Persistence of Old-World
Cultural Expression in the
Traditional Music of
Bulgarian Canadians*

By: Irene Markoff

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 73-74
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

* An earlier version of this article appeared in "Culture and History the Bulgarian People, Their Bulgarian and American Parallels," papers presented at a symposium, Duquesne University (Tamburitza Press, 1982).

There were two main musical repertoires ascribed to transplanted Bulgarians in southern Ontario. Both can be characterized as being part of a continuum of Old-World expressive behaviour. Both have escaped the pressures of musical acculturation to a great extent. Each, however, occupies a different niche in the collective consciousness of the larger ethnic group, one the competence, the other the realm of performance and live tradition. The urban Bulgarian tradition of "gradski pesni"-urban songs-is shared and actively performed by those social classes representative of the different waves of immigration. The pan-Bulgarian rather than stratified regional nature of this repertoire binds and stabilizes the highly fragmented socio-political Bulgarian group. The tradition of village folk-songs ("selski" or "narodni") is not shared by the larger unit, but rather preserved in a form of stasis, encapsulated as fossils by members of the old immigrant generation ("starata generatsiia") of rural origins.

The foundations of a Bulgarian Canadian repertoire were established during two periods of substantial influx of Bulgarians to Canada. The first during the troubled years surrounding the Balkans Wars (1912-13) (almost 10,000) and the second during the years of the depression. The immigrants arriving before the Second World War were single males from small towns and villages who worked as unskilled labourers for low wages on railroads (CNR and CPR) and canals (Welland and Trent Valley). They also worked on the tobacco farms of the Niagara Peninsula, in the nickel mines of Sudbury and Creighton and in general construction. For the most part they settled in Ontario, particularly Toronto, Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula region. Few of these pioneer immigrants had the intention of remaining in Canada on a permanent basis. As it was their plan to return to "stari krai" (the homeland) with sufficient funds to improve their life there, these immigrant lodgers lived in cooperative groups crowded into boardinghouses highly isolated from Canadian life. Many wrote to Bulgaria to negotiate for spouses through exchanged photographs. Although these picture-bride marriages were frequent, it was not untypical for immigrants to find marriage partners among members of kindred-related groups such as Macedonians and Ukrainians.

With the second wave of immigration, the community began to take root, developing from an amorphous informal group to a well-structured formal one. Economic hardships suffered during the depression forced many individuals to abandon hopes of returning to the homeland. They then reconciled themselves to a fate that was not unfamiliar to them-an existence requiring self-denial, restraint with stress on hard work. The Bulgarian Canadians, in response to an increasing awareness of their ethnic identity which they found threatened by the host society, built defenses to ensure their own ethnic survival (of language, religion and ritual distinct from that of the native community). Tightly knit neighbourhoods that were markedly different from the city around them were formed. As immigrants began to reconstruct their network of interpersonal and social relations, ethnic institutions such as churches, benevolent societies, cultural and sports clubs and newspapers emerged. These institutions and the professionals connected with them drew immigrants into the ''ethnic subsystem'' by promoting numerous social occasions for the conservation and continuity of Old-World traditions and national sentiments. Bulgarians and Macedonians (from the Pirin region of Bulgaria, northern Greece and present-day Yugoslav Macedonia) from Toronto, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Burlington, Thorold, Welland and Hamilton gathered in church halls to dance, sing, listen to recitations and watch plays, such as "Yana Voivoda", "Strahil", "Dialba", "Pod Igoto", "Makedonska Karvava Svatba", "Mnogostadalna Genoveva" and others. Professional musicians Mihal Milusheff-director of the choir at Saints Cyril and Methodius Macedono-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church from 1950-and Christo Dafeff- well-known teacher of violin at the Royal Conservatory of Music and choir and orchestra leader for the Bulgarian-Macedonian Educational Club Christo Boteff (1924 on)-and other Slavic groups (Ukrainian and Russian) in Toronto acquainted immigrants with Bulgarian heritage and encouraged ongoing contact with the homeland. These individuals and others shaped the cultural tastes of immigrants, and, in many ways, promoted new traditions to meet the challenge of the new environment. An example of this was the arrangement of folk-songs for mixed chorus in four parts with the accompaniment of violin and mandolin orchestra. More important, however, the organised cultural activities of this time helped form a "cohesive force against culture shock and assimilation," keeping the immigrants personal associations within the boundaries of the ethnic community. The community acted as a transitional environment within which immigrants and their children could affect the adjustment of a movement from rural to urban life, from working to middle class, from the inner-city to suburbia.

During the early years, immigrants found ample opportunity to share their musical baggage. It is these people who are the most productive tradition bearers. As they have only been marginally affected by the urban environment in which they lived, their maintenance of traditional values and behavioural patterns was considerably strong. In examining village song repertoire, it is not surprising that environmental and socio-economic changes in the lives of the first Bulgarians in Canada facilitated a loss of traditional means and context for expression of song types, such as ritual-ceremonial, calendric and occupational. In addition, because of the diversity in regional origins of singers and songs, there were few common grounds for sharing in the performance. Nevertheless, these songs have not been forgotten and could be recalled at social gatherings of an informal or formal nature, such as christenings, engagement parties, weddings, picnics, name days and organised cultural gatherings where they assumed a new collective function of entertainment and reinforcement of group identity. Under the circumstances mentioned above, the spontaneous outbursts of village songs by individuals for entertainment and nostalgia purposes became an event, almost a contest. When one person neared completion of a melody, another began in interlocking fashion. In more recent times, this practice has almost become obsolete as most members of the "stara generatsiia" have passed away.

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