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Aprons abound – Bansko

While the Rhodope aprons have their admirers, I can’t resist a touch of embroidery, especially when combined with sequins. Happily I have friends who understand this.  For most of the trip to Bulgaria in 2010 I insisted that I wasn’t going to buy everything I saw – and I held out for quite a while.

Towards the end of the trip we spent a lovely few days winding down in Bansko. The mountain air, cooler elevation and very walkable town made the stop just right. In addition, there was a pleasant square just a few blocks from our guest house.  Set up in the square was a seller of folk items: socks, aprons, bags and other souvenirs. We passed through the square often as we explored the town.

Smiling seller of socks, aprons and trinkets near the church in Bansko.

Smiling seller of socks, aprons and trinkets near the church in Bansko.

We enjoyed talking with the apron lady and another nearby vendor in our nearly non-existent Bulgarian and their bits of English.  Aprons were purchased.  I was still in “I can’t carry everything home” mode. For this reason Susan was the one who bought this splendid Bansko region apron:

Sequin apron from Bansko.

Sequin apron from Bansko.

Earlier in the trip I had seen aprons like this on performers and in a museum so we knew these particular aprons were from the general region of Bansko (perhaps more detail in a future post) – and the seller supplied this information as well.  Here is the full costume as seen onstage at the Koprivshtitsa festival:

Singers from Bansko region at Koprivshtitsa in 2010.

Singers from Bansko region at Koprivshtitsa in 2010.

At the market in Bansko I was able to get photos of vintage red dresses in the style worn by the women.  Compared to the vintage dresses, you can see that the women in the photo are wearing modern reproductions meant for performers with simplified construction and trimmings.  As best as I can tell from the photo, the aprons are vintage with hand embroidery and old-fashioned hand-made sequins. I was some distance away when the photo was taken but even so I’m confident the dresses were made with machine-made cloth and modern purchased gimp braid.

Here is a close-up detail from a vintage bodice for sale in the market.

Vintage bodice detail from dress in Bansko market.

Vintage bodice detail from dress in Bansko market.

The lavish black and gold trimmings around the neck are a special type of cord called “gaitano” meaning braided.  I didn’t make notes at the time but I think that the black trim on the vintage dresses is wool.  Cording of this quality was made by specialists and is reflective of the relative wealth of the region since both the gaitano braid and the gold lace would have been purchased rather than made at home. This dress is modern enough to have been sewn (or at least altered) by machine even though there is quite a bit of handwork in the decoration. Each bodice would have been an individual work of art while closely following the regional style.

Here is a photograph from a museum showing both the detail of the embroidery on the chemise and a bit of the bodice edging.

Embroidery on chemise from Bansko region.

Embroidery on chemise from Bansko region.

Here is another detail from the museum showing the apron and the crochet lace on the edge of the sleeve of the chemise.

Bansko region details: apron close up and edge of sleeve.

Bansko region details:
apron close up and edge of sleeve.

The apron allows for a great deal of individual expression.  Despite the reflection on the glass case, you can clearly see that the maker of the apron included her initials on the bottom border.

Bansko region ensembl

Bansko region ensemble.

I have not seen any books that detail the costume of this particular area. Neither the decorations, the construction details, or the ethnographic details are included in any of my costume books.  (Unfortunately, I did not capture the details from the museum’s description of the costume I have included above – it was very hot and I was growing tired.) I have seen the same red dress and chemise with at least three different styles of apron both in person and on the internet.  I have seen this general ensemble identified as being from Bansko, Razlog and Dobarsko – which are all quite close together. For this reason I’ve arrived at my own speculative conclusion that this particular apron is associated with festive occasions and possibly young women or new brides and that a woman from this area might have a selection of aprons for both different occasions such as holidays and to mark different stages in her life.

I’ll let this serve as an introduction to the interesting costume of this region as there are more Bansko aprons to explore and I’ve detoured to show the whole ensemble rather that some of the special features of the apron itself.  The apron (courtesy of Susan) has come to join my collection and I can only say I’m glad that I didn’t miss out on this opportunity to bring home a special souvenir of my Bulgarian vacation.

~from the Mistress of Chaos





In Concert June 24

Mzekala’s next concert is Tuesday, June 24th at Academy Village.

As part of the Arizona Senior Academy weekly concert series you will find us in the Great Room at 7:30

We have a great line-up for you with songs from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Macedonia. We hope to see many of our friends in the audience.  This will be a fun performance and include audience participation followed by Q & A.


