This text is excerpted from a longer article on Balkan women’s folk arts with roots in antiquity, including song, dance, textile production, and laments for the dead. Examples are drawn from Dr. Martha Forsyth’s research in the village of Bistritsa, near Sofia, Bulgaria. The folk arts of Bistritsa, as elsewhere in the Balkans, are based on the careful passing down of existing forms, which are nevertheless created anew with each new iteration, as unchanging elements of stable tradition are interwoven with ever-changing individual variations. I suggest that tradition and improvisation can be seen as warp and weft in the art of reweaving ancient patterns of song and dance, lament and textile.
To help the non-weaving reader fully picture this image, it may help to clarify that the ‘warp’ is the yarn stretched on a loom to initiate the weaving process. The ‘woof’ or ‘weft’ is the yarn inserted over and under the warp, with or without the help of a shuttle. The warp is fixed; the weft is fluid. In song and dance, as well as textiles and laments, the artists interweave something traditional and fixed (the immovable warp) with strands of changing individual variation (the movable weft). I will refer to this process as the warp and weft of tradition and improvisation.
Tradition and improvisation in song
The girls and women of Bistritsa practice an archaic type of polyphonic singing ‘with features retained from pre-Christian times’. A group of grandmothers known as the ‘Bistritsa Bábi’ – declared a Unesco Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005 – have kept this singing tradition alive up until the present day. These women grew up singing together during the last years of an era in which all girls and women of the village could and did sing. I am deeply indebted to Martha Forsyth, renowned expert in Bulgarian village singing, for her generous sharing of material from her years of research in Bistritsa, from which I draw the examples in this article.
IMAGE 1 The Bistritsa Bábi in 1981 © Martha Forsyth, used with permission
The style of polyphonic singing known as diaphony consists of two alternating groups of three or four singers: the first group sings a verse and the second group repeats it with the same words and melody. The songs are sung from memory, so one singer in the first group must be able to remember the song in its entirety and then ‘give’ the words to the others one verse at a time, ‘in such a way that the rhythm of the language suits the melody…and the syllable count comes out right’. The texts ‘to some extent were re-created each time a song was sung’; ‘[e]ven the same person singing the same song on two different days will do it somewhat differently’.
One of Bistritsa’s master singers was Línka Gékova Gérgova (1904-1992). Baba Línka (‘Grandmother Línka’) had a repertoire of over 200 traditional songs which she learned by ear from her parents and aunts. Línka had an extraordinary gift for both singing and remembering the songs, and at a young age took on the important role of ‘giving’ the words to the other singers.
IMAGE 2: Baba Línka Gérgova
© Martha Forsyth, used with permission
The Bistritsa songs recount an unchanging basic story (the warp of fixed tradition) while incorporating constant variations in text, meter, or melody (the weft of fluid improvisation). Each time they gather, the Bistritsa singers may ‘sing a familiar text to a different melody, a different rhythm, or a different refrain’. Baba Línka explains that as the songs have been handed down from previous generations, ‘[o]ne person adds something here, another leaves something out there, another changes something else – and that’s the way it goes. They can’t stay just exactly the same’.
Tradition and improvisation in costume
We also see an interplay between tradition and improvisation in the way the women made their clothing. Many hours of the day were devoted to the essential tasks of weaving, spinning, sewing, and embroidery. Women typically sang when at this work, as they also did in ancient times. Textile historian Marie-Louise Nosch has documented how certain patterns that were commonly woven reflected certain rhythms that were commonly sung. For instance, in 2/1 twill weaving, the weft threads pass over one and under two warp threads. ‘This pattern [– ̆ ̆ ] recalls the dactyls that constitute the basic elements of the Homeric hexameter’. Known as the syrtós, this slow-quick-quick pattern remains the most common rhythm for singing and dancing in Greece today.
