Balkanized!

RTBC_balkan fest copy.jpg

(Meaning: to divide a region into smaller, mutually antagonistic states.)

That wasn’t the case at the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, held at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn the weekend of January 12th & 13th. It’s a two day festival of music and more from the Balkan countries, and it is generously inclusive. Hungary (technically not quite Balkan), Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.

The venue is a wedding place in Brooklyn whose decor is well over the top…

  Photo courtesy of goldenfest.org

Photo courtesy of goldenfest.org

It seems it is secular and non-denominational. Here in one of the side rooms (where there is also music during the festival) is a fox, with a Bodhisattva calmly gazing on in the background—so all species and religions are represented.

  Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

The Golden Festival is a yearly, two day festival of live music, dancing, food and a market, all related to those previously mentioned countries and a few more (the market also had Turkish spices and Russian space program posters—“Space Is Ours!”).

Stepping into the hall, I witness this dance in progress.

Combined with the crazy decor...

  Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

It was as if the drugs had just kicked in. A super trippy vibe with hundreds of people going round and round in a circle dance. All ages holding hands and crushing in towards the center and then rushing out again. All of us moving, the music echoing that vaguely disorienting feeling, with the crazy decor adding yet another layer of otherworldliness. The man in white in the center was “directing”. He had a head mic on and would shout and swing his arms, and we were to basically follow him.

While no one could claim this festival is truly racially diverse (though I did see a few black men there!), there is gender parity and all ages are participating. So, somewhat encouraging signs—no Balkanization regarding age or gender.

Later in the evening, an amazing brass band, Zlatne Uste, moved to the center, and everything shifted up a few notches. Note there are young women playing drums and a tuba.

Balkan music is often in odd (for us) time signatures—9/8, for example. For us, these are really hard to count, so the dance steps, though not physically difficult, are in patterns that I for one could not follow.

I joined the dancers. I faked the steps, mimicking whomever near me seemed to know what they were doing. People had come from far and wide. There were some folks who really knew the steps. It’s repetitive trancey music; it’s not a place for improvising dance solos or individual expression. It’s about being part of something larger than yourself—even if that is just some basic steps and holding hands in a circle of hundreds of others.

The bands play on, the dancers circle, but there are a lot of acts to squeeze in. So there are folks who keep tabs on the time and rush to the center of the floor holding one of these signs at various points to show the bands.

  Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Towards the end the brass band seemed to abandon the Balkans for a few moments. They played a percussion groove that to me felt like a cross between a Brazilian beat and New Orleans second line beats. The circle eventually dissolved and everyone got funky.