What makes the Bulgarian rhythm "lame"? – Interview with Anna Mária Bólya

2023. January. 11.

Our scientific colleague Anna Mária Bólya is a researcher with a PhD in ethnography and cultural anthropology, music theory teacher, and dance history teacher. Her main research area is sacredness and dance, as well as movement symbolism, the relationship between dance and Christian culture. In addition to her many other scientific activities, she is the founding editor-in-chief of the Macedonian Scientific and Cultural Journals together with religious anthropology professor Elek Bartha and participates in the propagation of the culture of Macedonians in Hungary, and last but not least, she is the founder of the Ohrid Macedonian Folk Ensemble. In the spring of 2022, she gave her habilitation lecture at the Doctoral School of Philosophy at the University of Pécs, and we talked to her about it. Let's start at the beginning! How did you come into contact with Macedonian culture?

I have always liked chain dances, such as the Bulgarian horo or the Serbian kolo. Not necessarily because it is not necessary to have the same number of men as women in the dance hall, but because it has very exciting music and step material. An important element of Balkan dances is the chain dance. However, Bulgarian and Serbian dances had already been analyzed by many researchers before me, so at the suggestion of my mentor, Professor Elek Bartha, I chose Macedonian culture, which is researched by very few people. I am happy to deal with a topic in which there is still plenty of research to be done. At the time when I started, Macedonian folklore research practically only existed scattered, this culture was mostly studied only by political scientists and historians. In addition, the peculiarity of the research is that they were approached more as Bulgarians, Greeks or Serbs. By the way, I like the archaic elements of folklore, so this field was a great choice, I am still grateful to Professor Elek Bartha for the suggestion at the time.

Why exactly can the Macedonian culture be called archaic, and what other specific characteristics does it have?

While the Turks left us in 1686, they left North Macedonia only in 1912, which also means that there is a significant "phase delay" in that area. If we don't count Albania, which was also part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, then we can practically talk about one of Europe's biggest laggard countries in terms of economy and development. However, this is especially good news for folklore researchers, because this way things have been preserved that can reveal traditions that go back centuries. Many customs related to the Proto-Slavic faith have survived to this day, such as the veneration of holy stones. For example, there is a stone the size of a small room near Szveti Nikole, to which women considered barren make a pilgrimage on St. George's Day, because according to the belief, applying old magical practices at the holy stone can lead to fertility. The most interesting thing is that relatively many women actually get pregnant in the following year.

What are the challenges of researching this topic?

For me, it was the first realization that it is difficult to interpret life and history in the Balkans from the perspective of the Carpathian Basin. Suppose we are Macedonians, and we are asked who are Macedonians? Bulgarians tell us that we are Bulgarians, Serbs that we are Serbians, and in the last 2-3 thousand years everything around us has been constantly changing. Once, when I gave a lecture about the Macedonians, I was told by the Bulgarians that this folklore does not even exist, and they did not understand why a Hungarian researcher was dealing with the Macedonians.

For the research work, you first had to master the Macedonian language. How difficult was this?

Fortunately, I didn't have to start from scratch, because until then I spoke a kind of Pan-Slavic language - it included Croatian, Russian, Slovak, all kinds of things - which the Slavs weren't very happy about when they heard it. However, I could make myself understood to a certain extent. I decided to learn at least one of the Slavic languages ​​properly. It is interesting the southernmost Slavic language is Macedonian. Going south already Greeks live there. There is practically no inflection of nouns - only the vocative - instead there are many prepositions. By the way, Slavic languages ​​are characterized by the fact that even a Pole can ask a Macedonian for a glass of water on a basic level, as they are so similar to each other.

What was the fieldwork experience like in North Macedonia? I understand that the locals are very hospitable…

Yes, this is again related to their archaism: Macedonians are by nature compulsive hosts. The biggest offense you can cause them is that if you don't accept their invitation, they really like to sit in various restaurants and chat. The whole trip was an extremely positive experience. They have a basic communicative liveliness and are excellent hosts, so going to North Macedonia as a guest is great. Tourists are usually advised not to start singing, making music, or dancing when they arrive in the country, because Macedonians can't be outdone in these anyway. For them, folk dance is part of basic education, which is why many people decide to choose this field for further education, since they have all the basic knowledge for this. What is also interesting is that a Hungarian community has also been established among them, so there is a continuous connection between the two countries. 

And to what extent does Macedonian culture appear in Hungary? 

In 1948-1949, during the Greek War of Independence and Civil War, a very large number of "so-called Greeks" came to us, but today it seems that approximately half of this group was minority, i.e. Macedonian. Some of today's Greek self-government is still Macedonian, and the Greeks want to keep them Greek. Here we are talking about thousands of people, which were largely of Greek and Macedonian identity. The sense of identity of the Macedonian minority refugees is a hard and politically complex issue. These hidden minorities arrived as very young children, are considered to be Greek and stateless by the administration. This was highlighted in some interviews. On the other hand, this small Macedonian group can still be found in Hungary today, even if they have virtually no official administration.

What are the connecting points of the two cultures? 