 FYI: Arizona Senior Academy has established a reserved-seat policy.  This means non-Academy members need to call 647-0980 or email to make a reservation.  The first twenty-five people to reserve a seat will be able to enter the hall fifteen minutes prior to the announced starting time of the event and may sit anywhere, as will Academy members.  Visitors without a reservation will be able to seat themselves five minutes prior to the announced starting time.

Weekend Soundtrack – Gela Gajda

This is a repost from the lost posting of 29 July 2011  (with an added link or two).


Gela Festival and Sveti Iliya's chapel.

Gela Festival and Sveti Iliya’s chapel.

Ah, to be in Gela at Ilinden ….  Now that we have known the pleasure, we want to go every year (but, shhh, don’t tell as we’d like it to stay just the way it is).  Ilinden is either July 20th or August 2nd depending on which calendar you favor.

Here’s a taste of the festival at Gela from a previous year  (Yes, you heard the announcer fire a pistol!)

Ilinden is the name of a holiday special in Bulgaria for two reasons, one religious and one political.  St. Elijah, otherwise known as Sveti Iliya, is associated with the earlier Slavic God Perun (see Crossroads post from June 1 for more mythology). Perun is the god of thunder, fire and lighting who rides a chariot pulled by a goat and you may recall that Elijah went up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Perun deserves his own post so for now suffice it to say that the small chapel in the beautiful meadow at Gela is dedicated to St. Elijah and that the fantastic festival is held on the weekend closest to Ilinden.

St Elijah as seen in the church in Shiroka Luka (just down the hill from Gela).

St Elijah as seen in the church in Shiroka Luka (just down the hill from Gela).

It’s tricky to talk about the political side without favoring one group or another.  I’ll just say that the Ilinden holiday is celebrated in Bulgaria & Macedonia because of an uprising in 1903 against the rulers at the time, the Ottomans, which very briefly established an independent republic centered around Krushevo in present-day Macedonia.  The Ottoman response to the uprising created much discussion in Western Europe about the treatment of Christian subjects of the Empire. We’re singers, not historians, so I’ll leave it there.

Ilinden is thus festival-time in Bulgaria and Gela is the festival where our hearts are.  On the face of it, the festival is a competition for up and coming gajdarche to show their stuff in front of their peers.  The festival is really for the local kaba gajda players, but competitors have been spotted playing bagpipes from Hungary and other non-Rhodope-mountain regions.  For my part, I think the festival is about enjoying hearing a bagpipe outdoors in the mountain air.  To paraphrase, all music is local, and Gela is about local music by local people.  Never mind that the scenery, the food (and even the portable toilets) are amazing!

I’ll give you a little taste of our 2010 visit in photos, with the hope of posting some videos in the future.

Campers near the Gela meadow, August 2010.

Campers near the Gela meadow, August 2010.

The line for lamb, Gela, 2010.

The line for lamb, Gela, 2010.

Tempting textiles for sale at the Gela festival, 2010.

Tempting textiles for sale at the Gela festival.

Performance offstage at Gela.

Performance offstage at Gela.

















Our wish is that the festival can remain a home for lovers of the kaba gajda. To hear a gajda in among the aspens surrounding the meadow is to hear it where it is most at home, making the music and the moment inseparable as they are special.

PS for more details about the festival & visit our friend Katia’s blog True Bulgaria.






Listen here

Apron Story – Kovachevitsa

Mzekala arm-in-arm.

Mzekala arm-in-arm.

In addition to singing, dancing, eating and general trouble-making, the women of Mzekala have a fondness for textiles.  From the photo above you can see that we’ve chosen to share portions of our costume collections with our audiences by wearing an assortment of aprons from Bulgaria and Macedonia.  All of the aprons, of course, have a story and it’s difficult to know where to start so I’ll begin with the apron on the left.

Susan, who is wearing the apron, bought it in Bulgaria.  The apron found her in the village of Kovachevitsa. I will only say here that despite anything you might read about the bad road to this remote village – it’s worth the trip!

Rugs on the balcony railing of a porch in Kovachevitsa, Bulgaria.

Rugs on the balcony railing of a porch in Kovachevitsa, Bulgaria.

