Reviews of Balkanarama
Balkanarama: Black Sea
The Green Man Review, 2002

Balkanarama at Crossroads
University of Washington Daily, 1999

Balkanarama at Zoka with Mary Sherhart
By Sandy Bradley
The Seattle Press, March 24, 1999

At a crowded event, you can always tell if it is a community by looking at the layers of activity: the adult-standing-talking layer, the adult-sitting-talking layer and a winding mid-level stream of kids plowing a path through the crowd, unnoticed. And everybody was there, because Balkanarama was playing at Zoka on a Saturday night. Crowded, a lot of physical contact, and everyone sucking their arms in to make room for more friends.

The band was hot, and not only because they were standing in front of the coffee roaster. The woodwinds, accordion, electric bass, fiddle, tambura and percussion were strung out across the end of the room. Balkanarama plays music of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, plus any near relatives. This is not an "everybody can come and play along"-type idiom. The styles and skills are challenging, and the challenge was well met! Their repertoire of dance music is huge. Not only that, but they selected dances which would accommodate all levels of dance skills, so the long lines twisted through the room and around the tables.

In a setting like that, you get to recognize people by their butts as you encounter your friends back to back in reticulating lines. There was no dancing for show here. Nobody had to prove anything by dancing well. "Correct" was not a concept; that dance was successive approximations by "real" participation with the music. Being able to dance next to teenagers was a special joy.

Edith Piaf sang to communities such as this one, in French. When she stepped onto the stage, she was in command of every soul in the room. They loved her as the personification of the cultural spirit they treasured above all else. It was like that when Mary Sherhart got on stage to sing Bulgarian songs (except that there was no cigarette smoke). Suddenly everyone was standing up straighter, preparing to be blessed, lost in her voice. Her singing is beyond mastery of the idiom. It is soulful and real. Its perfect clarity de-Balkanized the cultures of the Balkan peninsula in that room and everyone was uplifted. Authenticity and clarity,when we are fortunate to encounter them, reinforce honesty and virtue, and our lives are improved by that knowledge.

Sandy Bradley runs the annual musical instrument auction at Northwest Folklife and is former artistic director of Radost Ensemble in Seattle.