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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 Malesh-Roma kids.
Gilded Serpent presents...
Roots Raqs
An International Belly Dancer Goes Home to Macedonia
by Paola

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.

I 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 hello as I follow my soul’s passion for movement, travel, and new experiences.  I lay no claim to Roma roots, although when I went back to my own ethnic roots this summer, I rediscovered their rich historical dialogue with those of the Roma people.

The place 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.

There’s something 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 World, Chicago.

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.

We would 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. 

My grandfather was a noted local folk dancer, patriarch of a large land-owning clan, and he and his brothers would gather in huge revels in the hills at sheep-shearing time. Ubiquitous at these highland revels 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 harvest festivals for generations; in fact, I was told that a wedding in this region without the mobile Gypsy Brass band was just not a real wedding.

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 after 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.

Milo and 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 adults?

There 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. 

The instruments do not converse so much as they engage in a spirited repartee, part argument, 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.

There were 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.

Hopefully 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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