Claire Levy

Key words: identity, self, other, modernity, postmodernity, popular music, groove, metric asymmetry

This article focuses on Balkan music in non-Balkan contexts, performed and seen, unlike its predominant qualifications at home, as the desired other. Observing western pop groups who embrace Balkan music vocabulary as a source of cultural identity, the discussion draws attention to a possible cultural “insufficiency” which may feed the western interest to distant others including to the ones embodied in the music of the Balkans. Taking the example of several cover versions of “Krivo Sadovsko” functioning in different western contexts, the discussion suggests a hypothesis concerning the question of why the Balkan groove – that is, the particular meter and rhythmic asymmetry, observed all over the Balkans and hinting particular unevenness not only in music but in lifestyles as well, – may be analyzed as one of the challenging music patterns which attract Western audiences. Understanding cultural identity as a dynamic dialogical process and not as a frozen reproductive category, it is argued as well that late modernity questions essentialisms in general and that within the Western discourse itself new paradigms emerge – ones which promote postethnic perspectives in identities through music, pluralistic views and non-centric ideas capable to take free-of-biases approaches in conceptualizing and appreciating Western Others’ cultural values.

Of all markers concerning cultural identity, music is probably the most flexible, the most dynamic one. It has only to touch your ear and will stick to the depths of your non-verbal imagination, of that psychological space which feeds the eternal dialogical play between me and you, us and them, the past and the present, the self and the other, the inherited and the acquired, the close and the distant. However, this play is far from being always free. Especially when it is seen as a means of differentiation. Especially when the differentiation concerns groups and larger communities rather than single individuals. Besides, the differentiation usually deals with categories of acceptance and non-acceptance – an occupation which has more to do with ideology rather than with purely aesthetical thinking and often creates an opposition between the actual processes and the way people refer to, imagine and rationalize them. Then paradoxes appear. Something you have been ashamed of to acknowledge as a pattern of your own self, as an inherited musical interior, turns out to be unexpectedly aspired by distant others.

Today Bulgarians, for instance, and perhaps most of the Balkan people, regard the knotty ball of their Balkan roots with some suspicion, especially when it comes to their self-identification. This ambivalent attitude towards the inherited Balkan past, realised as a controversial, yet relatively autonomous and specific cultural entity, accompanies all phases of the new music history in Bulgaria, continuously stimulating at the same time the idea of this past as of the “other” to Bulgarian identity and understood not as just something different, but rather as that different which ranges to the zone of the unwanted, the primitive, the uncivilised. Many analysts see here the old dilemma “East or West?”, which still since the time of Bulgaria’s opening towards Europe, but even today, seemed to have chronically run away from the alternatives of complementary visions.(1) Many analysts see here also a reflection of the deeply rooted idea, elaborated by the “other Europe” – the one, which in search for its positive image in the era of modernity, has counted, at least since the Enlightenment, on constructed by itself “reverse otherness”, that is, otherness with negative connotations. As Maria Todorova points: “By being geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as “the other” within, the Balkans have been able to absorb conveniently a number of externalized political, ideological, and cultural frustrations stemming from tensions and contradictions inherent to the regions and societies outside the Balkans”.(2) Todorova does not exclude the presupposition that, “the Balkans have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the “European” and the “West” has been constructed”.(3) Count Keyserling even stated that “if the Balkans hadn’t existed, they would have been invented”.(4) This paradoxical statement, expressed in 1928, implies again the motives for a deliberate ideological construction of the “other” – this “other” who may serve as a negative mirror in the construction of the positive European self, even if this self is otherwise amorphous and controversial. Whether or not such presumptions have their well grounded arguments and maintain their validity at present, we may still suggest that the national discourse in Bulgaria rather excludes, or at least pushes to the margins, not the “distant other,” but the “local other” – this other who reminds of the existence of particular Balkan stock in music.

