Balkanization

Posted on 28. Oct, 2011 by in Points of Departure

It was the end of the 1970s in Washington, D.C., and nobody was buying Laine Harris’s falafel. The competition was fierce. “I would line up with all the other vendors on the corner—rug dealers, hash-pipe carts, hot-dog carts,” he recalls. When the boredom became unbearable, Harris started to perform. Raised in Alabama, Harris had learned Balkan folk-dancing in college, and at his cart he chose a Macedonian dance involving fancy footwork and towel-twirling. Later, he challenged himself further by chanting rhymes in time to the music playing in his head: “Hot falafel, spinach pie, baklava, give ‘em a try. It’s a tasty treat, it’s got no meat, so come on by, give it a try. Hot falafel and spinach pie.” People took notice of him and started flocking to his cart. Soon, he said, “I was busy enough that I wasn’t dancing and singing anymore.”

Laine Harris and his brother Drew have since made their way to New Haven, where they’re still dancing, but no longer sell falafel. They lead a new Balkan jam the first Monday of every month at 7 p.m. at Café Nine on State Street.

“For those of you trying to have an intimate conversation: Well, sorry,” Drew announced after they finished a song on October 3. Half an hour into the jam’s third session, the patrons weren’t paying much attention to the music. They sat at the back, drinking beer, eating popcorn from red plastic baskets, and chatting. Most of the applause came from the musicians themselves.

The seven instrumentalists sitting or standing in the lee of the stage launched into a lively dance tune, the melody carried by Drew and another saxophonist, who were playing in the aggressively nasal style favored in the Balkans. On the rotary trumpet, which looks vaguely like a horn from the Civil War, Laine took care of the harmony, keeping pace with the saxes through each twist and turn. A tuba player filled out the lower register. And beneath it all ran a wild river of percussion, from the water-like sounds of two darbukas—a kind of hand drum played all over the Near East—to the cascading booms and cracks of the tapan, a Balkan double-headed bass drum strapped to the front of the body and played with a mallet-like stick in one hand and a switch in the other.

The song they played had once been performed at a traditional gypsy circumcision party near Ohrid, Macedonia. It came to the United States on a cassette in the early 1980s, in the hands of a musician who played with the Harris brothers in the legendary New York Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste. Laine Harris still plays with Zlatne Uste, although Drew left the group to spend more time with his family and to focus on his job teaching entrepreneurship and business strategy at Central Connecticut State University. Laine works at a yoga center in Hamden.

What first interested the Harris brothers in Balkan music was girls. “As a shy guy looking for a date, I couldn’t just walk across the room to talk to someone,” Laine says.  Both brothers had taken some ballet classes, and they figured that, as straight guys who could dance, they might get lucky. So they began to attend folk-dance events at their college in Pensacola, Florida. “We got invited to parties, and we were pleased with our results,” Drew told me with a laugh. Years later, Laine would meet his wife, Jennifer Brosious, in a professional Balkan dance troupe in California.

But while Laine and Drew Harris were date-hunting, they got seriously hooked on the odd meters and modes of Balkan music. Laine remembers hearing a recording by Boris Karlov—a man referred to as “the legend of the Bulgarian accordion”—and thinking that “this was not an accordion, this was a steam train.” Soon, they had put together a band. Their first paying gig was a mock Serbian wedding in Texas. “It was a three-day weekend, the appropriate amount of time for a wedding,” Laine said.

All this was happening in what Drew calls “the golden era of folk-dancing in America,” which began around the late ’60s and was winding down by 1980.  In that period, a folk dance with seventy people was considered small. Hundreds of enthusiasts would turn out at get-togethers all over North America. Dancers who lived in places where there wasn’t much of a scene would drive hundreds of miles for a weekend workshop. The Harris brothers suggest that the fascination with Balkan dance in particular came from an interest in cultures oppressed by Soviet rule and a wish to express solidarity with the people who lived under it.

In those years, Drew and Laine Harris moved from job to job. Drew worked as a longshoreman, a construction worker, and a windshield repairman, while Laine, besides being a falafel salesman and folk-dancer, was a fireman, a cabinet-maker, and a flight instructor. Since then, both brothers have settled in the New Haven area, and the golden age of folk-dancing has come and gone.

But Balkan music is now becoming increasingly hip in cities like New York and Montreal. On September 24, I heard Laine Harris playing with Zlatne Uste in the East Village. Since its formation at a week-long Balkan music workshop in Ashoken, New York, almost three decades ago, Zlatne Uste, which Drew describes as “a classic, Serbian-style brass band,” has been at the centre of the Balkan music community in New York City. At their show in September, I found myself dancing in a sea of Brooklyn hipsters as well as ladies who could’ve been my grandmother. Traditional circle dances in 11/8 time, pogoing, free-style grooving—we did it all.

New Haven has never had as vibrant a scene as New York, but the Elm City did have its own folk-dance boom in the ’70s. Every week, Hendrie Hall was packed, the floor shivering in time to Serbian, Bulgarian, and Greek rhythms. Now the Harris brothers are trying to re-establish a community around Balkan music and dance. “I’m hoping to tap into the youthful, inquisitive social ferment I associate with colleges and universities,” Laine said.

Later in the evening on October 3, the Harris brothers’ hope was looking less far-fetched than it had been earlier. Jennifer Brosious, Laine’s wife, and Bonnie Kaplan, a lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine, two women who have been folk-dancing for decades, joined hands and began to weave a Serbian line dance between the tables at Café Nine. I watched Kaplan’s feet—I have never seen sneakers moving so gracefully.

Soon, during a fast dance in 7/8 time called a rachenitsa, some of the patrons who had looked apathetic earlier got up to join. Brosious and Kaplan showed them when to move their feet and how to wave their hands in front of them as if they were at a Bulgarian wedding. As their stiletto heels fell into rhythm, the women began to whoop and yell with excitement. Drew took a wild solo. Afterwards, I asked Demo Rest, a Café Nine regular, whether he knew about Balkan music before that night. “This is the first night of my Balkanization,” he replied. From his grin, it looked like it might not be the last.

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2 Responses to “Balkanization”

  1. STUDY ABROAD RADIO SHOW says:

    Hear the Harris Brothers live on Yale Radio this Thursday, 11/2, from 9pm-10pm! http://www.wybcx.com

  2. Carl Boodman says:

    I love this article. Eric, your description of Balkan music is wonderfully evocative. The “wild river of percussion” churning beneath the horn lines. Yeah, brotha! Makes me want to play in odd meters.


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