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.