The Balkan Arts Series is a 13-part series featuring some of the most exciting field recordings of traditional folk music yet to emerge from Bulgaria, East Serbia, Greek Macedonia and Thrace, and Romania. Recorded in the 1960′s and 70′s and never before available to the general public, these remarkable recordings document and celebrate a culture and a way of village life that has since been lost forever—transformed by the social and economic pressures of industrial technology, Soviet influence, and Western globalization.
The Balkan Arts Series is a unique and historic series of thirteen EPs, featuring some of the most exciting field recordings of traditional folk music ever to emerge from Bulgaria, East Serbia, Greek Macedonia and Thrace, and Romania. A joint New York venture between Evergreene Music and the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, this remarkable collection opens the vaults to the CTMD’s rich 45-year old archive, and for the first time makes these sonic treasures widely available. Coalescing past and future, analog and digital, traditional and modern, The Balkan Arts Series reflects Evergreene Music’s belief in bringing the latest distribution tools, contemporary design, and cutting-edge technologies to bear on behalf of timeless, traditional, and organic music.
Recorded and curated in the 1960’s and 1970’s by esteemed ethnographer Martin Koenig (some in collaboration with Ethel Raim, some with Dmitri Gesker), the series consists of thirteen state-of-the-art restored digital EPs, as well as a limited number of collectible “new-old stock” 7-inch records. Each unique EP not only presents authentic performances by local master musicians, but also includes a remarkable package of digital liner notes that feature a detailed audio commentary and interview, Koenig’s breathtaking photography, as well as a stunning 12-page digital booklet with essays and more interviews. Together these remarkable materials not only powerfully frame the music in terms of the political and cultural climate of its time, but also evoke the rural emotionality of a bygone era—forever lost to the social and economic pressures of industrial technology, Soviet influence, and Western globalization.
It was in 1966, armed with a single letter of introduction from Margaret Mead, that Koenig set off to the Balkans for the first time. Realizing that the society he had come to study was already in rapid transition, he soon felt compelled to document what was left of the disappearing agrarian life-style and village culture. During his initial trip, and on almost a dozen subsequent trips to Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and former Yugoslavia, Koenig continued to work in the region’s many villages, filming, recording, and photographing the traditional music, dance, and ceremonies.
The original founder and director of New York’s Balkan Arts Center (today the Center for Traditional Music and Dance), Koenig, in collaboration with CTMD artistic director Ethel Raim, produced hundreds of concerts, festivals, workshops, written publications, and documentary films. Together Koenig and Raim also produced two LPs for Nonesuch’s celebrated Explorer Series, which included the song “Izlel e Delyu Haidutun,” the now-famous recording featured on the Voyager Spacecraft’s golden record. Koenig also produced a Yugoslav recording for Nonesuch.
“The Balkan Arts recordings are all old-time music and have the same power as the music from Appalachia—the Doc Watson’s and the like,” explains Koenig. “And I truly believe that we, the West, now have more of an ability to absorb and appreciate this music than we did in the 60s and 70s. Even my 18-year-old son and his friends now respond to it. With so little of this music around anymore, anything that’s this real needs to be cherished.”
Initially self-released via Koenig’s own Balkan Arts imprint, the original records were rediscovered at the CTMD’s headquarters during an early meeting with Evergreene Music’s Label Manager, Mark Roberts. “I was taking a break from listening to the Center’s extensive audio archives and wandered around their office to stretch my legs,” recalls Roberts. “Perched on crammed shelves near the entrance, I noticed a large number of cardboard boxes filled with vinyl of some sorts. It turned out the records had been stored there for decades and, aside from their somewhat yellowed and brittle sleeves, were in absolutely pristine condition. After digging out the Center’s record player and listening to a handful of the records, I knew I had found an exceptional treasure.”
With the decision made to give this historic series its first-ever, wide-scale release, Evergreene Music worked with New York’s Magic Shop studio and vinyl specialist Jessica Thompson to create new masters from these iconic vinyl pieces.
