“How to describe that music?”


I’ve returned the final (I hope!) proofs of my forthcoming novella, Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing). Have proofed its beautiful cover, accepted a number of invitations to read from it this fall (will update my News and Events page shortly), and now can anticipate its arrival at the end of summer. This morning I thought about the music that serves as part of its soundtrack. Zurna and dauli, the wonderful double-reeded horn (often made of apricot wood) and double-headed drum at the heart of Balkan Romani music. (For more on this, here’s a link to a review I wrote of Bright Balkan Morning.) I listened to a lot of this music while writing Patrin and this morning I can hear it as I postpone heading outdoors to begin the watering…

How to describe that music? Some of it made me want to dance,
and certainly people danced; mostly men, as dancing was a particularly
male activity on Crete. The door stood open, and they moved
inside and out as though the two were the same place. Two zurnas
and a dauli, out under the vine. The sound filled the darkness
right down to the harbour where the water answered back. Some
songs I knew must be rebel songs for their ferocity, the way the
older men at the bar raised their fists and loudly sang the refrains.
But other songs, plangent and achingly lovely, entered my body
and made me feel intense sorrow—though I didn’t know what
to attach the sorrow to. Yiannis, beside me, told me that Nestor
brought the gypsy soul to Cretan music, played the zurna with a
gypsy inflection. The long quavering notes, rich with vibrato—the
other musicians stopped playing to listen. I was unused to wine,
and my glass kept being refilled. Piney, and sharp, it was a perfect
accompaniment to the salty cheese and the plates of small
fried fish, tomatoes coated with golden oil, dishes of olives, green
and black, some of them bitter and others as large and meaty as
chicken. Loaves of bread, heavy, dusty with flour. When we finally
found our way back to the flat, trailed by a few young men who
wanted to know, How do you make the reeds? How do you know
what to give to the drone player? Nestor told them, Tomorrow, ask
me tomorrow. I must take this young lady to her bed.

from Patrin

Bright Balkan Morning

I’ve been working on a novella and one of the characters in it plays the zurna, a double-reeded wooden horn, a little like a conical oboe. What do I know about the zurna? Practically nothing. So I’ve been reading Bright Balkan Morning (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a fabulous book about Roma music and culture in Macedonia, and learning about the zurna and its companion instrument, the dauli, or bass drum. The text, written by Charles and Angeliki Vellou Keil, richly illustrated with Dick Blau’s photographs, is full of fascinating cultural and enthomusicological detail about the music and the rituals that provide its context. There’s also a cd, a soundscape by Steven Feld, and I’m saving that for later, when I’m able to understand more of what I’ll be hearing.

Here’s what the website www.brightbalkanmorning.com has to tell us about the book itself:

“Bright Balkan Morning documents Romani musicians and their place in the cultural ecology of northern Greece using photographs, texts, oral histories, and soundscapes. The book tells an unusual story about both “the Gypsies” and “the Balkans,” in which difficult socio-economic conditions context a mutually rewarding ritual reciprocity in the Nommos of Serres.

Our book is centered in a crossroads town of some 5,000 people in a fertile basin formed by the Strimon River as it flows out of the mountains that define Greece’s northern border with Bulgaria.  Iraklia (Jumaya before 1926) is the home of over 2,000 Roma who have been settled there for many generations.  The earliest Roma settlers became fishermen and harvesters of its abundant supply of reeds. In the 19th century Romani labor was the foundation of agricultural production for export.  In the 20th century Romani migrant laborers worked in fields all over Greek Macedonia.”

I love how the cover photograph pays homage to the layers of history in this book where the past shadows the present, where every zurna player remembers those who came before him, where the musicians walk with their ancestors from weddings to dances to feasts.

It’s cold here, with little flurries of snow, but I’m inside reading about weddings, dowry linens, the careful preparation of reeds, and thinking about how music has the capacity to carry stories and culture across generations, time and space. That a horn of apricot wood which I placed in a young man’s hand in a novella still in progress can take me to Macedonia, into the homes of Romani families in the mahala of Iraklia, where people talk of their lives and the place of music within those lives.