First Impressions and Instrumental Angst
As the British Airways jet prepared to land on TrioTamboura’s first tour of Bulgaria, I glanced out the window at the rapidly approaching waterlogged landscape surrounding the airport. I, like many Americans, knew little about this mysterious eastern European country. But I was pretty sure it wasn’t known for its rice paddies. Maybe the little Sofia airport was conceived from reclaimed swampland?
We were relieved and pleased to be on the ground after our 14 hour flight from Newark. That was, until Miss Mary and I learned that somewhere between Newark, London and Sofia my Sauve acoustic guitar and Mary's steel drum had disappeared. Anxiety became epidemic amongst us as we imagined some eastern bloc black market con artist trying to fence our Trinidadian steel drum and custom-made guitar to itinerant gypsy musicians in some Romanian hinterland. But despite our severe language deficit (we could neither read nor understand the Cyrillic alphabet or Bulgarian tongue) and mounting panic, we managed to gesticulate and mime our way through the lost-baggage claim miasma. Multiple documents were exchanged, signed, copied, filed and for all we could tell of the process, we might have bought a yogurt factory in Dobroplodnov. Somehow we came away mildly comforted that we were understood and that we needn’t worry. Our instruments would be found; “Maybe three hours you get back.”
Our host had arranged that we be picked up and transported “maybe one hour” through the countryside to the remote Pirin Mountain town of Bansko where TrioTamboura was to be the first, and only, American act to appear at a week long festival of jazz and international music whose roster featured some very fine jazz, blues and ethnic musicians from throughout Europe, the Balkans and Mediterranean regions.
We boarded our cramped transporter-type minibus along with a quartet of young Danish avant guard hipsters and a few members of a German old-time New Orleans-style band, all of whom were accompanied by their instruments, including a gigantic tuba, fresh from the airport! We began to worry all over again.
Lumbering through the outskirts of the capital of Sofia, the view from the transporter’s window was startling, alien and more than a little disturbing. “Doesn’t anyone own a lawnmower? Or chainsaw? Where’s the Department of Public Works?” I asked Miss Mary. She shot me a shut-up-and-how-am-I-supposed-to-know look. Overgrown brush and trees hugged the dreary, concrete walls of looming, decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks and competed for occupancy with what I imagined were untold thousands of struggling families whose bleak lives were relentlessly strung together with monotonous days of toil and bowls of cabbage soup. The dense vegetation formed dark thickets and layered canopies that threatened to jump the curb and assault traffic. Small packs of scruffy, lean, apparently feral dogs lay about in doorways or emerged randomly from the eerie undergrowth as they attended to their scavenging rounds.
Every so often there would appear a small clearing in which there was a work of post-modern sculpture or a cluster of concrete benches occupied by elderly Babushka women sitting stoically, as if sculpted seamlessly from the adjoining concrete, waiting. But for what? Conversation on our tour bus was minimal, not because of any language barrier as our European compatriots spoke wonderful English (once again reminding me that I did not know German or Danish and that Americans tend to expect that others should be more like us). Rather, our silence was due to outright travelers’ fatigue and many of us began to doze upon reaching the countryside and open road.
Our reveries were short-lived when, several kilometers outside Sofia, the highway deteriorated rapidly and the groaning transporter’s enormous, precariously suspended load was rudely introduced to the bone-jarring, crater-like potholes and eroding asphalt of the old roadway. Our driver informed us that the road conditions had been seriously compromised by the floods that had ravaged Bulgaria and most of Europe the previous week and many devastated communities were still without roads, bridges or communications. “Ah, so those weren’t rice paddies I’d seen from the airplane”, I said to no one in particular.
It was evident for many in the countryside that turbulent floodwaters had temporarily, at least, erased life as they’d known it for centuries. Despite it being quite late on a Sunday afternoon, crews maneuvering ancient, rusting road building machinery and digging with picks and shovels were making valiant efforts to reverse the effects of the floods. And though the going seemed slow, no one was standing around drinking coffee watching one guy with a shovel do all the work as is the custom in many American communities. What’s more, they appeared to be gaining on it. Our “maybe one hour” commute from Sofia turned into a three and a half hour on-road, off-road expedition before we arrived in the walled, medieval mountain town of Bansko that would be our base of operations for the next several days. The narrow streets were either worn dirt paths or cobbled with a variety of smooth, round river stones, and had been traversed for hundreds of years by man and beast; they beckoned us to explore.