However, the intention of this text is to draw the attention not so much to the Bulgarians’ frustrations regarding their Balkan roots (5) but rather to some symptomatic episodes observed in the Western cultural space which apparently oppose the present validity of Eurocentric stereotyped attitudes towards the Balkan patterns in music. If we move beyond the Balkans and have a look at contemporary Western popular music, we must become aware of the interior dynamics within the Western culture itself – something which Maria Todorova herself does not miss to note. We must find out that stereotyped or essentialist attitudes with negative connotations to specific Balkan patterns in music, if ever existed, are quite in opposition with some of the most advanced modern understandings of music and its developments. Not only in terms of the actual processes in music but also in the way these processes are imagined and conceptualized. Such developments must be seen in the context of late modernity and the “global village” which locates people, as never before, in environments of diverse musical vocabularies of diverse origins. And if the very metaphor of the “global village” implies that the world today is bigger but is also smaller, it stimulates as well the emergence of new concepts concerning the issue of difference and sameness which are a subject of lively critical discussions. For some commentators like Derida, for instance, “the European difference means rather the fact that Europe should not lock itself in its own identity but should diligently try to direct to what it is not”.(6) Another commentator, the British musicologist Richard Middleton argues that “the late 20th century indicates the start of a new historical phase in which it is becoming clear that only when others are freed to pursue their own trajectories can Western music properly acknowledge the multiplicity of differences lying beneath its authoritarian binaries and become productively other to itself”.(7)

We would not fully understand this new phase, if we were not aware of the former historical stage and the ways the Western music had interpreted its others, as well as the broader aspect of how the difference had been articulated in music. It can be said that in this sense the music generally works by means of manipulating the difference, both structurally (on the level of repetitiveness, variability and change) and semantically (on the dialogical level encoded in the variety of musical conventions and repertories). The mutual play between the principle difference and the particular difference is specifically projected. We need to bear this in mind when trying to understand those developments in Western music happening under the sign of the “rationalised” post-Enlightenment culture in modernity. This specificity of Western music outlines a set of its others realised as differences located mostly in the zones of the archaic, the folklore, the ethic, the exotic, and also the popular. Rather this is the zone where, in the view of Western music, Balkan (vernacular) music belongs. Furthermore, the paradox is that the elaboration of “alienated” sign systems in Western musical culture enables the description and the evolution in thinking, understanding and interpreting this sort of others. This evolution makes possible the abolishment of the authoritarianism and traditional hierarchical views to such others, seen at earlier historical phases as probably attractive, yet primitive, “non-reflexive”, exotic formations. In other words, this evolution challenges the established status quo in terms of cultural (musical) values since it actualises and embraces more effectively the doctrine of cultural pluralism at the end of the 20th century.

Let me now look at the traces of a thread, perhaps not that significant at first glance, yet symptomatic in the above mentioned sense. This thread stretches into different directions of the “global village”. I would include it into the lively multiethnic traffic marching today under the too amorphous umbrella called “world music”. With the manifestations of acculturation and internalisation of “exotic” musical patterns, including the ones of the otherwise distant Balkans, this thread signifies specific openness to difference understood in the sense of a wanted, “desired other”. It favours rather the view which interprets the process of self-identification, especially through music, as an open process and not as a fixed state – at least as far as individuals are inclined to correlate and communicate with the rest of the world. It is an argument as well in terms of the understanding that if a given musical language is an essential marker in this process, its forming role is rather additional and does not exhaust all aspects of the more general and problematic concept of cultural identity which is construction based on more factors.

The thread, I refer to, leads to a Finnish musical group with the emblematic name Slobo Horo. While listening to their first album, released in1992, I have been thinking that this was apparently one of those groups, functioning in the Western cultural space, that have recently become popular and which have embraced the Balkan sounds, not out of curiosity or just for a change, but as a lasting sign in constructing their identity through music. The album has a somewhat funny and not less emblematic name: “Mastika”. It includes cover versions of musical pieces with roots leading to the Balkans, and more specifically, to one more general idea concerning the existence of a common-Balkan intonation stock worked out through the times by all those identifying themselves today as Bulgarians, Turks, Serbs, Greeks, Macedonians, Croatians, Gypsies, Albanians, Romanians… A stock observed not only in the field of music, but in a much broader sociocultural aspect. It is hardly necessary to mention that this stock, both imaginable and concrete, bears witness to crossroad influences in the strategic zone between East and West (defined as Euro-Asian zone), as well as to the merging of cultures and even civilisations under the sign of different ideological doctrines. Let me say that this stock, situated very vividly in the field of music that today we contextualise as “popular”,(8) brings the geographical regional flavour of the characteristic and somehow pre-modern “poetics of the place”. As we can see, this poetics is called for a new flourishing in the context of contemporary globalising cultural situation, probably also because of the specificity of its inherent “conventional wisdom”,(9) if I may use the figurative term of Susan McClary. A wisdom screened and formed in time by means of the natural communication between different and sometimes even strongly conflicting communities, yet nevertheless co-existing and, thus, dialoguing with each other.

