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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Book Reviews

Morning in the Mahala

Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia by Dick Blau (photographer), Charles Keil, and Angeliki Vellou Keil. Soundscapes CD by Steven Feld. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2003, 352 pages, $34.95.

From the very beginning of Bright Balkan Morning, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil professes his deep and abiding love for one of the world’s most ancient and widespread musical pairings: the loud buzzing of a reed instrument and the primal rumble of a double-headed drum. Keil’s past work has spanned everything from B. B. King’s blues to polka in the Polish American communities of the Rust Belt; because of that intellectual expansiveness and curiosity, it’s no surprise when he repeatedly points out what global sounds those of the zurna and dauli actually are. The zurna is related to the Indian shehnai and to the Chinese sona (as well as to the medieval European shawm and the Persian sorna); similarly, the dauli (davul or tavil in its Indian precedent) or a similar drum is also known widely. The combination of the two instruments for ritual use has a long and esteemed history across many religious traditions as well; after all, what better way to usher in festivals and celebrations than to blast away on the loudest possible instruments? (That is, the loudest possible until the introduction of amplifiers and electric instruments, at which point the earth-shakers of centuries past can seem rather feeble and old-fashioned in comparison, as we hear on the disc that accompanies Bright Balkan Morning.)

This combination of wind instrument and drum is broadly used in various traditional musical styles, from India and Persia to England and Ireland, but Keil immediately relates Greek zurna-and-dauli to jazz — specifically, to John Coltrane’s visionary music. The protos, or first zurna player, becomes Trane; the “busy” bass and piano parts of Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner morph into the droning second zurna, the passadoros; and, to Keil’s mind, “the polyrhythmic churning of Elvin Jones at his drum set was essentialized flawlessly here by the little stick flicked against the tighter head of the dauli while the right-hand thumping stick delivered clean accents uncluttered by ringing cymbal overtones” (pp. 24-25). As divergent as traditional Balkan music and American jazz might seem at first blush, comparing even the spirit of zurna and drum music with Coltrane’s compositions is a natural impulse in Keil’s broad soundworld: in both, there is a limning and blurring of the line between secular and sacred, improvisation and ritual, ancient and utterly modern.

And with that moment in 1964 when Keil first heard this music, the sound of the wild zurna and the booming dauli become the object of a magnificent 40-year obsession that culminates in Bright Balkan Morning. Joined by his wife and fellow ethnomusicologist, Thessaloniki-born Angeliki Vellou Keil, photographer Dick Blau, and record producer Steven Feld, Keil enters the world of the Roma to meet the men who make this kind of music in the town of Jumaya (now called Iraklia) in the district of Serres in Greek Macedonia. Keil’s dervish-ecstatic prose about the music itself, coupled with Vellou Keil’s tender and sympathetic contributions on social context, elevate the volume from the often-dreary world of academe to a book sure to be interesting and accessible even to the most general reader.

In this part of the Balkans, Rom music isn’t something apart and separate from non-Rom traditions — indeed, the musicians of Jumaya must know the most beloved repertoire of all the ethnic groups in the town and surrounding area. As the authors explain in the excellent chapter “Layered Identities” (pp. 87-117), Rom musicians skillfully bridge the disparate identities of their fellow Greeks — Vlach, Sarakatsan, Slavic, Pontic, Thracian, and Asia Minoric — by playing something for everyone; by dint of necessity, their repertoire spans dances and songs of Slavic, Turkish, Romani, Serbian, Albanian, and Vlach origin, as well as regional Greek styles and “European” music. For Greek Macedonian Roma, this response to their multiethnic surroundings is different from those followed by musicians in neighboring nations: in post-war Serbia and Kosovo, audiences now only want to hear music of their own ethnic traditions; in Bulgaria, a single style mixes music from across the region, in addition to the pervasive Bollywood filmi hits. Through music-making, we get a sense of how Rom communities — and the non-Roms with whom they live — are coping with “Balkanization” at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In the same way that this book delves into multiple cultures, the authors and contributors layer several disciplines, approaches, and genres into this volume. It’s part coffee-table tome featuring Dick Blau’s terrific, incisive photography; part ethnomusicological treatise; part social study of settled Balkan Roma; part historical memoir about the political tragedies that have ravaged northern Greece and its neighbors; and, not least, part love letter to the potent powers of zurna and dauli. Most important, perhaps, the authors allow the Roma to speak for themselves, and to present their own stories. An entire chapter is given over to Mitsos Hindzos, an elderly zurna master who died in 1995, three years after his last interview with Keil and Vellou Keil. In the absorbing, engaging chapter entitled “In Their Own Words, Translated,” we hear the voices of several different Roma, musicians and non-musicians alike.

