Ivo Papazov’s Balkanology. Series 33 1/3 Europe - Carol Silverman. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021
by Lozanka Peycheva and Ventsislav Dimov
Carol Silverman’s book is about the musician Ivo Papazov, often called “the magician” and “the dreamer,” and, as it has the rhythm of Balkanology and Romani wedding music, the book is one to be vigorously devoured, in thought through words and images, and sensually through sound. In order for it to be fully understood and experienced by the reader, we propose this recipe: read it after listening to the Balkanology album and go back to Papazov’s music after reading the book. The book and the music of Papazov and the band Trakiya should go together, as if entwined in an embrace, like dancers holding hands at the horo (a traditional Bulgarian dance, and a foundation of the music of wedding bands).
The metaphor of the horo hints at the next lines of this review. It is a communal dance, but the person leading, setting the rhythm, the one who is first in the chain, is of utmost importance. Accompanied by the music of Balkanology, Silverman leads the horo. She is an astute connoisseur of and authority on Balkan music, with over 40 years of experience in the field, both in the Balkans and in the US. She is familiar with the music of Bulgarian wedding bands and especially the music of professional Romani musicians. She is an academic teacher and researcher (a Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Oregon) and a professional performer and teacher of Balkan music, having toured internationally with the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble. Moreover, she is an activist with a heightened understanding of ethnic sensitivity, social inequalities, political repressions, and the affective suffering they bring (Silverman has long advocated for the human rights of Roma people as a lecturer and member of Voice of Roma, an American NGO that promotes Romani culture and supports Romani migrants). Her previous book Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora (2014) won the Alan Merriam Book Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology.
It is surprising how a book with so few pages, at first glance dedicated to a single album, holds so many important analyses and such multidirectional interpretations of rich and reliable information. It is reliable, specific, extrapolated, and signed by one of the few experts and connoisseurs of the album and the artists, who managed to touch the most sacred parts of the musicians’ souls. It includes musicians’ biographies, autobiographical elements from the author, and ethnographic descriptions and data, gathered through intensive, individual field work, implementing the empathically-distancing method of participant observation, which intertwines emotional inclusion with scientific objectivity. The lines, drawn by the author from this album to broader social and cultural contexts, are clearly outlined: the exotica of non-western music, world music, and ethno jazz for the western listener, transforming the local into the global; Balkan cosmopolitism and the role of professional musicians from minority groups; the idea of “pure” and “mixed” music – for the musicians and for their audience; the relationship between minorities and music, etc.
The introduction uncovers the book’s background through Silverman’s autobiographical story, remembering her first contacts with Bulgarian wedding music and its artists from 1979, when she visited Bulgaria for the first time. At the end of the introduction she defines the key concept of svatbarska muzika (wedding music) as a synonym for modern narodna muzika (people’s music):
In the 1970s, the term ‘wedding music’ meant precisely the new style of music described below; it was played at weddings, but it also encompassed music played at engagements, baptisms, house warmings, and soldier send-off celebrations, in short, at major ritual events in village and urban contexts, for Bulgarians of all ethnicities (p. 11).
Silverman accurately describes the specific characteristics of “wildness” wedding music from the 1970s as a completely oral tradition, a combination of instrumentation, repertoire, and an eclectic style. According to her analytical observations, this style “can be summarized as a constellation of virtuosic technique via dense ornamentation, rhythmic syncopations, multiple key changes, chromaticisms, fast tempi, and improvisations” (p. 12). Actually, she stresses, “in this genre, everyone values improvisation as the apex of competence […] if you can’t improvise, you are not a real musician” (p. 15). Silverman ethnicizes the repertoire of wedding music and divides it into two main categories: Bulgarian music and Romani music (p. 17).
The next chapter, “Prelude and Golden Age: The Paradoxes of Wedding Music during Socialism,” provides basic information about the defining features of wedding music and the attractive and unattractive contexts in which it is developed. In her careful analysis, Silverman outlines the “unofficial status and countercultural quality” (p. 63) of wedding music, by presenting some of the paradoxes found within Bulgarian music of the period. Wedding music from the 1970s and 1980s is rationalized as a countercultural phenomenon in the Bulgarian scene. For parts of the Bulgarian audience, wedding music was among the most coveted music with the “frenetic playing style of these Turkish Gypsy musicians” (p. 67) and its “frantic rhythms and a rare virtuosity as if playing were a question of life and death” (p. 65). Silverman presents Papazov as a symbol of wedding music and a guru of wedding musicians: “Admired both for his technical and his creative talents, Papazov is known for his masterful improvisations, creativity, stamina, daringly fast tempi, forays into jazz, numerous compositions, and charisma” (p. 37). His style holds something that is specifically “his”, which he categorizes as “ethnojazz”, “Balkan style” or “our jazz.”
