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Bright Balkan Morning

Romani Livers and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia

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Photographs by Dick Blau
Text by Angeliki Vellou Keil and Charles Keil
Soundscape by Steven Feld

Bright Balkan Morning is a study in photographs, text, oral history, and sound of Romani musicians and their place in the cultural ecology of Greek Macedonia. Bright Balkan Morning tells an unusual story about both the "Gypsy" and about the "Balkans." Bright Balkan Morning is a book that argues for the possibility of mutually rewarding cultural interchange in a region infamous for its brutal history of ethnic strife.

Our book is centered in and around an ancient crossroads town of some 5,000 people in northern Greece.Iraklia -- which is not far from Kosovo -- is the home of 2,500 Roma, who have been settled here since before anyone can remember. One of a string of towns and villages in Greek Macedonia that have significant settled Romani populations, Iraklia is well known for the number and quality of its Romani musicians. Romani trios from Iraklia provide not only music but also important ritual structure to the exceptionally wide array of ethnically diverse audiences who populate the area.

Playing virtually without pause for many hours at a time, Romani musicians are known as Ta organa [The Instruments] and it is not hard to understand why their patrons believe that they are the conduit of some enormous power. The sound these musicians produce (they play two oboe-like horns and a double-sided drum) is irresistible. Exceptionally rich in danceable rhythms and full of sonic overtones, the music pulls its audience out of everyday reality and into an ecstatic secular communion. Performing every ethnic group’s deep songs and fluent in an enormous range of richly detailed customs, the Romani musicians perform an essential and highly valued service for their neighbors.

Unlike Roma in other areas of the Balkans (including many in Greece itself) the Romani musicians of Iraklia have improved their status over the course of the century. They own property; they function as citizens; they are treated with respect by their clients. To live in the "Mahala" neighborhood of Iraklia is to realize that the usual stereotypes of the "Gypsy" do not -- and need not -- apply. Moreover, it is also to understand that the irresolvable ethnic conflicts we think of when we hear the word "Balkans" are not necessarily inevitable.


Blau’s photographs (c.150 black-and-white pictures) range across the music and the culture of the Romani musicians. They include pictures of parades, parties, weddings, baptisms, and wrestling matches; intimate portraits of the musicians and their families; studies of domestic life and economic activity in the Romani neighborhood and in the surrounding fields. Blau has re-photographed Romani family albums and includes many of these images as well.

The Keils have written an introduction that situates the Roma of Iraklia within the cultural/historical/economic setting of Greek Macedonia and a set of short chapters that introduce music/dance/performance itself. In addition, the Keils have edited eight first-person Romani life stories.

In an accompanying cd, McCarthur Fellow Steven Feld provides a spectacular soundscape of the neighborhood and its music.

Ian Hancock, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas/Austin, author of The Pariah Syndrome, and Romani Representative to the United State Holocaust Memorial Council, has written the foreword.

The Authors

Dick Blau's photographs, films, and videotapes have been widely exhibited and published in the United States and in Europe. His work is in the Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, etc. A book on Blau’s domestic photography, Living With His Camera by Jane Gallop, will be published by Duke University Press in 2003. Blau is Professor of Film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Charles Keil is one the leading ethnomusicologists in the world. He is the author of six ground-breaking books, including Urban Blues.

Angeliki Vellos Keil is the editor of the Autobiography of Marcos Vamvakaris. (Vamvakaris is the most famous of Greek "urban blues" musicians.

Steven Feld is Professor of Anthropology and Music at Columbia University. A three-cd set of Feld’s New Guinea recordings was recently published by Smithsonian Folkways. Among Steve’s awards is a McCarthur Fellowship.

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