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A Macedonian Songcatcher Saves Ancient Traditions (Part 2)

November 1, 2005


By Christopher Deliso

In part one of this article, which appeared yesterday, readers were introduced to Skopje-based professional ethnomusicologist Velika Stojkova Serafimovska, and the important work she is doing in identifying the origins and morphology of traditional Macedonian songs. Today’s installment considers some vivid examples collected from her work in the field, and serves to show the great cultural wealth Macedonia has to offer.

A Case Study: Ethnic Migrations and the Evolution of Lazarica

Jargulica is a low-lying little village near the southeastern Macedonian town of Radovis, where every year takes place a special ritual for young women. It’s held on the last day before Prochka (Lent), and sees unmarried girls from the ages of 10-18 go out into the fields to collect certain plants and sing traditional songs. After this, they then return to the village and go to every house, singing and dancing in the courtyard for the health of everyone inside.Around 100 years ago, tribes of the ethnic subgroup Shop arrived in the mountains of the Radovis area. Long settled in mountainous areas further to the north such as Kratovo, Kriva Palanka and Berovo, the Shop with their own folklore rituals and had distinctive anthropological qualities.

According to Velika, Jargulica was at the time populated by the Strumani and Sredno Vardarsko subgroups, who had their own unique characteristics and who were mostly field workers. Some 50 years ago, she recounts, some of the Shop villagers came down from the mountains and settled in the village- with the resulting creation of a 50/50 ethnic balance. Her visit to Jargulica came during the celebration of Lazarica, held one day before another spring holiday, Gjorgjievden (May 6).

Interestingly enough, this migration even influenced the songs of the area. In the course of her research, Velika encountered one Shop lady who, despite her age and infirmity, was a very good singer. In fact, since there was maybe no one else capable of singing like her, she slowly became the leader in that little village. The woman also had a very domineering personality; after coming down from the mountain, she had started to “interfere’ in the rituals of the Jargulica people, enlivening the songs with her own Shop type of singing. “Slowly, they accepted her way of singing,” says Velika. “It was very interesting to see how even one person can change long-established customs.”

Another old lady was listening while the domineering one was singing. “This is not a Lazarian song!’ she said. “It’s from Vodici!’ (a winter holiday). And they started arguing about where the song came from. It was very interesting to see this.”

At the same time as this argument was going on, Velika recounts, two young girls dressed in white Lazarian dress were passing through. While they were singing completely different melodies, their songs both had the same lyrics.

Yet the important thing, says Velika, is that they were preserving the same ritual. “The music had been simplified, for one voice, not two. No one had taught them to sing for a two-part traditional song. They had only learned it in a childish way- one girl would sing it, the others catch on. As a scientist, I wondered if 100 years ago, songs had developed in the same way. It’s a long process, the way aesthetic fashions change over time.”

“With the domineering Shop lady, you have a case of a singer keeping her identity through the melody, while the other are keeping their identity through the ritual. And the older generations sacrifice the melody just to keep the tradition, with the simplified songs that young girls sing today. So now the local musical identity is broader- this is what is happening everywhere in Macedonia.”

The Effects of Geography

Working in the same area of southeastern Macedonia, Velika found another intriguing factor at play in the evolution of traditional songs: geography.

By doing a comparative study of traditional music and ritual in 3 villages that were located close to one another, but in geographically varied settings, she noted striking differences in the style of singing, the sound and the lyrics. She contends that these reflected inherent differences of attitude and even mindset that had perhaps been shaped by the villagers’ singular natural environments.

The Radovis-area villages compared were the aforementioned Jargulica, situated on a plain, the mountainous area of Sopluk and the village of Injevo, located on rolling hills. Although they were all within a few kilometers of one another, they each had certain differences.

“There were big differences in the sonic quality of the songs,” Velika notes. “In Sopluk, it is more clear, sharper and with a more full and wide richness. In the plains village of Jargulica, the singing is more ornamented with little cries and improvisations, and the gajda (a simplified bagpipe) makes for more adornment.

And in Injevo, you can say that the sound is mellow, somewhere in between. Some songs, lyrics, and singing technique also vary. When you speak with the different peoples, you can see a real difference in mentality and way of thinking, which have no doubt been shaped by their natural environments. It’s only natural that this should come out in their songs as well.”