Something about the bright orange and green plaid of the aprons from the Rhodope region  calls to us.  Rhodope aprons vary from yellow to orange to red grounds with various green to black stripes making up the plaid pattern.  I have no doubt that once upon a time the wool yarn for a woman’s apron was processed entirely at home from clipping the sheep to weaving the cloth.  I’ve noticed that often the apron will have a horizontal seam across the middle with no attempt to match the plaid – non-matching plaids in an apron is clearly not a problem for the Bulgarian seamstress. The seam is needed as the home looms produced a narrower strip of cloth.  To produce a wider apron two strips were sewn together – thus the apron from top to bottom is exactly twice the width of the finished cloth so that no fabric is wasted.   Because of the bold horizontal stripes in Susan’s apron, the seam is not really noticeable.

Vintage photo of women in the Rhodope region spinning and working with wool.

Vintage photo of women in the Rhodope region spinning and working with wool.

By the time Susan and the apron found each other, the three of us traveling in Bulgaria had been on the road over two weeks and seen a number of Rhodope aprons on performers and for sale in shops.  We had even acquired two other Rhodope aprons (stories saved for another post) already.

We had stopped in a local shop to pick up some postcards so that we could share the spectacular vistas with our friends.  There in the shop the apron was waiting. The loving details on this apron make it special.  Along the bottom edge is a blue crochet-lace border and just above the edge is a band of hand embroidery on black ribbon.  There really was no choice, it had to come home with someone!

Details of the apron border.

Details of the apron border.

While I don’t have an entire costume from the Rhodope region on hand I can confirm that every element of every costume calls you to look in more detail – from the embroidered wool house slippers, hand-braided apron-strings, lavish couched embroidery on jackets and cuffs, needle-lace trim on scarves and blouses, every piece of the ensemble rewards close inspection. The photograph below shows a young woman wearing a complete modern ensemble.  She is a competitor in a festival arranged for players of the local style of bagpipe (kaba gajda) – there’s nothing like hearing a folk melody in the open air!

Bagpipe (gajda) player at the festival in Gela, Bulgaria, 2010.

Bagpipe (gajda) player wearing the folk costume of the Rhodope Mountains at the festival in Gela, Bulgaria, 2010.

How could anyone resist such a memento?

PS – Enjoy this song from the Rhodopes, the Koutev arrangement of Vecerai Rado, which is accompanied by photos from the Rhodope Region, many of them of Kovachevitsa.



Never Drone Alone

Well the weekend pretty much over, but here’s the soundtrack just the same!

Our friends will understand our love of the steady drone which underpins so many Balkan harmonies. The rest of you will shortly understand how much there is to enjoy as I share with you just a few of the songs that form our repertoire where the drone makes all the difference. We often tease each other by saying “Never drone alone.”

The Brothers Teofilovic, really caught our attention with this version of “Navali Se Sar Planina.” We can only hope that when we perform this song we keep the level of tension that high!  The song tells the story of three shepherds caught on Shar Mountain by a storm, who plead with the mountain that they the must go home to their families.  The mountain refuses to release them saying “your wife will mourn you for a short time, your sister will mourn a bit longer but your mother will mourn you until she dies.” (A version of the lyrics slightly different than ours can be found at in Cyrillic)

Here’s the Macedonian legend Vaska Ilieva with the Ansamble Teodosievski singing a fabulous version of Ajde Red.  I can just picture clever Iljo the bandit hiding out in a tavern in Thessaloniki (which back in the day was known as Soluna Grada, the town of Soluna) drinking and flirting with the pretty serving women.  (See the Cyrillic lyrics courtesy of

There’s more flirting going on, this time onstage with the Pirin Ensemble in this version of of Dobra Nevesta – Dobra the Bride.  This video is as much about the dancing as the singing but that’s ok. In case you were wondering, Dobra the bride is preparing for her wedding and the song provides a long list of everyone who will receive one of her hand-made presents – she stayed up all night spinning thread!

Thanks to the serendipity of the internet I came across this song, Ogreyala Mesechinka, which we don’t have in our repertoire.  I’m so happy to discover these ladies and their songs.  Mnogo blagodarya to sfenbb of who posted this one! I can see an entire posting coming about this region of Bulgaria.

Obvious we aren’t the only non-Bulgarians entranced by these “magical” arrangements.  The fabulous ladies of Cipkice, sing one of our recent favorites,  “Izgryala E Mesechinka,”(stay with it or fast forward about a minute). We’ve been captivated by this song  for years but only recently did we settle on a arrangement and start singing it ourselves. The song is from Thrace and while the words don’t exactly translate, the song describes moonlight in a garden.

I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I’ll adjourn until another day.