I've been trying to call Bulgaria. I have it from semi-reliable sources that Bulgaria wants me to play for their international jazz festival. This in itself is amazing as I do not play Bulgarian jazz, or any jazz for that matter. Dr. Ea$y advises me not to try either, but. . .
It seems that during Tamboura's European stint at the renown Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland in 2004, a certain Mr. Yankimolov, Bulgarian minister of cul-cha, heard Tamboura's folkrock'n reggae vibe and went uncharacteristically Bul-Ga-Ga-Garian. After one of our shows he pulled me aside with some urgency. Yankimolov gripped my hand tightly with his huge, slavic bear paw.
"I vant spek to you. I make offer. You vill like goot, yah? In Bulgaria my country, ze music iss veddy, veddy poplar. You unnastand, yah? Ze Bulgarian musics do ze seven, ze eleven,” Yankimolov began.
“7-11? Like the convenience store?” I asked incredulously.
“Thirteen, even, sometime,” Yankimolov went on, ignoring my question. “Iss vedy complex. Veddddy complex. But, still ve Bulgarians ve dance! Ve lov dance, yah! And zis Tamboura band, you haf...vhy dey haf not even play one tamboura?”
“Where are we going with this?” I grimaced, wondering to myself as I noticed that the circulation in my hand was becoming choked off by his vise-like grip. Before I could speak, he went on.
“Zis band of Tamboura, zey play zis vonderful music from vedy hot sea island, no? But in ze four time! Bang so vedddy big can. Pluck veddddy strange banjo string t'ing. Hit ze drums like ze mighty Titan! Vedddy simple this music, um, and how you say - Loud! Still, ve Bulgarians ve dance! Yeow!”
Yankimolov was getting quite excited now. He released my hand and bent close to my ear, whispering secretively.
"I vill tell veddy goot friend, Meester Villy Nokitov. Nokitov iss like Bulgarian Tony Bennett, yah! Like ze Vrank Zinatra, even . . . vedy, how you zay - macho and zuave-like-mooze. He vill vant bring zis Tamboura band for play hiss big jass festival. Veddy big and goot! You iss Americans, yah? You vill see, ve Bulgarians like alllll ze musics. Ve shall dance! All dance goot, yah! And you vill like goot, too, yah? You come Bulgaria, yah?" He shook his head enthusiastically from side-to-side.
“I guess so,” I stammered, increasingly confused. Yankimalov disappeared quickly away into the night. He might have been dancing.
Within days of returning home from Switzerland, I was sent a cryptic email address that included a phone number containing what seemed like four hundred digits and explicit orders not to tell anyone that I'd seen or spoke to him at the festival. Yankimolov told me to call Nokitov, the 'zauve mooze' himself, “zomtime in ze zpring” and arrange a gig at his famous Jazz & World Music Festival. I figured, I'd nothing to lose.
I'd been emailing and trying to call Villy Nokitov for well over a month. I got nowhere, nada, zilch, nyet. Perhaps the TUB (Telephonov Uber Bulgarese) was on strike? Perhaps Mr. Zuave-Like-Mooze was just amorously preoccupied with some darling Natasha at his dacha? Or perhaps he was in some sort of trouble and couldn't get free from some desolate Siberian gulag? Or maybe he caught a cob on because Tamboura had no tamboura - the national instrument of Bulgaria? I don't know. I just wish he'd tell me one way or the other. I mean, I hope he realizes that I've got other риба to fry.
Lately there's strange clicking sounds on my phone. Probably the FBI or CIA - or, heaven help me, the KGB - all wound up because I'd been making numerous attempts to contact a former communist bloc country. What of it? All I wanted was a gig and a chance to visit Bansko and Sophia and see the sights, perhaps sing a song with Meester Zuave-like-Mooze? I could learn to play in 7 or 11, but I refuse to play in a 7-11! I might even consider playing in 13, though probably not. Perhaps I could add a real tamboura to Tamboura? Nyet.