We felt caught in a time-warp as we watched robed and booted shepherds lead what appeared to be a motley mixture of sheep and goats down from the hills. Stilt-legged storks nested upon rickety chimneys perched atop red clay tile roofs, woodsmoke blending with the odors of roasting meats seasoned the clear mountain air with its deliciously pungent smell as it drifted over the high stone and stucco walls built centuries ago to thwart history’s marauding hordes from pillaging the humble dwellings. And deeper in the mountains, such walls kept hidden and protected such tranquil, spiritual sanctuaries as the eastern orthodox Rila Monestary. Today these walls serve to keep out the prying eyes of nosy neighbors . . .and tourists!
Bansko's stately old eastern orthodox Church and clock tower, replete with a resident spire-dwelling stork, dominates the town square and continues to serve as a focal point for the community. Even in August the snowy peaks of the Pirins formed a regal backdrop to the town, while the pale green veins of ski trails descended the steep slopes promising the immanent flow of lifeblood Euro dollars come winter. Against this majestic, natural skyline numerous iron cranes labor to lift materials used to build the sleek condos and ritzy four- and five-star hotels for the European skiing elite who are gobbling up prime real estate at prices far below Western norms.
Lasting Impressions and Instrumental Relief
Bulgaria seems to be a determined country of strong people whose roots branch out throughout the Old World diaspora. Theirs is a complicated and often troubled history, but at the same time it is a diverse, rich tapestry of cultures. Bulgaria was, and is, a crossroads: the bridge that connects eastern and western Europe to the Mediterranean and the Orient. Both the Old Roman Road and the ancient Chinese Silk Road wend their disparate ways through the mountains, river valleys, plains and Black Sea coastline of Bulgaria. Mongols and Magyars, Moors and Turks, Greeks and Romans, Slavs and most recently the Russians, are among the many cultures from every point on the compass-rose who have left their often bloody handprints upon Bulgaria.
Today, evidence of this multiculturism is everywhere to be found. The language has Turkish- and Greek-rooted words that suddenly pop out from Slavic accents. Art found in the earliest eastern orthodox churches have hints of the Italian Renaissance. We met a grand old man, Tenju Jelev, who, well into his eighties, is known as the finest living painter in Bulgaria and whose work easily rivals that of the French Impressionist masters. The food, which I found to be a complete delight to my palate, integrates spices and ingredients found in Turkey, Romania and Greece and marries them to fresh vegetables, breads, cheeses and wood-fire roasted meats that are without peer. Indeed, it is the unique bacteria found only in Bulgaria that makes their yogurt truly special and we made sure every breakfast always included some yogurt with fresh fruit.
As musicians, we were immediately drawn to Bulgarian music that is as hauntingly mesmerizing as it is inspirational. This is music that frequently makes one feel like dancing, even though its seven-or-eleven beats to the measure is at first awkward and disorienting to western ears so accustomed to hearing four-counts or waltzes. Balkan clarinets that race around middle eastern-sounding scales are hotly pursued by Italian and German accordions that squeeze melodies from Roma gypsy harmonies while Syrian doumbek drums propel them all along by crisply nipping at their heels, just a wee bit before the beat. The unusual wooden flute-like caval and 6-string tamboura (absolutely no relation to the American folkrock/reggae/calypso band embedded in this story!) frequently provide accompaniment to multi-part, Bulgarian vocals with their extremely close harmonies that make the hairs on your neck stand up and applaud for more. And if one is fortunate, a darkly beautiful Roma girl will spontaneously leap up onto a food and rykia-laden tabletop and offer an improvisational belly dance. Hot-Cha!
Miss Mary and I strolled through sleepy streets taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Weathered working men and women would slowly drive by in their homemade horse- or mule-drawn carts laden with hay, vegetables, tools, manure or perhaps multigenerations of family members - or all of the above! Cars, lorries and unusual wooden tractors passed them in clouds of exhaust and impunity. These carts would later be parked cheek by jowl to the same Mercedes, BMWs and crusty, hand painted Russian Ladas that had raced by them earlier. Everyone seemed to park wherever they wanted, higgledy-piggledy, including on the sidewalk.
Each village home had a tidy vegetable garden brimming with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and herbs, and though one could not always glimpse them ensconced behind the high stone and wood walls, the meadow-sweet perfume from hidden haylofts would suddenly surprise the nostrils and give their secret presence away.