The book begins with a brief, lucid essay by linguist, historian, and Rom activist Ian Hancock, in which he outlines Rom history as it is currently known and traces Rom migrations across Asia and into Europe, thereby providing a framework for a general readership whose “Gypsy” references might only spring out of storybooks and cartoons. Hancock’s work offers fascinating insights into Rom history: for example, he offers linguistic evidence that the Romani did not originate as a single, homogeneous population. Rather, as he indicates, the warriors who had assembled from various ethnic groups to defend the Hindu kingdoms of northern India against Muslim invaders in the eleventh century created a lingua franca in their military camps; that tongue, patched together from several languages, eventually evolved into Romani. And just as many Romani words related to warfare stem from the language’s Old Indo-Aryan roots, so do many of its words for music and music-making — evidence that music was, as Hancock says, “a part of Romani identity from the very beginning” (pp. xx).

That tradition springs to life in Dick Blau’s perceptive work, which ranges from portraits of stonefaced musicians at work (who aren’t participating in the kefi that they’re creating for their clients) to haunting images of empty streets in the Rom mahala (neighborhood), deserted while its inhabitants are away working — whether in nearby fields, German factories, or in the hotels of Rhodes. Interspersed with the new photographs are gems culled from Rom family albums and scrapbooks. And although all the images are black and white, Blau’s pictures of men, women, and children dancing to the sounds of the zurna and dauli fairly vibrate with life and vigor.

The “soundscape” CD included with Bright Balkan Morning, produced by Steven Feld and recorded in a single week during the 2000-2001 New Year holiday, is frankly far less interesting (and far more touristy) than the book it accompanies. Feld, professor of music and anthropology at Columbia University, doesn’t record Jumaya’s music in a sterile space; rather he chooses to capture it in a broader environmental ambience. (Composer John Cage would have heartily approved of Feld’s all-embracing approach; on this disc, the gunning of a motorcycle engine receives as much lavish, loving attention as a drum beating out a hasaposerviko rhythm.) That can mean recording the chatter of the crowd at a taverna party featuring a zurna-and-dauli trio; it can also mean keeping the tape rolling after vocalist Magdalini Mandarli finishes singing and shuffles off to answer a pinging telephone in the distance. It’s great to get a feel for the place where these musicians and their fellow Roma live and work, but the technique would have been much more effective in smaller doses; more judicious editing would have been appreciated. The opening track is a 13-minute meander through Jumaya’s marketplace, with zurna and percussion only appearing for a few brief minutes — for the duration, we are treated to everything from snippets of Stevie Wonder crooning “Isn’t She Lovely” over a merchant’s speakers to Charlie Keil explaining to Feld what the vendor’s call of “oraia tiropita” means as they munch away on their snacks.

Still, the disc offers a few treats, including a Roma trio playing “La Paloma,” a tune covered by everyone from Charlie Parker to Dean Martin (and whose performance underscores the elasticity of the Rom repertoire), and a raucous party featuring a visiting Serbian band (accordion, clarinet, trumpet, and drums) with zurna-player Ilias Stamboulis sitting in for a hot spell. If this recording whets your appetite for the sounds (musical and not) of rural life, check out Feld’s concurrent release for the Smithsonian Folkways label, entitled Bells and Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia; as in the Bright Balkan Morning disc, the Smithsonian title features Feld’s “soundscape” technique.

The only other drawback here (if it is one) is that the book itself is rather unwieldy. The design is beautiful, and it’s a handsome edition, with thick, glossy stock, large and easily readable type, wide margins, and crisp reproductions of Blau’s photographs. Still, it’s a massive softcover at 11 inches wide and a weight of over four and a half pounds, which doesn’t make it the best subway reading. That means that you’ll probably wind up relishing it in smaller portions, which is not a bad thing. Each of Blau’s images or each heartbreaking interview by Vellou Keil with impoverished mahala residents deserves to be mulled over at length, as one would a poem. We are invited to stop and explore an overlooked music, played by people with a tragic history and an uncertain future. When Rom musicians play a party, the authors note, “every person is in the embrace of continuous music, as filled as they want to be with food and drink, satiating every sense, temporarily reconciled with each other, with history, with the future” (pp. 277). Bright Balkan Morning invites us to that party.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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