click for enlargement
Dancing Chocheck! Dressed in traditional "Shalvare",
these girls are having the time of their lives dancing the
fast-paced chocheck at a party Milo and I sponsored for the
Roots Raqs –
International Belly Dancer Goes Home to Macedonia
Like a lot
of dancers, I am frequently asked, “When did it all begin?”
And the most truthful answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s always
been there; I guess it was a just a matter of life’s winding
road bringing me through, back, and around to deeply felt rhythms
that have animated my lifelong trek through North and South
America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. My destiny has
kept me moving, so that’s what I do.
am a modern nomad – a career expat and habitual traveller.
With a heart
perpetually broken yet joyfully overflowing at the same
time, I am a romantic Gypsy constantly saying goodbye and
I follow my soul’s passion for movement, travel, and new
lay no claim to Roma roots, although when I went back to
my own ethnic roots this summer, I rediscovered their rich
dialogue with those of the Roma people.
is Berovo, a highland town in the Southeastern corner of the
Republic of Macedonia, just a few miles off from the Bulgarian
and Greek borders. This hilly region is called “Maleshevo”,
and it’s an amazing study of ethnic co-existence and cross-pollination. The
town is a stop for European backpackers on their way to Turkey
or Greece, and in the days of my youth, of the Roma caravans
who would come through town from the East. Many of the Roma
have now settled in these hills, where they peacefully co-exist
with the Macedonians.
about these hills. They draw me like a magnet, and when nobody’s
looking, I allow them to draw soul-sobs out of my bosom, quiet
tears that only the land and I understand, something so old
and primal, scented by orchards, and freshly cut hay. The hills
echo with legend – folk heroes and breathlessly waiting maidens
wander like ghosts through the thick pine forests as the distant
tinkling of sheep’s bells peel back layers of time until I
feel my five-year-old self again… wandering this land, awaiting
the day my parents would send for me and bring me to the New
It was the
time of Nixon, Vietnam, and the Cold War, but what did I know?
I had a pet goat and plenty of children to play with – Slav,
Roma, and Turkish kids who shared my rave for raspberries and
goofing off in the fresh hay we were obliged to help rake up. Those
were idyllic times, repeated at intervals during my 22-year
stay in America – summer vacations at the tender ages of ten,
twelve, fourteen – learning to spin wool (badly), make wild
fruit preserves, and string tobacco. So much harvesting called
for equal parts celebration.
feast in the open – roast lamb and local peppers, blood-red
tomatoes and fresh sheep’s cheese…then…The drums’ opening beats
would announce that a session is about to begin – ushering
in other instruments like the Zurla (similar to a mezmar) the
Gajda (local sheepskin bagpipe) the tamboura and clarinet while
dancers begin to move in rhythmic unison in an “Oro” circle
dance. Ah…this was something.
grandfather was a noted local folk dancer, patriarch of
a large land-owning
he and his brothers would gather in huge revels in the
hills at sheep-shearing time. Ubiquitous at these highland
were the local Rom musicians, who, I was to learn, have
quite a history going back with my own family. Their music
and friendship has graced weddings, funerals, births and
for generations; in fact, I was told that a wedding in
this region without the mobile Gypsy Brass band was just
not a real
After a seven
year absence, I finally made it back to my home town and met
the son of the Roma musician who was a great friend of my grandfather’s. Milo is now a teacher, like me, and runs a non-profit organization
called “Malesh-Roma” (Gypsies of Maleshevo), whose purpose
is to preserve and promote the unique cultural character of
local music and dance. Milo is a musician, dance teacher, choreographer,
and sort of father figure to about 60 Roma and Slav teenagers
from the region, who show up to regularly scheduled rehearsals
of Macedonian and Roma dances.
It’s an amazing
mix of sounds, steps, and attitudes. A session can bridge Slav
and Roma in a flourish and usually builds up to the Gypsy numbers.
The clear influence of Ottoman music is present in the Brass
Orchestras. Their music is often called “Chochek”, a rhythmically
chaotic, sassy, euphoric mayhem that draws shimmies, gyrations,
and other manifestations of joy out of the Oro-circle dancers
as the musicians begin to “kick it up a notch”. It goes from
circle dance to all-out Oriental shimmy-fest to circle dance
in a crest after crest of mad sonic energy.
night they came, bringing on the brass, the drums, the folkloric
steps and the free-form Rom Chochek, which people are increasingly
dubbing “Balkan Belly Dance”. My husband and I were in the
midst of a ten-day party, Maleshevo-style, a celebration of
unselfconscious cultural and musical fusion. All served up
with the generosity and hospitality Macedonians are known for.