The rest of the band thinks I'm crazy, but if and when I line this show-of-shows up, they'll all want to go. Miss Mary has already been looking up Bulgarian translations for phrases like "I'm tired and I want to sit down" and "Is there a good thrift store nearby?" and "Where can I get shoes for my moose?"
Me, I'm just resting my fingers up in anticipation of this afternoon's marathon phone dialathon to Bulgaria. I ain't giving up yet!
2005: Gig Is Got!
All my efforts paid off! Tamboura with be the first American band to play at the Bansko International Jazz & World Music Festival - now in its eighth year - in Bulgaria in August 2005!
Showtime! Tamboura at Bansko
Bulgaria or Bust!
First Impressions and Instrumental Angst
As the British Airways jet prepared to land on Tamboura’s first tour of Bulgaria, I glanced out the window at the rapidly approaching and very 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? Whatever...as seen from a few thousand feet in the air, it was wet. Really wet!
We were relieved and pleased to be on the ground after our 14 hour flight from Newark - including a stimulating and hectic layover at Heathrow. That was until I learned that somewhere between Newark, New Jersey, London, England and Sofia, Bulgaria my hand-made acoustic guitar and Mary's steel drum had disappeared. Anxiety became epidemic amongst the band. My imagination went wild as I envisioned missing rehearsals and festival performances. Or even worse, some eastern bloc black market con-artist had fenced Mary's Trinidadian steel drum and my guitar to itinerant gypsy musicians somewhere in the Romanian hinterland who would cook goulash in the steel drum over an open fire while they danced ecstatically to the accompaniment of melancholy violins - and my guitar.
Despite our severe language deficit and mounting panic - we could neither read the Cyrillic alphabet or comprehend the Bulgarian tongue - we managed to gesticulate and mime our way through the lost baggage-claim miasma of Sophia's crowded little airport. To further add to the chaos, the Bulgarian head gesture for “yes” is the rest of the world's head gesture for “no” - and vice versa! It took awhile to adjust to that!
Multiple documents were signed, copied, filed, exchanged. For all we could discern from this complex process we possibly might have bought a yogurt factory in Dobroplodnov or owned a new ox. Somehow, we came away mildly comforted that we were marginally understood and that we needn’t worry too much. Our instruments would be found - “Maybe three hours you get back. Or four.” Again the enthusiastic side-to-side head shake.
Our Bulgarian host and sponsor had arranged that we be picked up from the airport and transported “Perhaps one hour maybe two” through the countryside to the remote Pirrin Mountain town of Bansko where Tamboura was to be the first American act to appear at the acclaimed, week-long international festival of jazz and world music whose roster featured nearly fifty of the finest jazz, blues and ethnic bands and musicians from throughout Europe, the Balkans and Mediterranean regions.
We boarded the small, cramped transporter-type minibus along with a quartet of young Danish avant- guard hipsters and a few venerable members of a German old-time New Orleans-style band. These musicians were accompanied by their instruments, including a gigantic tuba, fresh from the airport! We began to worry anew.
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 a chainsaw? Where’s the Department of Public Works?” I asked Mary. She shot me a weary shut-up-and-how-am-I-supposed-to-know look. Overgrown brush and trees hugged the dreary concrete walls of spooky, decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks that loomed nearby.
Weedy overgrowth competed for space with what I imagined were untold thousands of struggling families whose bleak lives were sadly linked by a ceaseless string of monotonous days of factory toil and bowls of cabbage soup. The dense vegetation formed dark thickets and layered canopies that threatened to jump the curb and assault passing traffic. Small packs of scruffy, bony, feral dogs lay about in doorways or hungrily emerged from the eerie undergrowth as they attended to their scavenging rounds.
Every so often we would pass a small clearing from which emerged a stark work of post-modern Russian(?) sculpture or a cluster of concrete benches occupied by elderly, grey babushka women sitting stoically, as if molded seamlessly from the adjoining concrete, waiting. But for what?
