let her nurse yours too, so the baby can go to sleep, and stop crying.’ And my grandmother went to see that Turkish Gypsy woman. ‘Selíma,’ she said, ‘would you be willing to come and nurse our baby too, such-and-such happened, its mother is sick and can’t nurse it and we don’t know what to do–she’s very tiny.’ And Selíma, granny Selíma, said, ‘OK, I’ll come. Granny Maria, I’ll come and nurse it.’ So for two whole months a Turkish Gypsy woman nursed me.”

“Wow!” exclaimed her friend Elenka.

“Two whole months.”

“That means you have Turkish—blood— ”

“Oh, I’ve got Gypsy in me too,” affirmed Dobrinka.

The thing that struck me at this point was Elenka’s reaction. Clearly the women were good friends—neighbors, as I later learned, and indeed close friends—but from everything I could tell (short of “breaking” the mood by intruding my own questions) Elenka was hearing this piece of information about her friend for the first time. She spoke almost with a sense of wonder, that Dobrinka had “Turkish ‘blood’” in her veins from being nursed as an infant by a Turkish gypsy.

“Turkish gypsy,” continued Dobrinka. “Yes! Well, after awhile my mother’s breasts got better, and— And then she re-married, and she brought me here [to this village]. Well, that was fine, but they didn’t want to have to raise me, here, and they sent me back. OK, but then in ’23 they killed two of my uncles. Both at the same time. And the other two—well, they worried them—you know how they worry people like that. So I went to school there, first and second grade, and then when I was ready to go into third grade my grandmother died, and I[??? something unclear] back here. And that’s the way my life—”

By this time my own mouth was hanging open. With such a story I would sooner have expected a hardened, embittered person—but the woman who sat with us on the grass seemed to be graced with one of the gentlest, most generous souls I have ever encountered, an impression which did not change as I saw her in later years, on other occasions.

“But,” she continued, “wait, let me tell you something else, Elenka! One year we were in Velingrad [a beautiful spa town on the other side of the Rila mountain range] on vacation with the child [presumably her grandchild], I had Sašo with me.”

“Oh yes, tell the young lady!” urged Elenka. (She seemed to know this story, but later she reacted to it as if hearing it for the first time.)

“I’ll tell it. I took Sašo—he was only this big (she shows me how tall he was), we were on vacation together. OK, but the place where we got our food was a little distance away from where we were sleeping—about as far as to the little square down there [down the hill from where we were sitting]. One morning we were headed down for breakfast. Everybody had gone on ahead, and I was waiting for the child—he was playing with this ‘n’ that. And I was standing there by the road waiting for him, and as I looked down below the road I saw some gypsies picking camomile. And all of a sudden one of them, big as my husband here [husband Spas had joined us by that time], he was a little closer to us, and he jumped over the gully by the side of the road and came up to me. Right up onto the road. And he says to me, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘From Govedartsi,’ I said, ‘and where are you from?’ ‘I’m from Bratánitsa, near Pázardžik,’ he says, ‘but I was born in Raduil. Aren’t you—my mother’s told me that she nursed a little Bulgarian with my milk?’”

“Good Lord!” exclaims Elenka, and we both gasp.

“Well, if you would believe it,” continued Dobrinka, “I felt as if the ground had just fallen out from under me, and then came back. What a thing—just imagine, what a coincidence, to run into your brother like that! So we stood and talked for quite awhile, and—and to this day I’m angry, it just didn’t occur to me to get that boy’s address.”

In 1989 I saw Dobrinka and her husband again, and she told me the story again.  At the end of that conversation, I asked how the gypsy had recognized her?  (I had secretly wondered if they might have seen each other occasionally as they grew up.)  But both Dobrinka and Spas said definitively that it was a “completely chance” meeting, and he did not know or “recognize” her.  It just turned out that way.  I wish I had a picture of him too!

Dobrinka, Elenka & Spas, Govedarci
Dobrinka, Elenka & Spas, Govedartsi

For the die-hards who would like to hear this conversation, I’ll put it here—but I don’t really expect many people to listen to it!

P.S.:
Later that afternoon, Elenka told Dobrinka how I had visited the village two summers before (with my husband and son) and had gone up into the field where a group of women were haying—another magical occasion. The women had sung, and we had recorded, and Elenka had recognized me from then, although she didn’t let on right away.