Seasonal Holidays: Where Paganism Lives On

Velika also recalls one adventure almost 7 years ago, when she was allowed to observe the all-male winter holiday of Surva, held on the Orthodox New Year’s (13 January). The holiday took place in the mountain village of Dedino, located in the mountainous area separating Radovis from Kavadarci. “It was interesting because I was the only female and I was allowed to watch an all-male ritual,” says Velika.” I had a local friend who accompanied me. Also, I told them my origins were from that region. So they let me be their special guest.”

In the ritual, which dates back to pagan times, the men go out at midnight to collect wood, garbed in costumes and masks, to the musical accompaniment of the gajda, as in other winter carnivals such as Vevchani.

“Christianity is never referred to,” says Velika. “Among the characters, always you have a bride and groom, symbolically representing earth and sky, from the pagan tradition. In this village, it’s all men, in other villages a woman is allowed to play the role of bride. And there’s also someone dressed like a bear!”

When she asked why such a large carnivore was being represented, the Dedino villagers said that the bear was their protector against evil spirits. Because evil spirits were swirling around everywhere in nature, the bear had to be taken along as a guardian.

They also took a donkey with them for all the presents they received from each house. “They could become very loud if the people didn’t open the door,” recounts the researcher. “And all year they would be cursed with bad luck too.”

As could be expected, aside from song and theatrics the celebration centered on copious amounts of drinking- hot wine and rakija mostly. Everyone was also eating sausages, strung onto sticks with nuts and apple. With presents, food and grog thus collected and consumed, the revelers were able to give the house their blessings. After the all-night ritual, the eating and drinking continued in the morning in “collective shops.”

Velika reiterates that modern religion has no part in these ancient rituals. “Nothing is said of Christianity. Everything is dedicated to nature, sky and earth.” However, while pious Christianity apparently hasn’t interfered with age-old rituals, for a while during Communism they were prohibited, she says. Nevertheless, they survived in the popular consciousness and continue today. As elsewhere, a strange symbiosis between pagan and Christian traditions exists. For example, on Gjorgjievden, a church holiday in May but in reality originally a spring holiday, 6 May), people celebrate by collecting special plants, and in the evening women sing songs in front of the church. Such a fusion between the ritual and religion no doubt predates Christianity, and was merely assimilated to the new form of worship with its ascendancy.

An Incredible Living Ritual: the Journey of a Village Bride

For Velika, the magic is in the rituals. She recounts another, involving a traditional wedding from the area. “When the bride leaves her father’s house on the wedding day, her mother-in-law is waiting at the door, with bread in one hand, water and wine, and a special piece of jewelry, one end on her clothes and the other on the bride’s. When she gets to the new house, the bride must take the things and bow on her doorstep because some people believe that dead ancestors “live’ there. The mother-in-law is introducing her to them. Then, when the bride enters the house, they put a veil on her and something on the ground, a small carpet, so that she’s doubly protected from any evil spirits”

Once this first battle with the spirit world is over, the ritual of introductions continues to the room where bread is made, and to the fire where it is cooked. “The mother-in-law is introducing here to these important things for daily life. Only female relatives can see her at this point,” says Velika. “Then they put salt in the fire and it drives the bad spirits out. All these things are still happening in some villages.”

Working Towards the Future of the Past

All of these things might be a surprise not only for foreigners, but for urbanites who never leave Skopje. What, then, for the future of ethnomusic and ancient rituals in Macedonia?

According to Velika, the rituals “are in no danger of disappearing,” even if retaining the original integrity of the accompanying music is. With the traditional method of singing being largely no longer transmitted to the younger generations, specialized training is required. Nevertheless, Velika says, she is optimistic- “and that is why I am still here.” Conceding that money is the biggest problem, she nevertheless says that she has big ideas for future projects. However, for her own field research, she has always had to pay, because her institute covers only dance and dance research. So it’s a labor of love.

She admits that there is a lot of work to be done. It’s a big job and only a few people are qualified or interested to do it. But for Macedonia’s cultural heritage, collecting samples of traditional music and vocal technique is crucial.

During this year, Velika and her colleagues have been planning a big concert for New Year’s, which will incorporate traditional music and dance from all of Macedonia’s ethnic groups, and feature traditional Macedonian songs from “all over the Macedonian-speaking areas” in Bulgaria, Greece and Albania.

“It’s very interesting, because in the past 10 years there has been some kind of ethno-revival going on in the villages,” she says. “Yes, the young people want to leave, but they always go back for holidays. That is very good; it means that they won’t forget their roots and traditions.”

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