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A Macedonian Songcatcher Saves Ancient Traditions (Part 1)

October 31, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Part 1 of this fascinating interview with a leading Macedonian ethnomusicologist discusses her interests in the field, the challenges one faces in coaxing songs out of reluctant villagers, and the importance of ritual music in Macedonian culture.

32 year-old Velika Stojkova Serafimovska, a professional ethnomusicologist at the Macedonian Institute for Folk Dance and Culture, thoroughly loves her job: exploring remote, almost forgotten villages in search of folk songs that have been handed down through the generations, but which have become endangered as the forces of emigration and urbanization pull Macedonians away from their roots.

Armed with a trusty tape recorder and enthusiasm, Velika has since 1992 regularly ventured out into the mountains and plains of southern Macedonia, hunting for elusive songs that, like rare species of flora and fauna, may have never yet been recorded.A jangling bag of cassettes that she keeps on her desk is testament to her 13 years of experience, as are her numerous anecdotes from the field.

While Velika actually started off in a medical high school, she discovered that her true calling lay elsewhere, and she went on to get a degree in ethnomusicology. This year, she plans to finish her MA in Belgrade, with a thesis entitled, “The Functionality and Aesthetic of Macedonian Folk Singing.’

Her experience has left her eminently qualified for these higher studies. “I’ve been going out in the field since 1992, into the villages,” says Velika. “In these expeditions, my job has been to collect tape recordings of traditional songs and then write papers on the vocal traditions of Macedonia.”

Velika, whose father is a composer, was immediately taken with the work back in 1992. “The first time I went to the villages, I fell in love with it,” she says. “I’m very happy to have been here, doing so many “undisciplined’ things- my colleagues around the world are jealous.”

Macedonian Ethno-Music: An Emerging Field

Circumstances have contributed to her luck. Unlike in more developed places, there hasn’t been so much ethnomusicological exploration to date in Macedonia; the current researchers comprise merely the second generation of scholars. According to Velika, the oldest recordings in the collection of the folk institute date only to the 1950’s.

However, she says, one can trace Macedonian song and folklore traditions at least 100 years back, through the oral testimony of old people who remember from their grandparents and great-grandparents. “You can find old people in their 80’s who know the songs, melody, and lyrics,” she says. “A lot of traditions are preserved in the songs.” However, oftentimes in eastern Macedonia especially, it can very hard to understand the words because of the unique way of singing, she says.

The songs of greatest interest to the researcher are those concerning seasonal rituals and events such as weddings and holidays. But they are constantly evolving – something that only adds to the fascination. The younger generations are increasingly leaving the villages for the cities, and are of course influenced mostly by television, Western music and Western trends in their own Macedonian pop music. This means that by and large they are neither able nor interested in learning the unique polyphonic singing, which requires multiple singers and a difficult throat technique that Macedonia is known for.

“The very old songs are quite difficult for them to sing, physically, and Western pop music has had an influence,” says Velika. “They’re just not used to it. This kind of singing involves 2 or 3 people, and is very loud and intense. They sing with open throat, but closed mouth. It’s very difficult to learn this kind of singing, which is typical of Slavic countries like Macedonia, Bulgaria, Russia and Serbia as well.”

Nevertheless, for those youngsters who still live in their villages or who visit during the holidays, the rituals are still preserved. There’s no danger of losing them, Velika emphasizes; but what has changed is the technique and complexity of the music. “In order to keep the ritual, they have allowed the songs to be changed to be easier for them to sing.” This tendency has been noted time and again in various field trips that we will discuss in part 2 of this article tomorrow.

The Methodology of Persuasion

In her trips to rural Macedonia, Velika has developed a certain methodology in collecting information, which first of all involves tact and sensitivity- in other words, how best to approach people who for one reason or another aren’t so interested in opening up.

The process is a long and involved one. She usually visits the same village 2 or 3 times before even trying to collect any data. This process is essential, says Velika, so that the natives get to know her first. It also helps to have a local contact from the village, since in most rural areas, the locals are wary of outsiders. “I always go with local people who know the inhabitants and have their trust,” she states. “And then, after these initial explorations, I am able to get the best material.”

A typical sonic “interview’ usually begins with assembling and getting the names of the volunteers- usually, a group of elderly women who have the best knowledge of the oldest songs. Oftentimes they need to be kick-started into action; “when they say, “oh, I don’t remember!’ you have to prompt them by singing a little to jog their memory,” says Velika. And then they say, “oh yeah, now I remember!”

Of course, how an “outsider’ appears is also important in this process. “The people become very hospitable,” she says, “when they sense that you are natural and relaxed. Then they are very warm and open up to you. I try even to speak their local dialect, which also helps.”

The researcher likes to follow a set order, getting the women to go through the calendar, starting from Christmas and continuing with the year’s subsequent holidays until Mitrovden, a holiday with which commences the usual winter festivities. “This represents a sort of life-cycle,” says Velika. “The order of rituals follows the great order of events, from birth to marriage to death.”

A Concentration on Ritual Songs

Velika doesn’t concentrate on songs with reference to historical events – though many do exist – because they aren’t in as great danger as the ritually-associated ones. According to her cumulative research thus far, “many of the songs must be at least 100 years old, but probably much older. After all, the traditions and rituals often precede the Ottoman period, so perhaps some of the songs do too.”

The “oldest layer” of songs in traditional culture is the ritual one, she says. “Other types, like love songs, are more open to influence and change, since they are not connected with a function. Still, every song has a story, even if it has been lost now.”

However, not all ritual songs are easy to catch hold of. Ritual laments especially are very hard to collect, she says, because of the superstitions surrounding death. People are unwilling to sing such songs “out of context’ for the most part. Usually a researcher can only capture such songs on tape at the graveside- “but you have to hide the tape recorder!”

However, there are occasional exceptions. Velika speaks of a colleague who went to the culturally rich but sparsely populated Mariovo region to observe customs for dealing with the dead, and even recorded some songs. Another time, he encountered a professional lamenter from the village of Kuckovo, north of Skopje, an old women named Zvezda who agreed to sing some laments for him- “but only down in a basement, where no one could hear!”

In part 2 of this article tomorrow, we will see some fascinating examples of how traditional Macedonian songs change depending on their geographical setting and ritual use, as well as how the ancient, pre-Christian traditions still survive in the forgotten villages of the Macedonian heartland.

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