''Reweaving the Past: Warp and Weft of Tradition and Improvisation in Women’s Folk Arts of Bulgaria' (2017)
Published in Walking the Worlds 4:1 (Winter 2017).
This article looks at four types of Balkan women’s folk art, including songs, dress, dance and ritual laments. Examples are drawn largely from Martha Forsyth’s research (1996) into women’s singing traditions in the Bulgarian village of Bistritsa. These are non-written arts, with roots in antiquity, and I suggest that they be seen as ‘texts’ in the earliest definitions of the word, encompassing not only written but spoken and woven ways. Rural Balkan women throughout history have been largely denied access to literacy, yet they keep alive in their archaic customs an approach to text – text as textile, textile as text – which dates from ancient times.
In the examples given here, unchanging elements are interwoven with ever- changing individual variations, so that each rendition of a given song or dance interweaves stable tradition with personal improvisation. Following the hypothesis set out by Scheid and Svenbro (2001: 151), who propose ancient ‘reading’ as an act of ‘reweaving’, I suggest that tradition and improvisation in these unwritten folk customs serve as ‘warp’ and ‘weft’ in the art of ‘reweaving’ ancient patterns of text and textile. I will refer to this metaphor as the warp and weft of tradition and improvisation.
This article looks at four types of women’s folk traditions from the Balkans, drawing examples mainly from the Bulgarian village of Bistritsa, where particular folk arts have survived quite well compared to many other places in Eastern Europe (Forsyth 1996). These traditions include folk songs and ritual laments – which can be seen as types of ancient oral literature – and the related arts of communal circle dance and textile production. All four of these arts have roots in antiquity and are still practiced in the present day; now as in the past, they are learned, performed, and passed on purely in unwritten ways.
In the same way that material transmitted orally in antiquity can be described as ‘virtual texts’ (Ford 2003: 22), I suggest that these non-literate folk traditions are also ‘texts’, passed on not in written but in spoken and woven ways. Elsewhere I have suggested that patterns in songs, dances and textiles serve as forms of unwritten text, communicating encoded meanings which can be deciphered by those who do not read or write (Shannon 2011: 143; Shannon 2017a: 335). Texts and textiles in Balkan cultures are based on the careful passing down of existing forms, yet at the same time are created anew with each new iteration. The folk arts in question thus enact an ancient interplay between tradition and improvisation....
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