Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bill Bryson's Big Bulgarian Boo-Boo


I just finished Bill Bryson’s book Neither Here Nor There, a delightful romp through Europe circa 1990. The guy is seriously funny (more so than in his later books) and I laughed out loud several times. I love his straightforward impatience with stupidity and plots of revenge, his lovable failed encounters with the opposite sex and his occasional astonishment at the little cultural turns and large breathtaking beauties of a place. At the end of some 15 countries, there was a bit too much beer-drinking, complaining about expensive hotels and overpriced menus, desperate searches for coffee and an overall constant state of mild starvation for my taste, but nevertheless, a fun read. But one thing I found hard to forgive—his time in Bulgaria where he never once hears (or mentions he hears) a note of their remarkable music.  Pissed me off almost as much as Julia Roberts traipsing through Bali in the movie “Eat, Pray and Love” with not a single note of gamelan heard in the foreground, background or distant hillside.

Bill should know better. You can’t travel with the same old eyes and ears and expect to begin to understand a place. You can’t apply the same criteria for every place you visit. Some places need you to open your ears, others, your eyes, still others, exercise your taste buds or walk the hills. Or to jump on Elizabeth Gilbert’s bandwagon, you go to some places to eat, others to pray, others to love. You have to meet each place on its own terms. To travel to Ghana looking for cathedrals and art museums, to Vienna to see people singing, dancing and drumming in the marketplace, is to miss the point of each.

And so Mr. Bryson goes to Bulgaria with his eyes wide open and his ears closed (except for visiting some club that played “awful Bulgarian-style rock and roll”) and hence, is heartily disappointed. And even if he had heard the real McCoy of Bulgarian folk music, I suspect he would have been under-whelmed, made some snide comments about squawking cats, bleating goats, missing beats and dancers hopping up and down like trying to shake out insects in their pants. The ear can only appreciate, the eye can only see, what the mind can understand and the heart can open to.

As for me, I first heard the “ Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares” (French title for “the mysterious Bulgarian voices, which of course sounds even more mysterious in French) back in the early 70’s at Antioch College in Southwestern Ohio. On Friday nights, my friends and I used to mock the folk dancers circling around the tree in the bricked Red Square (appropriately named, if you know Antioch). We would do fake folk dance steps behind the circle until they invited us in and we realized those steps where a little trickier than they appeared. And though this was the era of Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Beatles and beyond, the music had its appeal—powerful voices, fiddles, bagpipes and flutes came through those scratchy recordings and suddenly I knew I wasn’t in Kansas (or Ohio) anymore. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew there was something dynamic, powerful and extraordinarily beautiful in those left-of-center harmonies, quirky metrical rhythms and indeed, mysterious (to my virgin ears) voices.

Judging by the sales of the Bulgarian recordings and the concert-touring schedule of the choir, I’m not alone in that perception. And when I shared some Bulgarian songs and dances with the Special Course in Salzburg, I felt that same aliveness come into the room and fascination, at once exotic and familiar to people from all corners of the world. Some years back, I did finally make it to Bulgaria for a 50th birthday present to myself, got one-quarter inch better in my Bulgarian bagpipe study that I had begun in San Francisco and kind of made my way through various intricate dances, all of which I forgot. But also was astounded to hear the blending timbres of the classic folk band, the Celtic cousin to Irish music, but with a gadulka, tamboura, kaval, gaida and tappan instead of the fiddle, mandolin or guitar, flute or tinwhistle, Ullieann bagpipe and bodhran drum. The particular mix of these sounds seemed cooked up in some genius acoustic laboratory, the loud bagpipe almost quiet in the mix as the band threaded its way through intricate melodies with the classic odd meters—5/8, 7/8, 9/8, 11/8, 15/16 and more.

I wish I had traveled with Mr. Bryson and helped him learn to hear what I heard. And he, of course, would point out features I never would have noticed. That’s why God gave us multiple intelligences, to help each other see, hear, feel and taste things we’d miss otherwise. But if we are to travel and enter cultures with a zest to grow larger and learn something new, we should be prepared for what the culture itself values and has paid attention to. Bill Bryson, if you’re out there reading this (which is unlikely as the proverbial pig flying), let’s go on a trip together—say Bulgaria, Brazil, Burkina Faso and Bali, for starters. Remarkable musical cultures all. I’ll open your ears, you buy the beer.

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