True to the original spirit of the Balkan Arts Series, Evergreene Music will be releasing all 13 individual EPs in sequence, kicking off the series on January 29th 2013 with a magnificent EP of Bulgarian folk dances, followed by three extraordinary EPs from East Serbia in February, Greek rarities from Macedonia and Thrace in the spring, and wrapping up the series with some of the most intense and exuberant music from Romania and Bulgaria in the summer of 2013.
Today “world music” is a major commercial industry – encompassing a global ecosystem of festivals, recording labels, print publications, venues, promoters, fan sites, and merchandise. But not long ago things were very different.
While the so-called “folk revival” of the 1960s opened the ears of many Americans to traditional music, this movement was mainly limited to presentations of Afro-American and Anglo-Appalachian traditions. Unless you were directly connected to an immigrant community and attending communal celebrations, there was simply little opportunity to experience music and dance traditions from other parts of the world.
Into this milieu two enterprising young Bronx-born ethnographers/artists created an organization that would forever change New York’s arts scene and create ripples with national and international impact.
For a number of years Martin Koenig had travelled to the Balkans to document and study the dance and music of villages that were still largely intact as pre-industrial societies, returning to New York to teach these dances to gatherings of college students and other young urbanites who craved connections with a wider world. Through the work of Koenig and a small network of dedicated dance researchers, during the 60s and 70s, thousands of students were dancing Serbian kolos, Bulgarian horos, Romanian sirbas and Greek syrtos in regular sessions held at colleges and neighborhood centers across America. In New York, Koenig also introduced multi-ethnic Winter and Spring Festivals that allowed participants to experience traditional dance in a way that partially recreated its original community context – as part of a larger celebratory event featuring live music provided by master musicians now resident in the US.
Meanwhile Ethel Raim was conducting similar work performing and teaching a variety of East European and Balkan vocal traditions. She had refined her skills as a music researcher from the early 60s, assisting ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax on his cantometrics project (Koenig had worked on choreometrics for Lomax), and serving as an associate editor/music editor of SingOut! Magazine from 1959-1974 (Raim recalls sitting with Bob Dylan at a Horn and Hardart automat to transcribe “Blowin’ in the Wind” for the magazine). Songs she collected through her research were showcased by her ensemble, the Pennywhistlers, which recorded for Moe Asch and Folkways and later the Nonesuch Explorer Series and Elektra Records.
A revelatory moment for immigrant music in America came at the close of the 1968 Newport Folk Festival. Raim’s group the Pennywhistlers had performed, and the festival’s director, Ralph Rinzler, asked her for her impressions of the festival. After pausing for a moment, Raim asked him why she didn’t hear any voices on stage with accents like those she had grown up hearing in the Bronx. Rinzler was moved and Raim was hired to identify leading immigrant performers for the next Newport Festival, and then to do the same for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, now the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The following year, Raim invited Koenig to join her in serving as co-directors for Balkan and Slavic culture for the Smithsonian festival.
Soon afterwards Koenig convinced Raim to join him in continuing their work back in New York as co-directors of his organization – the Balkan Arts Center – which was later renamed the “Ethnic Folk Arts Center” and then the “Center for Traditional Music and Dance” as its scope grew to include an ever widening range of immigrant communities. Together, Koenig and Raim would rapidly expand the Center’s programs, creating a common space for members of the city’s ethnic communities to join with enthusiastic outsiders as participants in multi-faceted celebrations of traditional arts. While these programs had a focus on showcasing music and dance traditions, they were also designed to provide exposure for a range of artistic forms and folklore, encompassing foodways, language, pageantry, poetry, visual/decorative arts and more.
Koenig left full-time duties with the Center in 1994; he remains active on the board of directors while Raim continues as Artistic Director. The organization they built is now in its forty-fifth year and continues to be recognized nationally as a trailblazer in creating innovative programs which bridge communities and build cross-cultural understanding.