A clear picture of this legendary musician is presented through his biographical history, combined with specialists’ opinions. It is the freedom with which Papazov and the musicians from Trakiya make their music, combining Bulgarian folklore with Romani and Turkish elements, that contradicts the official ideology and state policy for developing a musical mono-ethnicism in Bulgarian people’s music in the 1980s, in the spirit of “romantic nationalism.” A musician from Trakiya shares that they were afraid of the authorities through these “very difficult years” because authority representatives took measures to maintain and regulate the musical “purity” of Bulgarian music: “The government officials in charge of culture started to follow us around, to harass us, to prohibit us from playing” (p. 51). Papazov rightfully points out that the very thing they were criticized over – the bold overstepping of stylistic boundaries and mixing musical styles – was an essential characteristic of their transgressive music: “They didn’t like our style because we crossed the boundaries. We had more freedom, more improvisation. They didn’t want us to experiment with authentic music” (p. 50).
Chapter three “Balkanology: The Album” uncovers the album’s story in an inimitable way – through the parallel stories of producer Joe Boyd (he also produced Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention and founded Hannibal Records in 1980) and Papazov about their first meeting in 1987. Boyd’s attempts to take Papazov and Trakiya out on tour in the US were thwarted by Bulgarian authorities, who didn’t issue visas. These attempts became successful in 1989 when Papazov and his band stepped onto the world stage. Meanwhile, Boyd managed to record their first album Orpheus Ascending, Ivo Papazov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band (Hannibal HNCD 1346), coproduced by the Bulgarian national radio (BNR), whose studio was also used for the recording. In the chapter’s final section Silverman provides a guide for listening to Balkanology by commenting on every track of the album, described as “a combination of concert selections and danceable selections” (p. 78). The characteristic measures and dance names are provided, some exemplified with notes. Silverman gives a very accurate characteristic of the compositions: notes their names and origins, the development of the melody and form, and the improvisations of the soloists Papazov and Neshko Neshev.
Chapter four “Music and Mafias: 1990s Postsocialism” continues the tale of wedding music and the musicians, who – after the fall of the socialist state – are looking for their path in the context of emerging capitalist markets and changing state policies. In the new state of “unbridled capitalism” in the 1990s, nostalgia for the socialist period emerges among many wedding musicians. The chapter presents some of the new contexts for fading wedding music in Bulgarian life: criminal groups and Mafias; commercialization and chalga (commercial ethnopop); piracy and the music industry; and new companies and media channels. How do Papazov and Trakiya manage to survive and thrive under these unhappy conditions? Silverman states that, despite the personal successes of musicians like Yuri Yunakov around the world, the social need for the music of Trakiya was evidently lacking in Bulgaria for a while: “Back in Bulgaria […], Trakiya was practically ignored by the media until 2003” (p. 102).
The final chapter “Global Balkanology” tracks the fate of Papazov and Trakiya into the twenty-first century. The resurgence of interest in wedding musicians begins with the release of the Panair album in 2003 (Kuker Music KM/R 07). The album receives triumphant reviews and in 2005 Papazov wins the BBC Radio 3 audience award in the World Music category. In parallel with these musical successes, Silverman notes a worrying tendency of xenophobia and discrimination toward the Romani and Turkish minorities. She dedicates a few sad words on the wedding musicians’ unclear future. Still, she also points to comforting examples of wedding music as a viable modern force in new contexts, for example through radio concerts or the internet, where the musicians and their fans have Facebook pages and YouTube channels.
Silverman’s book presents the readers with a historical album and the colorful music of Bulgarian wedding bands. Wedding music is an undeniable unity of creative freedom and practical applicability, flowing into each other, and its artists – Romani/Gipsy, Turks, Bulgarians – are described as “professors” of oral music or “masters” of the wedding stage. This book is important, because it competently and convincingly uncovers the mechanisms and soul of a musical style which used to be an expression of freedom and a gesture of artistic dissidents, but which now seems to have become a relict of the past. It sheds light on the decline of this music after the political changes in Bulgaria and the fall of state socialism. Through the liberalization of the music and media markets in the context of capitalism, and the rise of chalga, other musics now conquer, control, and rule – both sonically and economically – over various spaces of entertainment, from the intimacy of family celebrations to the publicity of media screens.
Silverman’s book is for readers who do not settle for labels like World Music, or with the commercial jargon of those, who create these labels in order to sell their music. The music of Papazov and Trakiya is for connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and artists with an overt sensitivity: those who break the status quo, looking for something new, and love music by making or experiencing it passionately, “with a punch,” restlessly, even riskily. The book is a compelling story of the history of wedding music, experienced by Silverman through her delicate sensitivity, through her intellectual baggage, and empathetic relationship to the development of this genre. Her way of writing testifies not only to a masterful perception and deep knowledge of this music, but also breathes passion and emotion There is much to be learned from this book, not only regarding these musicians and their music, but also regarding ourselves and how we experience music.