Old women and their older grandmothers sat in the cobblestone square selling hand embroidered shawls, blankets, hats and garments and the occasional painting. The same sort of scruffy cur seen in Sofia lay about around the tables of the many outdoor cafes and tavernas, hoping for handouts or food fallout. This time of year the pickings were pretty good. The delicious odors wafting from the open doors of the myriad restaurants kept me in a nearly constant state of gastronomic arousal. This was almost enough to keep us from worrying about our lost instruments. Almost.
Our kind and extremely generous hosts registered us in a lovely four-star hotel, The Glazne, replete with two balconies; one overlooking the village, the other the Pirin range. The two bedroom suite had everything we could want, including a sauna, full kitchen, garage (perhaps for our mule-cart?) and four (!) bathrooms. Though there was cable TV, it provided little entertainment because we could not understand a bloody word. Miraculously, late one night while channel surfing, we discovered an English-speaking episode of “Detroit Animal Police” on Animal Planet. Oddly, the program’s absurdity became something we looked forward to after our late night dinners and jam sessions. We wondered whether it was drivel like this that introduced whole generations of Bulgarians to American culture. This prospect both amused and frightened us.
The Glazne staff were attractive young people; pleasant and helpful to us, they always seemed to know where we had been and what we’d been doing, thus contributing a mild paranoia to the festivities. However, when they didn’t think we noticed, they seemed somber and dour as if the weight of the former Soviet empire continued to be harnessed to their shoulders. I’d seen that expression before while on tour in the Caribbean. Perhaps, like some West Indians I have known, they were tired of waiting upon spoiled, entitled tourists with their petty problems and demands? Yet this would be part of the price they would have to pay for a burgeoning tourist economy. They would need to get used to it.
The receptionists, bellhops, security guards, even the waitresses, had all been alerted to our instruments’ predicament and someone would regularly call the airport on our behalf to inquire as to the status of the erstwhile guitar and steel pan. When we would ask as to the latest development, we were always assured, “They say they find instruments. You will have in three, four hours.” This was something we felt we could live with, at least until the third or fourth time we heard the same answer over two days. Monsieur Anxiety had now clearly established himself as our fourth band member. The chances of locating another steel pan in Bulgaria were slim-to-none! There was nothing we could do but wait and hope that TrioTamboura’s performance slot would not arrive before our instruments did!
On the third day of our Bansko adventure, a beefy, no-neck driver from the Sofia airport arrived in his large Audi sedan with both our instruments! I could barely contain my relief, but didn’t want to seem too overjoyed until we opened the cases. We opened. We checked. We rejoiced! Both instruments were perfectly intact despite their side trip to who knows where; there was a lot of ground (and ocean!) covered between Newark and Sofia! We thanked and tipped the driver and took our instruments back to our suite and enjoyed a happy reunion rehearsal, but not before vowing to know where they were for the rest of the tour. We then took great satisfaction in giving Monsieur Anxiety the bum’s rush!
The Bansko Tree
Later that day we were informed that the sound check and performance schedules were posted in the square at the stage area. We walked to the stage area as we had several times since our arrival, but could not find any postings. Quite by accident we eventually encountered The Bansko Tree whose stark, grotesque presence had puzzled me each time I had strolled through the square. It was upon the tree's hoary trunk that the sound-check/rehearsal schedules were nailed up, reminiscent of the “Wanted” posters from America’s Old West. Judging from the thousands of rusting staples and nails impaled into it’s thick bark, ours was not the first posting The Bansko Tree had suffered.
The Bansko Tree was standing slightly to the rear of stage left. Of an unrecognized species to me, its craggy, black branches stood in stark contrast to the azure sky and the seeming absence of foliage made the jagged limbs appear to scratch and annoy the overarching blue. Simply put, The Bansko Tree appeared dead. And ugly. Ancient cobblestones were laid uniformly to accommodate its girth and a low, stone wall encircled its trunk and provided a resting place for generations of footweary passersby. My first impressions upon seeing The Bansko Tree were reminiscent of the thoughts I’d had as TrioTamboura left the Sofia airport: “Where’s a chainsaw?” and “I wonder how much firewood they could get from this relic?” Throughout the following days, we walked past The Bansko Tree dozens of times and each time I wondered, “Why has that monstrosity been allowed to remain an arborial blight on this lovely little square?”