Let me note that the album in question of Slobo Horo has not remained as an unnoticed episode in the biography of the Finnish musicians but has rapidly travelled through whole Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain, the U.S. and Japan. The group continued with its performances in the same spirit, and in1999 participated in a broad scaled U.S. project called Balkans without Borders. This fact alone gives us hardly good enough arguments of talking about Balkanisation in the context of the global map of popular music world, which nowadays speaks, in a figurative sense, predominantly English. Yet it points to reflections on the subject of the Balkan in non-Balkan context, and also to some aspects of the self-identification trough music. I would like to draw the attention to rather these aspects by formulating a few questions which are yet to be more profoundly conceptualised.

I pick up a piece included in the Slobo Horo album which is a version of Krivo Sadovsko (10) entitled here Smeseno Horo [Mixed horo]. This version interprets the piece which is said to had been favoured by Georgi Pendov-Pendata from Purvomai. We know this version also from performances of the American Don Elis jazz band (Bulgarian Bulge, 1971) while working with Milcho Leviev at the beginning of the1970s. We also know it from the version of the Bulgarian-Turkish band of Yildiz Ibrahimova (Krivo Horo,1996), as well as from a number of other cover versions. Whether because of its windings or of its striking crossing of irregular metrorhythmics (based mainly on the combination of 9/16 of the A and B type) or of the specific instrumental virtuosity (rooted in the rural-urban vernacular traditions emerging around the mid-19th century), Krivo Sadovsko apparently keeps inflaming the ambitions of a number of contemporary musicians from different parts of the world.

I suppose that the dislocation of Krivo Sadovsko may be interpreted by Bulgarians in the sense of the notorious statement “we have also given something to the world!”. However, I would like to take for a while the position of a non-Bulgarian (non-Balkan) person and regard to such a dislocation from another perspective, the one which understands the sense of the more seldom statement “we have also taken something from the world!”. In other words, I want to unpack this point of view which, in searching for its “own”, asks not only “who am I?” but also “who am I not?”. Not to remind the well-known statement that every culture carries the difference in itself but to turn for awhile my back to those “eternal” emblems, often perceived as traditional and unchangeable in constructing a national, ethnic or another group identity. That is, to turn for a moment my back to the discussion on that “group egoism” of which Tsvetan Todorov, for instance, talks about and which can also have, as we well know, a repressive role towards other communities or “foreign” elements in given communities. For the conversation on self-identification trough music needs, I believe, paying attention to the inherited as much as to the acquired; to what “we are not”, but would like to be, to what fills our feeling of “insufficiency” and we are reaching out for it “here and now”, opening a door to interiorising new markers in the cultural self-identification. This conversation would not have been quite effective without the thought of the naturally ongoing interactions, “without the necessity of relation to the other person, without the insistent demand for the foreign glance, the foreign action..., which describe, outline, accomplish, guarantee and eventually structure the human individuality from inside”.(11)

Thus, looking at the Slobo Horo case, it is important to ask: what and why non-Balkan musicians look for and find in the Balkan music? What is the field of their sense of insufficiency so that they reach out for the Balkan musical vocabulary?

There are probably many answers in this regard. One of them will surely lead us to the specific asymmetry of the metrorhythmic variety which has been cultivated and is still cultivated all over the Balkans. In other words, it will lead us to the specific Balkan “groove” – a term which, according to the informal pop music terminology, is a metaphor of the power thrill, of the metrotrhythmic pulsation and the drive, implied in the dancing pattern. It is not a secret that contemporary popular music in general experiences a special affinity towards metrorhythmically braking structures and dancing patterns, including the ones coming from the music of Afro-Americans or those briefly labelled as “Afro”, “Latino”, “East”, “Asian”, etc. Such patterns often contradict and break trough the West-European concept of metrorhythmic symmetry. Then, can we suggest that what the Western European sense of insufficiency reflects from that hyper-symmetry, hyper-order and hyper-rationality observed not only in the purely muso-field but also in the “way of life” developed in the context of Western Europe?

Back in the 1960s the ethnomusicologist Charles Keil spoke of such an insufficiency in the context of “white” America; of an insufficiency looking for its compensation (that is, for its “other”) in the Afro-American musical patterns, especially those of the blues.(12) I would take the risk to broaden a related suggestion and to hypothetically involve in this discussion one of the ancient myths described in some ethnology textbooks (13) which despite their mega-narrative character may throw a light onto concepts of present days. The myth refers to the dichotomy between the East and the West through the symbolic imagery of the lotus and the rose. The rose stands for the mind, the analysis, the segmenting. The lotus – for the syncretism, the circle, the spirit and the matter simultaneously, that is, for a holistic vision of the world. The rose symbolises the linear temporal discourse. The lotus – on the contrary, it symbolises the cyclic temporal course. Certainly, I am far from the idea to connect this imagery entirely with the ideas of the present East and the present West. No more stereotypes are needed to understand the complex developments observed “here” or “there”. Yet if today the rose may still relate to rather the dominance of one analytic approach and one traditionally realised symmetry of the Western European kind, it apparently needs its other, the lotus. In other words, it needs the specific liberating unevenness and asymmetry, and probably also that specific pre-modern syncretism, surviving in modern times, which leads probably to postmodern forms, to unpredictable variants and hybrids generated by the “necessity of complementing ”, by the dialogue and the interaction between the rose and the lotus.