I ended up working out a deal. In exchange for teaching the
Malesh-Roma kids a Saiidi group piece (I chose Saiidi because
of the similarities in music, instruments, and steps) he taught
us several sessions on local instruments and step combinations
peculiar to the region. He organized interviews with local
musicians and the amazing musical evenings that left us breathless. Milo
runs a yearly festival in Berovo called “EthnoCamp” in which
teens from around the world converge in the green highlands
of Berovo to share music, dance, and culture. The festival
features a wide menu of local music and folkdance, and the
Gypsy Brass bands are a star attraction. The town has several
performance pavilions, music halls and scenic auberge-like
hotels that make hospitality easy and accessible. Best of
all, Macedonia is not yet part of the EU, so it is an amazingly
affordable way to enjoy Mediterranean climate, scenery, and
cuisine. I couldn’t help but muse…how about EthnoCamp for
is so much for MED Dancers in Chocheck music. The powerful rhythms
make it impossible to sit still. They gesture to Karsilama,
Saiidi, and other rhythms we are familiar with, like Maksoum. But
the challenge in Chochek is to plug into the wild stream
of musical consciousness.
do not converse so much as they engage in a spirited repartee,
part back-slapping camaraderie. It’s a wild ride! As such,
it’s not really a choreographic mode we are talking about as
much as a state of mind and spirit that fuels spontaneous dancing
exuberance. Very liberating, as dancers are surrounded by
other dancers swept up on the wave, which builds and builds
on itself to a catharsis that seems to overflow continuously,
like a fountain.
heaviness and tears when I left Berovo this July, in spite
of the fact that I know I’m going back next summer. Aunties
now thick with age waved their handkerchiefs at the back of
the taxi, while the children of my former playmates ran yelling
alongside. I had feasted my senses and soul in the village
of my youth, fortified by the bounty of the hills and refreshed
at the deep well of my people’s folklore. They had embraced
the prodigal wanderer and her American husband back to their
bosoms and indulged our every appetite. Freely they gave of
music, dance, and celebration. Freely did the local merlots
and chardonnays flow, and freely did the plates of homemade
sheep’s cheese, roasted peppers, and Kebapi (A local form of
koefta – to die for!) fuel our revels. Best of all, an artistic
dialogue between the Roma and Slavs entered a new generation
with Milo and me.
that dialogue, set to some of the most moving music, will have
a chance to reach dancers, musicians, and artists abroad and
bring them into the lively repartee. The musical folklore
of this region deserves full debut in the World Music scene,
and those of us in the MED community worldwide are ripe for
the breath of fresh air that Chochek and Gypsy Brass Music
can bring us. It is an original, organic and time-honored
fusion, brought about by history, geography, and most importantly,
tolerance and mutual cultural celebration.
Music spans the generations, binding families and histories.
Here, the fathers of the musicians that play for me today
play music for my grandfather, his brothers, and their wives
high up in the hills at sheep-shearing time, circa 1960.
Milo's father told me that there was no wedding, no funeral,
no big event in our family that went unaccompanied by the
soulful music of the Roma. Tearfully he spoke of how my grandfather
protected him at a time when Gypsies were still regarded
with suspicion in most of Europe, and helped make it possible
for them to settle in our village, where they have co-existed
peacefully with local Slavs ever since.
With Hussein (to my left), Jaffer (with trumpet), and some
of the incredible musicians that came out night after night
to play music for me, my family, and the Malesh-Roma kids.
Both men are trumpet virtuosos who travel extensively throughout
Europe to play Gypsy Brass Music. This evening, I found out
through Milo's father that Hussein, Jaffer, and Milo's fathers
and uncles were all great friends of my grandfather's.
The boys' dance underscores the mix of cultures here in Maleshevo
- the Red and Blue Roma outfits along with the highland Slav.
The music itself shifts effortlessly through the two genres,
melding them seamlessly into a unique sonic feast.
Milo is in the center, playing the Zurla, an instrument quite
like the Mezmar. His son plays the other Zurla while the
two drummers send profound echoes throughout the hillside.
This is hair-raising stuff, powerfully evocative.
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