Conversation on our mini tour-bus was minimal, but not because of any language barrier. Our European compatriots spoke wonderful English, reminding me that I did not know German or Danish and that typically Americans tend to expect that countries should be more like us and “speak 'Merican”. Rather, our silence was due to outright travelers’ fatigue. Many – myself excluded - began to doze upon reaching the countryside and open, modern highway.
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 rustic bus driver casually informed us “Zis road conditions iss veddy bad by zis flood of Sturma” as we bumped and swayed around rocks and swales.
“Who is this cursed Sturma of which you speak?” I made a flat attempt at a joke. No one responded.
The young Danes informed us that severe flooding had ravaged Bulgaria and most of Europe the previous week and that many devastated communities were still without roads, bridges or communications. “Ah, so those weren’t rice paddies I’d seen from the airplane coming into Sophia!”, I thought to myself.
It was clearly evident for those who resided in the countryside that the recent, turbulent floodwaters had, temporarily at least, erased life as they’d known it for centuries. Several times our hurdy-gurdy tour-bus actually had to leave the cratered roadway that was nearly obliterated by the recent rage of the Sturma River. We found ourselves traversing, humpitty-bumpitty, across muddy, rutted stretches of swampy farm fields until we could once again access the highway. I seriously feared that we would become mired to the gunwales in the ooze and have to get out and push. There were no towns or villages nearby that I could see.
Eventually, despite it being quite late on a Sunday afternoon, we encountered a ragged, haggard road crew as they maneuvered incredibly primitive, rusting road graders (some were horse-drawn!) and diesel-belching dump trucks, scraping and moving the wounded earth into submission. Men aggressively wielded picks and shovels, valiantly attempting to reverse the effects of the untamed rivers and streams. And though the going seemed slow, nobody was standing around drinking coffee while watching one guy with a shovel do all the work as is the custom in many American municipalities. What’s more, they appeared to be gaining on it.
We passed ancient fields of wheat and tobacco where peasants, appearing to be dressed as they had since medieval times in heavy homespun clothing, labored with oxen and wooden-wheeled carts, methodically harvesting what remained of their ravaged crops. They used only hand tools – ancient wooden scythes and rakes - gathering their yield into small stacks or tossing it onto the small carts.
Groups of women, heads covered with colorful scarves, sat together chatting and laughing in the tobacco fields as they sewed bundles of tobacco, placing them on crude drying racks that later would be taken by ox cart to a barn somewhere to be stored. Some men lay about randomly on the ground in the fields. I hoped they were napping and not dead. What epoch was I in? It made me realize how closely tied to the earth this culture remained. And, sadly, how far removed from it I had become.
Our “perhaps one hour, maybe two” commute from Sofia turned into a four 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 week. The ancient, narrow, walled streets were either worn dirt paths or cobbled with a variety of beautifully smooth, round river stones, and had been traversed for hundreds of years by man and beast. These streets beckoned us to explore.
We truly felt caught in a time-warp. We watched robed and high-booted shepherds with wooden staffs lead what appeared to be a motley mixture of sheep and goats down from the surrounding hills, followed by a few rowdy, yipping herd dogs. Stilt-legged storks nested upon rickety chimneys perched precariously atop red clay tile roofs. Woodsmoke, blended with the odors of roasting meats and seasonal garden flowers, perfumed the clear mountain air with its deliciously pungent smell as it drifted over the high stone and stucco walls that were built centuries ago to thwart history’s marauding hordes from pillaging the humble dwellings within.
A hooded monk in dark, homespun cassock carried a wooden bucket as he walked across the town's cobbled square from the church. The church's bells dependably tolled the hours, day and night. Sequestered farther away, even deeper in the mountains, walls like these kept hidden and protected such tranquil, spiritual sanctuaries as the eastern orthodox church's beautiful Rila Monastery. This 900 year old monastery remains active and has an incredible collection of ancient religious icons and artifacts well worth seeing.