One of these is the dance hall. The Hungarian dance hall movement started in 1972, and the South Slavic one roughly two years later, so they appeared almost at the same time. Thanks to the person of Antal Kricskovics, and also in the functioning of the minority municipalities, the Serbs, Greeks and Croats, the Balkan dance material was given, since the dances and folk music of these minorities are a popular identification element for them. The movement has survived up to this day. We have several Greek and Serbian bands who also play each other's music. So the South Slavic culture is strongly present, and within that the Macedonian culture, which is just as much a part of it. In Hungary, the cultivation of the culture of the southern Slavs has been present in the ethnography from the beginning, as well as in the dance hall, and minority dances were started almost immediately at the same time as the Hungarians did. After that, the Balkan dance halls were established separately, but the two actually go hand in hand till today.

What do we need to know about the previously mentioned chain and circle dance culture? 

For the Greeks, this form of dance is still a part of everyday culture, at social events and public events, it often happens that suddenly they start chain dancing joyfully by holding onto each other. Few people know that chain dancing was so fashionable in Europe until the 1300s that not even hip hop fashion can be compared to it. It was danced both in the upper social classes and in the village, among all ethnic groups, but we can even observe this dance form in older paintings. In Europe another form of dance, namely the couple dance, began to displace it. Moreover, from the 14th century they became more widespread.  Similarly, that happened to the later waltz, polka or even most forms of Hungarian csárdás. Chain dances survived only in the Balkans and on a small island near Denmark. We can only find such dances in renovated folklore materials (for example, in the Hungarian). The chain and circle dance culture does not only mean that it is danced in a chain or circle form. This is a completely different phenomenon compared to the later, more modern duet and solo forms, even its name is not the same as the later dance name derived from the word danse. I have come across a case where someone did not join the dance because of a death in the family in the same year, although it was at one of the biggest holidays, at Epiphany.  It falls beyond the frame of the tradition. They take the related traditions very seriously. On the other hand, he danced in a public place without any further ado, for him the two dances do not even fall into the same category. The special feature of the chain dance is that it can consist of a large number of people at the same time, up to 20-30 people. In fact, village-scale chain dance challenges regularly take place from a much larger number of participants. Even a Guinness record has been set.

What are the musical characteristics of the Balkan chain and circle dance culture? 

As we have previously mentioned, it is not just a matter of taking on a form together, but it is likely that they contributed musical features from ancient times we here in Western Europe may not be able to interpret. Such is the phenomenon called Bulgarian rhythm by Béla Bartók, which has been tried to be analyzed in ethnomusicology since the end of the 19th century. I also want to take this further, since this work is not finished at all. Other musical phenomena can be found in the chain dance materials They differ from our current musical perception and are significant element of this culture. 

The theme of your habilitation was also built around the Bulgarian rhythm. What do you need to know about this phenomenon?

One of the interesting things is after Bartók, the name aksak has already been used in the researches, which means lame in Turkish. This suggests that a piece of music does not only consist of beats containing only units of 2 or only 3, but also units of 2 and 3, and they alternate with each other. A similar or extreme example of the alternation of weights is the archaizing Spring Sacrifice, a work by Stravinsky.

What discoveries did you make during your research? 

I found that the chain and circle dance culture is characterized by two other things at the same time: the simultaneity and the asymmetry of the dance material. In my research group we interpret these three together and study Bulgarian rhythm from the aspect of dance. First of all, I had to take into account the insights of ethnomusicology, because Bulgarian rhythm has a large literature to start from. It is also important to examine it in the philosophical framework of art: here the authors mainly deal with the ancient Hellenic choreia, which was specifically a chain dance culture. They basically do research in the field of classical philology and comparative literature, and they have interpretations of Homeric texts, such interpretations provided a good framework. In general, I found authors who are not at all known in the Hungarian-speaking world, and who also come from other scientific fields, but they helped to shed light on many connections.

What makes it difficult to acquire Balkan folk dance and how long does it take to learn it?

The difficulty, as I mentioned earlier, is the overwhelming asymmetry for the Western musical ear and mind, and a kind of flexibility that can be shaped musically. It also has a very chiseled step material. It is easier, however, that you don't have to find a partner, since they always dance together, in a big chain. For Macedonians, musical asymmetry is natural, almost innate, but it can cause difficulties for an outsider. It has plenty of challenges, but at the same time it's very exciting and truly worth doing. 

Finally, tell us about your work and experience in the Ohrid Macedonian Folk Ensemble! 

The ensemble was formed in April 2012 with doctoral students and students of the Macedonian Lectureship of ELTE and the Department of Ethnography of the University of Debrecen. There were Macedonian minors, Greek and Croatian majors among us. We brought original costumes from North Macedonia. The goal was to make Macedonian folklore more widely known through dances and songs, as well as to foster Hungarian-Macedonian relations for both countries. We mainly held dance and folk music performances. The ensemble was named after Lake Ohrid, which was one of the most important centers of Slavic writing and even Christian culture. This movement had its heyday mainly during the university years. During the pandemic, the activity was almost exclusively limited to online existence, but now we have restarted it with programs for "Balkán-Fan" companies.

More information: macedon.hu

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