Balkans Beyond Brass

Savina Yannatou © Maarit Kytoharju
Savina Yannatou © Maarit Kytoharju


by Maja Vasiljević

The Balkans are one body with several hearts. An unfathomable world. Still, if you decide to immerse yourself in this universe, the right path goes through those hearts brimming with unbelievably diverse music.

The Balkans are neither in the East nor in the West.  Geopolitically, they are no man's land. A territory scarred in many ways. One of those scars is due to their sempiternal role as a crossway. It is playing this role that the Balkans have come to be ways of passage for some and a place of friendly home for others. These lands, coveted and disputed throughout history by the empires of East and West, have been and still are at once a bridge and a frontier. And yet, their depth, their character, the many talents of their people, are almost completely neglected or just simply cloaked in pre-conceptions.

The Balkans are also an imaginary land. In each individual mind, that name triggers a different resonance, rings in a singularly distinct fashion. Some see it as the home of their childhood, others (almost everyone) cannot forget the shocking images of a land soaked in blood of brothers, and there are quite a few who simply shut them out, give them the silent treatment, as they consider the Balkans a mere appendix to Europe and a quite cumbersome one at that.

But when music takes center stage, all grievances fade as by magic: Balkan people forget how the world sees them. The very moment they hear a familiar melody, remember a poem or sense the rhythm from any of the many Balkan regions, almost all invariably begin to sway and pulsate like one, sometimes even in spite of themselves. The shoulders shake, tears linger, arms fly up into the air like wings of an elegant bird. Some clap to the rhythm, others reminisce or sing along, each going unconsciously back to the first time that song nested deep in the heart. Before the words were spoken before they were even intelligible. Before the deeds were done. Music fills the void, reassures, brings memories back from when these lands were all a happy promise, to the world and to ourselves.

Who better then, than the musicians coming from all these different lands, who breathe in and out in time with the distinct Balkan heartbeat, who instantly grasp the complex rhythms of the Balkan’s throbbing hearts; who better than them to make us regain the hope and participate in a renewed promise!

"The Balkans" - What´s in this name? Where does it come from, anyway? Why are there always quite a few who passionately and stubbornly disown the name itself, as if it were a bad omen. Can anyone really say where the region begins and where it ends? There have been endless debates about the boundaries delimiting these lands. However, the sounds of the languages, the images from the films, the aroma and tastes of the food, make all borders evanesce. And isn´t music the best food for soul? So, there! When words and deeds are overpowered by music, souls are overwhelmed with the same warm familiar feeling, the origin loses the specific weight it apparently has and common cultural background comes powerfully to the fore. You see, it is closer to the truth to think the Balkans in sentimental coordinates, than using names and claiming frontiers. Instead of delimiting the frontiers, they should be blurred into inexistence. This is what music achieves almost effortlessly in a flash. And this is what Morgenland Festival has been doing for 16 years now, everywhere and anywhere it directed its spotlight.

Musicians from the Balkans who struggled to make their voices heard in the 90s were, in a way, crying out in the desert. Their sentimental identities were torn apart, shattered. The creation was pushed into the background, their musicianship suddenly orphaned of a large audience. And to top it all off, there came the thunderous delirium of brass which inundated and sequestered the name of Balkan music. Brass orchestras have always been a part of Balkan heritage and they have their rightful place, their artistic value and their beauty. But the sheer number, the overwhelming presence, the repetition, it all produced an unexpected effect. Suddenly, brass was the synonym for Balkan music and it ended right there. Well, that was really unfortunate and quite untrue. Perhaps it was an outlet for the bottled-up feelings produced by the horrors of the civil war in the Post-Communist Yugoslavia. Everything was delirious around those who belonged by birth to the states that clashed, the unspeakable horrors were happening almost overnight in their once safe, beautiful, peaceful lands, and so many embraced brass music as a way of screaming and shaking in mock madness without falling apart.

This year what Morgenland Festival intends is to try and free the music lover from the misconceptions regarding the music coming from South-East Europe (incidentally, South-East Europe is a geopolitical term taken up anew, after a prolonged period of disuse, as if coined on purpose in order avoid using the B word.) Well, the 2020 Morgenland Festival actually uses three B words: we have called our 16th Edition, Balkans Beyond Brass. We intend to will free all of our minds from stereotypes that burden the names we love, the roots we cherish.

We do know of course that in Bulgaria rises the imponent mountain range that lends the Balkans their name. Yet, there is also another story, a more poetic one, about the name´s provenance. A large part of the Balkans had been under the Ottoman rule for some 500 years. The cultural traces are everywhere (although almost everyone goes out of their way to deny and erase them), in the languages, in the microtonal melodic ornaments, in the food, in the architecture (where preserved), in the religion... Well, it so happens that bal in Turkish means honey and kan is the word for blood! The meaning of BAL-KAN would ,therefore, be the land of honey and blood.

During both the online edition and the live one, we will offer our audience a beautiful, exciting and surprising variety of music and musicians from the Balkans far beyond brass.

Among the singularly unique marvels this heritage is composed of, are the musical treasures guarded forever in the lush forests, in breathtakingly beautiful mediaeval churches, richly frescoed monasteries, tiny villages, among solitary shepherds on mountain tops, in imperial palaces, enchanted islands, even on the battlefields and especially on borderlands. So this year you will be able to bask in the Lautari wizardry from Romania, the staggering kaval prowess from Bulgaria, the spellbinding, meandering tunes of the Byzantine cherubs from Old Serbia, the Sephardic tunes exuding nostalgia from Thessaloniki, the gripping sounds of renewed music for  accordion from Sarajevo, the enthrallingly powerful a capella singing from Serbian most dearly held treasure chests, and much, much more.

Maramures, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia (North, East, South and whichever), Kosovo, Thrace, Khalkidhiki, Bizantium and Contantinople. Sarajevo, Mostar, Thessaloniki, Tuzla, Belgrade and Ohrid. The Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black Sea. Even Barcelona! Once more the Morgenland Festival has gone deep, far and wide to bring you a privileged first glimpse of the music of the Balkans.

We will probably never reach a consensus on the terrestrial boundaries of the Balkans, but we can unite all its hearts in one. A huge, iridescent, fascinating heart that beats through music. Thus, the 16th Edition of Morgenland Festival Osnabrück takes a step towards unraveling the mystery and solving the Balkan’s riddle.  We do so in our usual way, by celebrating music with you and bringing outstanding musicians together…

Isn´t it astonishing that such a rich and diverse culture still remains an unexplored terrain: terra ignota, despite being, so to speak, just around the corner from Western Europe? The Balkans are right there, just a little further east of Trieste. Well here is a thought: maybe, just maybe, we have been deafened for too long by the Balkan Brass. Therefore, let´s all marvel together at the astoundingly rich music heritage this region has treasured for centuries:

The 16th Morgenland Edition brings you the uncharted Balkans: we give you Balkans Beyond Brass!

Maja Vasiljević was born in Belgrade. In 1991 she moved to Spain. She writes, directs and presents the Rumbo al Este (Eastbound) radio program on Radio Clásica, RNE, Spanish National Radio, and is the artistic adviser of the Balkans Beyond Brass program at Morgenland Festival Osnabrueck.

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