Rameau

Rameau

Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janacek…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a baroquer I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances. His 2011 Prom was enchanting. The very first piece I heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses (from 18.09)—further enhanced here by magical staging with dance.

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Lili Boulanger

Boulangers

Yet another fine addition to BBC Radio 3’s coverage of female composers: the great Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) (immortalized on the excellent T-shirt):

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02kt04haltogether a website worth exploring.

Dying terribly young, her ouevre has been eclipsed by her equally brilliant older sister Nadia (1887–1979), herself one of the great influences on WAM music-making in modern times. And of course I’ve written many posts on French music in the form of Ravel and Messiaen.

“Not a lot of people know this”, but I recorded Lili’s pieces (or even morceaux) for violin and piano with Susan Tomes on one of those disc thingies around 1974, while we were at Cambridge. Even then, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular, we were all much taken by Du fond de l’abîme:

 

Operetta in extremis

Tillion

Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers while incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”.

Enfers

A salutary link with the Ten Kings of the Underworld?

Accordion crimes

Proulx
“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of palces that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Cieran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 ***

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. And let’s all explore youtube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

But if we have to use words to evoke music, this is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

KK cover

After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.

I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR[1] but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:

Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.

Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.

Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:

I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.

With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:

When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory.
So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home.
[…] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.

One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:

They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.

Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.

This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.

Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:

For a moment, you could even think we were equal.
But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.

We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.

Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:

It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.

Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.

“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.”
“Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”

When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.

Kassabova relates another Soviet joke (which actually resembles my granddad’s joke):

A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”

Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.

Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:

a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.

The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to The Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where

The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)

She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:

to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.

Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then

The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.

After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:

It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer.
[…]
One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.

After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider. [2] And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.

She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:

Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…

Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet

Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.

In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”

Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.

She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.

The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.

Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.

Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.

As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.

Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.

Kassabova expands on these themes in Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017, also reviewed here), broadening the area covered to Greece and Turkey. Again reminding me of China, she writes,

As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.

***

The soundtrack to all this would be enticing, but I’ll save turbo-folk and traditional music for another time.  On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papasov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evokes in Twelve Minutes of Love: a tango story.

 

[1] This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.
[2] Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now.

 

Hidden histories

The current BBC Radio 4 series

hosted by Clarke Peters, leads to a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.

From the series website:

Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.

Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.

Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.

Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.

Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.