It’s hard to sit still in Campbell Hall when confronted with music so animated and danceable as to be banned under Soviet rule.
Gypsy megastars Ivo Papasov, Yuri Yunakov, Neshko Neshev and Salif Ali are the creators of Bulgaria’s world famous wedding music. Their marriage of East and West incorporates Balkan, Turkish and Indian folk music espoused with the ferocious virtuosity of jazz and rock. Throughout Monday night’s performance, people were dancing in the aisles at dizzying speeds to their shifting odd-time signatures of circular melodies. It quickly became hypnotizing as the bodies around me unhinged into dance inertia while their minds spun on a bumpy merry-go-round in overdrive.
Yet Papasov’s mournful howls amidst the ecstatic crowds in Campbell Hall reminded me that, like the wedding of two discriminated Gypsies, the group’s momentary joy is framed in a greater sorrow.
These particular Gypsy musicians were visible targets under the socialist government’s outlaw of their music during the 1970’s and 80’s. The four were repeatedly harassed and imprisoned with hard labor and shaved heads. Their brand of wedding music was able to flourish as an underground counterculture movement, embodying individualism against a government of collectivism, freedom in a system of oppression and hope in a time of despair.
As their albums, concerts and songs nearly all begin with a pensive, lone clarinet solo, Papasov establishes the anguish of an alienated people as context for what follows. Just before a tear is shed, the group breaks into a dazzling kaleidoscope of sounds. The music is almost manic, jerking between polar opposites in mood, speed, pitch and rhythm.
The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 ended the prohibition on their wedding music and since then the group has surged from the Bulgarian underground to international stardom.
The story of the Bulgarian Gypsy condition is weaved into the music that is designed to be performed by people for people during joyous festivals amid grave social conditions. While the textbook can tell you what happened, the music serves to show how it felt. Experiencing Papasov, Yunakov, Neshev and Ali’s music live – as it is intended to be – constitutes more than a fun ride. Their art grants insight into a plight analogous to many of our own and conveys an enduring spirit nothing short of inspiring.