With nary a marauding Goth, Hun nor Magyar in sight, however, walls such as these today mostly 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 Pirin Mountains formed a regal backdrop to the town. Pale, green veins of dormant ski trails laced the descending steep slopes, promising the flow of lifeblood Euro-dollars upon winter's arrival. Against this majestic natural skyline, numerous iron cranes labored to lift materials used to build the sleek condos and ritzy four- and five-star hotels for the European, Asian and Middle Eastern skiing elite. It would seem Americans haven't discovered Bulgaria. Yet. It is this 'new money' that is gobbling up prime Bulgarian real estate at prices far below Western norms.
Bulgaria presents itself to be a determined country of strong people whose roots extend throughout the Old World diaspora. Theirs is a complicated, troubled and often corrupt history, but at the same time it is a diverse, rich tapestry of cultures. Bulgaria was, and remains, at the crossroads: It is 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, crossing 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 legacies, and often bloody handprints, upon Bulgaria.
Today, evidence of this multiculturalism 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 a complete delight to my palate, integrates spices and ingredients found in Turkey, Romania, Italy and Greece and marries them to fresh vegetables, breads, cheeses and wood-fire roasted meats and fish that are without peer. Indeed, it is the unique bacteria found only in Bulgaria that makes their yogurt truly special. We made sure every breakfast always included yogurt with fresh fruit. No meal was complete without a toast – or two, or four, or .... - of rykia, a particularly strong and tasty type of Bulgarian brandy that can be lobotomizing to the uninitiated!
As musicians, we were immediately drawn to Bulgarian music. It is hauntingly mesmerizing. It is inspirationally exciting. This is music that frequently makes one feel like dancing even though its seven
or eleven beats to the measure is somewhat awkward and disorienting to Western ears so accustomed to hearing four-counts or waltzes. Balkan clarinets and violins race around Middle Eastern-sounding scales, hotly pursued by Italian and German accordions that squeeze melodies from Roma gypsy harmonies while Syrian doumbek drums chase them all along by crisply nipping at their heels - just a wee bit before the beat.
The unusual wooden flute-like caval and the 6-string, cittern-like tamboura (absolutely no relation to the American folkrock/reggae/calypso band embedded in this story!) are Bulgaria's national instruments. These instruments are often a part of the small folk ensembles that are featured in every restaurant and taverna in town. They frequently provide accompaniment to the to multi-part, Bulgarian vocal music that has extremely close harmonies that make the hairs on your neck stand up and applaud for more. Every village and town has a men's or women's chorus – often both – who regularly rehearse and perform the folk songs of the region and are a joy to hear.
If one is particularly fortunate – as I was - a darkly beautiful Roma girl will spontaneously leap up onto a food and rykia laden taverna tabletop and offer an improvisational gypsy belly dance. Hot-Cha!
We strolled through sleepy streets taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Weathered working men and women would slowly drive by in their homemade ox or mule-drawn carts laden with hay, vegetables, tools, manure, multiple generations of family members - or all of the above! Cars, lorries and very unusual wooden tractors passed the carts in clouds of exhaust and dust. These carts would later be seen parked in the alleys, cheek by jowl to the same sleek Mercedes, BMWs and rusty, dilapidated, 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, lettuce, onions and herbs – all the necessary ingredients to make Bulgaria's delicious shopska salad. Though one could not always glimpse them ensconced behind the high stone and wood walls, the meadow-sweet perfume from the gardens and hidden haylofts would suddenly surprise the nostrils and give their secret presence away - punctuated by an occasional moo or bleat.
Old women - together with their grandmothers! - sat in the cobblestone square selling hand embroidered shawls, blankets, handkerchiefs, hats and garments and the occasional painting. (I bought a hat!) The same sort of scruffy cur seen prowling about in Sofia lay contentedly about the tables of many of Bansko's outdoor cafes and tavernas, hoping for handouts or fallout food. This time of year their pickings were pretty good.
