One of the great joys of being part of Green Man is the ability to indulge oneself in following one's sense of curiousity. Amidst the usual overwhelming pile of books and CDs that we get every day was this imposing tome, Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and The Power of Music in Greek Macedonia. Well, I didn't know anything about this subject beyond some violin-based tunes from the region, but I was curious.... So that's how I came to know even more about this aspect of Balkan music than I learned about Mother Russia from Orlando Figes's Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia!
Like so many fiddlers, I fell in love with Balkan music. Now I admit that it helps that the Green Man offices have been playing host to Bela, a Balkan violinist of uncertain origins, who has been living here for the past few months. And it certainly doesn't hurt that our Music Library has hundreds of CDs ranging from the more folky of the Bartok recordings to CD-Rs made of the Huddled Masses Dance Band and like bands. (My current favourite band is Hungarian State Folk Ensemble, which has a lovely album out called Wedding At Ecser.)
But what about reading material related to Balkan music? That's where the university presses come in. You see, the really cool stuff, the stuff that the larger presses with their corporate masters focusing on the all holy bottom line shy away from is what these presses specialize in. Both Bela Bartok's Yugoslav Folk Music, Volumes 1-4 and Timothy Rice's May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music were published by a university publisher, as was Bright Balkan Morning! Is that cool? Damn right it is!
But this is a book quite unlike anything that I've encountered before. It consists of text, photographs, and a CD of music which is now playing. Green Man doesn't have a lot of Rom music from the Balkan region; much of what we have reviewed, such as The Gypsy Road Collection and Okros Ensemble's Transylvanian Village Music, focuses on music from north of Greece. But Bright Balkan Morning goes south to Macedonia, a region of Greece. (Yes, I know that part of the now-defunct Yugoslavian Republic is called Macedonia. This review is concerned with matters of music, not matters of state.)
Bright Balkan Mornings is subtitled Romani Lives and The Power of Music in Greek Macedonia, which is exactly what this stunning book is about. An illustrated fabric of personal narratives, black-and-white photographs of daily life, cultural commentary and soundscapes, Bright Balkan Morning provides an unprecedented view of settled Rom living in the Balkans, and the unique roles of these players in the daily lives of the people there. These Rom musicians provide the music that holds their often contentious communities together! (Ok, avoiding politics completely in the Balkans is akin to not breathing a possibility that is hardly worth discussing.)
But where to start in describing the superb undertaking? Well, let's acknowledge that Dick Blau has, as photographer, created an enthographic portrait that could stand alone without any text at all. The pictures of the Rom here are worthy of being exhibited in a gallery in one of the global cities, say London. He has photographed the members of the village of Iraklia, a Balkan community of which five thousand members are Rom! This means that the Rom are not the often despised minority that they are elsewhere. And the photos of the Rom capture everything from a group at a coffee-cup stand to wedding processions with crowds beyond count! Would colour have been better here? No the starkness of black and white works better, as the eye sees more details this way.
Then there's the text that noted ethnomusicologist Charles Keil has provided. His approach to music is something he calls "musicking," a hands-on idea that refers to how performing and composing, as well as listening and dancing to music, allow people to make meaning for themselves. And I do mean hands-on. He has said that each person "must give dance a chance." He really does grok music/community/dance well. His previous works include Urban Blues and Tiv Song, a study of Nigeria's Tiv culture, and Music Grooves, with co-author Steven Feld. Angeliki Vellou Keil, credited as co-author on this project (and who I assume is his wife), is the compiler/editor of The Autobiography of Marcos Vamvakaris. As an ethnographic text, Bright Balkan Morning is the non-fiction equal of John Berger's Into Their Labours, a trilogy of novels that Berger wrote documenting the lives of a peasant culture somewhere in the mountains of France. Whereas Berger mixed fact and fiction in his narrative, the Keils give a real accounting of a community. They have captured in great detail the lives of the Rom, their music, and their interactions with non-Rom community members. Their text reflects the belief that Charles Keil stated in an article in the university newspaper where he teaches: "A life [is] well-lived at many deep and mostly unconscious levels how to be in time, in tune, in graceful synchrony with other people, how to be an energetic presence and a shining individual in tight relationships with many others simultaneously.... We have to reinvent the traditions before they're completely gone." If you listen at all to Balkan music and want to understand better where it comes from, you need this text!
Now for the music, err, the "soundscape." Ok, do not approach this CD as you would a conventional music CD. What Steve Feld has created is, as a press release put it so nicely, something that "features the voices and instruments of people whose stories are told in the book. Familiar sounds of markets, church, neighbourhood and countryside set the context for exuberant performances at home and at parties, cafes and nightclubs...." It dovetails neatly with the text and photos, but would make more sense if it had been part of a video presentation at some club, where one could have discussed the music and video with other interested folk. It's not awful, or even uninteresting, but it adds little to the text and photos. A traditional music CD might have been better. Now, you may think different, so give it a listen.
The bottom line is that any music fan or student of Balkan history should own this book. It's certainly an outstanding project which Wesleyan University Press can be proud of publishing. It is one title in the Music/Culture series, which Green Man will be reviewing more of in future. Singing Our Way to Victory: French Cultural Politics and Music During the Great War, for example, will be reviewed by Donna Bird.