Will the rose be transformed into a lotus? Hardly. Neither the lotus will be reincarnated into a rose. The opposite would mean unification, decay of the creative chances of the bipolar or multi-polar differences. Located in the field of music, the question concerns rather something else: the understanding that music is not a possession. It is always already “other”, it is always situated somewhere (not here), in the matrix of dialogically constructed codes and historical labyrinths modelling its specific forms. To belong to a given kind of music is something different than treating it as your belonging. The story of Êrivo Sadovsko is significant in this sense and the examples mentioned seem to suggest that this piece of music travels and modifies, so to say, in motion. With Slobo Horo it acquires something from the entirely non-Balkan experience in the music making of the Finnish musicians, i.e. something that reminds of the very popular “tango craze” in Finland, understood, however, quite flexible, as a style including also rhythms a la foxtrot, rumba, etc. With Don Elis the piece is touched by the dominating stylistics of the American jazz at that time. With Ibrahimova the symbiosis blends the free jazz improvisation and the improvisations of Ivo Papazov in the spirit of the Balkan chalgija.

Whose music is then Êrivo Sadovsko? Does it belong to the Bulgarians, the Balkan people, the Finns, or the Americans? Is it not better to say that the ideas of a narrow distinguished ethnic or national identity stop working when applied to music, which in principle employs a variety of musical vocabularies coming from “here” or “there”, and today – more than ever – fertilize each other on the basis of the inevitable complement and without carrying too much about how someone would like or would not like to identify them? From this point of view, I would say that the introduction of a postethnic perspective into the discussion on music and identity may have an effective methodological potential. But this is a subject of further reflections…


1. For a further discussion on this issue in relation to some recent popular music developments in Bulgaria, labelled as popfolk, ethnopop or chalga see Claire Levy. Who is the ‘Other’ in the Balkans? Local Ethnic Music as a Different Source of Identities in Bulgaria – In: Music, Popular Culture, Identities (ed. Richard Young),  Amsterdam/New York, NY:  Editions Rodopi, “Critical Studies”, 2002, pp. 215-229.
2. MariaTodorova. Imagining the Balkans. Oxfrord University Press, 1997, p. 188.
3. Ibid.
4. Count Hermann Keyserling. Europe. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1928 (quoted in Todorova, p. 116).
5. See Claire Levy. Produzirane na poslania v suvremennata “etnicheska” muzika [Producing Meanings in Contemporary “Ethnic”Music]. In: Bulgarsko muzikoznanie, 3/2000, pp. 69-89.
6. J. Derida. Drugoto oglaviavane.  Sofia: LIK, 2001, p. 12.
7. Richard Middleton. Musical Belongings. In: Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music (ed. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh), University of California Press, 2000, p. 60.
8. Let me remind that rather the zone of the popular in contemporary music opposes in many senses the Eurocentrism and centric attitudes in both music making and thinking on it.   
9. Susan McClary introduces this figurative term to signify the role of the conventions in music as a widely proved historical experience which synthesises the logic and the power of the screened in the context of different cultural continuities. In this sense, the term has also a methodological significance (see Susan McClary. Conventional Wisdom, University of California Press, 2000).
10. Krivo Sadovsko [Crookedly Sadovsko] – name of a folk dance tune attributed to the village of Sadovo (Bulgaria).
11. Aleksandar Kiossev.  Autobiography, Antropology, Melancholy. In: Tsvetan Todorov:Podvijnata misu  [Tsvetan Todorov: The Mobile Thought], a collection of studies in honour of Tsvetan Todorov, ed. S. Atanassov, Sofia: LIK, 2001, p. 213.
12. See Charles Keil. Urban Blues. Chicago Press, 1966,  p. 49.
13.See. Ò. Iv. Jivkov. Introduction to Ethnology. Plovdiv University Press /Sofia: Jusautor, 2000, pp. 473-481.