The delicious odors wafting from the open doors of the myriad restaurants kept me in a nearly constant state of salivating gastronomic arousal. The food here was fresh, abundant and oh, so delicious! Our dinners were memorable for their conviviality and menus, though my only complaint was that they usually didn't begin until around 11PM and didn't end until, well, let's just say “when the cock crowed”. It was almost enough to keep us from worrying about our lost instruments. Almost.
Tamboura's kind and extremely generous sponsors had registered us in a lovely four-star hotel, The Glazne, replete with two balconies - one overlooking the village, the other the Pirrin mountain 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.
Late one night while futilely channel surfing, we discovered an episode of “Detroit Animal Police” on the Animal Planet channel – in English! The show ran a continuous loop of episodes in which animals of all species and varieties find themselves in every sort of imaginable untenable predicament and are rescued by – you guessed it - the Detroit Animal Police! Oddly, this program became something we
looked forward to after the very late night dinners and jam sessions we were expected to attend. However, I worried that it might be cinematic pap like D.A.P. that would introduce new generations of Bulgarians to American culture? This prospect both amused and frightened me.
The Glazne staff were attractive young people. Pleasant and helpful, they always seemed to know where we had been and what we’d been doing. They would recount details of our events to us in very accented, broken English. This added a dollop of mild of paranoia to our already overactive anxiety regarding our lost instruments. However, when the hotel staff didn’t think we noticed them, they seemed somber and dour as if the weight of the former Soviet empire remained harnessed upon their shoulders. I’d seen that demeanor before while on tour in the Caribbean. Perhaps, like some West Indians I have known, the Glazne staff were simply sick and 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 their burgeoning tourist economy. They would need to get used to it or find another job.
The receptionists, bellhops, security guards, even the waitresses, had all been alerted to our missing 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, “Zey say zey find instruments. Will haf three, four hours.” This was something we felt we could live with, at least until the third or fourth or fifth 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 Tamboura’s performance slot would not arrive before our instruments did!
On the third day of our Bansko adventure, a beefy gentleman with no neck arrived , unannounced, from the Sofia airport driving the largest Audi sedan I had ever seen. With him were both our instruments! I could barely contain my relief, but I didn’t want to seem too overjoyed until we opened the road cases.
We opened. We checked. We rejoiced! Both instruments were perfectly intact despite their side trip to who knows where. There certainly had been a lot of ground - and ocean - covered between Newark, New Jersey and Bansko, Bulgaria! We gratefully thanked and tipped the driver, then took our instruments back to our suite where we enjoyed a happy first rehearsal - but not before vowing to know exactly where the instruments were for the rest of the tour!
We had missed three days of rehearsal and performance opportunities already. Our sponsors were not at all pleased. They had hoped that these Americans were going to leave a good impression. So far, not so much. Thankfully the main concert events had not yet taken place and there seemed there may still be time to redeem ourselves.
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 near the stage. Then, quite by accident, we were introduced to The Bansko Tree. It was upon this tree's thick, hoary trunk that the schedules – written in English - were nailed up. They were reminiscent of the “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters from America’s Old West, plastered amongst the remnants of hundreds of other announcements and notices which were written in Cyrillic. Judging from the thousands of rusting staples, thumbtacks 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. Despite it being August and summertime, the absence of foliage made the tree's jagged, disfigured limbs appear to annoyingly scratch the overarching blue sky. Simply put, The Bansko Tree appeared to be quite dead. And ugly. Really ugly.
Ancient river-stone cobbles were laid uniformly to accommodate the tree's substantial girth. A low, stone wall encircled its trunk and had provided a resting place for generations of foot-weary passersby. My first impressions upon seeing The Bansko Tree were reminiscent of the thoughts I’d had as Tamboura left the airport and drove through Sophia: “Where’s a chainsaw?” and “I wonder how much firewood they could get from this relic?” We had walked past The Bansko Tree dozens of times and each time I wondered, “Why has that monstrosity been allowed to remain an arboreal blight on this lovely little square?”