As with the songs, a repertoire of elements and motifs in folk clothing was passed down from previous generations, serving to identify the wearer’s village, age, social rank and marital status. Certain elements were strictly maintained, while others were permitted to evolve and change. In Linka’s youth, for example, the Bistritsa women began to insert little spots of blue, white, and green into the red embroidery on the sleeves of their chemise or košúlja, but the overall color of the women’s costume Bistritsa had to follow the ancient and magical color combination of red, white, and black.
Particular embroidery patterns, as well as lace adorned with sequins and beads, were seen as powerfully apotropaic, particularly around hems, edges and openings in clothing. For protective purposes, therefore, each woman had to have lace at the hem of her chemise, but each woman made her lace slightly differently. ‘In this way the textiles served both to express individual identity and skill, and to affirm the code of the culture’.
IMAGE 3: Bistritsa women’s costume, line drawing © Alice Johnson (Forsyth 1996: 70), used with permission
Tradition and improvisation in dance
In the ancient circle dance, horo, a stable sequence of steps enables endless personal variations, ‘depending on the song and ancient ritual purposes’. The first and last dancers in the line or open circle ‘may twist the line into various snake-like formations as the dance progresses’. These patterns resemble the spirals and other symbolic motifs sewn and embroidered on the women’s festive dress. The unchanging dance pattern can be seen as the immutable warp, and the individual variations the improvisational weft, enabling – as with the songs – a unique ‘reweaving’ of the basic dance pattern each time.
Tradition and improvisation in laments for the dead
The archaic art of lamenting the dead descends ‘through a continuous oral tradition dating back at least as far as the Homeric period, to the laments of ancient Greece’. Ritual lament is fast disappearing in eastern Europe, but is still practiced in certain places, including in Bistritsa, where ‘Línka was famous for her elegant lamenting’. In this art form, again, a basic warp of traditional meters, melodic structures and formulaic phrases expressing loss and grief will be overlaid with a weft of new text ‘to fit the particular occasion of an individual’s death’.
Women’s communal folk arts – songs, dances, textiles and laments – can be seen as non-written ‘texts’, where each new rendition consists of an interweaving of stable tradition, the fixed warp, with personal improvisation, the movable weft. Folk traditions are thus passed on in flexible ways: there is never only an exact replication of something fixed from the past, and never only something new.
Bistritsa is just one among many Balkan and Greek villages where a handful of grandmothers have kept alive essential threads of ancient customs precisely through this dynamic balance of tradition and improvisation. They are aware of the need to carefully preserve the rituals which have been handed down to them from the distant past. Above all, their concern is to pass them on; keeping traditions alive in the present is, in fact, their gift to the future. In this way the singers of Bistritsa bring to mind Hesiod’s Muses, singing of ‘things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime’.
The threads of the unchanging warp of tradition stretch in both directions on the loom of time, continually recreated by individuals who preserve the fabric of the past by reweaving it anew, again and again in the present moment, always with the aim of keeping it alive and passing it on. The different folk arts explored here are also interwoven, as the women sing while they dance and while they make their costumes, embroidering patterns which reflect the patterns of their dance. Finally, they will sing of one another’s skill in all these things when the time comes to lament each one’s passing.
I will close with Baba Linka’s words: ‘May [the songs] be sung in this world, and make people happy! Let them go among the people, let them go from mouth to mouth!’
Excerpted from ‘Reweaving the past: Warp and weft of tradition and improvisation in women’s folk arts of Bulgaria’ by Laura Shannon, in Walking the Worlds 4:1 (Winter 2017). Available from https://walkingtheworlds.com/issues/.
Translated by Katharina Kroeber.
I wholeheartedly recommend Martha Forsyth’s book Listen, Daughter, and Remember Well containing Baba Linka’s entire repertoire of songs (in English and Bulgarian) as well as the astounding autobiographical account of Baba Linka’s life. You can order the book from Martha’s informative website: martha.forsyths.org, where you can also subscribe to her blog.
You can watch the Bistritsa Babi here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embqg-yKHNQ