Then one morning as Miss Mary and I walked into the village in search of gifts of rustic copper bells, colorful hand painted pottery and CDs of indigenous folk music, we once again passed by The Bansko Tree. However this time I noticed something different about it. Maybe it was the light, or perhaps it was the effects of my recent immersion in Bulgarian culture (or rykia?), but The Bansko Tree became . . . alive! Shoots of healthy leaves were springing from its crooked elbows and gnarled joints revealing clusters of vibrant life, glowing verdant against the azure sky in the morning sun and vibrant in the warm breeze! It then occurred to me that this tree could very much be symbolic of contemporary Bulgaria. It might have been saying to whoever passed by, “Please, you must look beyond this ancient exterior; see through the prejudices that for you determine what has value, meaning and purpose and realize that these qualities may not necessarily belong to us. Be respectful. Acknowledge our turbulent history that to this day shapes and defines who we Bulgarians are. Though my newly awakened green leaves were not seen immediately by you, they have always emerged from amongst my ancient, storied limbs and they are here, ALIVE! They remind us that we are forever busy being reborn and that we must struggle to throw off the yoke of oppression in whatever form it takes. Like my leaves, we are awakening and we see the renewed hope of a bright future dawning for our country.”
Pieces of the puzzle that was Bulgaria were beginning to fall into place and I began to envision a nation of diverse, proud people working towards finding a balance between the tumultuous past and the hopeful future while trying to survive and grow in the uncertain present. Following our performance at the 8th Bansko International Jazz Festival, TrioTamboura made a three-day visit inside the capitol city of Sofia before returning to the US.
While it was certainly easy to find evidence of urban decay, it became clear that the city was experiencing a revitalization: several international banks, hotels and corporations had either modernized existing structures or had built new buildings; construction cranes could be seen everywhere dotting the horizon. Independent shops, boutiques, galleries and restaurants could satisfy nearly any taste or budget and clean, usually efficient public transportation kept things moving. Historical museums, churches, mosques and synagogues stood along side ancient Roman ruins, telling the nation’s story to anyone who showed an interest. There were signs of an emerging artistic community and vibrant street scene. The former military presence was decidedly missing and media, from print to broadcast, was readily available. Internet/cyber cafes heralded the country’s arrival into the 21st century. The people we met were friendly, helpful and pleased to share their city with us and we felt welcomed in one of the oldest, new countries in the global village.
It would be naïve and impudent of me to think that I would know what’s best for anyone else. But during my brief visit to Bulgaria, I developed the concern that in its eagerness to be accepted into the European Union in 2007, and to be recognized with equanimity amongst the more developed nations of the world that Bulgaria will learn from the history and mistakes of other nations. Every type and kind of system has its dark, ‘shadow side’. For instance, democratic governments, long held as models for social equality, justice and freedom, can be, and are, corrupted by racial/cultural intolerance, greed and ignorance.
One need not look further than the US's Bush administration. The demands and appetites of corporations supplant the needs and desires of the people. The common good becomes sacrificed at the altar of the almighty dollar, and it would appear that we in the US are well on our way to becoming an oligarchy.
Unwarranted, unregulated growth is dangerous and, in my view, is directly analogous to biological cancer. There is a ‘cancer’ in the US and it is spreading. It is insidiously polluting the global environment and compromising Nature’s equilibrium, blinding our humane capacity to be sensitive to the needs of future generations and perhaps worst of all, crippling our psyches by cultivating an arrogant, narcissistic, consumptive populace that demands instant gratification and lives by the credo: “Whatever it takes, I want what I want when I want it”.
Admittedly, the US has had its moments of glory and heroism within history’s pages and upon the world’s stage. It’s participation in World Wars I and II come immediately to mind. But we also bear the shameful burden of the genocide of our indigenous people, slavery and the Civil War, Viet Nam and now Iraq and Afganistan. We must not forget the turning of our nation's back on the destruction, desolation and despair in present-day Africa. The US’s current reputation on the international playground is largely that of an ignorant, intolerant, arrogant bully who alternately intimidates or seduces at will to accomplish it’s solipsistic agenda.
It is my hope that the world will not hold all Americans up to this ugly template and that is why I am especially grateful to the producers and promoters of cultural events such as Bansko’s International Jazz Festival. They serve to help neutralize and dispel these inaccurate stereotypes.
The US has had well over 3oo years’ practice of turning a blind eye to our own atrocities. And still we continue to demonstrate that we’ve a lot to learn. Bulgaria has withstood many, many more years of tragedy and travesty foisted upon them. During my brief visit, it was repeatedly made clear how much the Bulgarians revere their heritage and history. It is my hope that in their present desire to be a “member of the club” by being admitted to the European Union next year that they will be sensitive and mindful of their future, because sooner or later, like it or not, as a developing nation, what Bulgaria does and how they do it will have a profound effect upon their neighbors in this global village.