One morning a few days later as I walked into the village in search of gifts of rustic copper bells, colorful hand-painted pottery and CDs of indigenous folk music, I 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 (the rykia?) but The Bansko Tree was - alive! Shoots of healthy leaves were springing from its crooked elbows and gnarled joints revealed clusters of vibrant life, glowing verdant against the azure sky in the morning sun, 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: “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 - and 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 its tumultuous past and a hopeful future while trying to survive and grow in the uncertain present.
The band surely did redeem ourselves as evidenced by the hundreds of happy faces and dancing crowds, including a band Roma who encouraged many in the crowd to join them in a conga line that danced its way throughout the arena! Yankimolov was telling the truth when he insisted to me several months earlier that “Vey Bularians lov to dance, yah!” And love to dance they did! Yah!
While we did meet the real “Vrank Zinatra of Bulgaria” at dinner one night, I never did sing with “Meester Zuave-like-Mooze”. Everyone got lucky, I guess. Following our performances at the 8th Bansko International Jazz Festival Tamboura made a three-day visit to the capitol city of Sofia before returning to the US.
Sophia Serenade Seeing Sophia
While it was certainly easy to find evidence of urban neglect and decay, it became clear that the city of Sophia 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 helped to keep things moving forward.
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 a 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 could know what’s best for anyone. 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, Bulgaria would do well to learn from the history and mistakes of others. As well as their own. 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. As David Byrne from the Talking Heads has noted: “Same as it ever was.”
One need not look further than that of the United States' Bush administration. The demands and appetites of corporations routinely supplanted the needs and desires of the people. This mind-set would eventually lead to such legislation as Citizen's United (2010) that gave corporations the same Constitutional rights and privileges as citizens. This freed up huge, unregulated sums of highly influential corporate lobbyist dollars to flow into the coffers of their preferred political candidates. Thus, the common good remains 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. Or worse.
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. Misinformation, disinformation and outright lies saturate the media, distorting reality and the truth. Corporate cancer is insidiously polluting the global environment, compromising Nature’s equilibrium and making us more disconnected from the natural world. It is crippling our psyches by cultivating an arrogant, narcissistic, consumptive populace that demands instant gratification, one that craves to be entertained and lives by the credo of greed: “Whatever it takes, I want what I want when I want it”. Manifest Destiny on steroids. Perhaps worst of all it is blinding our humane capacity to be sensitive to the needs of future generations.
Admittedly, the America has had its moments of glory and heroism within history’s pages and upon the world’s stage. But we also bear the shameful burdens of the genocide of our indigenous people, slavery and the Civil War, Viet Nam and now the travesties in Iraq and Afghanistan. We mustn't forget the turning of our nation's back, not only on the destruction, desolation and despair in countries of the Middle East, Caribbean and Africa, but also in our own inner cities where poverty reigns. The United States’ current reputation on the international playground is largely that of an intolerant, arrogant bully who alternately intimidates or seduces at will to accomplish it’s solipsistic agenda and satisfy corporate interests.
It is my hope that the world will not hold all Americans up to this ugly template. That is why I am especially grateful to the local, regional and international producers and promoters of cultural events such as Bansko’s International Jazz & World Music Festival. They organizations serve to educate, to foster understanding and to help neutralize and dispel inaccurate stereotypes.
America has practiced over 4oo years of turning a blind eye to its atrocities. 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 and celebrate 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.
Would I go back to Bulgaria? You bet I would!
The Bulgarian map clearly shows the boundaries of the country's surrounding neighbors. It is easy to imagine how each country has influenced the rich social tapestry of Bulgaria. Bansko (indicated by the red star), in the Pirrin Mountains, is located directly south from the capitol city of Sophia.
Bansko was the location of the 8th International Jazz & World Music Festival where Tamboura played.